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«Published: 1897 Categorie(s): Fiction, Mystery & Detective Source: About Allen: Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen ...»

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"MY DEAR VANDRIFT.—(After so long and so varied an acquaintance we may surely drop the absurd formalities of 'Sir Charles' and 'Colonel.') I write to ask you a delicate question. Can you kindly tell me exactly how much I have received from your various generous acts during the last three years? I have mislaid my account-book, and as this is the season for making the income tax return, I am anxious, as an honest and conscientious citizen, to set down my average profits out of you for the triennial period. For reasons which you will amply understand, I do not this time give my private address, in Paris or elsewhere; but if you will kindly advertise the total amount, above the signature 'Peter Simple,' in the Agony Column of the Times, you will confer a great favour upon the Revenue Commissioners, and also upon your constant friend and companion, CUTHBERT CLAY, "Practical Socialist."

"Mark my word, Sey," Charles said, laying the letter down, "in a week or less the man himself will follow. This is his cunning way of trying to make me think he's well out of the country and far away from Seldon. That means he's meditating another descent. But he told us too much last time, when he was Medhurst the detective. He gave us some hints about disguises and their unmasking that I shall not forget. This turn I shall be even with him."

On Saturday of that week, in effect, we were walking along the road that leads into the village, when we met a gentlemanly-looking man, in a rough and rather happy-golucky brown tweed suit, who had the air of a tourist. He was middle-aged, and of middle height; he wore a small leather wallet suspended round his shoulder; and he was peering about at the rocks in a suspicious manner. Something in his gait attracted our attention.

"Good-morning," he said, looking up as we passed; and Charles muttered a somewhat surly inarticulate, "Goodmorning."

We went on without saying more. "Well, that's not Colonel Clay, anyhow," I said, as we got out of earshot.

"For he accosted us first; and you may remember it's one of the Colonel's most marked peculiarities that, like the model child, he never speaks till he's spoken to—never begins an acquaintance. He always waits till we make the first advance; he doesn't go out of his way to cheat us; he loiters about till we ask him to do it."

"Seymour," my brother-in-law responded, in a severe tone, "there you are, now, doing the very thing I warned you not to do! Y ou're succumbing to a preconception. Avoid fixed ideas. The probability is this man is Colonel Clay.

Strangers are generally scarce at Seldon. If he isn't Colonel Clay, what's he here for, I'd like to know? What money is there to be made here in any other way? I shall inquire about him."

We dropped in at the Cromarty Arms, and asked good Mrs. M'Lachlan if she could tell us anything about the gentlemanly stranger. Mrs. M'Lachlan replied that he was from London, she believed, a pleasant gentleman enough;

and he had his wife with him.

"Ha! Y oung? Pretty?" Charles inquired, with a speaking glance at me.

"Weel, Sir Charles, she'll no be exactly what you'd be ca'ing a bonny lass," Mrs. M'Lachlan replied; "but she's a guid body for a' that, an' a fine braw woman."

"Just what I should expect," Charles murmured, "He varies the programme. The fellow has tried White Heather as the parson's wife, and as Madame Picardet, and as squinting little Mrs. Granton, and as Medhurst's accomplice;

and now, he has almost exhausted the possibilities of a disguise for a really young and pretty woman; so he's playing her off at last as the riper product—a handsome matron. Clever, extremely clever; but—we begin to see through him." And he chuckled to himself quietly.

Next day, on the hillside, we came upon our stranger again, occupied as before in peering into the rocks, and sounding them with a hammer. Charles nudged me and whispered, "I have it this time. He's posing as a geologist."

I took a good look at the man. By now, of course, we had some experience of Colonel Clay in his various disguises;

and I could observe that while the nose, the hair, and the beard were varied, the eyes and the build remained the same as ever. He was a trifle stouter, of course, being got up as a man of between forty and fifty; and his forehead was lined in a way which a less consummate artist than Colonel Clay could easily have imitated. But I felt we had at least some grounds for our identification; it would not do to dismiss the suggestion of Clayhood at once as a flight of fancy.

His wife was sitting near, upon a bare boss of rock, reading a volume of poems. Capital variant, that, a volume of poems! Exactly suited the selected type of a cultivated family. White Heather and Mrs. Granton never used to read poems. But that was characteristic of all Colonel Clay's impersonations, and Mrs. Clay's too—for I suppose I must call her so. They were not mere outer disguises; they were finished pieces of dramatic study. Those two people were an actor and actress, as well as a pair of rogues; and in both their rôles they were simply inimitable.

