The Mystery of Crocksands - Fred M. White - ebook

The Mystery of Crocksands ebook

Fred M White

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Opis

Already by the name it becomes clear that this story contains many secrets and mystics. All events revolve around Miss Ellen Marchant, confidential clerk and typist to James Melrose. Mr. James Melrose, the eminent head and only partner in the firm of Melrose and Clapstone. Her father was rich, everyone knew that he led the „"dark"” affairs. He had a large Crocksands estate that Ellen could get. She gave up everything that connected with her surname and decided to start a new life with a new job. However, she finds a letter from a dead father sent to her boss.

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Liczba stron: 264

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER I

The spirit of Spring was in the air. Out in the parks the lilac hung in fringed tassels of pallid mauve and feathery white, and filled the air with its fragrance. Even there, in the dusty desolation of Martin’s Inn, with its dreary old houses given over to the law and a monotony all its own, the sun was shining through the dusty windows and mocking the clerks and typists chained there with no thought beyond the task of the hour. In the square a dingy sycamore, with blackened, smoke-grimed trunk, was struggling into leaf; a warm wind drifted languidly from the west; and the girl in the small office behind that of her employer, Mr. James Melrose, the eminent head and only partner in the firm of Melrose and Clapstone, had allowed her thoughts to wander for moment.

Very good to look at was Miss Ellen Marchant, confidential clerk and typist to James Melrose. Certain clients outside the dull routine of city conventions would glance at her and wonder what so dainty and refined a girl was doing there. For she was quite young, not more than twenty-three at the outside, with a complexion of ivory and delicate rose, and a throat like milk, rising from a neck like a tall lily in the morning mist.

She had stumbled upon those letters quite by accident when looking for something else. And the sight of her dead father’s handwriting after all these years had strangely affected her. Of course, she knew that in the days of Gordon Bland’s prosperity he had occasionally enlisted the services of James Melrose in his professional capacity–indeed, Melrose and Clapstone had represented the family of Bland for generations; but here was a suggestion of a matter that had all the flavour of a sacred confidence about it. How, then, had these private papers found their way into an ancient deed-box pushed away into a dusty, almost forgotten cupboard?

In the office beyond James Melrose was closeted with a client of importance, and Ellen could hear the drone of their voices. A door opened and closed presently, and Ellen knew that her employer was alone. With her head held slightly high she walked into the sacred precincts and laid her packet on the table.

“I have just found these, Mr. Melrose,” she said. “They were with a pile of papers of no consequence. They appear to be letters written by my father to my mother at a time when–I mean when they were not on very good terms, private letters, which––”

“Quite so, Miss Bland–I mean Miss Marchant,” Melrose murmured. “Criminal carelessness on the part of somebody, no doubt. I will lock them up in my private safe.”

Ellen was always ‘Miss Marchant’ to the client and the office staff, and nobody in the establishment had the least idea of her real identity. None guessed that she was the only daughter of the late Gordon Bland, of Belgrave-square, and at one time, next in succession to the historic estate called Crocksands Abbey, in North Devon.

There were plenty of folk ready to smile cynically at the idea of that brilliant rascal Chris. Wrath, making a fortune in Australia, or anywhere else for that matter, and who hinted pretty broadly that he could say a good deal about the tragic and mysterious death of Gordon Bland, which had occurred on Wrath’s yacht in the Mediterranean off Monte Carlo; but, of course, this was so much scandal, and only spoken of in clubs and such places where Bland’s own intimates foregathered and spoke regretfully of the fine fellow who was nobody’s enemy but his own. Still, there was no getting away from the fact that Gordon Bland committed suicide, or was drowned, as Wrath said, in the nick of time to save himself from a disgraceful prosecution for fraud and forgery, and, therefore, Wrath came into the title and family property, a circumstance which would have caused old Sir George Bland-Merton to turn in his grave had he only known it.

All this had happened two years ago, and now Ellen Bland, in the name of Marchant, was a typist to James Melrose, the solicitor to the family. She had practically no relations. Her father had been the last of the line; and Crocksands Abbey could only come to her by will, and only then if her father had lived. But he was long since dead, and Christopher Wrath reigned in his stead. So she had decided to put her pride in her pocket and get her own living. When she had mastered shorthand and typewriting she had gone to Melrose and asked for employment in his office on her merits, merely stipulating that the old name should be dropped, and after some hesitation Melrose had consented. Whereby he secured the best secretary he had ever had, and the secret was faithfully kept.

