Thanking the captain for his courtesy, Miss Carleton returned to he_ccustomed seat on deck, and, since one is never more alone than whe_urrounded by a crowd of utter strangers, she felt at liberty to pursue he_wn thoughts without interruption.
She could scarcely credit what her own ears had heard or her eyes had seen.
Harold Scott Mainwaring! What could it mean? Could it be possible that th_ecretary, having familiarized himself with the family history of th_ainwarings, was now masquerading under an assumed name for some object of hi_wn? But she dismissed this idea at once. She had assured him at Fair Oak_hat she believed him incapable of anything false or dishonorable, and sh_ould abide by that belief until convinced otherwise. But if this were indee_is name, what had been his object in assuming the role of Scott, th_ecretary? Which was genuine and which assumed? Who could tell? As if i_nswer to her thoughts, she saw the subject of them approaching. He was alon_nd looking in her direction, and on reading the recognition in her glance, his own face lighted with a smile that banished the last shade of resentmen_nd suspicion from her mind, albeit there was a question in her eyes whic_repared him in a measure for her first words. With a smile as bright as thos_ith which she had been accustomed to greet him at Fair Oaks, she extended he_and, saying, slowly,—
"Mr. Mainwaring, this is indeed a surprise!" She watched him closely, bu_here was not the quiver of an eyelash, only a slow, inscrutable smile, as h_eplied,—
"Miss Carleton, I will add to that, and say that this is the pleasantes_urprise of my life."
She blushed at the implied meaning of his words, and he added,—
"I have not seen you on deck until to-day."
"Not last Friday evening?" she inquired, archly. His smile deepened. "I di_ot know that it was you at that time until after I had started below. Did yo_ecognize me?"
"I thought I recognized your voice; and I have often wished to thank you fo_our kindness, but this is my first opportunity, as I have not been out sinc_ntil to-day."
"Please do not mention it. Had I dreamed who it was thus braving the storm, _ould have offered my assistance earlier. I have not yet recovered from m_urprise on discovering the identity of my fellow-passenger that evening."
"Indeed!" laughed Miss Carleton; "my presence here is very easily explained.
It is simply the result of one of Mrs. Mainwaring's numerous whims, as sh_uddenly decided upon an immediate return to England. I think, however, tha_he surprise was mutual."
"Accordingly, I suppose that mutual explanations should follow," he answered, lightly. Then added, more seriously, "Miss Carleton, I am aware that there i_uch in my conduct that must seem inexplicable to you. In a few week_verything will have been made clear, in the natural course of events; but, i_ou would be at all interested to hear, I would greatly prefer that you shoul_ave a perfect understanding of the situation before the facts becom_enerally known."
"I should greatly appreciate such a mark of confidence," she replied.
"If agreeable to you, Miss Carleton, let us pass around to the other side; i_s less crowded there. My friend and I have two chairs, and, as he has gone t_is state-room to do some writing, we shall be in no danger of interruption."
When comfortably seated, the young man said, "It is a strange story which _ave to tell, but I will try not to tax your patience too severely. One wee_go this afternoon, Miss Carleton, in passing through the hall at Fair Oaks, _ccidentally overheard a portion of your conversation with Mr. Whitney, as yo_elated to him the story of the unfortunate love and death of my father, Harold Scott Mainwaring."
Miss Carleton started violently, but said nothing, and, after a slight pause, the speaker continued,—
"My earliest recollections are of a home in Australia, with foster-parents, whose name it is unnecessary to mention, but whose care and love for me seem, as I now look back, to have equalled that bestowed by natural parents upo_heir own child. Not until I had reached the age of fifteen years did I eve_ear of my own father. I then learned that he had given me, at birth, into th_eeping of my foster-parents, with instructions that, unless he himself shoul_all for me, I was not even to know of his existence until within five or si_ears of my majority. I learned, further, that his action in thus placing m_n the hands of others had been solely on account of deep trouble and sorrow, of which he wished me to know nothing until I had reached the years o_anhood. When giving me into their keeping he had also given them a smal_acket, containing a sealed letter, which was to be read by me on my twenty- first birthday, if he had not himself claimed me before that time. I was tol_hat, while I was too young to retain any remembrance of him, he frequentl_isited me and manifested the greatest devotion to his child, but as I gre_lder he remained away, writing occasionally to my foster-father.
"In the last letter received from him, when I was about five years of age, h_tated that he was going to Africa to make a fortune for his son. Nothin_urther was heard from him until there came tidings of his death at sea, i_he manner which you recently related.
"Of all this I, of course, knew nothing until ten years later, but what wa_old me at that time made a deep impression upon me. Of my mother I coul_earn absolutely nothing; but for my father, of whom I had no persona_nowledge, and concerning whom there seemed so much that was mysterious, _elt a love and reverence almost akin to adoration, and I longed for the da_o come when I could read the letter he had left for me and learn the whol_ecret of that sad life.
"My twenty-first birthday arrived, and the mysterious little packet was place_n my hands. It contained a few valuable keepsakes and my father's letter, written out of the bitter anguish of a broken heart. He told the story of hi_isinheritance, with which you are familiar; but the loss of the property h_ared little for in comparison with the loss of his father's love; but eve_hat was as nothing to the sorrow which followed swiftly and which broke hi_eart. He stated that, because of this great sorrow, he had placed me in th_ands of trusted friends that I should be banished from the false-hearte_oman who had borne me and who believed me dead, as it was his wish tha_either of us should ever know of the existence of the other."
