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

-- [ Page 16 ] --

To our immense surprise, Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell accepted the invitation with the utmost alacrity. She was profuse in her thanks, indeed; for she told us the Arms was an ill-kept house, and the cookery by no means agreed with her husband's liver. It was sweet of us to invite them; such kindness to perfect strangers was quite unexpected. She should always say that nowhere on earth had she met with so cordial or friendly a reception as at Seldon Castle. But— she accepted, unreservedly.

"It can't be Colonel Clay," I remarked to Charles. "He would never have come here. Even as David Granton, with far more reason for coming, he wouldn't put himself in our power: he preferred the security and freedom of the Cromarty Arms."

"Sey," my brother-in-law said sententiously, "you're incorrigible. Y will persist in being the slave of ou prepossessions. He may have some good reason of his own for accepting. Wait till he shows his hand—and then, we shall understand everything."

So for the next three weeks the Forbes-Gaskells formed part of the house-party at Seldon. I must say, Charles paid them most assiduous attention. He positively neglected his other guests in order to keep close to the two new-comers.

Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell noticed the fact, and commented on it.

"Y are really too good to us, Sir Charles," she said. "I'm ou afraid you allow us quite to monopolise you!" But Charles, gallant as ever, replied with a smile, "We have you with us for so short a time, you know!" Which made Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell blush again that delicious blush of hers.

During all this time the Professor went on calmly and persistently mineralogising. "Wonderful character!" Charles said to me. "He works out his parts so well! Could anything exceed the picture he gives one of scientific ardour?" And, indeed, he was at it, morning, noon, and night. "Sooner or later," Charles observed, "something practical must come of it."

Twice, meanwhile, little episodes occurred which are well worth notice. One day I was out with the Professor on the Long Mountain, watching him hammer at the rocks, and a little bored by his performance, when, to pass the time, I asked him what a particular small water-worn stone was.

He looked at it and smiled. "If there were a little more mica in it," he said, "it would be the characteristic gneiss of iceborne boulders, hereabouts. But there isn't quite enough."

And he gazed at it curiously.

"Indeed," I answered, "it doesn't come up to sample, doesn't it?" He gave me a meaning look. "Ten per cent," he murmured in a slow, strange voice; "ten per cent is more usual."

I trembled violently. Was he bent, then, upon ruining me?

"If you betray me—" I cried, and broke off.

"I beg your pardon," he said. He was all pure innocence.

I reflected on what Charles had said about taking nothing for granted, and held my tongue prudently.

The other incident was this. Charles picked a sprig of white heather on the hill one afternoon, after a picnic lunch, I regret to say, when he had taken perhaps a glass more champagne than was strictly good for him. He was not exactly the worse for it, but he was excited, goodhumoured, reckless, and lively. He brought the sprig to Mrs.

Forbes-Gaskell, and handed it to her, ogling a little.

"Sweets to the sweet," he murmured, and looked at her meaningly. "White heather to White Heather." Then he saw what he had done, and checked himself instantly.

Mrs. Forbes-Gaskell coloured up in the usual manner. "I —I don't quite understand," she faltered.

Charles scrambled out of it somehow. "White heather for luck," he said, "and—the man who is privileged to give a piece of it to you is surely lucky."

She smiled, none too well pleased. I somehow felt she suspected us of suspecting her.

However, as it turned out, nothing came, after all, of the untoward incident.

Next day Charles burst upon me, triumphant. "Well, he has shown his hand!" he cried. "I knew he would. He has come to me to-day with—what do you think?—a fragment of gold, in quartz, from the Long Mountain."

"No!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," Charles answered. "He says there's a vein there with distinct specks of gold in it, which might be worth mining. When a man begins that way you know what he's driving at! And what's more, he's got up the subject beforehand; for he began saying to me there had long been gold in Sutherlandshire—why not therefore in Ross-shire?

And then he went at full into the comparative geology of the two regions."

"This is serious," I said. "What will you do?" "Wait and watch," Charles answered; "and the moment he develops a proposal for shares in the syndicate to work the mine, or a sum of money down as the price of his discovery—get in the police, and arrest him."

For the next few days the Professor was more active and ardent than ever. He went peering about the rocks on every side with his hammer. He kept on bringing in little pieces of stone, with gold specks stuck in them, and talking learnedly of the "probable cost of crushing and milling." Charles had heard all that before; in point of fact, he had assisted at the drafting of some dozens of prospectuses. So he took no notice, and waited for the man with the wig to develop his proposals. He knew they would come soon; and he watched and waited. But, of course, to draw him on he pretended to be interested.





