The Price of Silence - Fred M. White - ebook

The Price of Silence ebook

Fred M White

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Sir Wilton Oakes was a man of about five and forty years of age, although he looked younger, he didn’t feel like it. He had all the attributes of his ancient race – the face of a hawk, a short upper lip, and the easy manner of one who was born to be the commander of people. He recently took over the beautiful Elizabethan house that was his legacy. And now the old baronet was dead, and the man sitting at the library table reigned in his stead.

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Liczba stron: 246

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Contents

A County Family

Primery Names His Terms

In The Long Gallery

The Red Scar

Before The Dance

A Fateful Message

One Way Out

The Rose Parlour

Cecil Takes A Hand

On Board The Firefly

Across The Water

Dead Sea Fruit

Yet Another Visitor

Audrey Sees A Ghost

For The Second Time

Tragedy!

A House Of Trouble

The Story Of A Deal

Seeking A Way

The Matter Of A Handkerchief

The Finger-Prints

An Errand Of Mercy

The Hole In The Window

In The Meantime

The Broken Rail

Audrey Explains

I. A COUNTY FAMILY

Sir Wilton Oakes sat in the great library at Priors Gate, moodily contemplating a mass of papers that lay on the table before him. He was a man of about five and forty years of age, though he might have passed for considerably less, so well preserved was he, and so fine was his constitution. He had all the attributes of his ancient race–the hawklife face, the short upper lip, and the easy manner of one who is born to be the commander of men. And, indeed, from all outward appearance, his position was an enviable one, for he had recently entered; into possession of that beautiful Elizabethan house, with its period furniture and the wide estates, which had been the heritage of the Oakes any time the last five hundred years. And now the old baronet was dead, and the man sitting at the library table reigned in his stead He had come back from America, where he had been ever since he left school, come back too late to see the father to whom he had been a source of trouble and anxiety from the time he had come to a proper understanding of things. So the dead baronet had taken a drastic course a quarter of a century before, and England had seen no more of his successor until the old man had died and his son had crossed the Atlantic to reign in his stead.

And the less said about Sir Wilton’s past the better. Nobody, except his dead father, knew what a disgrace he had been to the family, though certain neighbours might have guessed. It had been a lurid career out there in the big cities of the west, and on more than one occasion Sir Wilton Oakes had known what it was to experience the discipline of a gaol. But the proud, broken-hearted father had said nothing of this to a soul, had said nothing of those shameful letters which had come from his penitentiary and that, and of the constant call for money from his only child. And now that Wilton Oakes was back again, and society had more or less taken him to its bosom, he began to understand the extent of his own folly, and to see how perilously near he was to a state of things when he would be a baronet of long descent without a roof over his head, and nothing to console himself with besides his bare title.

It had taken him the best part of three months to realise this, but it had come home to him with sinister force now, as he bent over the mass of papers on the table. So far as he could see, the estate was mortgaged to the hilt, there were unpaid bills and claims pouring in from all directions. It was going to be a poor thing, after all, to be Sir Wilton Oakes of Priors Gate, unless some sort of a miracle happened, or he could sell his fascinating personality and fine, old title to some heiress. And there were reasons, pressing reasons, why he could not do that.

He sat there, moodily looking through the mullioned windows where the blue and gold device of the Oakes was emblazoned on the upper panes and from thence into the spreading park, which he would have to part with before long unless the miracle happened. As he sat there, he was reviewing his past life, and wondering, more or less idly, if it would be possible to renew that life in England, so as to secure himself the funds he so direly needed. It meant stark crime, naked and unashamed, but then, that was not likely to trouble him if he could only work out some scheme by which there was a maximum of profit and a minimum of danger. And there were few phases of criminology in which he had not indulged at one time or another–nothing short of murder had ever stopped him when temptation presented itself, and the prize was worth the risk.

Why shouldn’t he begin it again ? Why shouldn’t he, as Sir Wilton Oakes of Priors Gate, embark, once more on those tortuous channels which had paid him so well in the past?

