The Law of the Land - Fred M. White - ebook

The Law of the Land ebook

Fred M White

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A week ago, Ralph Kingsmill, a poor, struggling author, with one or two minor successes on his account, lived a miserable life. He had his debts, hunger looked into his face. However, suddenly life brought him everything that a person could want. But how could such a miracle happen?

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Contents

The Cup Of Happiness

Dashed From His Lips

The Long Night

Where?

“And That Way Madness Lies”

A Claimant To The Throne

An Injured Innocent

Dick To The Rescue

The Law Of The Land

The Syren

A Tiny Thread

A Double Life

A Touch Of Nature

Where Is The Man?

Inside The House

A Warm Reception

A Note Of Alarm

The Poison Works

Playing The Game

A Neat Stratagem

At Her Gates

Warp And Woof

Fencing

A Strange Message

Drawing The Net

Catching The Trout

Barca Climbs Down

A Full Confession

Balm In Gilead

Dick’s Story

I. THE CUP OF HAPPINESS

Ralph Kingsmill drew a deep breath as he looked around. It seemed life had suddenly brought him all that man could desire. In his waking dreams he had pictured this, never hoping to see it realised. And now it had all come to him in most unexpected fashion. A week before and what had he been? A poor, struggling author, with one or two minor successes to his credit, burning with unsatisfied ambition, strong at one moment, lamentably weak the next; in short, a brilliantly clever man, cursed with the temperament that usually goes with the artistic faculty. He had had his debts and his dissolute companions, he had known a full pocket and a purse so lean that starvation had stared him in the face. The sordid side was the more painful, agonising, because Ralph had known the luxury of a refined home, and was an old public schoolboy.

More than once he had fallen very low indeed–in moments of despair nothing seemed to matter. But he could not quite crush self-respect and the feeling that he was born to better things. Nor had he ever crossed the borderland from which no traveller can return unscathed. He was wildly, even hysterically, glad of it when he had realised what the wand of fortune had done for him.

He stood up in the pride of his six feet of splendid manhood, his passionate brown eyes bedewed with moisture. The spirit of the athlete still burned within him. And here–almost incredible though it was–was the chance that he had dreamt of.

He might wake presently and find he had been dreaming. But the fine old house was real enough; so were the Elizabethan furniture, the pictures and the plate, the glorious gardens and the park with the historic oaks beyond. And all this was Ralph’s, with a good eight thousand pounds a year to dress the part.

How had it all come about? Well, the thing was simple. Every day one hears stories of large fortunes left to comparative beggars, and Ralph’s was a case in point. Abbey Close had belonged to a literary misanthrope, who knew nobody and boasted that he had not a single relation in the world. He sneered at everything sentimental, and yet his very loneliness was the outcome of an unrequited attachment years before. And one day there came in his way a short poem of Ralph’s which touched a hidden chord. Ralph had written it from his heart after some mad dissipation. But the owner of Abbey Close did not know that, and thought he recognised a kindred spirit. It would be fine to leave all his money and property to the writer of that poem. The thing was done. Doubtless it would have been undone again in a fortnight, had not a sharp attack of pneumonia cut Mr. Ripley off, and Ralph, to his astonishment, found himself in possession of the Close. Strange things had happened before to-day.

So here it was all for Ralph to do as he liked with. At that particular moment no selfish thoughts were occupying his attention. He was thinking of Enid Charteris. It was a curious coincidence that Charteris Park, the seat of Sir Charles Charteris, Enid’s father, should be situated not four miles from Abbey Close. And Ralph had adored her ever since the night when he had met the girl at a reception in Grosvenor-square. Pretty low as he had fallen, there were times when Ralph accepted the invitations of his father’s old friends, and was tempted to “revisit the pale glimpses of the moon.” How well he recalled the glorious July night now.

And Enid? Well, Ralph was handsome, and as to his brilliant intellect there could be no doubt. The young people had met many times, when Enid’s lovely face would flush and mantle, and there was something in her blue eyes that told Ralph a tender story. But he had never spoken; he was too proud for that.

