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A remarkable mystery story in which valuables disappear from locked safes; written and whispered warnings come out of nowhere and a murder is committed behind locked doors--all in a modern New York apartment.
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THE HOUSE OF WHISPERS
by William Le Queux
Published by Aeterna Classics 2018
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"Why, what's the matter, child? Tell me."
"Nothing, dad—really nothing."
"But you are breathing hard; your hand trembles; your pulse beats quickly. There's something amiss—I'm sure there is. Now, what is it? Come, no secrets."
The girl, quickly snatching away her hand, answered with a forced laugh, "How absurd you really are, dear old dad! You're always fancying something or other."
"Because my senses of hearing and feeling are sharper and more developed than those of other folk perhaps," replied the grey-bearded old gentleman, as he turned his sharp-cut, grey, but expressionless countenance to the tall, sweet-faced girl standing beside his chair.
No second glance was needed to realise the pitiful truth. The man seated there in his fine library, with the summer sunset slanting across the red carpet from the open French windows, was blind.
Since his daughter Gabrielle had been a pretty, prattling child of nine, nursing her dolly, he had never looked upon her fair face. But he was ever as devoted to her as she to him.
Surely his was a sad and lonely life. Within the last fifteen years or so great wealth had come to him; but, alas! he was unable to enjoy it. Until eleven years ago he had been a prominent figure in politics and in society in London. He had sat in the House for one of the divisions of Hampshire, was a member of the Carlton, and one year he found his name among the Birthday Honours with a K.C.M.G. For him everybody predicted a brilliant future. The Press gave prominence to his speeches, and to his house in Park Street came Cabinet Ministers and most of the well-known men of his party. Indeed, it was an open secret in a certain circle that he had been promised a seat in the Cabinet in the near future.
Then, at the very moment of his popularity, a terrible tragedy had occurred. He was on the platform of the Albert Hall addressing a great meeting at which the Prime Minister was the principal speaker. His speech was a brilliant one, and the applause had been vociferous. Full of satisfaction, he drove home that night to Park Street; but next morning the report spread that his brilliant political career had ended. He had suddenly been stricken by blindness.
In political circles and in the clubs the greatest consternation was caused, and some strange gossip became rife.
It was whispered in certain quarters that the affliction was not produced by natural causes. In fact, it was a mystery, and one that had never been solved. The first oculists of Europe had peered into and tested his eyes, but all to no purpose. The sight had gone for ever.
Therefore, full of bitter regrets at being thus compelled to renounce the stress and storm of political life which he loved so well, Sir Henry Heyburn had gone into strict retirement at Glencardine, his beautiful old Perthshire home, visiting London but very seldom.
He was essentially a man of mystery. Even in the days of his universal popularity the source of his vast wealth was unknown. His father, the tenth Baronet, had been sadly impoverished by the depreciation of agricultural property in Lincolnshire, and had ended his days in the genteel quietude of the Albany. But Sir Henry, without betraying to the world his methods, had in fifteen years amassed a fortune which people guessed must be considerably over a million sterling.
From a life of strenuous activity he had, in one single hour, been doomed to one of loneliness and inactivity. His friends sympathised, as indeed the whole British public had done; but in a month the tragic affair and its attendant mysterious gossip had been forgotten, as in truth had the very name of Sir Henry Heyburn, whom the Prime Minister, though his political opponent, had one night designated in the House as "one of the most brilliant and talented young men who has ever sat upon the Opposition benches."
In his declining years the life of this man was a pitiful tragedy, his filmy eyes sightless, his thin white fingers ever eager and nervous, his hours full of deep thought and silent immobility. To him, what was the benefit of that beautiful Perthshire castle which he had purchased from Lord Strathavon a year before his compulsory retirement? What was the use of the old ancestral manor near Caistor in Lincolnshire, or the town-house in Park Street, the snug hunting-box at Melton, or the beautiful palm-shaded, flower-embowered villa overlooking the blue southern sea at San Remo? He remembered them all. He had misty visions of their splendour and their luxury; but since his blindness he had seldom, if ever, entered them. That big library up in Scotland in which he now sat was the room he preferred; and with his daughter Gabrielle to bear him company, to smooth his brow with her soft hand, to chatter and to gossip, he wished for no other companion. His life was of the past, a meteor that had flashed and had vanished for ever.
"Tell me, child, what is troubling you?" he was asking in a calm, kind voice, as he still held the girl's hand in his. The sweet scent of the roses from the garden beyond filled the room.
A smart footman in livery opened the door at that moment, asking, "Stokes has just returned with the car from Perth, Sir Henry, and asks if you want him further at present."
"No," replied his blind master. "Has he brought back her ladyship?"
"Yes, Sir Henry," replied the man. "I believe he is taking her to the ball over at Connachan to-night."
"Oh, yes, of course. How foolish I am! I quite forgot," said the Baronet with a slight sigh. "Very well, Hill."
