Book One
Chapter XXI. Some Excellent Advice
 

Tavernake, in response to a somewhat urgent message, walked into his solicitor's office almost as soon as they opened on the following morning. The junior partner of the firm, who took an interest in him, and was anxious, indeed, to invest a small amount in the Marston Rise Building Company, received him cordially but with some concern.

"Look here, Tavernake," he said, "I thought I'd better write a line and ask you to come down. You haven't forgotten, have you, that our option of purchase lasts only three days longer?"

Tavernake nodded.

"Well, what of it?" he asked.

"It's just as well that you should understand the situation," the lawyer continued. "Your old people are hard upon our heels in this matter, and there will be no chance of any extension--not even for an hour. Mr. Dowling has already put in an offer a thousand pounds better than yours; I heard that incidentally yesterday afternoon; so you may be sure that the second your option has legally expired, the thing will be off altogether so far as you're concerned."

"That's all very well," Tavernake remarked, "but what about the plots that already belong to me?"

"They have some sort of scheme for leaving those high and dry," the solicitor explained. "You see, the drainage and lighting will be largely influenced by the purchaser of the whole estate. If Dowling gets it, he means to treat your plots so that they will become practically valueless. It's rather a mean sort of thing, but then he's a mean little man."

Tavernake nodded.

"Well," he announced, "I was coming to see you, anyhow, this morning, to talk to you about the money."

"Your friend isn't backing out?" the lawyer asked, quickly.

"My friend has not said anything about backing out yet," Tavernake replied, "but circumstances have arisen during the last few days which have altered my own views as to the expediency of business relations with this person. I haven't any reason to suppose that the money won't be forthcoming, but if I could get it from any other source, I should prefer it."

The solicitor looked blank.

"Of course," he said, "I'll do what I can, if you like, but I may as well tell you at once that I don't think I should have a ghost of a chance of raising the whole amount."

"I suppose," Tavernake inquired, thoughtfully, "your firm couldn't do anything?"

"We could do something, certainly," the solicitor answered, "on account of our own clients. We might, perhaps, manage up to five thousand pounds. That would still leave us wanting seven, however, and I scarcely see where we could get it."

Tavernake was silent for a few moments.

"You haven't quarreled with your friend, have you?" the solicitor asked.

"No, there has been no quarrel," Tavernake replied. "I have another reason."

"If I were you, I'd try and forget it," his friend advised. "To tell you the truth, I have been feeling rather anxious about this affair. It's a big thing, you know, and the profit is as sure as the dividend on Consols. I should hate to have that little bounder Dowling get in and scoop it up."

"It's a fine investment," admitted Tavernake, "and, as you say, there isn't the slightest risk. That's why I was hoping you might have been able to manage it without my calling upon my friend."

Mr. Martin shook his head.

"It isn't so easy to convince other people. All the same, I don't want to get left. If you'll take my advice, you'll go and call on your friend at once, and see exactly how matters stand. If everything's O.K. and you can induce him to part a few hours before it is absolutely necessary, I must confess that it would take a load off my mind. I don't like these affairs that have to be concluded at the last possible moment."

"Well," Tavernake agreed, "I must try what I can do, then. There is nothing else fresh, I suppose?"

"Nothing," the solicitor answered. "Come back, if you can make any definite arrangement, or telephone. The matter is really bothering me a little. I don't want to have the other people slip in now." . . .

Tavernake, instead of obeying his first impulse and making his way direct to the Milan Court, walked to the flat in Kingsway, climbed up the stone steps, and asked for Beatrice. She met him at her own door, fully dressed.

"My dear Leonard!" she exclaimed, in surprise. "What an early caller!"

"I want a few words with you," he said. "Can you spare me five minutes?"

"You must walk with me to the theatre," she replied, "I am just off to rehearsal."

They descended the stairs together.

"I have something to tell you," Tavernake began, "something to tell you which you won't like to hear."

"Something which I won't like to hear," she repeated, fearfully. "Go on, Leonard. It can't be worse than it sounds."

"I don't know why I've come to tell you," he went on. "I never meant to. It came into my mind all of a sudden and I felt that I must. It has to do with your sister and the Marston Rise affair."

"My sister and the Marston Rise affair!" Beatrice exclaimed, incredulously.

Then a sudden light broke in upon her. She stopped short and clutched at his hand.

"You don't mean that it was Elizabeth who was going to find you the money?" she cried.

"I do," he answered. "She offered it of her own accord. I do not know why I talked to her of my own affairs, but she led me on to speak of them. Your sister is a wonderful person," he continued, dropping his voice. "I don't know why, but she made me talk as no one else has ever made me talk before. I simply had to tell her things. Then, when I had finished, she showed me her bankbooks and suggested that she should invest some of her money in the Rise."

"But do you mean to tell me," Beatrice persisted, "that it is her money upon which you are relying for this purchase?"

Tavernake nodded.

