The twelfth of August saw us, as usual, at Seldon Castle, Ross-shire. It i_art of Charles's restless, roving temperament that, on the morning of th_leventh, wet or fine, he must set out from London, whether the House i_itting or not, in defiance of the most urgent three-line whips; and at daw_n the twelfth he must be at work on his moors, shooting down the young bird_ith might and main, at the earliest possible legal moment.
He goes on like Saul, slaying his thousands, or, like David, his tens o_housands, with all the guns in the house to help him, till the keepers war_im he has killed as many grouse as they consider desirable; and then, havin_one his duty, as he thinks, in this respect, he retires precipitately wit_lying colours to Brighton, Nice, Monte Carlo, or elsewhere. He must be always
"on the trek"; when he is buried, I believe he will not be able to rest quie_n his grave: his ghost will walk the world to terrify old ladies.
"At Seldon, at least," he said to me, with a sigh, as he stepped into hi_ullman, "I shall be safe from that impostor!"
And indeed, as soon as he had begun to tire a little of counting up hi_undreds of brace per diem, he found a trifling piece of financial work cu_eady to his hand, which amply distracted his mind for the moment from Colone_lay, his accomplices, and his villainies.
Sir Charles, I ought to say, had secured during that summer a ver_dvantageous option in a part of Africa on the Transvaal frontier, rumoured t_e auriferous. Now, whether it was auriferous or not before, the mere fac_hat Charles had secured some claim on it naturally made it so; for no man ha_ver the genuine Midas-touch to a greater degree than Charles Vandrift: whatever he handles turns at once to gold, if not to diamonds. Therefore, a_oon as my brother-in-law had obtained this option from the native vendor (_ost respected chief, by name Montsioa), and promoted a company of his own t_evelop it, his great rival in that region, Lord Craig-Ellachie (formerly Si_avid Alexander Granton), immediately secured a similar option of an adjacen_rack, the larger part of which had pretty much the same geological condition_s that covered by Sir Charles's right of pre-emption.
We were not wholly disappointed, as it turned out, in the result. A month o_wo later, while we were still at Seldon, we received a long and encouragin_etter from our prospectors on the spot, who had been hunting over the groun_n search of gold-reefs. They reported that they had found a good auriferou_ein in a corner of the tract, approachable by adit-levels; but, unfortunately, only a few yards of the lode lay within the limits of Si_harles's area. The remainder ran on at once into what was locally known a_raig-Ellachie's section.
However, our prospectors had been canny, they said; though young Mr. Granto_as prospecting at the same time, in the self-same ridge, not very far fro_hem, his miners had failed to discover the auriferous quartz; so our men ha_eld their tongues about it, wisely leaving it for Charles to govern himsel_ccordingly.
"Can you dispute the boundary?" I asked.
"Impossible," Charles answered. "You see, the limit is a meridian o_ongitude. There's no getting over that. Can't pretend to deny it. No buyin_ver the sun! No bribing the instruments! Besides, we drew the line ourselves.
We've only one way out of it, Sey. Amalgamate! Amalgamate!"
Charles is a marvellous man! The very voice in which he murmured that blesse_ord "Amalgamate!" was in itself a poem.
"Capital!" I answered. "Say nothing about it, and join forces with Craig- Ellachie."
Charles closed one eye pensively.
That very same evening came a telegram in cipher from our chief engineer o_he territory of the option: "Young Granton has somehow given us the slip an_one home. We suspect he knows all. But we have not divulged the secret t_nybody."
"Seymour," my brother-in-law said impressively, "there is no time to be lost.
I must write this evening to Sir David—I mean to My Lord. Do you happen t_now where he is stopping at present?"
"The Morning Post announced two or three days ago that he was at Glen- Ellachie," I answered.
"Then I'll ask him to come over and thrash the matter out with me," m_rother-in-law went on. "A very rich reef, they say. I must have my finger i_t!"
We adjourned into the study, where Sir Charles drafted, I must admit, a mos_udicious letter to the rival capitalist. He pointed out that the minera_esources of the country were probably great, but as yet uncertain. That th_xpense of crushing and milling might be almost prohibitive. That access t_uel was costly, and its conveyance difficult. That water was scarce, an_ommanded by our section. That two rival companies, if they happened to hi_pon ore, might cut one another's throats by erecting two sets of furnaces o_umping plants, and bringing two separate streams to the spot, where one woul_nswer. In short—to employ the golden word—that amalgamation might prov_etter in the end than competition; and that he advised, at least, _onference on the subject.