And the clean-shaven young man, with his bright buttons bearing the chevron gules betwixt three boars' heads erased sable, of the Heyburns, bowed and withdrew.
"I had quite forgotten the ball at Connachan, dear," exclaimed her father, stretching out his thin white hand in search of hers again. "Of course you are going?"
"No, dad; I'm staying at home with you."
"Staying at home!" echoed Sir Henry. "Why, my dear Gabrielle, the first year you're out, and missing the best ball in the county! Certainly not. I'm all right. I shan't be lonely. A little box came this morning from the Professor, didn't it?"
"Then I shall be able to spend the evening very well alone. TheProfessor has sent me what he promised the other day."
"I've decided not to go," was the girl's firm reply.
"I fear, dear, your mother will be very annoyed if you refuse," he remarked.
"I shall risk that, dear old dad, and stay with you to-night. Please allow me," she added persuasively, taking his hand in hers and bending till her red lips touched his white brow. "You have quite a lot to do, remember. A big packet of papers came from Paris this morning. I must read them over to you."
"But your mother, my dear! Your absence will be commented upon. People will gossip, you know."
"There is but one person I care for, dad—yourself," laughed the girl lightly.
"Perhaps you're disappointed over a new frock or something, eh?"
"Not at all. My frock came from town the day before yesterday. Elise declares it suits me admirably, and she's very hard to please, you know. It's white, trimmed with tiny roses."
"A perfect dream, I expect," remarked the blind man, smiling. "I wish I could see you in it, dear. I often wonder what you are like, now that you've grown to be a woman."
"I'm like what I always have been, dad, I suppose," she laughed.
"Yes, yes," he sighed, in pretence of being troubled. "Wilful as always. And—and," he faltered a moment later, "I often hear your dear dead mother's voice in yours." Then he was silent, and by the deep lines in his brow she knew that he was thinking.
Outside, in the high elms beyond the level, well-kept lawn, with its grey old sundial, the homecoming rooks were cawing prior to settling down for the night. No other sound broke the stillness of that quiet sunset hour save the solemn ticking of the long, old-fashioned clock at the farther end of the big, book-lined room, with its wide fireplace, great overmantel of carved stone with emblazoned arms, and its three long windows of old stained glass which gave it a somewhat ecclesiastical aspect.
"Tell me, child," repeated Sir Henry at length, "what was it that upset you just now?"
"Nothing, dad—unless—well, perhaps it's the heat. I felt rather unwell when I went out for my ride this morning," she answered with a frantic attempt at excuse.
The blind man was well aware that her reply was but a subterfuge. Little, however, did he dream the cause. Little did he know that a dark shadow had fallen upon the young girl's life—a shadow of evil.
"Gabrielle," he said in a low, intense voice, "why aren't you open and frank with me as you once used to be? Remember that you, my daughter, are my only friend!"
Slim, dainty, and small-waisted, with a sweet, dimpled face, and blue eyes large and clear like a child's, a white throat, a well-poised head, and light-chestnut hair dressed low with a large black bow, she presented the picture of happy, careless youth, her features soft and refined, her half-bare arms well moulded, and hands delicate and white. She wore only one ornament—upon her left hand was a small signet-ring with her monogram engraved, a gift from one of her governesses when a child, and now worn upon the little finger.
That face was strikingly beautiful, it had been remarked more than once in London; but any admiration only called forth the covert sneers of Lady Heyburn.
"Why don't you tell me?" urged the blind man. "Why don't you tell me the truth?" he protested.
Her countenance changed when she heard his words. In her blue eyes was a look of abject fear. Her left hand was tightly clenched and her mouth set hard, as though in resolution.
"I really don't know what you mean, dad," she responded with a hollow laugh. "You have such strange fancies nowadays."
"Strange fancies, child!" echoed the afflicted man, lifting his grey, expressionless face to hers. "A blind man has always vague, suspicious, and black forebodings engendered by the darkness and loneliness of his life. I am no exception," he sighed. "I think ever of the might-have-beens."
"No, dear," exclaimed the girl, bending until her lips touched his white brow softly. "Forget it all, dear old dad. Surely your days here, with me, quiet and healthful in this beautiful Perthshire, are better, better by far, than if you had been a politician up in London, ever struggling, ever speaking, and ever bearing the long hours at the House and the eternal stress of Parliamentary life?"
"Yes, yes," he said, just a trifle impatiently. "It is not that. I don't regret that I had to retire, except—well, except for your sake perhaps, dear."
"For my sake! How?"
"Because, had I been a member of this Cabinet—which some of my friends predicted—you would have had the chance of a good marriage. But buried as you are down here instead, what chances have you?"
"I want no chance, dad," replied the girl. "I shall never marry."
A painful thought crossed the old man's mind, being mirrored upon his brow by the deep lines which puckered there for a few brief moments. "Well," he exclaimed, smiling, "that's surely no reason why you should not go to the ball at Connachan to-night."