"You see," he explained, "Mr. Dowling dropped upon us before I was prepared. As soon as he found out, he went to the owners of the estate and made them a bid for it. The consequence was that they shortened my option and gave me very little chance indeed to find the money. When your sister offered it, it certainly seemed a wonderful stroke of fortune. I could give her eight or ten per cent, whereas she would only get four anywhere else, and I should make a profit for myself of over ten thousand pounds, which I cannot do unless I find the money to buy the estate."

"But you mustn't touch that money, you mustn't have anything to do with it!" Beatrice exclaimed, walking very fast and looking straight ahead. "You don't understand. How should you?"

"Do you mean that the money was stolen?" Tavernake asked, after a moment's pause.

"No, not stolen," Beatrice replied, "but it comes--oh! I can't tell you, only Elizabeth has no right to it. My own sister! It is all too awful!"

"Do you think that she has come by this money dishonestly?"

"I am not sure," Beatrice murmured. "There are worse things, more terrible things even than theft."

The practical side of Tavernake's nature was very much to the fore that morning. He began to wonder whether women, after all, strange and fascinating creatures though they were, possessed judgment which could be relied upon--whether they were not swayed too much by sentiment.

"Beatrice," he said, "you must understand this. I have no time to raise the money elsewhere. If I don't get it from your sister, supposing she is still willing to let me have it, my chance has gone. I shall have to take a situation in some one else's office as a clerk--probably not so good a place as I held at Dowling & Spence's. On the other hand, the use of that money for a very short time would be the start of my career. All that you say is so vague. Why need I know anything about it? I met your sister in the ordinary way of business and she has made an ordinary business proposition to me, one by which she will be, incidentally, very greatly benefited. I never thought of telling you this at all, but when the time came I hated to go and draw that money from your sister without having said anything to you. So I came this morning, but I want you, if you possibly can, to look at the matter from my point of view."

She was silent for several moments. Then she glanced at him curiously.

"Why on earth," she asked, "should my sister make this offer to you? She isn't a fool. She doesn't usually trust strangers."

"She trusted me, apparently," Tavernake answered.

"Can you understand why?" Beatrice demanded.

"I think that I can," he replied. "If one can rely upon one's perception, she is surrounded by people whom she might find agreeable companions but whom she is scarcely likely to have much confidence in. Perhaps she realized that I wasn't like them."

"And you want very much to take this money?" she said, half to herself.

"I want to very much indeed," Tavernake admitted. "I was on my way to see her this morning and to ask her to let me have it a day or two before the time, but I felt, somehow, that there seemed to be a certain amount of deceit in going to her and taking it without saying a word to you. I felt that I had to come here first. But Beatrice, don't ask me to give it up. It means such a long time before I can move again. It's the first step that's so difficult, and I must--I must make a start. It's such a chance, this. I have spent so many hours thinking about it. I have planned and worked and sketched it all out as no one else could do. I must have that money."

They walked on in silence until they reached the stage door. Beatrice was thinking of her companion as she had seen him so often, poring over his plans, busy with ruler and india-rubber, absolutely absorbed in the interest of his task. She remembered the first time he had talked about this scheme of his, how his whole face had changed, the almost passionate interest with which he had worked the thing out even to its smallest details. She realized how great a part of his life the thing had become, what a terrible blow it would be to him to have to abandon it. She turned and faced him.

"Leonard," she said, "perhaps, after all, you are right. Perhaps I give way too much to what, after all, is only a sentimental feeling. I am thankful that you came and told me; I shall always be thankful for that. Take the money, but pay it back as soon as you can."

"I shall do that," he answered. "I shall do that you may rely upon it."

She laid her hand upon his arm.

"Leonard," she begged, "I know that Elizabeth is very beautiful and very fascinating, and I don't wonder that you like to go and see her, but I want to ask you to promise me one thing."

He felt as though he were suddenly turned into stone. It was not possible--it could not be possible that she had guessed his secret!

"Well?" he demanded.

"Don't let her introduce you to her friends; don't spend too much time there," she continued. "Elizabeth is my sister and I don't --really I don't want to say anything that doesn't sound kind, but her friends are not fit people for you to know, and Elizabeth --well she hasn't very much heart."

He was silent for several moments.

"How did you know I liked going to see your sister? " he asked, abruptly.

She smiled.

"My dear Leonard," she said, "you are not very clever at hiding your feelings. When you came to see me the other day, do you imagine I believed for a single moment that you asked me to marry you simply because you cared? I think, Leonard, that it was because you were afraid, you were afraid of something coming into your life so big, so terrifying, that you were ready to clutch at the easiest chance of safety."

"Beatrice, this is absurd!" he exclaimed.

She shook her head.

"No, it isn't that," she declared. "Do you know, my dear Leonard, what there was about you from the very first which attracted me?"

"No," he answered.

"It was your honesty," she continued. "You remember that night upon the roof at Blenheim House? You were going to tell a lie for me, and I know how you hated it. You love the truth, you are truthful naturally; I would rely upon you wherever I was. I know that you would keep your word, I know that you would be honest. A woman loves to feel that about a man--she loves it--and I don't want you to be brought near the people who sneer at honesty and all good things. I don't want you to hear their point of view. You may be simple and commonplace in some respects; I want you to stay just as you are. Do you understand?"