While we were all in this attitude of mind, attending on Providence and Colonel Clay, we happened to walk down by the shore one day, in the opposite direction from the Seamew's island. Suddenly we came upon the Professor linked arm-in-arm with—Sir Adolphus Cordery! They were wrapped in deep talk, and appeared to be most amicable.

Now, naturally, relations had been a trifle strained between Sir Adolphus and the house of Vandrift since the incident of the Slump; but under the present circumstances, and with such a matter at stake as the capture of Colonel Clay, it was necessary to overlook all such minor differences. So Charles managed to disengage the Professor from his friend, sent Amelia on with ForbesGaskell towards the castle, and stopped behind, himself, with Sir Adolphus and me, to clear up the question.

"Do you know this man, Cordery?" he asked, with some little suspicion.

"Know him? Why, of course I do," Sir Adolphus answered. "He's Marmaduke Forbes-Gaskell, of the Yorkshire College, a very distinguished man of science.

First-rate mineralogist—perhaps the best (but one) in England." Modesty forbade him to name the exception.

"But are you sure it's he?" Charles inquired, with growing doubt. "Have you known him before? This isn't a second case of Schleiermachering me, is it?" "Sure it's he?" Sir Adolphus echoed. "Am I sure of myself? Why, I've known Marmy Gaskell ever since we were at Trinity together. Knew him before he married Miss Forbes of Glenluce, my wife's second cousin, and hyphened his name with hers, to keep the property in the family. Know them both most intimately. Came down here to the inn because I heard that Marmy was on the prowl among these hills, and I thought he had probably something good to prowl after—in the way of fossils."

"But the man wears a wig!" Charles expostulated.

"Of course," Cordery answered. "He's as bald as a bat— in front at least—and he wears a wig to cover his baldness."

"It's disgraceful," Charles exclaimed; "disgraceful— taking us in like that." And he grew red as a turkey-cock.

Sir Adolphus has no delicacy. He burst out laughing.

"Oh, I see," he cried out, simply bursting with amusement. "Y thought Forbes-Gaskell was Colonel ou Clay in disguise! Oh, my stars, what a lovely one!" "You, at least, have no right to laugh," Charles responded, drawing himself up and growing still redder.

"Y led me once into a similar scrape, and then backed ou out of it in a way unbecoming a gentleman. Besides," he went on, getting angrier at each word, "this fellow, whoever he is, has been trying to cheat me on his own account.

Colonel Clay or no Colonel Clay, he's been salting my rocks with gold-bearing quartz, and trying to lead me on into an absurd speculation!" Sir Adolphus exploded. "Oh, this is too good," he cried. "I must go and tell Marmy!" And he rushed off to where Forbes-Gaskell was seated on a corner of rock with Amelia.

As for Charles and myself, we returned to the house. Half an hour later Forbes-Gaskell came back, too, in a towering temper.

"What is the meaning of this, sir?" he shouted out, as soon as he caught sight of Charles. "I'm told you've invited my wife and myself here to your house in order to spy upon us, under the impression that I was Clay, the notorious swindler!" "I thought you were," Charles answered, equally angry.

"Perhaps you may be still! Anyhow, you're a rogue, and you tried to bamboozle me!" Forbes-Gaskell, white with rage, turned to his trembling wife. "Gertrude," he said, "pack up your box and come away from these people instantly. Their pretended hospitality has been a studied insult. They've put you and me in a most ridiculous position. We were told before we came here—and no doubt with truth—that Sir Charles Vandrift was the most close-fisted and tyrannical old curmudgeon in Scotland. We've been writing to all our friends to say ecstatically that he was, on the contrary, a most hospitable, generous, and large-hearted gentleman.

And now we find out he's a disgusting cad, who asks strangers to his house from the meanest motives, and then insults his guests with gratuitous vituperation. It is well such people should hear the plain truth now and again in their lives; and it therefore gives me the greatest pleasure to tell Sir Charles Vandrift that he's a vulgar bounder of the first water. Go and pack your box, Gertrude! I'll run down to the Cromarty Arms, and order a cab to carry us away at once from this inhospitable sham castle."

"Y wear a wig, sir; you wear a wig," Charles ou exclaimed, half-choking with passion. For, indeed, as Forbes-Gaskell spoke, and tossed his head angrily, the nature of his hair-covering grew painfully apparent. It was quite one-sided.

"I do, sir, that I may be able to shake it in the face of a cad!" the Professor responded, tearing it off to readjust it;

and, suiting the action to the word, he brandished it thrice in Charles's eyes; after which he darted from the room, speechless with indignation.

