The Lonely Bride - Fred M. White - ebook

The Lonely Bride ebook

Fred M White

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Opis

The Lonely Bride has it all: money, murder and marriages made / broken out of blackmail. All events revolve around the desired bachelor, Stephen Rice. His millionaire father wants to hand over his business to his son. Poor Grace was blackmailed by marrying a terrible person, Stephen Rice, then she tries to find ways to get out of it, but every undone burden will also be connected with a terrible secret.

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Liczba stron: 562

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Contents

Chapter I. 'Twixt Love and Duty

Chapter II. The Message

Chapter III. The Pearl Stud

Chapter IV. The Scarlet Letter

Chapter V. A Broken Reed

Chapter VI. Lost

Chapter VII. A Lesson in Drawing

Chapter VIII. A Silver Cigarette Case

Chapter IX. In the Ruins

Chapter X. The Voice in the Night

Chapter XI. The Lamp Goes Out

Chapter XII. The Painted Lady

Chapter XIII. Friend or Enemy?

Chapter XIV. A Blank Cover

Chapter XV. The Empty House

Chapter XVI. A Warning

Chapter XVII. No Sign

Chapter XVIII. The Voice Speaks Again

Chapter XIX. A New Ally

Chapter XX. Rice Is Generous

Chapter XXI. Rice Repents

Chapter XXII. In Peril of Her Life

Chapter XXIII. Called Home

Chapter XXIV. A Fresh Clue

Chapter XXV. A Darker Tragedy Still

Chapter XXVI. An Unexpected Danger

Chapter XXVII. A Friendly Foe

Chapter XXVIII. A Run on the Bank

Chapter XXIX. The Doctor's Evidence

Chapter XXX. Where the Bottle Came From

Chapter XXXI. The Unexpected Guest

Chapter XXXII. Struck Down

Chapter XXXIII. Coals of Fire

Chapter XXXIV. Forced to Speak

Chapter XXXV. The Turn of the Screw

Chapter XXXVI. Vanished

Chapter XXXVII. A Sorry Homecoming

Chapter XXXVIII. More Light

Chapter XXXIX. The Writing On The Wall

Chapter XL. A Plea for Mercy

Chapter XLI. Anstey Hears the Truth

Chapter XLII. Nearing the End

Chapter XLIII. The Last Link

I. ‘TWIXT LOVE AND DUTY

It was peaceful and quiet now under the trees by the brookside, a typical English landscape, reminding one of Tennyson’s “Haunt of Ancient Peace.” From the far side of the fields came the call of the birds and the bleating of lambs. The woods hardly moved, they seemed to be sleeping under the perfect arch of the summer sky. And yet the two young people lingering there did not seem so perfectly attuned to the spot as one might have expected. It did not demand a keen eye to see that they were lovers, or that something had come between them. Not that there was any suggestion of a quarrel in the air, for the girl lay back against the young man’s shoulder, and his arm was caressingly wound about her waist. There was a shadow of some haunting trouble lurking in Grace Anstey’s clear grey eyes, a somewhat moody frown knitted Max Graham’s brows. They were absolutely alone there, little chance was there of any interruption, so that it was possible to speak freely.

“I cannot understand it at all,” Max Graham was saying. “Ever since I have known you–and that is a great many years now–it has always seemed to me that I was a favorite with your father rather than otherwise. What has he got against me, Grace? It is not that I have done anything wrong, it is not as if there was anything against my moral character. And yet of late I feel as if I were an intruder every time that I come to the bank house. And since my uncle died and left me that legacy I have looked forward to the time when I could see your father and ask his consent to our marriage. Am I not justified in resenting this treatment? It is only a year since your father told mine that he would like nothing better than to see a match arranged between ourselves. And now––”

“Do not ask me,” Grace replied. “I am as much puzzled as yourself. I would not tell anybody but you, my dearest Max, but my father is a changed man lately. You know how sunny-tempered he always has been, and how kind he has ever proved himself to be. And yet now he hardly speaks; he has strange fits of irritability. I am quite sure that he is seriously frightened about something.”

