Chapter XVI. An Ally in the Quest
 

Commercially he was doing well. Quodling and Son were more than satisfied with him. Excellent prospects lay ahead, and this time it would assuredly be his own fault if he had not secured the permanency so much desired for him by Mrs. Clover.

By the by, would this make any difference? What if he let Mrs. Clover know of his greatly improved position? She might reconsider things. And yet, as often as he thought of Minnie, he felt that her mother's objection corresponded too well with the disposition of the girl. Minnie was not for him. Well and good, he would find somebody else.

Polly Sparkes? Polly be hanged. Why did her eyes and her teeth and her rosy cheeks keep plaguing him? He had told himself times innumerable that he cared not a snap of the fingers for Polly and all her highly-coloured attractions. If only he had not been such a fool as to treat her shabbily last Sunday morning! He felt sorry, and couldn't get rid of the vexation.

It worried him this afternoon as he left Quodlings in Norton Folgate and walked towards the Bank. He was thinking, too, of a poor fellow with a large family for whom he had tried these last few days to find employment, without the usual success. In Threadneedle Street a hand arrested him.

"Just the man I wanted," said the voice of Mr. Greenacre. He was in an elegant overcoat, with a silk hat of the newest fashion. You remember your promise?

"What promise?"

"Nonsense! But we can't talk about it here. Come to the Bilboes. Don't know the Bilboes? What a mood you're in to-day."

Mr. Gammon flattered himself that he knew the City tolerably well, but with the place of refreshment to which his friend now led him he was totally unacquainted. It stood or lurked in a very obscure by-way between the Bank and St. Paul's, and looked externally by no means inviting; within, but for the absence of daylight at all times, it was comfortable enough, and peculiarly quiet--something between an old inn and a modern public-house, with several small rooms for eating, drinking, smoking, or any other legitimate occupation. The few men who were about had a prosperous appearance, and Gammon saw that they did not belong to his special world.

"What does the name mean?" he inquired, as they seated themselves under a gas-jet in a corner made cosy with a deep divan.

"Bilboes? Oh, I originated it in the days gone by. The proprietor was a man called William Bowes--you perceive? Poor little Jimmy Todd used to roar about it. The best-natured fellow that ever lived. You've heard me speak of him--second son of Sir Luke Todd. Died, poor boy, out in India."

"What promise of mine were you talking about?" asked Gammon, when an order for drinks had been given.

"Promise--promise? Nonsense! You're wool-gathering to-day, my dear boy. By the by, I called at your place on Sunday. I was driving a very fresh pony, new to harness; promised to trot her round a little for a friend of mine. Thought you might have liked a little turn on the Surrey roads."

Greenacre chatted with his usual fluency, and seemed at ease in the world.

"You're doing well just now, eh?" said Gammon presently.

"Thanks; feel remarkably well. A touch of liver now and then, but nothing serious. By the by, anything I can do for you? Any genealogy?"

Gammon had drained his tumbler of hot whisky, and felt better for it. With the second he became more communicative. He asked himself why, after all, he should not hang on to the clue he had obtained from Polly, and why Greenacre should not be made use of.

"Know anything about a Gildersleeve?" he asked with a laugh.

His companion smiled cheerfully, looking at once more interested.

"Gildersleeve! Why, yes, there was a boy of that name--no, no; it was Gildersleeves, I remember. Any connexion with Quodling?"

"Can't say. The people I mean live in Stanhope Gardens. I don't know anything about them."

"Like to?"

Gammon admitted that the name had a significance for him. A matter of curiosity.

"No harm in a bit of genealogy," said Greenacre. "Always interesting. Stanhope Gardens? What number?"

He urged no further question and gave no promise, but Gammon felt sure this time that information would speedily be forthcoming. Scarcely a week passed before Greenacre wrote to him with a request for a meeting at the Bilboes. As usual, the man of mystery approached his subject by indirect routes. Beginning with praise of London as the richest ground of romance discoverable in the world, he proceeded to tell the story of a cats'-meat woman who, after purveying for the cats at a West End mansion for many years, discovered one day that the master of the house was her own son.