"I have my duty to perform, dad; my duty is to remain with you," she said decisively. "You know you have quite a lot to do, and when your mother has gone we'll spend an hour or two here at work."
"I hear that Walter Murie is at home again at Connachan. Hill told me this morning," remarked her father.
"So I heard also," answered the girl.
"And yet you are not going to the ball, Gabrielle, eh?" laughed the old man mischievously.
"Now come, dad," the girl exclaimed, colouring slightly, "you're really too bad! I thought you had promised me not to mention him again."
"So I did, dear; I—I quite forgot," replied Sir Henry apologetically. "Forgive me. You are now your own mistress. If you prefer to stay away from Connachan, then do so by all means. Only, make a proper excuse to your mother; otherwise she will be annoyed."
"I think not, dear," his daughter replied in a meaning tone. "If I remain at home she'll be rather glad than otherwise."
"Why?" inquired the old man quickly.
The girl hesitated. She saw instantly that her remark was an unfortunate one. "Well," she said rather lamely, "because my absence will relieve her of the responsibility of acting as chaperon."
What else could she say? How could she tell her father—the kindly but afflicted man to whom she was devoted—the bitter truth? His lonely, dismal life was surely sufficiently hard to bear without the extra burden of suspicion, of enforced inactivity, of fierce hatred, and of bitter regret. So she slowly disengaged her hand, kissed him again, and with an excuse that she had the menus to write for the dinner-table, went out, leaving him alone.
When the door had closed a great sigh sounded through the long, book-lined room, a sigh that ended in a sob.
The old man had leaned his chin upon his hands, and his sightless eyes were filled with tears. "Is it the truth?" he murmured to himself. "Is it really the truth?"
There are few of the Perthshire castles that more plainly declare their feudal origin and exhibit traces of obsolete power than does the great gaunt pile of ruins known as Glencardine. Its situation is both picturesque and imposing, and the stern aspect of the two square baronial towers which face the south, perched on a sheer precipice that descends to the Ruthven Water deep below, shows that the castle was once the residence of a predatory chief in the days before its association with the great Montrose.
Two miles from the long, straggling village of Auchterarder, in the centre of a fine, well-wooded, well-kept estate, the great ruined castle stands a silent monument of warlike days long since forgotten. There, within those walls, now overgrown with ivy and weeds, and where big trees grow in the centre of what was once the great paved courtyard, Montrose schemed and plotted, and, according to tradition, kept certain of his enemies in the dungeons below.
In the twelfth century the aspect of the deep glen was very different from what it is to-day. In those days the Ruthven was a broad river, flowing swiftly down to the Earn, and forming, by reason of a moat, an effective barrier against attack. To-day, however, the river has diminished into a mere burn meandering through a beautiful wooded glen three hundred feet below, a glen the charms of which are well known throughout the whole of Scotland, and where in summer tourists from England endeavour to explore, but are warned back by Stewart, Sir Henry's Highland keeper.
A quarter of a mile from the great historic ruin is the modern castle, built mainly of stone from the ancient structure early in the eighteenth century, with oak-panelled rooms, many quaint gables, stained glass, and long, echoing corridors—a residence well adapted for entertaining on a lavish scale, the front overlooking the beautiful glen, and the back with level lawns and stretch of undulating park, well wooded and full of picturesque beauty.
The family traditions and history of the old place and its owners had induced Sir Henry Heyburn, himself a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, to purchase it from Lord Strathavon, into whose possession it had passed some forty years previously.
History showed that William de Graeme or Graham, who settled in Scotland in the twelfth century, became Lord of Glencardine, and the great castle was built by his son. They were indeed a noble race, as their biographer has explained. Ever fearless in their country's cause, they sneered at the mandates from impregnable Stirling, and were loyal in every generation.
Glencardine was a stronghold feared by all the surrounding nobles, and its men were full of valour and bravery. One story of them is perhaps worth the telling. In the year 1490 the all-powerful Abbot of Inchaffray issued an order for the collection of the teinds of the Killearns' lands possessed by the Grahams of Glencardine in the parish of Monzievaird, of which he was titular. The order was rigorously executed, the teinds being exacted by force.
Lord Killearn of Dunning Castle was from home at the time; but in his absence his eldest son, William, Master of Dunning, called out a number of his clansmen, and marched towards Glencardine for the purpose of putting a stop to the abbot's proceedings. The Grahams of Glencardine, having been apprised of their neighbour's intention, mustered in strong force, and marched to meet him. The opposing forces encountered each other at the north side of Knock Mary, about two miles to the south-west of Crieff, while a number of the clan M'Robbie, who lived beside the Loch of Balloch, marched up the south side of the hill, halting at the top to watch the progress of the combat. The fight began with great fury on both sides. The Glencardine men, however, began to get the upper hand and drive their opponents back, when the M'Robbies rushed down the hill to the succour of the Killearns. The tables were now turned. The Grahams were unable to maintain their ground against the combined forces which they had now to face, and fled towards Glencardine, taking refuge in the Kirk of Monzievaird. The Killearns had no desire to follow up their success any farther, but at this stage they were joined by Duncan Campbell of Dunstaffnage, who had come across from Argyllshire to avenge the death of his father-in-law, Robert of Monzie, who, along with his two sons, had a short time before been killed by the Lord of Glencardine.
