THERE was not a moment to lose, so Green emptied the pocketbook into his hat, and sifted the contents in a turn of the hand, announcing each discovery in a whisper to his excited and peering associates.
"A lot of receipts."
"Of no use to any one but me," said the prisoner earnestly.
"Two miniatures; gold rims, pinchbeck backs."
"They are portraits of my children when young: Heaven forgive me, I could not give them up to my creditors: surely, surely, you will not rob me of them."
"Stash your gab," said Mr. Green roughly. "Here's a guinea, Queen Anne's reign."
"It belonged to my great-grandfather: take it, but you will let me redeem it; I will give L. 5 for it poor as I am: you can leave it on my door-step, and I'll leave the L. 5."
"Stow your gab. Letters; papers covered with figures. Stay, what is this? a lot of memoranda."
"They are of the most private and delicate character. Pray do not expose my family misfortunes." And Mr. Hardie, who of late had been gathering composure, showed some signs of agitation; the two figures glaring over his shoulder shared it, and his remonstrance only made Green examine the papers keenly: they might contain some clue to the missing money. It proved a miscellaneous record: the price of Stocks at various days; notes of the official assignee's remarks in going over the books, etc. At last, however, Green's quick eye fell upon a fainter entry in pencil; figures: 1, 4; yes, actually L. 14,000. "All right," he said: and took the paper close to the lantern, and began to spell it out —
"'This day Alfred told me to my face I had L. 14,000 of Captain Dodd's. We had an angry discussion. What can he mean? Drs. Wycherley and Osmond, this same day, afflicted me with hints that he is deranged, or partly. I saw no signs of it before. Wrote to my brother entreating him to give me L. 200 to replace the sum which I really have wronged this respectable and now most afflicted family of. I had better withdraw — — '" Here Mr. Hardie interrupted him with sorrowful dignity: "These are mere family matters; if you are a man, respect them."
Green went reading on like Fate: "'Better withdraw my opposition to the marriage, or else it seems my own flesh and blood will go about the place blackening my reputation.'"
Mr. Hardie stamped on the ground. "I tell you, on my honour as a gentleman, there's no money there but my grandfather's guinea. My money is all in my waistcoat pocket, where you will not look."
A flutter of uneasiness seemed to come over the detective: he darkened his lantern, and replaced the pocket-book hurriedly in the prisoner's breast, felt him all over in a minute, and to keep up the farce, robbed him.
"Only eight yellow boys," said he contemptuously to his mates. He then shipped the money back into Hardie's coat-pocket, and conducted him to his own gate, tied him to it by the waist, and ordered him not to give the alarm for ten minutes on pain of death.
"I consent," said Mr. Hardie, "and thank you for abstaining from violence."
"All right, my tulip," said Mr. Green cheerfully, and drew his companions quietly away. But the next moment he began to run, and making a sudden turn, dived into a street then into a passage, and so winded and doubled till he got to a small public-house: he used some flash word, and they were shown a private room. "Wait here an hour for me," he whispered; "I must see who liberates him, and whether he is really as innocent as he reads, or we have been countermined by the devil's own tutor."
The unexpected turn the evidence had taken — evidence of their own choosing, too — cleared Mr. Hardie with the unprofessionals. Edward embraced this conclusion as a matter of course, and urged the character of that gentleman's solitary traducer: Alfred was a traitor, and therefore why not a slanderer?
Even Sampson, on the whole, inclined to a similar conclusion.
At this crisis of the discussion a red-haired pedlar, with very large whiskers and the remains of a black eye, put his head in, and asked whether Tom Green was there. "No," said the Doctor stoutly, not desiring company of this stamp. "Don't know the lad."
The pedlar laughed: "There is not many that do know him at all hours; however, he is here, sir." And he whipped off the red hair, and wiped off the black eye, and ho, Green ipse. He received their compliments on his Protean powers, and told them he had been just a minute too late. Mr. Hardie was gone, and so he had lost the chance of seeing who came to help him, and of hearing the first words that passed between the two. This, he said, was a very great pity; for it would have shown him in one moment whether certain suspicions of his were correct. Pressed as to what these suspicions were, he begged to be excused saying any more for the present. The Doctor, however, would not let him off so, but insisted on his candid opinion.