Now everything was changed. He had hoped to tell Enid of his good fortune, but others had been before him, and she had written him a little note of congratulation. Could she come and advise him as to the ordering of his new house? And so Enid was coming; coming alone, too, for one of her charms was her easy unconventionality. She would be here in a few moments, the sunshine of her presence would fill the rooms.

Oh! the setting was worthy of the jewel; the charming Tudor drawing-room, with its old furniture and display of flowers, was a picture in itself. A priceless set of old silverware stood on the tea-table. Ralph started as a shadow flitted across the room. His face lost its eager expression for a moment.

“I am disturbing you,” the figure said, “and I know how you dislike to be interrupted during your hours of inspiration. However, I am not going to stay more than a moment, and then I will leave you to yourself for the rest of the day. Upon my word, the longer I stay here the more I envy you. After all, there is something in luck, though most men who have attained fortune seem to think otherwise.”

Ralph smiled as he looked around him, his eye filled with beauty in whichever direction he glanced.

“I suppose I ought to consider myself very fortunate,” he said, “and, indeed, as yet I can hardly believe that it is true. I was not seeking inspiration just now so much as dwelling–”

But the other man had vanished. Indeed, he had gone so softly that Ralph had not heard the sound of a footfall. That was a thing about his friend that he rather disliked. He had the gift of appearing and disappearing in this fashion, painfully suggestive of eavesdropping.

“Now, do I like that man or do I not?” Ralph mused to himself. “At any rate, he is a link with the past, which I must get rid of sooner or later. I should not care to have him about me very much. Later, when Enid–”

Ralph broke off abruptly and his face coloured slightly. He noted, with surprise, that the other man was in the room again, just as if he had the gift of making himself invisible at will. A feeling of irritation gripped Ralph.

“I thought you had gone, Barca,” he said. “Have you forgotten something?”

The man addressed as Barca shook his head. He was a small, dark man, with a pleasant smile and brown eyes hidden behind gold rimmed glasses. Despite his name, Barca was English to his finger tips. Nobody quite knew who he was or where he came from; he was a doctor by profession, and his friends foretold a great future for him. Why he was staying a day or two at Abbey Close, Ralph would have been puzzled to say. But Barca had his own way of managing these things.

“It is nothing,” he said, “I have found what I required. I am going as far as Stonehouse and shall not be back before dinner. A most interesting operation on an old follow student of mine. I had the telegram a little time ago. If I am late, do not wait for me.”

Ralph looked relieved. Perhaps Barca noticed the expression, for he smiled slightly. Just for a moment his brown eyes flashed like electric points of flame. Ralph wondered why he had asked this keen-witted, hard little man of the world at the very time when he most desired to be alone.

“Very good,” he said. “If you are late I will see that some dinner is kept for you.”

Barca departed whistling, but when alone he laughed quietly, and his eyes flashed again. There was a snarl on his lips a greedy cautious look on his face. Once more he smiled as he saw the solitary figure of a horsewoman coming along the drive.

“A pretty romance,” he said to himself. “A pity to spoil it! And yet here is the opportunity of my lifetime. That dreamer has everything, I nothing. Well, well. Richard Barca is not going to starve whilst Ralph Kingsmill is wallowing in plenty.”

The rider came slowly up to the house; a groom appeared from somewhere and took her horse. She made her way into the old panelled hall; her blue eyes took in the old pictures, and the trophies, the piled up ferns and flowers. Enid was glad that Ralph loved flowers; it was another bond of sympathy between them. Ralph was standing at the drawing-room door now with a tender smile on his face; Enid flushed a delicate pink in response. For a long time Ralph held her hands in his.

“This is all I wanted to make my pleasure complete,” he said tenderly. “I was half afraid lest something should detain you at the last moment–”

“You will not think me dreadfully unconventional,” Enid said, with an unsteady laugh. “My father half promised to come, but business prevented him. Of course, I ought not to be here at all. How shocked some of our old friends would be! But curiosity was too strong for me, and–I came.”