I wrote it out fair for him, and Sir Charles, with the air of a Cromwell, signed it.
"This is important, Sey," he said. "It had better be registered, for fear o_alling into improper hands. Don't give it to Dobson; let Césarine take i_ver to Fowlis in the dog-cart."
It is the drawback of Seldon that we are twelve miles from a railway station, though we look out on one of the loveliest firths in Scotland.
Césarine took it as directed—an invaluable servant, that girl! Meanwhile, w_earned from the Morning Post next day that young Mr. Granton had stolen _arch upon us. He had arrived from Africa by the same mail with our agent'_etter, and had joined his father at once at Glen-Ellachie.
Two days later we received a most polite reply from the opposing interest. I_an after this fashion:—
> "CRAIG-ELLACHIE LODGE,
> "GLEN-ELLACHIE, INVERNESS-SHIRE.
> "DEAR SIR CHARLES VANDRIFT—Thanks for yours of the 20th. In reply, I ca_nly say I fully reciprocate your amiable desire that nothing adverse t_ither of our companies should happen in South Africa. With regard to you_uggestion that we should meet in person, to discuss the basis of a possibl_malgamation, I can only say my house is at present full of guests—as i_oubtless your own—and I should therefore find it practically impossible t_eave Glen-Ellachie. Fortunately, however, my son David is now at home on _rief holiday from Kimberley; and it will give him great pleasure to come ove_nd hear what you have to say in favour of an arrangement which certainly, o_ome grounds, seems to me desirable in the interests of both our concession_like. He will arrive to-morrow afternoon at Seldon, and he is authorised, i_very respect, to negotiate with full powers on behalf of myself and the othe_irectors. With kindest regards to your wife and sons, I remain, dear Si_harles, yours faithfully,
"Cunning old fox!" Sir Charles exclaimed, with a sniff. "What's he up to now, I wonder? Seems almost as anxious to amalgamate as we ourselves are, Sey." _udden thought struck him. "Do you know," he cried, looking up, "I reall_elieve the same thing must have happened to _both_ our exploring parties.
_They_ must have found a reef that goes under _our_ ground, and the wicke_ld rascal wants to cheat us out of it!"
"As we want to cheat him," I ventured to interpose.
Charles looked at me fixedly. "Well, if so, we're both in luck," he murmured, after a pause; "though _we_ can only get to know the whereabouts of _their_ind by joining hands with them and showing them ours. Still, it's goo_usiness either way. But I shall be cautious—cautious."
"What a nuisance!" Amelia cried, when we told her of the incident. "I suppos_ shall have to put the man up for the night—a nasty, raw-boned, half-bake_cotchman, you may be certain."
On Wednesday afternoon, about three, young Granton arrived. He was a pleasant- featured, red-haired, sandy-whiskered youth, not unlike his father; but, strange to say, he dropped in to call, instead of bringing his luggage.
"Why, you're not going back to Glen-Ellachie to-night, surely?" Charle_xclaimed, in amazement. "Lady Vandrift will be _so_ disappointed! Besides, this business can't be arranged between two trains, do you think, Mr.
Young Granton smiled. He had an agreeable smile—canny, yet open.
"Oh no," he said frankly. "I didn't mean to go back. I've put up at the inn. _ave my wife with me, you know—and, I wasn't invited."
Amelia was of opinion, when we told her this episode, that David Granto_ouldn't stop at Seldon because he was an Honourable. Isabel was of opinion h_ouldn't stop because he had married an unpresentable young woman somewher_ut in South Africa. Charles was of opinion that, as representative of th_ostile interest, he put up at the inn, because it might tie his hands in som_ay to be the guest of the chairman of the rival company. And _I_ was o_pinion that he had heard of the castle, and knew it well by report as th_ullest country-house to stay at in Scotland.
However that may be, young Granton insisted on remaining at the Cromarty Arms, though he told us his wife would be delighted to receive a call from Lad_andrift and Mrs. Wentworth. So we all returned with him to bring th_onourable Mrs. Granton up to tea at the Castle.
She was a nice little thing, very shy and timid, but by no mean_npresentable, and an evident lady. She giggled at the end of every sentence; and she was endowed with a slight squint, which somehow seemed to point al_er feeble sallies. She knew little outside South Africa; but of that sh_alked prettily; and she won all our hearts, in spite of the cast in her eye, by her unaffected simplicity.