“Does he ever mention me?” Max asked.

“Yes,” Grace said. “He speaks of you as one might mention a child who is in disgrace. I am quite certain that if you went to him now he would refuse his consent to our marriage.”

There was silence for a moment or two before Graham spoke again. He looked tenderly down into the eyes of his companion.

“Heaven grant that I may be wrong,” he said, “but there is something strange here. It may be said that your father is merely the head of Anstey’s Bank, which is a small thing as such concerns go nowadays, but it must not be forgotten that the Ansteys have been people of importance for the past three hundred years. There is no family of distinction in the county into which the Ansteys have not at some time or other married. Everybody knows your father’s reputation for geniality and kindness, and yet there is no prouder man living. I confess it was a great shock to me, when I found that your father was encouraging Stephen Rice to visit the bank house. Of course, Rice is a rich man, and all that, but––”

Max shrugged his shoulders significantly. He was not given to slandering other men, and he did not wish to speak too freely of Stephen Rice, the son of a rich manufacturer at Leverton, some ten miles away.

“I detest him,” Grace said with a shudder. “That hard, bulldog face of his frightens me. He is not a gentleman, Max; he is cruel to his horses, and he bullies his servants. I have heard whispers, too, that he drinks frightfully, though I am bound to say that whenever he comes to the bank house he is very moderate.”

“He has not dared,” Max asked, “to suggest to you––”

Grace colored slightly, and shook her head. So far there had not been much the matter with Stephen Rice’s conduct, so far as she was concerned. But deep in her heart of hearts she knew that the man loved her in his dogged way, and she felt certain that he had her father’s encouragement. This was the first time that any cloud had settled upon the young girl’s happiness, and it troubled her sorely. It was uppermost in her mind now as she walked homewards, with the afternoon sunset in her face, in the direction of the bank house.

The residence of Mr. Mark Anstey was something more than the ordinary house attached to a provincial bank. In the first place, the Ansteys had been people of considerable importance for some generations. They were county people in the best sense of the word; indeed, Mark Anstey was a public institution. Reputed to be rich, charitable, benevolent, and handsome, no gathering was complete without his cheery presence. Troubled and worried as she was, Grace could not but admire her father as he stood before the fireplace in the grand old oak-panelled drawing-room awaiting his guests. He might have been some great magnate instead of a private banker. And yet the handsome face was lined and seamed with care; there was a furtive look in the grey eyes which Grace had noticed several times lately. She floated into the room attired in some soft white gown that suited her slim figure to perfection. Usually she would have gone to her father and kissed him, but there was something about him now that repelled her.

“You have been out this afternoon?” he asked. “I saw you going across the fields with Max Graham. Don’t you think it is time to put an end to that nonsense, Grace?”

Anstey did not look at his daughter as he spoke. It occurred to her that he seemed just a little ashamed of himself. The hot blood mounted to her face. The time had come to speak plainly. Mark Anstey recognised at last that his daughter was no longer a child. The girl spoke slowly and deliberately.

“I am glad you mentioned Max,” she said. “We have been talking about you this afternoon. What is it that has come between us, father? Why do you so suddenly take this violent dislike to Max? I have heard you say more than once that Max was your beau ideal of all a young man should be. You know perfectly well that Max and myself have regarded each other with affection ever since we were children. You have always given me my own way before, and I have always endeavored to repay your kindness with all my heart and soul. And now, when the whole of my life’s happiness is concerned, you deliberately––”

“Stop,” Mark Anstey cried. “I cannot permit you to speak to me like this, Grace. I have my own reasons for declining to regard Max Graham in the light of a prospective son-in-law. I have already told his father, General Graham, so.”

For the first time Mark Anstey looked fixedly at his daughter. It startled him to see how steadily that gaze was returned. It was a bit of a shock to this keen man of the world to find that his pet and plaything had suddenly become a resolute woman.