There was one man who knew, and he was the last in the world to betray his knowledge. This was old Peter Gabb, an aged clerk long past work, and honestly entitled to his pension which Melrose practically gave him, though he came to the office still under the impression that the business of the firm could not do without him, a delusion that James Melrose did nothing to dispel, for Gabb had been a faithful clerk in his day, and he did no harm in Martin’s Inn. He was a queer, dry old man, a deep repository of office secrets; and he had his own reasons for his affection for Ellen. From the first she had lodged with Peter and his wife at Dalston, and as a rule he and she went home together at nights. But never yet had he hinted at any knowledge of the girl’s secret, and it was sure that Mrs. Gabb had never been taken into his confidence. At the very moment that Ellen was discussing the matter of those letters, Peter Gabb was making frantic search for them. But this Ellen was not destined to learn for some time to come.

“I am so sorry to trouble you, Mr. Melrose,” Ellen said. “I mentioned it on the spur of the moment. But if you don’t mind, as these letters refer to no particular business, and are from my father to my mother, I should like to keep them.”

“Um! rather unusual, perhaps,” Melrose said, “I remember. Still, you can keep the letters if you like, Miss Ellen.”

Melrose spoke abruptly, as he generally did when alluding to his deceased partner Clapstone, for there had been much that was bad and wrong in Clapstone, and after his death it had taken Melrose all his time and the greater part of his fortune to put the old firm on its high footing again. Even now queer things were constantly cropping up, in the way of shady clients who levied something like blackmail on Melrose, and they came from all parts of the country.

“Thank you very much,” Ellen said. “It is only a matter of silly sentiment, perhaps, but I should like to keep those letters. I think you knew my mother well, Mr. Melrose?”

“From childhood,” Melrose said, a little gruffly. “By all means keep the letters. You might tell Gabb that I am ready to see those conditions of sale from Minter and Sons.”

It was the man of business speaking now, and Ellen hastened away, quite the confidential clerk again. In the outer office Gabb was pottering about, after his way, with an assumption of energy that always amused Ellen. He was a little, spare man, with bent shoulders and features like a dried walnut, and his faded, tired eyes still had a certain shrewdness of their own. He seemed somewhat alert as Ellen delivered her message, then his whole aspect changed as he noted the parcel of letters in the girl’s hand.

“Where did you get those from?” he asked, angrily. “If papers are wanted from the stock-room it is my work to hunt them up. I have been looking for those myself. Hand them over.”

“I think not,” Ellen said, coldly, for she had never heard the old man speak like that before. “I found them quite by accident, and Mr. Melrose knows it. Besides, in a way they belong to me. I–I can’t explain, Peter, but I assure you––”

Peter Gabb looked furtively around, it was as if he had something on his mind that he did not want any one to share. The office was empty, save for him and his companion, but he dropped his voice to a thrilling whisper.

“Let me have them, dearie,” he coaxed, “Let old Peter have them. They will only trouble you and make you unhappy; but I understand, yes, I understand, and in time, old as I am–look here, miss, I’ll be quite candid. I know those are letters from your mother, and when I found them––”

“Then you know,” Ellen exclaimed. “My secret is no secret so far as you are concerned. How long since, and how many more––”

“Only myself and Mr. Melrose,” the old man went on; “and I guessed it from the likeness to your father. Ah, a rare good friend he was to me in the old days when he came here on business and before he ran through all his money. But the Blands were always like that. And the first time you came into this office I knew. And I was an honoured man when you came under my roof. I wouldn’t tell you this now if you hadn’t found the papers I laid aside for a moment after only coming on them myself an hour ago. Like fate it was. But as you value your future happiness, Miss Ellen, leave those to me for the present. They shall go to Dalston with us this evening, and when the proper time comes you shall come into your own again. If––”

Acting on an impulse wholly illogical, Ellen held out the papers to Gabb, and as he hastily stuffed them into his pocket a junior clerk bustled into the room. He held a card in his hand.

“Sir Christopher Wrath wants to see the governor,” he said.

“Ask him to sit down,” Gabb mumbled, with a strange light in his eyes. “Give him something to read, give him prussic acid, give him any deadly poison. What am I talking about? Sometimes my poor head gets that queer I don’t know what I am saying. Tell Sir Christopher that he shall see Mr. Melrose immediately.”

The clerk, with a wink at Ellen, disappeared from the room, and Gabb collapsed into a chair.

“The hand of Providence,” he murmured. “All in God’s time.”