An arrow shot from the church fatally wounded one of Campbell's men, and so enraged were the besiegers at this that they set fire to the heather-thatched building. Of the one hundred and sixty human beings who are supposed to have been in the church, only one young lad escaped, and this was effected by the help of one of the Killearns, who caught the boy in his arms as he leaped out of the flames. The Killearns did not go unpunished for their barbarous deed. Their leader, with several of his chief retainers, was afterwards beheaded at Stirling, and an assessment was imposed on the Killearns for behoof of the wives and children of the Grahams who had perished by their hands.
The Killearn by whose aid the young Graham had been saved was forced to flee to Ireland, but he afterwards returned to Scotland, where he and his attendants were known by the name of "Killearn Eirinich" (or Ernoch), meaning Killearn of Ireland. The estate which he held, and which is situated near Comrie, still bears that name. The site of the Kirk of Monzievaird is now occupied by the mausoleum of the family of Murray of Ochtertyre, which was erected in 1809. When the foundations were being excavated a large quantity of charred bones and wood was found.
The history of Scotland is full of references to the doings at Glencardine, the fine home of the great Lord Glencardine, and of events, both in the original stronghold and in the present mansion, which have had important bearings upon the welfare of the country.
In the autumn of 1825 the celebrated poetess Baroness Nairne, who had been born at Gask, a few miles away, visited Glencardine and spent several weeks in the pleasantest manner. Within those gaunt ruins of the old castle she first became inspired to write her celebrated "Castell Gloom," near Dollar:
Oh Castell Gloom! thy strength is gone, The green grass o'er thee growin'; On Hill of Care thou art alone, The Sorrow round thee flowin'.
Oh Castell Gloom! on thy fair wa's Nae banners now are streamin'; The howlit flits amang thy ha's, And wild birds there are screamin'.
Oh, mourn the woe! oh, mourn the crime Frae civil war that flows! Oh, mourn, Argyll, thy fallen line, And mourn the great Montrose!
The lofty Ochils bright did glow, Though sleepin' was the sun; But mornin's light did sadly show What ragin' flames had done! Oh, mirk, mirk was the misty cloud That hung o'er thy wild wood! Thou wert like beauty in a shroud, And all was solitude.
A volume, indeed, could be written upon the history, traditions, and superstitions of Glencardine Castle, a subject in which its blind owner took the keenest possible interest. But, tragedy of it all, he had never seen the lovely old domain he had acquired! Only by Gabrielle's descriptions of it, as she led him so often across the woods, down by the babbling burn, or over the great ivy-covered ruins, did he know and love it.
Every shepherd of the Ochils knows of the Lady of Glencardine who, on rare occasions, had been seen dressed in green flitting before the modern mansion, and who was said to be the spectre of the young Lady Jane Glencardine, who in 1710 was foully drowned in the Earn by her jealous lover, the Lord of Glamis, and whose body was never recovered. Her appearance always boded ill-fortune to the family in residence.
Glencardine was scarcely ever without guests. Lady Heyburn, a shallow and vain woman many years younger than her husband, was always surrounded by her own friends. She hated the country, and more especially what she declared to be the "deadly dullness" of her Perthshire home. That moment was no exception. There were half-a-dozen guests staying in the house, but neither Gabrielle nor her father took the slightest interest in any of them. They had been, of course, invited to the ball at Connachan, and at dinner had expressed surprise when their host's pretty daughter, the belle of the county, had declared that she was not going.
"Oh, Gabrielle is really such a wayward child!" declared her ladyship to old Colonel Burton at her side. "If she has decided not to go, no power on earth will persuade her."
"I'm not feeling at all well, mother," the girl responded from the farther end of the table. "You'll make nice excuses for me, won't you?"
"I think it's simply ridiculous!" declared the Baronet's wife. "Your first season, too!"
Gabrielle glanced round the table, coloured slightly, but said nothing. The guests knew too well that in the Glencardine household there had always been, and always would be, slightly strained relations between her ladyship and her stepdaughter.
For an hour after dinner all was bustle and excitement; then, in the covered wagonette, the gay party drove away, while Gabrielle, standing at the door, shouted after them a merry adieu.
It was a bright, clear, moonlit night, so beautiful indeed that, twisting a shawl about her shoulders, she went to her father's den, where he usually smoked alone, and, taking his arm, led him out for a walk into the park over that gravelled drive where, upon such nights as that, 'twas said that the unfortunate Lady Jane could be seen.
