The Golden Rose - Fred M. White - ebook

The Golden Rose ebook

Fred M White

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Lethbridge was indifferent to neither sport nor politics, nor even love itself. He was just a healthy model of an average Englishman, ready to follow the traditions of his race and live purely and happily. He was an artist who found beauty and inspiration in flowers. An unexpected turn of events occurs: John Lethbridge was accused of theft. He is not even trying to justify himself, he was so wilted. But is he to blame?

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Liczba stron: 374

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Contents

I. A Maker Of Flowers

II. The Footprints

III. Flowers Of Fate

IV. Jasper Payn

V. The Golden Rose

VI. Temptation

VII. The Finger Of Fate

VIII. On The Brink

IX. An Ordeal By Faith

X. A Scrap Of Silk

XI. A Clue In Calf

XII. A Literary Treasure

XIII. On The Track

XIV. The Same Man

XV. A Waiting Game

XVI. Ram Murshee

XVII. The Warning

XVIII. A Note Of Warning

XIX. The Unseen Hand

XX. The Mystery Deepens

XXI. The Post Of Danger

XXII. The Shades Of Night

XXIII. The Outline Of The Story

XXIV. A Bid For Freedom

XXV. A World On Wheels

XXVI. A Broken Tyre

XXVII. “Vava”

XXVIII. A Broken Thread

XXIX. A Petal From The Rose

XXX. A Fresh Ally

XXXI. Follow My Leader

XXXII. Murshee Is Alarmed

XXXIII. Ward’s Story

XXXIV. The Under-Study

XXXV. Personal Explanation

XXXVI. The Scene Of The Trouble

XXXVII. Out Of The World

XXXVIII. The Flight

XXXIX. In Pursuit

XL. The Best Of The Game

XLI. Friend Or Foe?

XLII. In Time

XLIII. The Last Grasp

XLIV. Beyond Pursuit

XLV. The Way It Was Done

I. A MAKER OF FLOWERS

The colours were dancing before John Lethbridge’s eyes in dots and splashes. The place was so hot that beads of perspiration were standing out on his forehead, and his dark hair was wet and dank. He lifted his head from the tray in front of him and stretched himself wearily. This thing was a long time in doing, and patience was not one of his virtues. He glanced at the thermometer, which registered almost a hundred degrees. It was nearly as hot outside, for a thunderstorm was coming up from the south, and the night was dark and tepid.

Lethbridge lifted the lights of the little greenhouse higher, but he was conscious of no change in the temperature. Even the fresh mesh of muslin thrown over the ventilators seemed to keep out what air was there.

Flowers on every shelf, a perfect blaze of bloom, revelled and rejoiced in the hot, humid atmosphere, and flourished clean and vigorous as blossoms generally do under glass. It was not these which attracted Lethbridge’s attention. His whole mind was concentrated upon the shallow seed tray beneath him. Just above this was an oblong funnel, behind which was great blaze of electric light so strong and powerful that it seemed to turn the shining emerald fronds to a purple black. The tray was divided into compartments with plants of various sizes, from the tiniest speck of a seedling to a mass of foliage nearly ready to burst into bloom. They all belonged to the Dianthus family, and some day would furnish a magnificent display of carnations. It was over one of the larger plants that Lethbridge bent now with almost fatherly care. He touched one of the swelling buds tenderly with a camel’s-hair pencil.

“I wonder,” he murmured, “how it will turn out. Fancy spending three of the best year’s of one’s life in a gamble like this! For it is a gamble, though one is speculating in flowers instead of horses and in blooms instead of stocks and shares. Have I failed again, or am I on the verge of producing a bloom worth thousands of pounds? Another week will tell. At any rate, I can’t do more to-night. Ye gods! to think what hopes and fears, what joys and sorrows are awaiting the opening of that little flower!”

Lethbridge smiled cynically as he stood upright and put his hand mechanically in his pocket for his cigarette case. Then he smiled more bitterly as he thought of his resolution not to smoke again till the new Dianthus had shown the first sign of dawning glory. Not that there was any virtue in this resolution; it was simply necessity. For when a man has to keep himself and pay his rent and is in sight of his last five-pound note it behoves him to be careful.