As a rule, Charles is by no means polite to casual trespassers on the Seldon estate; they get short shrift and a summary ejection. But on this occasion he had a reason for being courteous, and he approached the lady with a bow of recognition. "Lovely day," he said, "isn't it? Such belts on the sea, and the heather smells sweet. Y are stopping at ou the inn, I fancy?" "Yes," the lady answered, looking up at him with a charming smile. ("I know that smile," Charles whispered to me. "I have succumbed to it too often.") "We're stopping at the inn, and my husband is doing a little geology on the hill here. I hope Sir Charles Vandrift won't come and catch us.

He's so down upon trespassers. They tell us at the inn he's a regular Tartar."

("Saucy minx as ever," Charles murmured to me. "She said it on purpose.") "No, my dear madam," he continued, aloud; "you have been quite misinformed. I am Sir Charles Vandrift; and I am not a Tartar. If your husband is a man of science I respect and admire him. It is geology that has made me what I am to-day." And he drew himself up proudly. "We owe to it the present development of South African mining."

The lady blushed as one seldom sees a mature woman blush—but exactly as I had seen Madame Picardet and White Heather. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, in a confused way that recalled Mrs. Granton. "Forgive my hasty speech. I —I didn't know you."

("She did," Charles whispered. "But let that pass.") "Oh, don't think of it again; so many people disturb the birds, don't you know, that we're obliged in self-defence to warn trespassers sometimes off our lovely mountains. But I do it with regret—with profound regret. I admire the—er—the beauties of Nature myself; and, therefore, I desire that all others should have the freest possible access to them— possible, that is to say, consistently with the superior claims of Property."

"I see," the lady replied, looking up at him quaintly. "I admire your wish, though not your reservation. I've just been reading those sweet lines of Wordsworth's— And O, ye fountains, meadows, hills, and groves, Forebode not any severing of our loves.

I suppose you know them?" And she beamed on him pleasantly.

"Know them?" Charles answered. "Know them! Oh, of course, I know them. They're old favourites of mine—in fact, I adore Wordsworth." (I doubt whether Charles has ever in his life read a line of poetry, except Doss Chiderdoss in the Sporting Times.) He took the book and glanced at them.

"Ah, charming, charming!" he said, in his most ecstatic tone. But his eyes were on the lady, and not on the poet.

I saw in a moment how things stood. No matter under what disguise that woman appeared to him, and whether he recognised her or not, Charles couldn't help falling a victim to Madame Picardet's attractions. Here he actually suspected her; yet, like a moth round a candle, he was trying his hardest to get his wings singed! I almost despised him with his gigantic intellect! The greatest men are the greatest fools, I verily believe, when there's a woman in question.

The husband strolled up by this time, and entered into conversation with us. According to his own account, his name was Forbes-Gaskell, and he was a Professor of Geology in one of those new-fangled northern colleges. He had come to Seldon rock-spying, he said, and found much to interest him. He was fond of fossils, but his special hobby was rocks and minerals. He knew a vast deal about cairngorms and agates and such-like pretty things, and showed Charles quartz and felspar and red cornelian, and I don't know what else, in the crags on the hillside. Charles pretended to listen to him with the deepest interest and even respect, never for a moment letting him guess he knew for what purpose this show of knowledge had been recently acquired. If we were ever to catch the man, we must not allow him to see we suspected him. So Charles played a dark game. He swallowed the geologist whole without question.

Most of that morning we spent with them on the hillside.

Charles took them everywhere and showed them everything. He pretended to be polite to the scientific man, and he was really polite, most polite, to the poetical lady.

Before lunch time we had become quite friends.

The Clays were always easy people to get on with; and, bar their roguery, we could not deny they were delightful companions. Charles asked them in to lunch. They accepted willingly. He introduced them to Amelia with sundry raisings of his eyebrows and contortions of his mouth. "Professor and Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell," he said, halfdislocating his jaw with his violent efforts. "They're stopping at the inn, dear. I've been showing them over the place, and they're good enough to say they'll drop in and take a share in our cold roast mutton;" which was a frequent form of Charles's pleasantry.

Amelia sent them upstairs to wash their hands—which, in the Professor's case, was certainly desirable, for his fingers were grimed with earth and dust from the rocks he had been investigating. As soon as we were left alone Charles drew me into the library.

"Seymour," he said, "more than ever there is a need for us strictly to avoid preconceptions. We must not make up our minds that this man is Colonel Clay—nor, again, that he isn't. We must remember that we have been mistaken in both ways in the past, and must avoid our old errors. I shall hold myself in readiness for either event—and a policeman in readiness to arrest them, if necessary!" "A capital plan," I murmured. "Still, if I may venture a suggestion, in what way are these two people endeavouring to entrap us? They have no scheme on hand —no schloss, no amalgamation."