When alone, the sightless man could find his way quite well with the aid of his stick. He knew every inch of his domain. Indeed, he could descend from the castle by the winding path that led deep into the glen, and across the narrow foot-bridges of the rushing Ruthven Water, or he could traverse the most intricate paths through the woods by means of certain landmarks which only he himself knew. He was ever fond of wandering about the estate alone, and often took solitary walks on bright nights with his stout stick tapping before him. On rare occasions, however, when, in the absence of her ladyship, he enjoyed the company of pretty Gabrielle, they would wander in the park arm-in-arm, chatting and exchanging confidences.
The departure of their house-party had lifted a heavy weight from both their hearts. It would be dawn before they returned. She loved her father, and was never happier than when describing to him things—the smallest objects sometimes—which he himself could not see.
As they strolled on beneath the shadows of the tall elms, the stillness of the night was broken only by the quick scurry of a rabbit into the tall bracken or the harsh cry of some night-bird startled by their approach.
Before them, standing black against the night-sky, rose the quaint, ponderous, but broken walls of the ancient stronghold, where an owl hooted weirdly in the ivy, and where the whispering of the waters rose from the deep below.
"It's a pity, dear, that you didn't go to the dance," the old man was saying, her arm held within his own. "You've annoyed your mother, I fear."
"Mother is quite happy with her guests, dad; while I am quite happy with you," she replied softly. "Therefore, why discuss it?"
"But surely it is not very entertaining for you to remain here with a man who is blind. Remember, you are young, and these golden days of youth will very soon pass."
"Why, you always entertain and instruct me, dad," she declared; "from you I've learnt so much archaeology and so much about mediaeval seals that I believe I am qualified to become a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, if women were admitted to fellowship."
"They will be one day, my dear, if the Suffragettes are allowed their own way," he laughed.
And then, during the full hour they strolled together, their conversation mostly consisted of questions asked by her father concerning some improvements being made in one of the farms which she had visited on the previous day, and her description of what had been done.
The stable-clock had struck half-past ten on its musical chimes before they re-entered the big hall, and, being relieved by Hill of the wraps, passed together into the library, where, from a locked cabinet in a corner, Gabrielle took a number of business papers and placed them upon the writing-table before her father.
"No," he said, running his thin white hands over them, "not business to-night, dear, but pleasure. Where is that box from the Professor?"
"It's here, dad. Shall I open it?"
"Yes," he replied. "That dear old fellow never forgets his old friend. Never a seal finds its way into the collection at Cambridge but he first sends it to me for examination before it is catalogued. He knows what pleasure it is to me to decipher them and make out their history—almost, alas! the only pleasure left to me, except you, my darling."
"Professor Moyes adopts your opinion always, dad. He knows, as every other antiquary knows, that you are the greatest living authority on the subject which you have made a lifetime study—that of the bronze seals of the Middle Ages."
"Ah!" sighed the old man, "if I could only write my great book! It is the pleasure debarred me. Years ago I started to collect material; but my affliction came, and now I can only feel the matrices and picture them in my mind. I see through your eyes, dear Gabrielle. To me, the world I loved so much is only a blank darkness, with your dear voice sounding out of it—the only voice, my child, that is music to my ears."
The girl said nothing. She only glanced at the sad, expressionless face, and, cutting the string of the small packet, displayed three bronze seals—two oval, about two inches long, and the third round, about one inch in diameter, and each with a small kind of handle on the reverse. With them were sulphur-casts or impressions taken from them, ready to be placed in the museum at Cambridge.
The old man's nervous fingers travelled over the surfaces quickly, an expression of complete satisfaction in his face.
"Have you the magnifying-glass, dear? Tell me what you make of the inscriptions," he said, at the same time carefully feeling the curious mediaeval lettering of one of the casts.
At the same instant she started, rose quickly from her chair, and held her breath.
A man, tall, dark-faced, and wearing a thin black overcoat, had entered noiselessly from the lawn by the open window, and stood there, with his finger upon his lips, indicating silence. Then he pointed outside, with a commanding gesture that she should follow.
Her eyes met his in a glance of fierce resentment, and instinctively she placed her hand upon her breast, as though to stay the beating of her heart.
Again he pointed in silent authority, and she as though held in some mysterious thraldom, made excuse to the blind man, and, rising, followed in his noiseless footsteps.
Ten minutes later she returned, panting, her face pale and haggard, her mouth hard-set. For a moment she stood in silence upon the threshold of the open doors leading to the grounds, her hand pressed to her breast in a strenuous endeavour to calm herself. She feared that her father might detect her agitation, for he was so quick in discovering in her the slightest unusual emotion. She glanced behind her with an expression full of fear, as though dreading the reappearance of that man who had compelled her to follow him out into the night. Then she looked at her father, who, still seated motionless with his back to her, was busy with his fingers upon something on the blotting-pad before him.