He would have a wonderful cover for his activities. Who would ever suspect a man with his title and position of deliberately lending himself to a series of burglaries, for instance ? And yet he lived in the centre of a great residential county, inhabited for the most part by men of substantial financial standing, many of them the new rich, who took a sheer delight in the display of their war-earned wealth. The idea was not new perhaps, but it was not likely to be less effective for that.

For a long time Oakes sat there turning the problem over in his mind. He had come home after the death of his father with the full intention of taking over the estates and leading a more or less exemplary life in the future. He would have enough and more than enough for his wants, he would walk circumspectly and establish himself in the eyes of his neighbours, and in the course of time marry and carry on the succession. He had had a sort of uneasy feeling that his constant inroads on the family purse might have made a difference, but he had never expected such a state of affairs as an examination, of his position disclosed. And he had, on one particular occasion, deliberately set out to rob his father.

He recalled that incident vividly as he brooded there over his cigar. He remembered the hypocritical, cringing letter he had written home, to the effect that he had seen the error of his ways and that henceforth he was making every effort to clean his assumed name of the disgrace that clung to it. He was occupying a responsible position in the offices of a great oil corporation, and being in the confidence of his employers, was in the possession of priceless, information which would lead to a dazzling fortune if he could only command a few thousand pounds. Not for himself, oh, dear no, henceforth he would never ask his father for another penny. But if the long suffering parent could lay his hand upon ten thousand pounds, then this regenerate son of his could put him in the.way of buying certain oil shares which, within a few years would represent millions of dollars. If his father would write to a certain address, which was that of the owner of the amazing property, he would be able to obtain possession of those precious shares. But he would have to write direct, because, so Wilton Oakes delicately suggested, it was impossible to ask the old man to trust him personally, any further.

And this infamous scheme had been crowned with success. The money had found its way into Wilton Oakes’ hands, and in exchange, his deluded parent had received a sheaf of worthless scrip which he had placed away in his safe under the full impression that it was going to lead to a golden return.

It was a most diabolical business altogether, and even now, when Wilton Oakes was established at Priors Gate and his father was in his grave he had no regrets. And those Judas pieces of silver, so to speak, had not done him the least good, seeing that they had been dissipated in a few months. So here he was, back at home again, the possessor of a hollow title, and a fine domain which would pass.out of his hands in a few months unless the miracle he was scheming for, materialised. Still, as he sat here, surrounded with every evidence of wealth and luxury, he did not suggest the congenital criminal desperately put to it to keep his head above water. At any rate, nobody must know that, nobody mast guess how near he was to the slippery edge of bankruptcy, and if there was any means, however desperate, of saving the situation, then Wilton Oakes swore to himself that he would not shrink from it.

He was still sitting there, deeply engrossed in his troubles, when his wandering eye caught sight of a car coming along the avenue through the park, and pulling up a moment or two later before the main entrance. Some neighbour, no doubt, Oakes told himself: some respectable man of family who had come over to worry him over a trivial local question. Then the door of the library opened and a man servant came respectfully in.

“A gentleman to see you, sir,” he said. “Who is he?” Oakes asked. “I am very busy just now, so you might ask him his name and business.”

The servant departed silently, but he did not return. In his place appeared a queer, misshapen figure–a figure with a hump between his shoulders and with one long slender limb propping up the other. He might have been partly paralysed, he might have been the victim of some terrible accident. But there, he was, more or less the wreck of a man, with a face of an early Greek, and the high forehead and wavy black hair of a Byron. Seated in a chair so that his deformities were hidden; he would have passed as an absolute model of manly beauty. There was a frank, pleasing smile on his face, and the stamp of intelligence that lifted him out of the common ruck.

He closed the door behind him and crept painfully in the direction of a chair near the table, where he could command the full view of his host. The pleasing smile was still upon his face, but there was no reciprocal warmth in Wilton Oakes’ cold eyes.

“Well,” said the newcomer. “Well, here l am, you see. My dear fellow, you didn’t suppose you could shake me off in that casual way, did you? When you vanished so suddenly in New York last spring I thought you had been picked up by the police for some little indiscretion of which you had told your fidus Achates nothing. But when I began to make inquiries, I.realised that you really had given me the slip and returned to England. And, upon my word, Wilton, old son. I don’t blame you. So my old friend, Bill Carlton, turns out to be a baronet in disguise! Fancy that, now! And, upon my word, you have got very snug quarters here.”