"Well, sir," said Green, "I never was more puzzled in my life, owing to not being near hand when he was untied. It looks all square, however. There's one little thing that don't fit somehow."
They both asked in a breath what that was.
"The sovs. were all marked."
They asked how he knew; and had he got them in his pocket to show?
Green uttered a low chuckling laugh: "What, me fake the beans, now I live on this side of the hedge? Never knew a cove mix his liquors that way but it hurt his health soon or late. No, I took them out of one pocket and felt of them as I slipped them into the other. Ye see, gents, to do any good on my lay, a man must train his senses as well as his mind: he must have a hare's ear, and a hawk's eye, a bloodhound's nose, and a lady's hand with steel fingers and a silk skin. Now look at that bunch of fives," continued the master; and laid a hand white and soft as a duchess's on the table: "it can put the bracelets on a giant, or find a sharper's nail-mark on the back of the knave of clubs. The beans were marked. Which it is a small thing, but it don't fit the rest. Here's an unsuspicious gent took by surprise, in moonlight meditation fancy free, and all his little private family matters found in his innocent bosom, quite promiscuous; but his beans marked. That don't dovetail nohow. Gents, did ever you hear of the man that went to the bottom of the bottomless pit to ease his mind? Well, he was the head of my family. I must go to the bottom whether there's one or not. And just now I see but one way."
"And what is that?" inquired both his companions in some alarm.
"Oh, I mustn't threaten it," said Green, "or I shall never have the stomach to do it. But dear me, this boozing ken is a very unfit place for you, — you are champagne-gents, not dog's nose ones. Now you part and make tracks for home, one on foot and one in a fly. You won't see me, nor hear of me again, till I've something fresh."
And so the confederates parted, and Sampson and Edward met at Albion Villa; and Edward told his mother what they had done, and his conviction that Mr. Hardie was innocent, and Alfred a slanderer as well as a traitor: "And indeed," said he, "if we had but stopped to reflect, we should have seen how unlikely the money was not to be lost in the Agra. Why, the 'Tiser says she went to pieces almost directly she struck. What we ought to have done was, not to listen to Alfred Hardie like fools, but write to Lloyd's like people in their senses. I'll do it this minute, and find out the surviving officers of the ship: they will be able to give us information on that head." Mrs. Dodd approved; and said she would write to her kind correspondent Mrs. Beresford, and she did sit down to her desk at once. As for Sampson, he returned to town next morning, not quite convinced, but thoroughly staggered; and determined for once to resign his own judgment, and abide the result of Mrs. Dodd's correspondence and Mr. Green's sagacity. All he insisted on was, that his placard about Alfred should be continued: he left money for this, and Edward, against the grain, consented to see it done. But placards are no monopoly: in the afternoon only a section of Sampson's was visible in most parts of the town by reason of a poster to this effect pasted half over it: —
"FIFTY GUINEAS REWARD.
"Whereas, yesterday evening at ten o'clock Richard Hardie, Esq., of Musgrove Cottage, Barkington, was assaulted at his own door by three ruffians, who rifled his pockets, and read his private memoranda, and committed other acts of violence, the shock of which has laid him on a bed of sickness, the above reward shall be paid to any person, or persons, who will give such information as shall lead to the detection of all or any one of the miscreants concerned in this outrage.
"The above reward will be paid by Mr. Thomas Hardie of Clare Court, Yorkshire."
On this the impartial police came to Mr. Hardie's and made inquiries. He received them in bed, and told them particulars: and they gathered from Peggy that she had heard a cry of distress, and opened the kitchen door, and that Betty and she had ventured out together, and found poor master tied to the gate with an old cord: this she produced, and the police inspected and took it away with them.