In that brief absence her countenance had entirely changed. She was pale to the lips, with drawn brows, while about her mouth played a hard, bitter expression, as though her mind were bent upon some desperate resolve.
That the man who had come there by stealth was no stranger was evident; yet that between them was some deep-rooted enmity was equally apparent. Nevertheless, he held her irresistibly within his toils. His clean-shaven face was a distinctly evil one. His eyes were set too close together, and in his physiognomy was something unscrupulous and relentless. He was not the man for a woman to trust.
She stepped back from the threshold, and for a few seconds halted outside, her ears strained to catch any sound. Then, as though reassured, she pushed the chestnut hair from her hot, fevered brow, held her breath with strenuous effort, and, re-entering the library, advanced to her father's side.
"I wondered where you had gone, dear," he said in his low, calm voice, as he detected her presence. "I hoped you would not leave me for long, for it is not very often we enjoy an evening so entirely alone as to-night."
"Leave you, dear old dad! Why, of course not!" She laughed gaily, as though nothing had occurred to disturb her peace of mind. "We were just about to look at those seals Professor Moyes sent you to-day, weren't we? Here they are;" and she placed them before the helpless and afflicted man, endeavouring to remain undisturbed, and taking a chair at his side, as was her habit when they sat together.
"Yes," he said cheerfully. "Let us see what they are."
The first of the yellow sulphur-casts which he examined bore the full-length figure of an abbot, with mitre and crosier, in the act of giving his blessing. Behind him were three circular towers with pointed roofs surmounted by crosses, while around, in bold early Gothic letters, ran the inscription
Slowly and with great care his fingers travelled over the raised letters and design of the oval cast. Then, having also examined the battered old bronze matrix, he said, "A most excellent specimen, and in first-class preservation, too! I wonder where it has been found? In Italy, without doubt."
"What do you make it out to be, dad?" asked the girl, seated in the chair at his side and as interested in the little antiquity as he was himself.
"Thirteenth century, my dear—early thirteenth century," he declared without hesitation. "Genuine, quite genuine, no doubt. The matrix shows signs of considerable wear. Is there much patina upon it?" he asked.
She turned it over, displaying that thick green corrosion which bronze acquires only by great age.
"Yes, quite a lot, dad. The raised portion at the back is pierced by a hole very much worn."
"Worn by the thong by which it was attached to the girdle of successive abbots through centuries," he declared. "From its inscription, it is the seal of the Abbot Benedict of the Monastery of St. Ambrose, of Rancia, in Lombardy. Let me think, now. We should find the history of that house probably in Sassolini's Memorials. Will you get it down, dear?—top shelf of the fifth case, on the left."
Though blind, he knew just where he could put his hand upon all his most cherished volumes, and woe betide any one who put a volume back in its wrong place!
Gabrielle rose, and, obtaining the steps, reached down the great leather-bound quarto book, which she carried to a reading-desk and at once searched the index.
The work was in Italian, a language which she knew fairly well; and after ten minutes or so, during which time the blind man continued slowly to trace the inscription with his finger-tips, she said, "Here it is, dad. 'Rancia, near Cremona. The religious brotherhood was founded there in 1132, and the Abbot Benedict was third abbot, from 1218 to 1231. The church still exists. The magnificent pulpit in marble, embellished with mosaics, presented in 1272, rests on six columns supported by lions, with an inscription: "Nicolaus de Montava marmorarius hoc opus fecit." Opposite it is the ambo (1272), in a simple style, with a representation of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. In the choir is the throne adorned by mosaics, and the Cappella di San Pantaleone contains the blood of the saint, together with some relics of the Abbot Benedict. The cloisters still exist, though, of course, the monastery is now suppressed.'"
"And this," remarked Sir Henry, turning over the old bronze seal in his hand, "belonged to the Abbot Ambrose six hundred and fifty years ago!"
"Yes, dad," declared the girl, returning to his side and taking the matrix herself to examine it under the green-shaded reading-lamp. "The study of seals is most interesting. It carries one back into the dim ages. I hope the Professor will allow you to keep these casts for your collection."
"Yes, I know he will," responded the old Baronet. "He is well aware what a deep interest I take in my hobby."
"And also that you are one of the first authorities in the world upon the subject," added his daughter.
The old man sighed. Would that he could see with his eyes once again; for, after all, the sense of touch was but a poor substitute for that of sight!
He drew towards him the impression of the second of the oval seals. The centre was divided into two portions. Above was the half-length figure of a saint holding a closed book in his hand, and below was a youth with long hands in the act of adoration. Between them was a scroll upon which was written: "Sc. Martine O.P.N.," while around the seal were the words in Gothic characters:
"This is fourteenth century," pronounced the Baronet, "and is from Dulcigno, on the Adriatic—the seal of Henry, the vicar of the church of that place. From the engraving and style," he said, still fingering it with great care, now and then turning to the matrix in order to satisfy himself, "I should place it as having been executed about 1350. But it is really a very beautiful specimen, done at a time when the art of seal-engraving was at its height. No engraver could to-day turn out a more ornate and at the same time bold design. Moyes is really very fortunate in securing this. You must write, my dear, and ask him how these latest treasures came into his hands."