CHAPTER II

The City office of a respectable family solicitor is hardly the place to find mystery and romance, and Ellen Bland went back to her own room with her head in a whirl. No doubt Peter would explain all in good time; meanwhile the mystery remained. Why had he been so madly keen on retaining those letters, and why had he spoken so strangely when Sir Christopher Wrath’s name was mentioned. The man who more or less had ousted Ellen from the succession of Crocksands Abbey was a client of her employer’s, though she had never known him to come to the office before. Not that it was any business of hers so long as Wrath knew nothing of her identity. But why did Peter Gabb hate him so, and what did he mean, by his allusion to what might happen in God’s good time? Why had the placid air of Martin’s Inn so suddenly become charged with electricity?

All this was still uppermost in Ellen’s mind as she put on her hat presently and went out to lunch. As she turned into the quiet place just off Carey-street where she usually ate her modest meal, she was conscious of a young man coming in her direction. He smiled something more than a welcome as he swept off his hat and showed a set of even white teeth in a face singularly open and honest, and tanned with the brown of a hard, open-air life. He was beautifully turned out, and his grey tweeds fitted him to perfection. He looked just a little out of place in the City.

“Now this is really jolly, Miss Marchant,” he smiled. “Backed a winner this morning, don’t you know, what?”

If Rollo Bly was under the impression that he had conveyed to his companion that a chance meeting had materialised he was pleasantly deceiving himself, for this sort of thing happened too often for that. Still, Ellen had not encountered Bly for over a month now, so that her greeting was a little more cordial than usual. Rollo Bly was one of the fortunate youths blessed with a more than sufficiency of this world’s goods, and James Melrose had at one time been his trustee, so that he came occasionally to the office in Martin’s Inn, hence his acquaintance with Ellen. She liked him well enough for his transparent honesty and his charming manners, but she rather despised his idle, butterfly life, and regarded him as a modern product not particularly gifted in the way of brains. Still, it was good to see some one connected with her old world again.

“Just going to peck a bit,” Bly explained in his breezy way. “Had to trickle into the good old City on business–what? So, as we are both going the same way home, and all that, I thought perhaps we might sit at the same table, what?”

There was almost a plea behind the casual suggestion, and an entreaty in Bly’s blue eyes that Ellen could not resist. And the magic of spring was in the air. That he would not offer to pay for her lunch Ellen knew–he had done that once before, and the lesson had not been wasted. That this young man with the fine connections and ample fortune was deeply in love with her Ellen did not realise–he was merely a nice young man with the instincts of his class making himself agreeable to a typist in the City. She had a good deal to learn yet, had Ellen.

Still, it was good to be there with one of her own class, and read the frank admiration in his eyes, and note the air of deference he paid her. They sat talking for quite a long time over their coffee until Ellen realised with a start that her hour was up.

“You are not living in London now?” she asked, as they walked out together. “Somehow you look like the country.”

“Right on the target,” Bly cried. “Fact is, I am spending the summer with a friend in Devonshire. Chap gassed in the jolly old war, and only just pulling round. With me on the French front over three years, and one of the best. He’s got a sort of summer house-bungalow affair in the grounds of a place called Crocksands Abbey that he got hold of before the war, and the new landlord, Sir Christopher Wrath, can’t rout him out. Awful bounder, Wrath, but one of these days, if I’m not altogether a fool–but that’s another story, as good old Kipling says. Regular paradise of a place the bungalow, in the most glorious scenery. I suppose you don’t happen to know that part of North Devon, Miss Marchant?”

Ellen stammered something by way of reply. The whole world seemed to be shouting about her beloved Devon this bright spring morning. Those letters, the visit of Sir Christopher Wrath to Martin’s Inn, and now here was Bly actually living under the shadow of the lovely old house where she had spent some of the happiest days of her life, when her grandfather was alive, and her parents were on one of their long trips around the world before the trouble had arisen and the sinister misunderstanding shown itself.

There was a mist before Ellen’s eyes as Rollo Bly talked on in his simple way of the glories of Crocksands and the bungalow on the wooded headland overlooking the sea. She could see every inch it as he spoke–the sloping park trending down to the bay, the green banks where the primroses made a carpet in the Spring. There were times when she positively ached for Crocksands, that fair domain that was to have been hers, and would have been had her father lived, for Crocksands, though entail property, was to have been barred of its entail, and Gordon Bland could have done what he liked with it. But then he had died before that happened, disgraced, and now the man called Sir Christopher Wrath reigned in his stead.

Her mind was full of that fair picture as she wended her way back to Martin’s Inn presently, and she had said good-bye to Bly. He had held her hand a little longer than necessary, and had wondered, sentimentally, when he would see her again. It made Ellen smile, but, all the same, there was a little warm glow about her heart and a nice feeling that she had a friend there.