At sight of that Notice, Edward felt cold and then hot and realised the false and perilous position into which he had been betrayed: "So much for being wiser than the law," he said: "what are we now but three footpads?" This, and the insult his sister had received made the place poison to him; and hastened their departure by a day or two. The very next day (Thursday) an affiche on the walls of Albion Villa announced that Mr. Chippenham, auctioneer, would sell, next Wednesday, on the premises, the greater part of the furniture, plate, china, glass, Oriental inlaid boxes and screens, with several superb India shawls, scarfs, and dresses; also a twenty-one years' lease of the villa, seventeen to run.
Edward took unfurnished apartments in London, near Russell Square: a locality in which, as he learned from the 'Tiser, the rooms were large and cheap. He packed just so much furniture as was essential; no knick-knacks. It was to go by rail on Monday; Mrs. Dodd and Julia were to follow on Tuesday: Edward to stay at Barkington and look after the sale.
Meantime their secret ally, Mr. Green, was preparing his threatened coup. The more he reflected the more he suspected that he had been outwitted by Peggy Black. She had led him on, and the pocket-book had been planted for him. If so, why Peggy was a genius, and in his own line; and he would marry her, and so kill two birds with one stone: make a Detective of her (there was a sad lack of female detectives); and, once his wife, she would split on her master, and he should defeat that old soldier at last, and get a handsome slice of the L. 14,000.
He manoeuvred thus: first, he went back to London for a day or two to do other jobs, and to let this matter cool; then he returned, and wrote from a town near Barkington to Peggy Black, telling her he had been sent away suddenly on a job, but his heart had remained behind with his Peggy: would she meet him at the gate at nine that evening? he had something very particular to say to her. As to the nature of the business, the enclosed would give her a hint. She might name her own day, and the sooner the better.
The enclosed was a wedding-ring.
At nine this extraordinary pair of lovers met at the gate; but Peggy seemed hardly at her ease; said her master would be coming out and catching her; perhaps they had better walk up the road a bit. "With all my heart," said Green; but he could not help a little sneer: "Your master?" said he: "why he is your servant, as I am. What, is he jealous?"
"I don't know what you mean, young man," said Peggy.
"I'll tell you when we are married."
"La, that is a long time to wait for my answer: why we ain't asked in church yet."
"There's no need of that; I can afford a special licence."
"Lawk a daisy: why you be a gentleman, then."
"No, but I can keep my wife like a lady."
You sounds very tempting," murmured Peggy, throwing her skirt over her head — for a drizzle was beginning — and walking slower and slower.
Then he made hot love to her, and pressed her hard to name the day.
She coquetted with the question till they came near the mouth of a dark lane, called Lovers' Walk; then, as he insisted on an answer, she hung her head bashfully, and coughed a little cough. At which preconcerted signal a huge policeman sprang out of the lane and collared Mr. Green.
On this Peggy, who was all Lie from head to heel, uttered a little scream of dismay and surprise.
Mr. Green laughed.
"Well, you are a downy one," said he. "I'll marry you all the more for thus."
The detective put his hands suddenly inside the policeman's, caught him by the bosom with his right hand by way of fulcrum; and with his left by the chin, which he forced violently back, and gave him a slight Cornish trip at the same moment; down went the policeman on the back of his head a fearful crack. Green then caught the astonished Peggy round the neck, kissed her lips violently, and fled like the wind; removed all traces of his personal identity, and up to London by the train in the character of a young swell, with a self-fitting eyeglass and a long moustache the colour of his tender mistress's eyebrow: tow.
From town he wrote to her, made her a formal offer of marriage; and gave her an address to write to "should she at any time think more kindly of him and of his sincere affection."
I suppose he specified sincere because it was no longer sincere: he hurled the offer into Musgrove Cottage by way of an apple of discord — at least so I infer from the memorandum, with which he retired at present from the cash hunt.
"Mr. Hardie has the stiff, I think: but, if so, it is planted somewhere — doesn't carry it about him; my Peggy is his mistress: nothing to be done till they split."