“The subject cannot be dropped here,” Grace said. “I love Max, and I have promised to be his wife. I can never care for anybody else; nothing will induce me to change my mind. Father, I am going to speak plainly to you. I am not altogether blind to the reason that brings Stephen Rice here. I do not mean to pry into your private matters, but I feel certain, that six months ago you would have laughed at the suggestion of Stephen Rice being a guest of yours.”

Anstey made no reply for a moment. He seemed to be struggling with some inward emotion. Grace could see that there was the shadow of some great trouble upon his face.

“I have my own reasons,” he said hoarsely. “Grace, did it ever occur to you that things are not exactly what they seem? We live in this big house here, we have our horses and carriages and servants, you have your dresses from Paris–in fact, we ruffle it with the best of them. And yet even greater concerns than mine have failed from time to time. Have you so soon forgotten the Swepstones? Yet they were bankers like myself, who failed, and failed so disgracefully that the head of the firm died in prison. I suppose it never occurred to you that the same thing is likely to happen to me?”

Grace looked up swiftly; all the blood had left her face. Was her father making confession, or was he only drawing a parallel? The girl could see now that Anstey’s face was as pale as her own and that his lips were twitching.

“I–have–to justify myself,” he said hoarsely. “I have borne this thing so long that I cannot keep it to myself; but we won’t go into that. Anything better than disgrace the name of Anstey.”

“It must not be disgraced,” Grace whispered. “Anything that I could do, any sacrifice in my power––”

Anstey bent and gripped his daughter by the arm. The grasp was so powerful that the girl winced before it.

“You can do everything,” Anstey said. “You can be my salvation. What I must have now is twenty thousand pounds. Unless that is procured soon, the name of Anstey will fairly reek in the nostrils of the whole countryside. Oh, I know I have been rash and foolish, but if you knew what I have gone through you would pity me. But for you, I should have ended it long ago–it only meant a pistol shot or a few grains of some deadly poison. But you can save me if you will. By holding up your right hand––”

“But how?” Grace asked. “If you mean Stephen Rice––”

“I do mean Stephen Rice,” Anstey cried. “His father is a millionaire, an old man who practically leaves the business to his son. And Stephen Rice has fallen in love with you. He is a sullen, obstinate man, who will have his own way at any cost. For your sake he is prepared to do anything I ask him. We have already talked the matter over, and on the day that you promise to become his wife Rice will advance more than sufficient money to put the old concern on its legs again and float it into the harbor of prosperity.”

Grace made no reply for a moment; she felt as if all the blood had left her body; as if some icy hand was clutching at her heart. It seemed impossible to realise that the shadows of disgrace lay so close. In a dreamy kind of way she looked about her, she took in the priceless pictures on the walls, the old silver and statuary, the thousand and one odds and ends that go to make up a luxurious and refined home. And yet here was the honored master of it all no better than a felon. It all rested in the hands of one weak woman, she had only to say one small word and the folded wings of disgrace would flutter from the house-hold. But the perjury of herself to Max, yes and the perjury of herself to Rice also, was a thought not to be endured.

“Mr. Stephen Rice,” said the butler with a startling suddenness, or so it seemed to Grace.

Rice came forward, a square, heavily-built young man, with small eyes and clean-shaven mouth, as cruel and hard as a steel trap. He did not look Grace in the face as he shook hands with her; in fact, he rarely looked anyone in the face. All the same, there was an air of quiet triumph about him that Grace secretly resented. Anstey’s manner had changed entirely, he had forced a smile to his lips, he did not look in the least now like a man with the shadow of disgrace hanging over him.

“We were just talking about you, Rice,” he said smoothly. “I was telling my daughter that there was a chance of your coming into the firm as a kind of partner.”

Grace felt the hot blood mounting to her face. She was almost grateful to the young man for not looking at her at that moment. Rice smiled a slow, cruel smile.

“I suppose you have told Miss Grace everything?” he said.

“I think so,” Grace forced herself to say. She was inwardly wondering at her own calmness. “So far as I can gather, it seems to be a partnership all round.”