Next morning Charles and I had a regular debate with young Granton about th_ival options. Our talk was of cyanide processes, reverberatories, pennyweights, water-jackets. But it dawned upon us soon that, in spite of hi_ed hair and his innocent manners, our friend, the Honourable David Granton, knew a thing or two. Gradually and gracefully he let us see that Lord Craig- Ellachie had sent him for the benefit of the company, but that _he_ had com_or the benefit of the Honourable David Granton.
"I'm a younger son, Sir Charles," he said; "and therefore I have to feather m_est for myself. I know the ground. My father will be guided implicitly b_hat I advise in the matter. We are men of the world. Now, let's be business- like. _You_ want to amalgamate. You wouldn't do that, of course, if yo_idn't know of something to the advantage of my father's company—say, a lod_n our land—which you hope to secure for yourself by amalgamation. Very well; _I_ can make or mar your project. If you choose to render it worth my while, I'll induce my father and his directors to amalgamate. If you don't, I won't.
That's the long and the short of it!"
Charles looked at him admiringly.
"Young man," he said, "you're deep, very deep—for your age. Is this candour—o_eception? Do you mean what you say? Or do you know some reason why it suit_our father's book to amalgamate as well as it suits mine? And are you tryin_o keep it from me?" He fingered his chin. "If I only knew that," he went on,
"I should know how to deal with you."
Young Granton smiled again. "You're a financier, Sir Charles," he answered. "_onder, at your time of life, you should pause to ask another financie_hether he's trying to fill his own pocket—or his father's. Whatever is m_ather's goes to his eldest son—and _I_ am his youngest."
"You are right as to general principles," Sir Charles replied, quit_ffectionately. "Most sound and sensible. But how do I know you haven'_argained already in the same way with your father? You may have settled wit_him_ , and be trying to diddle me."
The young man assumed a most candid air. "Look here," he said, leanin_orward. "I offer you this chance. Take it or leave it. _Do_ you wish t_urchase my aid for this amalgamation by a moderate commission on the ne_alue of my father's option to yourself—which I know approximately?"
"Say five per cent," I suggested, in a tentative voice, just to justify m_resence.
He looked me through and through. " _Ten_ is more usual," he answered, in _eculiar tone and with a peculiar glance.
Great heavens, how I winced! I knew what his words meant. They were the ver_ords I had said myself to Colonel Clay, as the Count von Lebenstein, abou_he purchase-money of the schloss—and in the very same accent. I saw throug_t all now. That beastly cheque! This was Colonel Clay; and he was trying t_uy up my silence and assistance by the threat of exposure!
My blood ran cold. I didn't know how to answer him. What happened at the res_f that interview I really couldn't tell you. My brain reeled round. I hear_ust faint echoes of "fuel" and "reduction works." What on earth was I to do?
If I told Charles my suspicion—for it was only a suspicion—the fellow migh_urn upon me and disclose the cheque, which would suffice to ruin me. If _idn't, I ran a risk of being considered by Charles an accomplice and _onfederate.
The interview was long. I hardly know how I struggled through it. At the en_oung Granton went off, well satisfied, if it was young Granton; and Ameli_nvited him and his wife up to dinner at the castle.
Whatever else they were, they were capital company. They stopped for thre_ays more at the Cromarty Arms. And Charles debated and discussed incessantly.
He couldn't quite make up his mind what to do in the affair; and _I_ertainly couldn't help him. I never was placed in such a fix in my life. _id my best to preserve a strict neutrality.
Young Granton, it turned out, was a most agreeable person; and so, in her way, was that timid, unpretending South African wife of his. She was naivel_urprised Amelia had never met her mamma at Durban. They both talke_elightfully, and had lots of good stories—mostly with points that tol_gainst the Craig-Ellachie people. Moreover, the Honourable David was _plendid swimmer. He went out in a boat with us, and dived like a seal. He wa_urning to teach Charles and myself to swim, when we told him we could neithe_f us take a single stroke; he said it was an accomplishment incumbent upo_very true Englishman. But Charles hates the water; while, as for myself, _etest every known form of muscular exercise.
However, we consented that he should row us on the Firth, and made a_ppointment one day with himself and his wife for four the next evening.
That night Charles came to me with a very grave face in my own bedroom. "Sey,"
he said, under his breath, "have you observed? Have you watched? Have you an_uspicions?"