As soon as they were gone, and Charles had recovered breath sufficiently to listen to rational conversation, I ventured to observe, "This comes of being too sure! We made one mistake. We took it for granted that because a man wears a wig, he must be an impostor—which does not necessarily follow. We forgot that not Colonel Clays alone have false coverings to their heads, and that wigs may sometimes be worn from motives of pure personal vanity. In fact, we were again the slaves of preconceptions."

I looked at him pointedly. Charles rose before he replied.

"Seymour Wentworth," he said at last, gazing down upon me with lofty scorn, "your moralising is ill-timed. It appears to me you entirely misunderstand the position and duties of a private secretary!" The oddest part of it all, however, was this—that Charles, being convinced Forbes-Gaskell, though he wasn't Colonel Clay, had been fraudulently salting the rocks with gold, with intent to deceive, took no further notice of the alleged discoveries. The consequence was that Forbes-Gaskell and Sir Adolphus went elsewhere with the secret; and it was not till after Charles had sold the Seldon Castle estate (which he did shortly afterward, the place having somehow grown strangely distasteful to him) that the present "Seldon Eldorados, Limited," were put upon the market by Lord Craig-Ellachie, who purchased the place from him. ForbesGaskell, as it happened, had reported to Craig-Ellachie that he had found a lode of high-grade ore on an estate unnamed, which he would particularise on promise of certain contingent claims to founder's shares; and the old lord jumped at it. Charles sold at grouse-moor prices; and the consequence is that the capital of the Eldorados is yielding at present very fair returns, even after allowing for expenses of promotion—while Charles has been done out of a good thing in gold-mines!

But, remembering "the position and duties of a private secretary," I refrained from pointing out to him at the time that this loss was due to a fixed idea—though as a matter of fact it depended upon Charles's strange preconception that the man with the wig, whoever he might be, was trying to diddle him.

Chapter

THE EPISODE OF THE

JAPANNED DISPATCH-BOX

"Sey," my brother-in-law said next spring, "I'm sick and tired of London! Let's shoulder our wallets at once, and I will to some distant land, where no man doth me know."

"Mars or Mercury?" I inquired; "for, in our own particular planet, I'm afraid you'll find it just a trifle difficult for Sir Charles Vandrift to hide his light under a bushel."

"Oh, I'll manage it," Charles answered. "What's the good of being a millionaire, I should like to know, if you're always obliged to 'behave as sich'? I shall travel incog. I'm dogtired of being dogged by these endless impostors."

And, indeed, we had passed through a most painful winter. Colonel Clay had stopped away for some months, it is true, and for my own part, I will confess, since it wasn't my place to pay the piper, I rather missed the wonted excitement than otherwise. But Charles had grown horribly and morbidly suspicious. He carried out his principle of "distrusting everybody and disbelieving everything," till life was a burden to him. He spotted impossible Colonel Clays under a thousand disguises; he was quite convinced he had frightened his enemy away at least a dozen times over, beneath the varying garb of a fat club waiter, a tall policeman, a washerwoman's boy, a solicitor's clerk, the Bank of England beadle, and the collector of water-rates. He saw him as constantly, and in as changeful forms, as mediæval saints used to see the devil. Amelia and I really began to fear for the stability of that splendid intellect; we foresaw that unless the Colonel Clay nuisance could be abated somehow, Charles might sink by degrees to the mental level of a common or ordinary Stock-Exchange plunger.

So, when my brother-in-law announced his intention of going away incog. to parts unknown, on the succeeding Saturday, Amelia and I felt a flush of relief from longcontinued tension. Especially Amelia—who was not going with him.

"For rest and quiet," he said to us at breakfast, laying down the Morning Post, "give me the deck of an Atlantic liner! No letters; no telegrams. No stocks; no shares. No Times; no Saturday. I'm sick of these papers!" "The World is too much with us," I assented cheerfully. I regret to say, nobody appreciated the point of my quotation.

Charles took infinite pains, I must admit, to ensure perfect secrecy. He made me write and secure the best state-rooms—main deck, amidships—under my own name, without mentioning his, in the Etruria, for New Y ork, on her very next voyage. He spoke of his destination to nobody but Amelia; and Amelia warned Césarine, under pains and penalties, on no account to betray it to the other servants. Further to secure his incog., Charles assumed the style and title of Mr. Peter Porter, and booked as such in the Etruria at Liverpool.

The day before starting, however, he went down with me to the City for an interview with his brokers in Adam's Court, Old Broad Street. Finglemore, the senior partner, hastened, of course, to receive us. As we entered his private room a good-looking young man rose and lounged out. "Halloa, Finglemore," Charles said, "that's that scamp of a brother of yours! I thought you had shipped him off years and years ago to China?" "So I did, Sir Charles," Finglemore answered, rubbing his hands somewhat nervously. "But he never went there.



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