"He behaved to her very handsomely. At this moment she is living in a pleasant little villa out Leatherhead way. You see her driving herself in a little donkey-carriage, and throwing bits of meat to pussy-cats at the cottage doors. Touch of nature that, isn't it? By the by, you were speaking of a family named Gildersleeve."

He added this, absently looking about the little room, which just now they had to themselves.

"Know anything about them?" asked Gammon, eyeing him curiously.

"I was just going to say--ah, yes, to be sure, the Gildersleeves. Now I wonder, Gammon--forgive me, I can't help wondering--why this family interests you."

"Oh, nothing. I came across the name."

"Evidently." Greenacre's tone became a little more positive. "I'm sure you have no objection to telling me how and where you came across it."

Gammon had an uncomfortable sense of something unfamiliar in his friend. Greenacre had never spoken in this way to him; it sounded rather too imperative, too much the tone of a superior.

"I don't think I can tell you that," he said awkwardly.

"No? Really? I'm sorry. In that case I can't tell you anything that I have learnt. Yet I fancy it might be worth your while to exchange."

"Exchange?"

"Your information for mine, you know. What I have is substantial, reliable. I think you can trust me in matters of genealogy. Come now. Am I right in supposing this curiosity of yours is not altogether unconnected with Your interest in Francis Quodling the silk broker? Nothing to me, Gammon; nothing, I assure you. Pure love of genealogical inquiry. Never made a penny out of such things in my life. But I have taken a little trouble, etc. As a matter of friendship--no? Then we'll drop the subject. By the by have you a black-and-tan to dispose of?"

He passed into a vein so chatty and so amiable that Gammon began to repent of distrusting him. Besides, his information might be really valuable and could not easily be obtained in any other way.

"Look here, Greenacre, I don't see why I shouldn't tell you. The fact is, a man I used to know has disappeared, and I want to find him. He was seen at the theatre with a lady who lives at that house; that's the long and the short of it."

"Good! Now we're getting on in the old way. Age of the man about fifty, eh? And if I remember you said he was like Quodling in the face, Francis Quodling? Just so. H'm. I can assure you, then, that no such individual lives at the house we're speaking of."

"No, but perhaps--"

"One moment. The Gildersleeves are a young married couple. With them lives an older lady--"

Greenacre paused, meditating.

"The name of the missing man?" he added gently.

"Fellow called Clover."

"Clover--clover? Clo--"

Greenacre's first repetition of the name was mechanical, the next sounded a note of confused surprise, the third broke short in a very singular way, just as if his eyes had suddenly fallen on something which startled him into silence. Yet no one had entered the room, no face had appeared at the door.

"What's up?" asked Gammon.

The other regained his self-possession, as though he had for a moment wandered mentally from the subject they were discussing.

"Forgive me. What name did you say? Yes, yes, Clover. Odd name. Tell me something about him. Where did you know him? What was he?"

Having gone so far, Gammon saw no reason for refusing the details of the story. With the pleasure that every man feels in narrating circumstances known only to a few, he told all he could about the career of Mrs. Clover's husband. Greenacre listened with a placidly smiling attention.

"Just the kind of thing I am always coming across," he remarked. "Everyday story in London. We must find this man. Do you know his Christian name?"

Mrs. Clover called him Mark.

"Mark? May or may not be his own, of course. And now, if you permit the question, who saw this man and recognized him in the theatre?"

Gammon gave a laugh. Then, fearing that he might convey a wrong impression, he answered seriously that it was a niece of Mrs. Clover, a young lady with whom he was on friendly terms, nothing whatever but friendly terms; a most respectable young lady--anxious, naturally, to bring Mrs. Clover and her husband together again, but discreet enough to have kept the matter quiet as yet. And he explained how it came about that this young lady knew only the address in Stanhope Gardens.

After reflecting upon that, Greenacre urged that it would be just as well not to take the young lady into their counsel for the present, to which his friend readily assented. And so, when they had chatted a little longer, the man of mystery rose "to keep an appointment." Gammon should hear from him in a day or two.