I trembled violently. I felt all was up. "Suspicions of whom?" I asked. "No_urely of Simpson?" (he was Sir Charles's valet).
My respected brother-in-law looked at me contemptuously.
"Sey," he said, "are you trying to take me in? No, _not_ of Simpson: o_hese two young folks. My own belief is—they're Colonel Clay and Madam_icardet."
"Impossible!" I cried.
He nodded. "I'm sure of it."
"How do you know?"
I seized his arm. "Charles," I said, imploring him, "do nothing rash. Remembe_ow you exposed yourself to the ridicule of fools over Dr. Polperro!"
"I've thought of that," he answered, "and I mean to ca' caller." (When i_cotland as laird of Seldon, Charles loves both to dress and to speak the par_horoughly.) "First thing to-morrow I shall telegraph over to inquire at Glen- Ellachie; I shall find out whether this is really young Granton or not; meanwhile, I shall keep my eye close upon the fellow."
Early next morning, accordingly, a groom was dispatched with a telegram t_ord Craig-Ellachie. He was to ride over to Fowlis, send it off at once, an_ait for the answer. At the same time, as it was probable Lord Craig-Ellachi_ould have started for the moors before the telegram reached the Lodge, I di_ot myself expect to see the reply arrive much before seven or eight tha_vening. Meanwhile, as it was far from certain we had not the real Davi_ranton to deal with, it was necessary to be polite to our friendly rivals.
Our experience in the Polperro incident had shown us both that too much zea_ay be more dangerous than too little. Nevertheless, taught by previou_isfortunes, we kept watching our man pretty close, determined that on thi_ccasion, at least, he should neither do us nor yet escape us.
About four o'clock the red-haired young man and his pretty little wife came u_o call for us. She looked so charming and squinted so enchantingly, one coul_ardly believe she was not as simple and innocent as she seemed to be. Sh_ripped down to the Seldon boat-house, with Charles by her side, giggling an_quinting her best, and then helped her husband to get the skiff ready. As sh_id so, Charles sidled up to me. "Sey," he whispered, "I'm an old hand, an_'m not readily taken in. I've been talking to that girl, and upon my soul _hink she's all right. She's a charming little lady. We may be mistaken afte_ll, of course, about young Granton. In any case, it's well for the present t_e courteous. A most important option! If it's really he, we must do nothin_o annoy him or let him see we suspect him."
I had noticed, indeed, that Mrs. Granton had made herself most agreeable t_harles from the very beginning. And as to one thing he was right. In he_imid, shrinking way she was undeniably charming. That cast in her eye was al_ure piquancy.
We rowed out on to the Firth, or, to be more strictly correct, the tw_rantons rowed while Charles and I sat and leaned back in the stern on th_uxurious cushions. They rowed fast and well. In a very few minutes they ha_ounded the point and got clear out of sight of the Cockneyfied towers an_alse battlements of Seldon.
Mrs. Granton pulled stroke. Even as she rowed she kept up a brisk undercurren_f timid chaff with Sir Charles, giggling all the while, half forward, hal_hy, like a school-girl who flirts with a man old enough to be he_randfather.
Sir Charles was flattered. He is susceptible to the pleasures of femal_ttention, especially from the young, the simple, and the innocent. The wile_f women of the world he knows too well; but a pretty little ingénue can twis_im round her finger. They rowed on and on, till they drew abreast of Seamew'_sland. It is a jagged stack or skerry, well out to sea, very wild an_recipitous on the landward side, but shelving gently outward; perhaps an acr_n extent, with steep gray cliffs, covered at that time with crimson masses o_ed valerian. Mrs. Granton rowed up close to it. "Oh, what lovely flowers!"
she cried, throwing her head back and gazing at them. "I wish I could ge_ome! Let's land here and pick them. Sir Charles, you shall gather me a nic_unch for my sitting-room."
Charles rose to it innocently, like a trout to a fly.
"By all means, my dear child, I—I have a passion for flowers;" which was _lower of speech itself, but it served its purpose.
They rowed us round to the far side, where is the easiest landing-place. I_truck me as odd at the moment that they seemed to know it. Then young Granto_umped lightly ashore; Mrs. Granton skipped after him. I confess it made m_eel rather ashamed to see how clumsily Charles and I followed them, treadin_ingerly on the thwarts for fear of upsetting the boat, while the artles_oung thing just flew over the gunwale. So like White Heather! However, we go_shore at last in safety, and began to climb the rocks as well as we were abl_n search of the valerian.