Ralph thrilled to his finger-tips. Tender words rose to his lips. He talked indifferently enough as Enid lay back in the depths of an old beehive chair and sipped her tea. She was so full of sweetness and easy sympathy, and listened to all that Ralph had to say with a flush of pleasure on her dainty face. She seemed to feel exactly as he did. Ralph came over to her side and took her empty cup away. He could see the gleam of her pearly teeth and catch the fragrance of her chestnut hair.

“What a wonderful gift of sympathy you have,” he said at length. “It was the first thing I noticed in you the night we met in Grosvenor-square...Let me tell you a secret, Enid. I went there to get a meal. My fortunes were at their lowest ebb that night. I had less money in my pocket than the Junior footman. It was a case of Chatterton over again. And then I met you. As I walked home I seemed to have new hope and courage. We met again and again, till I was almost afraid to see you. I was afraid that I should tell you the truth. And I feel that in some way you divined my feelings, Enid.”

The girl’s golden head was bent for a moment; Ralph could see the rosy pink flushing to the roots of her hair. Then the delicate creamy face was lifted to his glance.

“I–I think so,” Enid almost whispered. “I–I seemed to understand. And I admired you for your pride and reticence. Still, that is all over now.”

“All over, thank God,” Ralph said, with a deep thrill in his voice. “I don’t know what I have done to deserve this good fortune, Enid. I meant to win it by my own unaided efforts, and lay it all at your feet. But fate decided for me otherwise. And I have not been all that I should; I have fallen pretty low at times. But that is past and gone. In the future my life is to be worthy. I am getting to love this place as one who possesses a soul in him to love the beautiful, but there is something lacking. My darling, will you come into my life and fill the void? I need not tell you that I love you–I am certain that you have known that for a long time.”

“Why should I deny it?” Enid cried. “It seemed so hopeless at one time. I knew that so long as you were poor you would never speak. I will be more candid still, and own that I–I pictured something like this as I rode here to-day. You will not think that my confession–”

“No, no,” Ralph exclaimed. “There is no need for more. Enid, say you love me and will be my wife.”

Ralph’s whole soul was shining in his eyes; he could see the love-light reflected on Enid’s face, flushed and rosy with a new strange happiness. With a sudden impulse the girl rose and placed both her hands in his. Ralph drew her to him, and pressed his lips passionately to hers. There was a long, delicious silence. Outside the sun was shining gloriously, and a blackbird piped madly in the big cedar on the lawn. Then Enid drew herself gently away, and her clear blue eyes sought Ralph’s brown ones.

“I love you, dearest,” she said quietly. “Nothing can alter that fact. I am going to give myself to you as Ruth did, till the end comes. But there is nobody else, Ralph; tell me that there has never been anybody else? Do not think me unreasonably jealous, but you are the only man I ever cared for, and I should like to know that, that–”

“You are the only girl,” Ralph laughed. “Passing fancies, perhaps, but no more. I swear to you, Enid, that all that is in me belongs to you. Will that suffice?”

Enid’s smooth cheek lay close to that of her lover. She could not know that at that very moment he was thinking of another pair of blue eyes just as deep and tender. But that episode was closed; the page was turned down. And Enid would never know. Surely, he had never cared for any girl as he did for that one who lay nestled up to his heart now?

II. DASHED FROM HIS LIPS

“I might ask you the same question,” Ralph said playfully, after a long pause. “Are you quite sure, darling, that I am the only man?”

“Passing fancies,” Enid said with a little laugh. “Of course, I have met men that I liked. At one time it was Stephen Holt. I fancy you met him at the Ronald-Claytons. He used to be at Eton with my brother. But I am talking nonsense, Ralph. Still, it is good for me to lie in your arms and tell you these things.”

“I know the man,” Ralph said. Try as he would, he could not keep a little hardness out of his voice. “I had forgotten that your brother and Holt were friends. We were all at Eton together, as a matter of fact. I have met Holt recently. Where is he now?”

There was anxiety in the question, but Enid did not seem to notice it.

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