The girl turned away to greet another guest who had just entered the room. Other guests followed in rapid succession until there were a dozen people in the drawing-room. It seemed to Grace that she was in the midst of some dreadful dream, from which she would wake presently. She wondered if she had not acquired the mind and brain of somebody else, so cool and collected was she. And yet this was the first sorrow that had ever troubled her young life.

But she must be an Anstey, she told herself. She must carry this thing through till the end of the long evening, and then she would have time to break down and be a very woman. She prayed for strength to endure it all; she wondered vaguely what Max would say if he knew everything.

Yes, she was getting on very well indeed. In the same calm judicial manner she paired off her dinner guests and took her place at the bottom of the table. There was no sign of care or suffering there, nothing but laughter and cheerfulness and the din of animated conversation. The well-trained servants waited softly and silently as usual, the old wine sparkled in the crystal decanters, the soft, shaded lights fell upon the banks of flowers. It seemed impossible to believe that the founder of this cheerful feast was in measurable distance of the grip of the law. Grace watched her father anxiously, she saw his gay face change to the whiteness of a table cloth, as a footman went up to him with a card on a silver salver, and information to the effect that its owner desired to see Mr. Anstey, just for a moment, on important business.

Anstey swayed, and would have fallen from his chair if Grace had not slipped from her place and caught him by the arm. Strange as it may seem, none of the guests appeared to notice that anything was wrong. Grace whispered to her father; he looked up dully.

“Go down and see this man,” he whispered hoarsely. “Tell him I will come as soon as possible. Amuse him, chatter to him, anything to give me five minutes to pull myself together. My God, to think that this blow should fall just now!”

Grace walked down the stairs of the library where the stranger awaited her. She saw a tall, thin man, with dark eyes and beard, a man in evening dress, evidently a gentleman.

“Mr. George Cattley, at your service,” he said quietly. “And you, of course, are Miss Grace Anstey.”

II. THE MESSAGE

Grace looked at the stranger with some confused idea that she had seen him before. He seemed to bring back to her recollections of her early childhood, which were in some strange way mixed up with trouble. Perhaps the man Cattley saw something of this, for there was just the suggestion of a smile on his face.

“You do not recollect me,” he said. “Have you forgotten that time some sixteen years ago when I came––”

The speaker broke off abruptly, as if conscious that he was about to betray himself. Grace waited for him to say more, but he turned the conversation adroitly and began to speak of other things. He seemed perfectly at home there; evidently the man was accustomed to good society; he seemed to wear his evening clothes with the air of a man who is accustomed to that kind of thing.

“My father will be down in a few moments,” Grace said. “We have friends to dinner to-night.”

“I am exceedingly sorry to intrude,” the stranger said, “but my business is of the most pressing importance. I presume your father was somewhat surprised to get my card.”

The speaker asked the question as if something amused him. There was just the ghost of cynical smile on his face. It was foolish, perhaps, but Grace had a kind of feeling that the coming of this man was the beginning of some fresh trouble. She had never felt more utterly foolish and self-conscious than she did at that moment. Usually the girl was not short of conversation. Five minutes dragged slowly along before Mark Anstey came into the room. At that moment the stranger was bending over a great bowl of roses on the library table and seemed quite lost in the contemplation of their beauty. He did not appear to heed Anstey’s presence, so that Grace was in a position to watch her father’s face. Its malignant expression startled her. Just for an instant there passed across Anstey’s face a perfectly murderous expression; his hands went out instinctively in the direction of his visitor. It was all gone like a flash, but it served to deepen the bad impression that was already forming in Grace’s mind. She had never dreamt that her father could look like that; she almost felt a hesitation in leaving the two men together. Anstey advanced now with outstretched hand and smiling face, and patted the stranger almost affectionately on the back. His manner was genial in the extreme.

“Ah, this is indeed a pleasant surprise, Cattley,” he said. “Fancy you turning up after all these years.”

The stranger smiled in turn, but there was the same dry cynicism on his dark features.

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