Judge of our astonishment when next moment those two young people bounded bac_nto the boat, pushed off with a peal of merry laughter, and left us ther_taring at them!
They rowed away, about twenty yards, into deep water. Then the man turned, an_aved his hand at us gracefully. "Good-bye!" he said, "good-bye! Hope you'l_ick a nice bunch! We're off to London!"
"Off!" Charles exclaimed, turning pale. "Off! What do you mean? You don'_urely mean to say you're going to leave us here?"
The young man raised his cap with perfect politeness, while Mrs. Granto_miled, nodded, and kissed her pretty hand to us. "Yes," he answered; "for th_resent. We retire from the game. The fact of it is, it's a trifle too thin: this is a coup manqué."
"A _what_?" Charles exclaimed, perspiring visibly.
"A coup manqué," the young man replied, with a compassionate smile. "_ailure, don't you know; a bad shot; a fiasco. I learn from my scouts that yo_ent a telegram by special messenger to Lord Craig-Ellachie this morning. Tha_hows you suspect me. Now, it is a principle of my system never to go on fo_ne move with a game when I find myself suspected. The slightest symptom o_istrust, and—I back out immediately. My plans can only be worked t_atisfaction when there is perfect confidence on the part of my patient. It i_ well-known rule of the medical profession. I _never_ try to bleed a ma_ho struggles. So now we're off. Ta-ta! Good luck to you!"
He was not much more than twenty yards away, and could talk to us quit_asily. But the water was deep; the islet rose sheer from I'm sure I don'_now how many fathoms of sea; and we could neither of us swim. Charle_tretched out his arms imploringly. "For Heaven's sake," he cried, "don't tel_e you really mean to leave us here."
He looked so comical in his distress and terror that Mrs. Granton—Madam_icardet—whatever I am to call her—laughed melodiously in her prettiest way a_he sight of him. "Dear Sir Charles," she called out, "pray don't be afraid!
It's only a short and temporary imprisonment. We will send men to take yo_ff. Dear David and I only need just time enough to get well ashore an_ake—oh!—a few slight alterations in our personal appearance." And sh_ndicated with her hand, laughing, dear David's red wig and false sand_hiskers, as we felt convinced they must be now. She looked at them an_ittered. Her manner at this moment was anything but shy. In fact, I wil_enture to say, it was that of a bold and brazen-faced hoyden.
"Then you _are_ Colonel Clay!" Sir Charles cried, mopping his brow with hi_andkerchief.
"If you choose to call me so," the young man answered politely. "I'm sure it'_ost kind of you to supply me with a commission in Her Majesty's service.
However, time presses, and we want to push off. Don't alarm yourselve_nnecessarily. I will send a boat to take you away from this rock at th_arliest possible moment consistent with my personal safety and my dea_ompanion's." He laid his hand on his heart and struck a sentimental attitude.
"I have received too many unwilling kindnesses at your hands, Sir Charles," h_ontinued, "not to feel how wrong it would be of me to inconvenience you fo_othing. Rest assured that you shall be rescued by midnight at latest.
Fortunately, the weather just at present is warm, and I see no chance of rain; so you will suffer, if at all, from nothing worse than the pangs of temporar_unger."
Mrs. Granton, no longer squinting—'twas a mere trick she had assumed—rose u_n the boat and stretched out a rug to us. "Catch!" she cried, in a merr_oice, and flung it at us, doubled. It fell at our feet; she was a capita_hrower.
"Now, you dear Sir Charles," she went on, "take that to keep you warm! Yo_now I am really quite fond of you. You're not half a bad old boy when on_akes you the right way. You have a human side to you. Why, I often wear tha_weetly pretty brooch you gave me at Nice, when I was Madame Picardet! And I'_ure your goodness to me at Lucerne, when I was the little curate's wife, is _hing to remember. We're so glad to have seen you in your lovely Scotch hom_ou were always so proud of! _Don't_ be frightened, please. We wouldn't hur_ou for worlds. We _are_ so sorry we have to take this inhospitable means o_vading you. But dear David—I _must_ call him dear David still—instinctivel_elt that you were beginning to suspect us; and he can't bear mistrust. H_is_ so sensitive! The moment people mistrust him, he _must_ break off wit_hem at once. This was the only way to get you both off our hands while w_ake the needful little arrangements to depart; and we've been driven to avai_urselves of it. However, I will give you my word of honour, as a lady, yo_hall be fetched away to-night. If dear David doesn't do it, why, I'll do i_yself." And she blew another kiss to us.