That was exactly how John Lethbridge was situated. There had been a time during his University career when he had looked forward to the possession of a comfortable income and a lovely home of his own.

He was not indifferent to sport, or politics, or even love itself. He was merely a healthy specimen of the average Englishman, prepared to carry out the traditions of his race and live cleanly and happily. To a great extent he was an artist who lacked constructive abilities. Beauty in all forms was essential to him, and because he could see no other means of satisfying this longing, he had turned his attention to flowers. They touched and elevated him as nothing else could do. He found a kindred spirit in the only relative with whom he had lived and whose property he had expected to inherit in the ordinary course of things. Old Jasper Payn had been an enthusiast, too. He had taught Lethbridge the names and habits of his beloved flowers. From his earliest childhood, long before Lethbridge could read, he could lisp the botanical titles of all the blooms which are known to the expert gardener. In the long range of glass-houses at Beckingham Hall the young man and his teacher had spent many an hour together; more than one lovely hybrid had been stamped with the mark of Jasper Payn’s genius. It was not for Lethbridge to know or even enquire in those day what Jasper Payn was doing with the fortune which would some day be his. It never occurred to him that the old man was a reckless gambler, that he was spending thousands of pounds on the wildest experiments, and that, when the catastrophe came, instead of being a rich man he would be on the verge of bankruptcy. He never realised for a moment that Jasper Payn depended upon the invention of a perfect novelty in flowers for his daily bread.

And the catastrophe had happened three years ago in a most unexpected and even startling manner. A tray of priceless seedlings had been stolen, and John Lethbridge had been accused of the theft. Appearances to a certain extent had been against him, but he had made no attempt to justify himself. He was too profoundly wounded and disgusted to do anything of the kind. Thus it came about that, at the age of twenty-five, he found himself alone in the world and practically without a livelihood. By nature proud and sensitive, he shrank from asking anybody’s advice or assistance. He had the average education of the average Englishman of the well-to-do class. He had no specialised knowledge excepting his intimate acquaintance with flowers. There was nothing for it, therefore, but to take a situation with a leading firm of florists and seedsmen, in the hope that this might lead to a partnership and fortune.

But it was a faint hope, and destined to eventuate disappointment. Lethbridge’s firm were commercial from first to last. They had their eye always on the main chance, and looked coldly upon his experiments, especially such as were likely to prove costly. At the close of two years Lethbridge found himself at a loose end again with only a few pounds between himself and starvation. He made up his mind to take a little place of his own, where it would be possible by his efforts to get a living, and where, at any rate, he could conduct his fascinating experiments on a small scale. It was about this time that luck favoured him. Amongst a parcel of orchids which he had purchased was an entirely new one, which Lethbridge subsequently sold for five hundred guineas.

Here was the opportunity for which he had been sighing. Reckless, as enthusiasts invariably are, he sank every penny of his money in expensive plant wherewith to carry on his hobby. He had read a great deal as to the wonders of floral propagation by means of electricity, and determined to give the experiment a proper trial. At the end of the second year he appeared to have advanced very little, and his capital was well-nigh exhausted. One or two small successes had come his way, not much in themselves, but just enough to justify the future. On the other hand, there had been heart-breaking failures; mainly, so Lethbridge imagined, due to the atmosphere of the place where his experiments had been conducted. He had now the boldness of despair. He had heard of Manchester as a likely spot, and a few week ago had moved to a small nursery there which he had contrived to take. It was an anxious time, but the precious seedlings were safely transferred, and Lethbridge’s dream of a blue carnation began to assume concrete shape.

And now, lo and behold! the blooms ready to burst, and in a few days he should learn his fate. Another flower also was approaching maturity, but of this Lethbridge did not dare to think. He had resolved he would not look at this for another fortnight at least, not, at any rate, till one of the gorgeous blossoms was there to speak for itself. Hitherto the prize had evaded him, but it had formed a fascinating experiment for Jasper Payn himself. Well, the future would tell. Meanwhile, Lethbridge devoted his whole time to the carnations and hoped for the best.