Victorious so far, Mr. Hardie had still one pressing anxiety: Dr. Sampson's placard: this had been renewed, and stared him everywhere in the face. Every copy of it he encountered made him shiver. If he had been a man of impulse, he would have torn it down wherever he saw it; but he knew that would not do. However, learning from Jane, who had it from old Betty, who had it from Sarah, that Mrs. and Miss Dodd would leave for London the day before the sale, and Edward the day after it, he thought he might venture in the busy intermediate time to take some liberties with it. This he did with excellent tact and judgment. Peggy and a billsticker were seen in conference, and, soon after, the huge bills of a travelling circus were pasted right over both the rival advertisements in which the name of Hardie figured. The consequence was, Edward raised no objection: he was full of the sale for one thing; but I suspect he was content to see his own false move pasted over on such easy terms.
One morning Peggy brought in the letters, and Jane saw one in Alfred's handwriting. She snatched it up, and cried "Papa, from Alfred!" And she left off making the tea, while her father opened it with comparative composure.
This coolness, however, did not outlast the perusal: "The young ruffian!" said he; "would you believe it Jenny, he accuses me of being the cause of his last business."
"Let me see, papa."
He held her out the letter; but hesitated and drew it back. "My dear, it would give you pain to see your poor father treated so. Here's a specimen: 'What could they expect but that the son of a sharper would prove a traitor? You stole her money; I her affections, of which I am unworthy.' Now what do you think of that?"
"Unhappy Alfred!" said Jane. "No, papa, I would not read it, if you are insulted in it. But where is he?"
"The letter is dated Paris. See! " And he showed her the date. "But he says here he is coming back to London directly; and he orders me in the most peremptory way to he ready with my accounts, and pay him over his fortune. Well, he is alive, at all events: really my good, kind, interfering, pragmatical friend Sampson, with his placards, made me feel uneasy, more uneasy than I would own to you, Jenny."
"Unhappy Alfred!" cried Jane, with the tears in her eyes; "and poor papa!"
"Oh, never mind me," said Mr. Hardie; "now that I know no harm has come to him, I really don't care a straw: I have got one child that loves me, and that I love."
"Ah yes, dear, dear papa, and that will always love you, and never, never disobey you in small things or great." She rose from the table and sealed this with a pious kiss; and, when she sat down with a pink flush on her delicate cheek, his hard eye melted and dwelt on her with beaming tenderness. His heart yearned over her, and a pang went through it: to think that he must deceive even her, the one sweet soul that loved him!
It was a passing remorse: the successful plotter soon predominated, and it was with unmixed satisfaction he saw her put on her bonnet directly after breakfast and hurry off to Albion Villa to play the part of his unconscious sieve.
He himself strolled in the opposite direction, not to seem to be watching her.
He was in good spirits: felt like a general, who, after repulsing many desperate attacks successfully, orders an advance, and sees the tide of battle roll away from his bayonets. His very body seemed elastic, indomitable; he walked lustily out into the country, sniffed the perfumed hedges, and relished life. To be sure he could not walk away from all traces of his misdeeds; he fell in with objects that to an ordinary sinner might have spoiled the walk, and even marred the spring-time. He found his creditor Maxley with grizzly beard and bloodshot eyes, belabouring a milestone; and two small boys quizzing him, and pelting him with mud: and soon after he met his creditor, old Dr. Phillips, in a cart, coming back to Barkington to end his days there, at the almshouse. But to our triumphant Bankrupt and Machiavel these things were literally nothing: he paced complacently on, and cared no more for either of those his wrecks than the smiling sea itself seems to care for the dead ships and men it washed ashore a week ago.
He came home before luncheon for his gossip with Jane; but she had not returned. All the better; her budget would be the larger.
To while the time he got his file of the Times, and amused himself noting down the fluctuations in Peruvian bonds,
While thus employed he heard a loud knock at his door, and soon after Peggy's voice and a man's in swift collision. Hasty feet came along the passage, the parlour door opened, and a young man rushed in pale as ashes, and stared at him; he was breathless, and his lips moved, but no sound came.
It was Edward Dodd.
Mr. Hardie rose like a tower and manned himself to repulse this fresh assault.
The strange visitor gasped out, "You are wanted at our house."