Charles was half beside himself, divided between alternate terror and anger.
"Oh, we shall die here!" he exclaimed. "Nobody'd ever dream of coming to thi_ock to search for me."
"What a pity you didn't let me teach you to swim!" Colonel Clay interposed.
"It is a noble exercise, and very useful indeed in such special emergencies!
Well, ta-ta! I'm off! You nearly scored one this time; but, by putting yo_ere for the moment, and keeping you till we're gone, I venture to say I'v_edressed the board, and I think we may count it a drawn game, mayn't we? Th_atch stands at three, love—with some thousands in pocket?"
"You're a murderer, sir!" Charles shrieked out. "We shall starve or die here!"
Colonel Clay on his side was all sweet reasonableness. "Now, my dear sir," h_xpostulated, one hand held palm outward, " _Do_ you think it probable I woul_ill the goose that lays the golden eggs, with so little compunction? No, no, Sir Charles Vandrift; I know too well how much you are worth to me. I retur_ou on my income-tax paper as five thousand a year, clear profit of m_rofession. Suppose you were to die! I might be compelled to find some new an_ar less lucrative source of plunder. Your heirs, executors, or assignee_ight not suit my purpose. The fact of it is, sir, your temperament and min_re exactly adapted one to the other. _I_ understand _you_ ; and _you_ d_ot understand _me_ —which is often the basis of the firmest friendships. _an catch you just where you are trying to catch other people. Your ver_martness assists me; for I admit you _are_ smart. As a regular financier, _llow, I couldn't hold a candle to you. But in my humbler walk of life I kno_ust how to utilise you. I lead you on, where you think you are going to gai_ome advantage over others; and by dexterously playing upon your love of _ood bargain, your innate desire to best somebody else—I succeed in bestin_ou. There, sir, you have the philosophy of our mutual relations."
He bowed and raised his cap. Charles looked at him and cowered. Yes, genius a_e is, he positively cowered. "And do you mean to say," he burst out, "yo_ntend to go on so bleeding me?"
The Colonel smiled a bland smile. "Sir Charles Vandrift," he answered, "_alled you just now the goose that lays the golden eggs. You may have though_he metaphor a rude one. But you _are_ a goose, you know, in certai_elations. Smartest man on the Stock Exchange, I readily admit; easiest foo_o bamboozle in the open country that ever I met with. You fail in on_hing—the perspicacity of simplicity. For that reason, among others, I hav_hosen to fasten upon you. Regard me, my dear sir, as a microbe o_illionaires, a parasite upon capitalists. You know the old rhyme:
> Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em, > And these again have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum!
Well, that's just how I view myself. _You_ are a capitalist and _illionaire. In _your_ large way you prey upon society. YOU deal in Corners, Options, Concessions, Syndicates. You drain the world dry of its blood and it_oney. You possess, like the mosquito, a beautiful instrument o_uction—Founders' Shares—with which you absorb the surplus wealth of th_ommunity. In _my_ smaller way, again, _I_ relieve you in turn of _ortion of the plunder. I am a Robin Hood of my age; and, looking upon _you_s an exceptionally bad form of millionaire—as well as an exceptionally eas_orm of pigeon for a man of my type and talents to pluck—I have, so to speak, taken up my abode upon you."
Charles looked at him and groaned.
The young man continued, in a tone of gentle badinage. "I love the plot- interest of the game," he said, "and so does dear Jessie here. We both of u_dore it. As long as I find such good pickings upon you, I certainly am no_oing to turn away from so valuable a carcass, in order to batten myself, a_onsiderable trouble, upon minor capitalists, out of whom it is difficult t_xtract a few hundreds. It may have puzzled you to guess why I fix upon you s_ersistently. Now you know, and understand. When a fluke finds a sheep tha_uits him, that fluke lives upon him. You are my host: I am your parasite.
This coup has failed. But don't flatter yourself for a moment it will be th_ast one."
"Why do you insult me by telling me all this?" Sir Charles cried, writhing.
The Colonel waved his hand. It was small and white. "Because I _love_ th_ame," he answered, with a relish; "and also, because the more prepared yo_re beforehand, the greater credit and amusement is there in besting you.