She was still dreaming about Crocksands and the wonderful afterglow of the sunsets over the western ocean as she arrived at Dalston that evening with Peter Gabb by her side. The little mean street, with its shabby houses all exactly alike, looked more depressing and sordid than ever in the evening mist. Then there was the frugal meal and the putting to bed of Peter Gabb’s more or less bedridden wife. It was only when she was safely bestowed away for the night that Peter lighted his pipe and laid the packet of letters on the sitting room table under the shaded lamp.

“Now we can talk,” he said. “I didn’t mean to speak yet, Miss Ellen, not yet. But I have known ever since you came into the office. No mistaking your father’s daughter–no, no. And a good friend to me and my dear wife he was in the old days. And when they told me as Mr. Gordon Bland had gone and disgraced his name I laughed. And why? Because I knew something. Ay, there’s few secrets in the firm of Melrose and Clapstone as I don’t know. Been a faithful servant, too. That’s why they let me hang about the office, so as not to hurt my feelings and make me delude myself as I am earning my money. But I don’t do anybody any harm, and I look for a thing as Mr. Melrose says don’t exist. And I know better. A good man, Mr. Melrose, and a gentleman. Nearly ruined by his rascally partner, Clapstone, he was, but he pulled through and saved the old firm, and nobody any the wiser but me. And Christopher Wrath–Sir Christopher he is now–was at the bottom of it all. When his friends and relations thought he was safe in Australia he was in the city under an assumed name, and wanted by the police. I know, I know. And one night, three years ago, when I fell asleep and was locked in the office after they had all gone, I saw Mr. Clapstone and Wrath––”

Gabb had been maundering on with his head sunk on his breast and his fingers in his sparse, grey hair before he sat up suddenly and regarded Ellen with a sudden shrewdness in his eyes.

“But we’ll come to that presently,” he said. “I shall get to the bottom of the damned conspiracy before I die. I believe that’s what Providence is keeping me alive for, Miss Ellen. And just as I found what I have been looking for all these years you stumble on it, too, and find it where I had placed it for safe keeping only this very morning. And so you forced my hand, as it were.”

“But those are my father’s letters to my mother, Peter,” Ellen protested. “How they got into the office––”

“Well I can tell you that, anyway,” Peter mumbled. “It was Christopher Wrath who made all the mischief between your father and mother. Your lady mother came near to marrying that scamp at one time. Very fond of him she was, surely. But her mother stopped that, and Wrath went away to Australia in disgrace. I’ll tell you the whole story some time. Then Wrath comes back from Australia, as he said, with money and his own yacht, though it was only hired, and your father goes in it on a voyage to the South of France. That was not long after your mother died. She and your father were parted then, and I believe that Wrath was at the bottom of it. He knew how pure and good your mother was, and he could do nothing in that way, if you will pardon me, miss, but he was always a revengeful devil, and he preyed on your father’s quick temper and easily aroused jealousy. We shall find it all in those letters which came into the hands of Melrose and Clapstone, who had to settle the deed of separation and pay over your mother’s allowance.”

Ellen sighed a little impatiently. The night was hot and stuffy, and the sordid atmosphere of the mean little house was more than usually trying to the girl.

“Clapstone had the business in hand,” Peter went on. “It was at the time when Mr. Melrose was so ill–ah, well I remember it. And your mother had sent on those letters to the office. Clapstone was under the impression that he had destroyed them, but I took care of that. Then somehow they were lost for years, till we both found them, simultaneous like. We shall see daylight yet.”

Ellen was hardly listening. A little group of factory hands went noisily past the house, a drunken man, cheerfully vocal, roared his way along. And down in Devonshire at Crocksands the spring breezes were whispering to the primroses in the park. Ellen could feel the call of it, and her heart grew heavy and restless.

“Those two, Wrath and Clapstone, were conspiring together to ruin your father and separate him from your mother, and nobody knew it but poor old Peter Gabb. And the owner of Crocksands–that’s your late grandfather, my dear–was arranging with your father to cut off the entail, so that, there being no son to succeed, your father could leave Crocksands to you. I know that was so, because I managed to have a read of the draft deed before it was engrossed. And Clapstone sent it to be engrossed outside the office so that none of the staff should see it. Oh, it was all right, because your grandfather was on his death-bed, and Mr. Melrose so ill that he knew nothing of what was going on between those two rascals. God only knows what price Sir Christopher Wrath paid Clapstone for his share of the plot. And now he’s dead, too, and Wrath thinks he is safe.”

“But how does this benefit me?” Ellen asked.

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