At his request she got down another of the ponderous volumes of Sassolini from the high shelf, and read to him, translating from the Italian the brief notice of the ancient church of Dulcigno, which, it appeared, had been built in the Lombard-Norman style of the eleventh century, while the campanile, with columns from Paestum, dated from 1276.
The third seal, the circular one, was larger than the rest, being quite two inches across. In the centre of the top half was the Madonna with Child, seated, a male and female figure on either side. Below were three female figures on either side, the two scenes being divided by a festoon of flowers, while around the edge ran in somewhat more modern characters—those of the early sixteenth century—the following:
"This," declared Sir Henry, after a long and most minute examination, "is a treasure probably unequalled in the collection at Cambridge, being the actual seal of the Vicar-General of the Carmelite order. Its date I should place at about 1150. Look well, dear, at those flower garlands; how beautifully they are engraved! Seal-making is, alas! to-day a lost art. We have only crude and heavy attempts. The company seal seems to-day the only thing the engraver can turn out—those machines which emboss upon a big red wafer." And his busy fingers were continuously feeling the great circular bronze matrix, and a moment afterwards its sulphur-cast.
He was an enthusiastic antiquary, and long ago, in the days when the world was light, had read papers before the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House upon mediaeval seals and upon the early Latin codices. Nowadays, however, Gabrielle acted as his eyes; and so devoted was she to her father that she took a keen interest in his dry-as-dust hobbies, so that after his long tuition she could decipher and read a twelfth-century Latin manuscript, on its scrap of yellow, crinkled parchment, and with all its puzzling abbreviations, almost as well as any professor of palaeography at the universities, while inscriptions upon Gothic seals were to her as plain as a paragraph in a newspaper. More than once, white-haired, spectacled professors who came to Glencardine as her father's guests were amazed at her intelligent conversation upon points which were quite abstruse. Indeed, she had no idea of the remarkable extent of her own antiquarian knowledge, all of it gathered from the talented man whose affliction had kept her so close at his side.
For quite an hour her father fingered the three seal-impressions, discussing them with her in the language of a savant. She herself examined them minutely and expressed opinions. Now and then she glanced apprehensively to that open window. He pointed out to her where she was wrong in her estimate of the design of the circular one, explaining a technical and little-known detail concerning the seals of the Carmelite order.
From the window a cool breath of the night-wind came in, fanning the curtains and carrying with it the sweet scent of the flowers without.
"How refreshing!" exclaimed the old man, drawing in a deep breath. "The night is very close, Gabrielle, dear. I fear we shall have thunder."
"There was lightning only a moment ago," explained the girl. "Shall I put the casts into your collection, dad?"
"Yes, dear. Moyes no doubt intends that I should keep them."
Gabrielle rose, and, passing across to a large cabinet with many shallow drawers, she opened one, displaying a tray full of casts of seals, each neatly arranged, with its inscription and translation placed beneath, all in her own clear handwriting.
Some of the drawers contained the matrices as well as the casts; but as matrices of mediaeval seals are rarities, and seldom found anywhere save in the chief public museums, it is no wonder that the bulk of private collections consist of impressions.
Presently, at the Baronet's suggestion, she closed and locked the cabinet, and then took up a bundle of business documents, which she commenced to sort out and arrange.
She acted as her father's private secretary, and therefore knew much of his affairs. But many things were to her a complete mystery, be it said. Though devoted to her father, she nevertheless sometimes became filled with a vague suspicion that the source of his great income was not altogether an open and honest one. The papers and letters she read to him often contained veiled information which sorely puzzled her, and which caused her many hours of wonder and reflection. Her father lived alone, with only her as companion. Her stepmother, a young, good-looking, and giddy woman, never dreamed the truth.
What would she do, how would she act, Gabrielle wondered, if ever she gained sight of some of those private papers kept locked in the cavity beyond the black steel door concealed by the false bookcase at the farther end of the fine old restful room?
The papers she handled had been taken from the safe by Sir Henry himself. And they contained a man's secret.
In the spreading dawn the house party had returned from Connachan and had ascended to their rooms, weary with the night's revelry, the men with shirt-fronts crumpled and ties awry, the women with hair disordered, and in some cases with flimsy skirts torn in the mazes of the dance. Yet all were merry and full of satisfaction at what one young man from town had declared to be "an awfully ripping evening." All retired at once—all save the hostess and one of her male guests, the man who had entered the library by stealth earlier in the evening and had called Gabrielle outside.
Lady Heyburn and her visitor, James Flockart, had managed to slip away from the others, and now stood together in the library, into which the grey light of dawn was at that moment slowly creeping.