Oakes literally forced a smile to his lips. Inwardly he was consumed with rage. If anger and malice could have slain the intruder then he would have dropped dead there at Oakes’ feet.”

He had been so careful–so very careful to cover up his tracks from his criminal associates in America. He had always kept tight lips upon his birth and future prospects–a sort of pride, perhaps, or reticence in view of the time when he would have to return to England and occupy his present position. He had stolen away at the first favourable opportunity, without the slightest intention of returning to America again, calculating that it would be overwhelming odds against his ever coming in contact with one of the old gang. And now, here was the leader of them, the very brain and heart of that criminal fraternity, seated within a few feet and smiling at him in the old contemptuous superior sort of way.

“Look here, Primery,” he said. “What’s the good of this? Why did you follow me all the way from America? It doesn’t in the least matter how you discovered that I had come into the title and the family estates. I never talked about them.”

The man Primery helped himself to a cigarette.

“No, you didn’t, Bill,” he said. “Oh, by the way, I suppose I must call you Wilton now. Never mind that. My dear chap, I knew who you were and what you were years ago. You can’t keep that sort of thing from me. Did you ever know any of our gang who could keep anything from me? Not that I should have followed you unless circumstances compelled me to do so. You could have turned respectable and married into the aristocracy as far as I was concerned. But just now America doesn’t suit my delicate constitution, so I decided to spend a year in a more congenial atmosphere. That is why I came over, and that is why I lost no time in looking you up. Upon any word. I don’t wonder at you turning your back upon the old life. If somebody gave me a place like this and a title to match–”

Oakes laid a finger on his lip, and pointed significantly to the door. There was someone coming along the corridor, and a moment later a girl entered the library. She looked round, and, seeing the intruder, would have retired had not Oakes called her back.

“Don’t go away, Miss Venables,” he cried. “I shall have finished my business with this gentleman presently.”

II. PRIMERY NAMES HIS TERMS

The girl stood there more or less shyly in the doorway. She was not exactly beautiful in the strict sense of the word, but then, beauty has no comparison with charm, and Audrey Venables had that to the full. When she smiled the spectator forgot the rather fascinating irregularity of her features in the sunshine of her presence. She was neither tall, nor short, and the clear brown olive of her skin owed nothing to cheap art, but had been painted there in nature’s own exquisite shades by the suns and rains of her own native land. She was plainly enough dressed, after the manner of one who spends most of her time, in the open air, and she carried birth and breeding from her well poised head to her dainty finger tips. She was young, too, not more than three and twenty probably, but there was an intelligence on her face and an expression in her eyes that told not only of high intelligence but equally high courage.

“I am in no hurry, Sir Wilton,” she said. “I came over from the rectory to help you with those letters. But if you are busy, I can easily ran over again after tea.”

Primery regarded this desirable vision with eyes that spoke of frank and honest admiration, and yet without the faintest suggestion of boldness in them. He struggled to his feet and stood up so that all his physical infirmities were apparent and appealed at once to everything that was womanly in the girl’s nature.

“Won’t you introduce me?” Primery smiled.

Oakes did the necessary in a grudging spirit.

“Mr. John Primery,” he said, “an American gentleman and old friend of mine who is quite well known on the other side as a brilliant writer of short stories. He happens to be passing through Hampshire on his way from Southampton, so be thought that he would give me a look in. I am afraid I shan’t be able to induce him to stay, much as I should like to.”

It was a pretty plain intimation to Primery, but he ignored it and turned to the girl with one of his most fascinating smiles.

“I don’t think my friend, Oakes, is quite correct. Miss Venables,” he said. “You see. I am here on a long holiday, and this lovely place intrigues me. You live here, I presume?”

“I have lived here all my life,” Audrey Venables said. “You see my father is rector of the parish, and I happen to be his only child. He is one of the men who married late in life, so he is quite old now. and it is my pleasure and privilege to look after him.”

“Nearly blind.” Oakes supplemented.

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