When ten days had gone by without the fulfilment of this promise Gammon grew uneasy. He could not communicate with Greenacre, having no idea' where the man lived or where he was to be heard of; an inquiry at the Bilboes proved that he was not known there. One evening Gammon went to look for himself at the house in Stanhope Gardens; he hung about the place for half an hour, but saw nothing of interest or importance. He walked once or twice along Shaftesbury Avenue, but did not chance to meet Polly, and could not make up his mind to beg an interview with her. At the end of a fortnight Greenacre wrote, and that evening they met again at the obscure house of entertainment.

"It is not often," said Greenacre, in a despondent tone, "that I have found an inquiry so difficult. Of course it interests me all the more, and I shall go on with it, but I must freely confess that I've got nothing yet--absolutely nothing."

Gammon observed him vigilantly.

"Do you know what has occurred to me?" pursued the other, with a half melancholy droop of the head. "I really begin to fear that the young lady, your friend, may have made a mistake."

"How can that be, when he met her twice and talked with her?"

" You didn't tell me that," replied Greenacre, as if surprised.

"No, I didn't mention it. I thought it was enough to tell you she spied him at the theatre."

He added a brief account of what had happened between Polly and her uncle, Greenacre listening as if this threw new light on the case.

"Then the mistake is mine. It's more interesting than ever. This puts me on my mettle, Gammon. Don't lose courage. I have a wonderful scent in this kind of thing. Above all, not a word to anybody--you understand the importance of that?"

"That's all right."

"I have a theory--oh, yes, there's a theory. Without a theory nothing can be done. I am working, Gammon, on the scientific principle of induction."

"Oh, are you!"

"Strictly; it has never failed me yet--I can't ay now; appointment at ten-thirty. But you all hear from me in a day or two."

"I say," inquired Gammon, "what's your dress now?"

"Address?--oh, address letters to this place. They'll be all right."

Another fortnight passed. It was now early in November; the weather gloomy, and by no means favourable to evening strolls. Gammon wanted much to see both Polly and Mrs. Clover; he had all but made up his mind to write to both of them, yet could not decide on the proper tone in either case. Was he to be humble to Mrs. Clover? Should he beg pardon of Polly? That kind of thing did not come easily to him.

On a day of thin yellow fog he returned about noon from seeing to a piece of business, the result of which he had to report at once to Mr. Quodling. He entered the clerk's office and asked whether "the governor" was alone.

"No, he ain't," replied a friendly young man. "He's got a lord with him."

"A what?"

"A peer of the realm, sir! I had the honour of taking his ludship's card in--Lord Poll-parrot. Can't say I ever heard of him before."

"What d'you mean? See here, I'm in a hurry; no kid, Simpson."

"Well, it might be Poll-parrot. As a matter of fact, it's Lord Polperro."

Gammon gazed fixedly at the young man.

"Lord Polperro? By jorrocks!"

"Know him, Mr. Gammon?" asked another of the clerks.

"I know his name. All right, I'll wait."

Musing on the remarkable coincidence--which seemed to prove beyond doubt that there still existed some connexion between the family of Quodling and the titled house which he had heard of from Greenacre--he stood in the entrance passage, and looked out for five minutes through the glass door at the fog-dimmed traffic of Norton Folgate. Then a step sounded behind him. He moved aside and saw a man m a heavy fur-lined overcoat, with a muffler loose about his neck; a thin, unhealthy-looking man, with sharp eyes, rather bloodshot, which turned timidly this way and that, and a high-bridged nose. As soon as he caught sight of the face Gammon drew himself up, every muscle strung. The man observed him, looked again more furtively, stepped past to the door.

It took Gammon but a moment to dart into the clerk's room and ascertain that the person who had just gone out was Lord Polperro. A moment more and he was out in the street. The heavy-coated and mufflered man was walking quickly southward; he waved his umbrella to a passing cab, which, however, did not pull up. Gammon followed for thirty yards. Again the man hailed a cab, and this time successfully. Just as he was about to step into the vehicle Gammon stood beside him.

"How do you do, Mr. Clover?"