"I understand," Tavernake replied gravely.

A call boy shouted her name down the stone passage. She patted him on the shoulder and turned away.

"Run along now and get the money," she said. "Come and see me when it's all over."

Tavernake left her with a long breath of relief and made his way towards the Strand. At the corner of Wellington Street he came face to face with Pritchard. They stopped at once. There seemed to be something embarrassing about this meeting. lPritchard patted him familiarly on the shoulder.

"How goes it, old man?" he asked.

"I am all right," Tavernake answered, somewhat awkwardly. "How are you?"

"I guess I'd be the better for a drink," Pritchard declared. "Come along. Pretty well done up the other night, weren't we? We'll step into the American Bar here and try a gin fizz."

They found themselves presently perched upon two high stools in a deserted corner of the bar to which Pritchard had led the way. Tavernake sipped his drink tentatively.

"I should like," he said, "to ask you a question or two about Wednesday night."

Pritchard nodded.

"Go right ahead," he invited.

"You seem to take the whole affair as a sort of joke," Tavernake remarked.

"Well, isn't that what it was?" the detective asked, smiling.

Tavernake shrugged his shoulders.

"There didn't seem to me to be much joke about it!" he exclaimed.

Pritchard laughed gayly.

"You are not used to Americans, my young friend," he said. "Over on this side you are all so fearfully literal. You are not seriously supposing that they meant to dose me with that stuff the other night, eh?"

"I never thought that there was any doubt about it at all," Tavernake declared deliberately.

Pritchard stroked his moustache meditatively.

"Well," he remarked, "you are certainly green, and yet I don't know why you shouldn't be. Americans are always up to games of that sort. I am not saying that they didn't mean to give me a scare, if they could, or that they wouldn't have been glad to get a few words of information out of me, or a paper or two that I keep pretty safely locked up. It would have been a better joke on me then. But as for the rest, as for really trying to make me take that stuff, of course, that was all bunkum."

Tavernake sat quite still in his chair for several minutes.

"Will you take another gin fizz, Mr. Pritchard?" he asked.

"Why not?"

Tavernake gave the order. He sat on his stool whistling softly to himself.

"Then I suppose," he said at last, "I must have looked a pretty sort of an ass coming through the wall like a madman."

Pritchard shook his head.

"You looked just about what you were," he answered, "a d----d good sort. I'm not playing up to you that it was all pretense. You can never trust that gang. The blackguard outside was in earnest, anyway. After all, you know, they wouldn't miss me if I were to drop quietly out. There 's no one else they 're quite so much afraid of. There 's no one else knows quite as much about them."

"Well, we'll let it go at that," Tavernake declared. "You know so much of all these people, though, that I rather wish you 'd tell me something I want very much to know."

"It's by telling nothing," the detective replied quickly, "that I know as much as I do. Just one cocktail, eh?"

Tavernake shook his head.

"I drank my first cocktail last night," he remarked. "I had supper with the professor and his daughter."

"Not Elizabeth?" Pritchard asked swiftly.

Tavernake shook his head.

"With Miss Beatrice," he answered.

Pritchard set down his glass.

"Say, Tavernake," he inquired, "you are friendly with that young lady, Miss Beatrice, aren't you?"

"I certainly am," Tavernake answered. "I have a very great regard for her."

"Then I can tell you how to do her a good turn," Pritchard continued, earnestly. "Keep her away from that old blackguard. Keep her away from all the gang. Believe me, she is looking for trouble by even speaking to them."

"But the man's her father," Tavernake objected, "and he seems fond of her."

"Don't you believe it," Pritchard went on. "He's fond of nothing and nobody but himself and easy living. He's soft, mind you, he's got plenty of sentiment, he 'll squeeze a tear out of his eye, and all that sort of thing, but he'd sell his soul, or his daughter's soul, for a little extra comfort. Now Elizabeth doesn't know exactly where her sister is, and she daren't seem anxious, or go around making inquiries. Beatrice has her chance to keep away, and I can tell you it will be a thundering sight better for her if she does."

"Well, I don't understand it at all," Tavernake declared. "I hate mysteries."

Pritchard set down his empty glass.

"Look here," he remarked, "this affair is too serious, after all, for us to talk round like a couple of gossips. I have given you your warning, and if you're wise you 'll remember it."

"Tell me this one thing," Tavernake persisted. "Tell me what is the cause of the quarrel between the two? Can't something be done to bring them together again?"

Pritchard shook his head.

"Nothing," he answered. "As things are at present, they are better apart. Coming my way?"

Tavernake followed him out of the place. Pritchard took his arm as he turned down toward the Strand.

"My young friend," he said, "here is a word of advice for you. The Scriptures say that you cannot serve God and mammon. Paraphrase that to the present situation and remember that you cannot serve Elizabeth and Beatrice."

"What then?" Tavernake demanded.

The detective waited until he had lit the long black cigar between his teeth.

"I guess you'd better confine your attentions to Beatrice," he concluded."