Well, now, ta-ta once more! I am wasting valuable time. I might be cheatin_omebody. I must be off at once… . Take care of yourself, Wentworth. But _now you _will_. You always do. Ten per cent _is_ more usual!"
He rowed away and left us. As the boat began to disappear round the corner o_he island, White Heather—so she looked—stood up in the stern and shoute_loud through her pretty hands to us. "By-bye, dear Sir Charles!" she cried.
"Do wrap the rug around you! I'll send the men to fetch you as soon as ever _ossibly can. And thank you so much for those lovely flowers!"
The boat rounded the crags. We were alone on the island. Charles flung himsel_n the bare rock in a wild access of despondency. He is accustomed to luxury, and cannot get on without his padded cushions. As for myself, I climbed wit_ome difficulty to the top of the cliff, landward, and tried to make signal_f distress with my handkerchief to some passer-by on the mainland. All i_ain. Charles had dismissed the crofters on the estate; and, as the shooting- party that day was in an opposite direction, not a soul was near to whom w_ould call for succour.
I climbed down again to Charles. The evening came on slowly. Cries of sea- birds rang weird upon the water. Puffins and cormorants circled round ou_eads in the gray of twilight. Charles suggested that they might even swoo_own upon us and bite us. They did not, however, but their flapping wing_dded none the less a painful touch of eeriness to our hunger and solitude.
Charles was horribly depressed. For myself, I will confess I felt so muc_elieved at the fact that Colonel Clay had not openly betrayed me in th_atter of the commission, as to be comparatively comfortable.
We crouched on the hard crag. About eleven o'clock we heard human voices.
"Boat ahoy!" I shouted. An answering shout aroused us to action. We rushe_own to the landing-place and cooee'd for the men, to show them where we were.
They came up at once in Sir Charles's own boat. They were fishermen fro_iggarey, on the shore of the Firth opposite.
A lady and gentleman had sent them, they said, to return the boat and call fo_s on the island; their description corresponded to the two supposed Grantons.
They rowed us home almost in silence to Seldon. It was half-past twelve by th_atehouse clock when we reached the castle. Men had been sent along the coas_ach way to seek us. Amelia had gone to bed, much alarmed for our safety.
Isabel was sitting up. It was too late, of course, to do much that night i_he way of apprehending the miscreants, though Charles insisted upo_ispatching a groom, with a telegram for the police at Inverness, to Fowlis.
Nothing came of it all. A message awaited us from Lord Craig-Ellachie, to b_ure, saying that his son had not left Glen-Ellachie Lodge; while research th_ext day and later showed that our correspondent had never even received ou_etter. An empty envelope alone had arrived at the house, and the posta_uthorities had been engaged meanwhile, with their usual lightning speed, in
"investigating the matter." Césarine had posted the letter herself at Fowlis, and brought back the receipt; so the only conclusion we could draw wa_his—Colonel Clay must be in league with somebody at the post-office. As fo_ord Craig-Ellachie's reply, that was a simple forgery; though, oddly enough, it was written on Glen-Ellachie paper.
However, by the time Charles had eaten a couple of grouse, and drunk a bottl_f his excellent Rudesheimer, his spirits and valour revived exceedingly.
Doubtless he inherits from his Boer ancestry a tendency towards courage of th_atavian description. He was in capital feather.
"After all, Sey," he said, leaning back in his chair, "this time we score one.
He has _not_ done us brown; we have at least detected him. To detect him i_ime is half-way to catching him. Only the remoteness of our position a_eldon Castle saved him from capture. Next set-to, I feel sure, we will no_erely spot him, we will also nab him. I only wish he would try on such a ri_n London."
But the oddest part of it all was this, that from the moment those two peopl_anded at Niggarey, and told the fishermen there were some gentlemen strande_n the Seamew's island, all trace of them vanished. At no station along th_ine could we gain any news of them. Their maid had left the inn the sam_orning with their luggage, and we tracked her to Inverness; but there th_rail stopped short, no spoor lay farther. It was a most singular an_nsoluble mystery.
Charles lived in hopes of catching his man in London.
But for my part, I felt there was a show of reason in one last taunt which th_ascal flung back at us as the boat receded: "Sir Charles Vandrift, we are _air of rogues. The law protects _you_. It persecutes _me_. That's all th_ifference."