II. THE FOOTPRINTS

It was growing so hot and close now, that Lethbridge could bear it no longer. He was uneasy in his mind, too, for during the past few days he could not rid himself of the idea that he was being spied upon. This was all the more inexplicable because he did not know a soul in the neighbourhood. Still, Manchester was a noted place for horticulturists and cultivators of the finer kinds of flowers, and perhaps his fame had preceded him. It had not occurred to him to take precautions to guard his secret until something had happened which gave him a rude awakening. Of course he knew that there was a distinct commercial side to his enterprise, and that the possession of anything novel in his line meant a considerable sum to the owner. It might have been a coincidence that a firm in America had simultaneously put upon the market a striped carnation which Lethbridge had discovered himself; on the other hand, it was possible that a seedling or too had been stolen, and that Lethbridge had been anticipated. For several evenings he had heard strange noises as if some one were prowling round his cottage. He had found footprints in the soil where no footprints should be. Strangely, enough, these marks had not been made by a man’s tread. They were small and well-formed, and the heel marks were evidently those of a woman. Lethbridge was thinking about this now as he drew the hood over his electric light and carefully locked the greenhouse door behind him.

It was good to be in the open air again, though the night was close and stifling. It was pitch dark, too, with a low sky that seemed to be resting on the tops of the trees. Ever and again there came a growl of distant thunder, followed by the patter of great drops of rain. Lethbridge, as he stood there, fancied that he was not alone. He had the strange, uneasy sense that some one was close by him. He believed he could hear something fluttering in the clump of rhododendrons on the lawn. Was it because his nostrils were full of the scent of flowers, or did he really inhale the peculiarly subtle perfume that always envelops some women as with an invisible cloak? Who was it, he wondered, who was paying him the compliment of keeping in touch with him in this fashion? Whilst Lethbridge was asking this question the black curtain overhead was suddenly rent with a long, zigzag flash of purple and scarlet lightning, and for the fraction of a second the whole place blazed in the full light of day. Every twig and leaf of the rhododendron stood out hard and stiff, and Lethbridge could see something of a woman’s skirt. The nebulous flame glinted on a pair of polished shoes. Then the thunder crashed deafeningly overhead, and the rain came down with a hiss and a roar as loud and terrifying as the advance of cavalry. A startled voice was upraised suddenly, and a moment later Lethbridge stood inside his cottage with a girl in white by his side.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” he demanded.

His voice was stern. The look on his face was forbidding. He was in no mood for politeness. The girl turned a piteous face towards him, and her big violet eyes filled with tears. She could have chosen no more serviceable weapon for disarming Lethbridge’s anger. His heart smote him almost before the words were uttered. It was a beautiful face, too, so very like some of his favourite flowers. The features were rather small but exquisitely refined, and the colouring was subdued, something between old ivory and the faintest admixture of carmine. It was a good, trustworthy face, that did not at all suggest the clever and unscrupulous spy of fiction. The red lips were parted in pleading protest. The girl was young and slender, and her white dress seemed part and parcel of herself.

“I am very sorry,” she stammered.

Lethbridge was muttering apologies himself by this time. He regretted he had been so precipitate. But, really, it was no night for a girl to be out alone and without any kind of protection from the weather.

“I don’t know,” the girl went on in the same appealing voice. “I came out because it was so hot. I was trying to make my way from the road into the fields, and I took the wrong direction. I was foolish not to tell you so at once, but when you opened the door so suddenly you startled me. But I will go now if you will tell me the way–”

“Impossible!” Lethbridge exclaimed. “Listen to the rain. I never heard such thunder. Have you far to go?”

“Oh dear, no,” the girl replied. “Only to the foot of the hill. We live at the Chester Nurseries. I keep house for my uncle. At least, he is not my uncle really. I don’t quite know what relationship there is between us. But he is getting old and feeble, and I look after him.”

Lethbridge nodded moodily. His old suspicions were returning. He would have been more satisfied had this beautiful girl with the violet eyes and ivory and pink complexion had nothing to do with anybody interested in the propagation of flowers. Besides, her information fanned his fears. Was she deceiving him? He tried to get a glimpse of the high-heeled shoes, but the long white dress hid the view. The girl’s intuition seemed to be quick, for her lips trembled and she glanced anxiously at Lethbridge.

“What have I said to offend you?” she asked.

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