He drew up one of the blinds to admit the light; and there, away over the hills beyond, the glen showed the red flush that heralded the sun's coming. Then, returning to where stood the young and attractive woman in pale pink chiffon, with diamonds on her neck and a star in her fair hair, he looked her straight in the face and asked, "Well, and what have you decided?"
She raised her eyes to his, but made no reply. She was hesitating.
The gems upon her were heirlooms of the Heyburn family, and in that grey light looked cold and glassy. The powder and the slight touch of carmine upon her cheeks, which at night had served to heighten her beauty, now gave her an appearance of painted artificiality. She was undeniably a pretty woman, and surely required no artificial aids to beauty. About thirty-three, yet she looked five years younger; while her husband was twenty years senior to herself. She still retained a figure so girlish that most people took her for Gabrielle's elder sister, while in the matter of dress she was admitted in society to be one of the leaders of fashion. Her hair was of that rare copper-gold tint, her features regular, with a slightly protruding chin, soft eyes, and cheeks perfect in their contour. Society knew her as a gay, reckless, giddy woman, who, regardless of the terrible affliction which had fallen upon the brilliant man who was her husband, surrounded herself with a circle of friends of the same type as herself, and who thoroughly enjoyed her life regardless of any gossip or of the malignant statements by women who envied her.
Men were fond of "Winnie Heyburn," as they called her, and always voted her "good fun." They pitied poor Sir Henry; but, after all, he was blind, and preferred his hobbies of collecting old seals and dusty parchment manuscripts to dances, bridge-parties, theatres, aero shows at Ranelagh, and suppers at the Carlton or Savoy.
Like most wealthy women of her type, she had a wide circle of male friends. Younger men declared her to be "a real pal," and with some of the older beaux she would flirt and be amused by their flattering speeches.
Gabrielle's mother, the second daughter of Lord Buckhurst, had been dead several years when the brilliant politician met his second wife at a garden-party at Dollis Hill. She was daughter of a man named Lambert, a paper manufacturer, who acted as political agent in the town of Bedford; and she was, therefore, essentially a country cousin. Her beauty was, however, remarked everywhere. The Baronet was struck by her, and within three months they were married at St. George's, Hanover Square, the world congratulating her upon a very excellent match. From the very first, however, the difference in the ages of husband and wife proved a barrier. Ere the honeymoon was over she found that her husband, tied by his political engagements and by his eternal duties at the House, was unable to accompany her out of an evening; hence from the very first they had drifted apart, until, eight months later, the terrible affliction of blindness fell upon him.
For a time this drew her back to him. She was his constant and dutiful companion everywhere, leading him hither and thither, and attending to his wants; but very soon the tie bored her, and the attractions of society once again proved too great. Hence for the past nine years—Gabrielle being at school, first at Eastbourne and afterwards at Amiens—she had amused herself and left her husband to his dry-as-dust hobbies and the loneliness of his black and sunless world.
The man who had just put that curious question to her was perhaps her closest friend. To her he owed everything, though the world was in ignorance of the fact. That they were friends everybody knew. Indeed, they had been friends years ago in Bedford, before her marriage, for James was the only son of the Reverend Henry Flockart, vicar of one of the parishes in the town. People living in Bedford recollected that the parson's son had turned out rather badly, and had gone to America. But a year or two after that the quiet-mannered old clergyman had died, the living had been given to a successor, and Bedford knew the name of Flockart no more. After Winifred's marriage, however, London society—or rather a gay section of it—became acquainted with James Flockart, who lived at ease in his pretty bachelor-rooms in Half-Moon Street, and who soon gathered about him a large circle of male acquaintances. Sir Henry knew him, and raised no objection to his wife's friendship towards him. They had been boy and girl together; therefore what more natural than that they should be friends in later life?
In her schooldays Gabrielle knew practically nothing of this man; but now she had returned to be her father's companion she had met him, and had bitter cause to hate both him and Lady Heyburn. It was her own secret. She kept it to herself. She hid the truth from her father—from every one. She watched closely and in patience. One day she would speak and tell the truth. Until then, she resolved to keep to herself all that she knew.
"Well?" asked the man with the soft-pleated shirt-front and white waistcoat smeared with cigarette-ash. "What have you decided?" he asked again.
"I've decided nothing," was her blank answer.
"But you must. Don't be a silly fool," he urged. "You've surely had time to think over it?"
"No, I haven't."
"The girl knows nothing. So what have you to fear?" he endeavoured to assure her.
Lady Heyburn shrugged her shoulders. "How can you prove that she knows nothing?"
"Oh, she has eyes for nobody but the old man," he laughed. "To-night is an example. Why, she wouldn't come to Connachan, even though she knew that Walter was there. She preferred to spend the evening here with her father."
"She's a little fool, of course, Jimmy," replied the woman in pink; "but perhaps it was as well that she didn't come. I hate to have to chaperon the chit. It makes me look so horribly old."
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