"Seymour," my brother-in-law answered in his boardroom style, "you are a great deal too previous, as Medhurst used to say—I mean, Colonel Clay in his character as Medhurst. In the first place, these are early days; our friends have not yet developed their intentions. We may find before long they have a property to sell, or a company to promote, or a concession to exploit in South Africa or elsewhere.

Then again, in the second place, we don't always spot the exact nature of their plan until it has burst in our hands, so to speak, and revealed its true character. What could have seemed more transparent than Medhurst, the detective, till he ran away with our notes in the very moment of triumph?

What more innocent than White Heather and the little curate, till they landed us with a couple of Amelia's own gems as a splendid bargain? I will not take it for granted any man is not Colonel Clay, merely because I don't happen to spot the particular scheme he is trying to work against me. The rogue has so many schemes, and some of them so well concealed, that up to the moment of the actual explosion you fail to detect the presence of moral dynamite. Therefore, I shall proceed as if there were dynamite everywhere. But in the third place—and this is very important—you mark my words, I believe I detect already the lines he will work upon. He's a geologist, he says, with a taste for minerals. Very good. Y see if he ou doesn't try to persuade me before long he has found a coal mine, whose locality he will disclose for a trifling consideration; or else he will salt the Long Mountain with emeralds, and claim a big share for helping to discover them; or else he will try something in the mineralogical line to do me somehow. I see it in the very transparency of the fellow's face; and I'm determined this time neither to pay him one farthing on any pretext, nor to let him escape me!" We went in to lunch. The Professor and Mrs. ForbesGaskell, all smiles, accompanied us. I don't know whether it was Charles's warning to take nothing for granted that made me do so—but I kept a close eye upon the suspected man all the time we were at table. It struck me there was something very odd about his hair. It didn't seem quite the same colour all over. The locks that hung down behind, over the collar of his coat, were a trifle lighter and a trifle grayer than the black mass that covered the greater part of his head. I examined it carefully. The more I did so, the more the conviction grew upon me: he was wearing a wig. There was no denying it!

A trifle less artistic, perhaps, than most of Colonel Clay's get-ups; but then, I reflected (on Charles's principle of taking nothing for granted), we had never before suspected Colonel Clay himself, except in the one case of the Honourable David, whose red hair and whiskers even Madame Picardet had admitted to be absurdly false by her action of pointing at them and tittering irrepressibly. It was possible that in every case, if we had scrutinised our man closely, we should have found that the disguise betrayed itself at once (as Medhurst had suggested) to an acute observer.

The detective, in fact, had told us too much. I remembered what he said to us about knocking off David Granton's red wig the moment we doubted him; and I positively tried to help myself awkwardly to potato-chips, when the footman offered them, so as to hit the supposed wig with an apparently careless brush of my elbow. But it was of no avail. The fellow seemed to anticipate or suspect my intention, and dodged aside carefully, like one well accustomed to saving his disguise from all chance of such real or seeming accidents.

I was so full of my discovery that immediately after lunch I induced Isabel to take our new friends round the home garden and show them Charles's famous prize dahlias, while I proceeded myself to narrate to Charles and Amelia my observations and my frustrated experiment.

"It is a wig," Amelia assented. "I spotted it at once. A very good wig, too, and most artistically planted. Men don't notice these things, though women do. It is creditable to you, Seymour, to have succeeded in detecting it."

Charles was less complimentary. "Y ou fool," he answered, with that unpleasant frankness which is much too common with him. "Supposing it is, why on earth should you try to knock it off and disclose him? What good would it have done? If it is a wig, and we spot it, that's all that we need. We are put on our guard; we know with whom we have now to deal. But you can't take a man up on a charge of wig-wearing. The law doesn't interfere with it. Most respectable men may sometimes wear wigs. Why, I knew a promoter who did, and also the director of fourteen companies! What we have to do next is, wait till he tries to cheat us, and then—pounce down upon him. Sooner or later, you may be sure, his plans will reveal themselves."

So we concocted an excellent scheme to keep them under constant observation, lest they should slip away again, as they did from the island. First of all, Amelia was to ask them to come and stop at the castle, on the ground that the rooms at the inn were uncomfortably small. We felt sure, however, that, as on a previous occasion, they would refuse the invitation, in order to be able to slink off unperceived, in case they should find themselves apparently suspected.

Should they decline, it was arranged that Césarine should take a room at the Cromarty Arms as long as they stopped there, and report upon their movements; while, during the day, we would have the house watched by the head gillie's son, a most intelligent young man, who could be trusted, with true Scotch canniness, to say nothing to anybody.

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