Harold Mainwaring paused for a moment, and Miss Carleton, who had bee_istening with great interest, exclaimed,—
"And is it possible, Mr. Mainwaring, that, in all these years, you have had n_nowledge concerning your mother?"
"It is a fact, Miss Carleton, that I do not even know her name, or whether o_ot she is living. I only hope and pray that I may never knowingly meet her, for her heart and life must be—pardon the expression—as false and as black a_ell itself."
There was a look on his face which Miss Carleton had never seen. Gradually, however, his features softened, and he continued,—
"In accordance with my father's wish, expressed in the letter, that I shoul_omplete my studies in England, I sailed for that country within a few week_f my twenty-first birthday; and while there I learned that part of my stor_hich is of more especial interest to all parties concerned at the presen_ime.
"I had been but a few months in England when I felt a great desire to visit, incognito, the old Mainwaring estate. Accordingly, under the name by which yo_ave known me, I arrived at the estate, only to learn that the home of m_ather's boyhood, and of the Mainwarings for several generations, had passe_nto the hands of strangers. My grandfather had died within two years of m_ather's marriage, and the younger son had sold the estate and gone t_merica. Incidentally, I was directed to an old servant of my grandfather's, who yet remained on the place and who could give me its whole history. Tha_ervant, Miss Carleton, was old James Wilson, the father of John Wilson, Ralp_ainwaring's present valet."
"Ah!" ejaculated Miss Carleton, her face lighting with pleasure; "I have see_he trusty old fellow hundreds of times, you know. Indeed, he could give yo_he history of all the Mainwarings for the last three hundred years."
"He gave me one very important bit of history," Harold Mainwaring replied, with a smile. "He told me that old Ralph Mainwaring, after the departure o_is son for Australia, failed rapidly. He was slowly but surely dying of _roken heart, and, though he never mentioned the name of his elder son, it wa_vident that he regretted his own harshness and severity towards him.
"On the night before his death he suddenly gave orders for an attorney to b_ummoned, and was so insistent in his demand, that, when it was ascertaine_hat his old solicitor, Alfred Barton, the father of the present firm o_arton & Barton, had been called out of the city, a young lawyer, Richar_obson by name, who had formerly been an articled clerk in Barton's office, was called in in his stead. A little before the hour of midnight, in th_resence of his son, Hugh Mainwaring, Richard Hobson, the attorney, an_lexander McPherson, an old and trusted Scotch friend, Ralph Mainwaring cause_o be drawn and executed a will, completely revoking and setting aside th_rocess of law by which Harold Scott Mainwaring had been disinherited, an_estoring to him his full rights as the elder son, McPherson and the attorne_igning the will as witnesses."
Miss Carleton's eyes dilated and her breath came and went swiftly, but sh_poke no word save a single, quick exclamation.
"James Wilson, the servant, was also present, but in an obscure corner, an_is presence seems to have been unnoticed. The next morning, at five o'clock, Ralph Mainwaring passed away, happy in the thought that he had at last mad_eparation for his injustice to his elder son. Within two months the ol_cotchman died, and Richard Hobson was then the sole surviving witness of th_ast will and testament of Ralph Maxwell Mainwaring.
"This was all the direct information I could obtain from Wilson, but fro_ther sources I learned that Hugh Mainwaring was never the same after hi_ather's death. He grew stern and taciturn, and would allow no mention of hi_rother's name, and within two years he had disposed of the estate and lef_ngland forever; while a few years later tidings were received of the death o_arold Scott Mainwaring at sea. I also learned that about this time Richar_obson suddenly rose from the position of a penniless pettifogger to that o_n affluent attorney, though he was engaged in questionable speculations fa_ore than in the practice of law.
"I visited the chambers of Barton & Barton, and learned through them tha_verything had been adjusted in accordance with the terms of the will in thei_ossession, which disinherited the elder son; but Hugh Mainwaring's action i_isposing of the estate had excited considerable comment.
"Having pledged them to secrecy, I disclosed my identity and related to the_he story of the old servant. To my surprise, they were inclined to give th_tory credence; and, acting upon their advice, I obtained all possibl_nformation regarding Hugh Mainwaring, and, when my studies were completed, sailed for America, with the express determination to secure proof i_erification of the facts which I had already gathered, and to establish m_laim as the legal heir of the Mainwaring estate. I was not without means t_o this, as my father had accumulated considerable property during the fe_ears he lived in Australia, and my foster-parents are people of wealth.
"You will understand now, Miss Carleton, why I took the position of privat_ecretary to Hugh Mainwaring. You will realize how eagerly I studied th_orrespondence between him and Richard Hobson, from which I learned that th_atter was extorting large sums of money as the price of his silence regardin_ome fraudulent transaction, presumably the destruction of the will; an_erhaps you can imagine my feelings on discovering, one day, among Hug_ainwaring's private papers, a memorandum to the effect that the will ha_ever been destroyed, but was still in existence and in his possession. I kne_hat to make any demand upon him for the document would be worse than useless, as he would never admit my claim. I must find it for myself. I searched fo_hat will as for hidden treasure, and, Miss Carleton, I found it!"
"Oh!" she exclaimed, unable to repress her emotion, "I am so glad! Do tell m_ow and when!"
"I found it on the last day of Hugh Mainwaring's life, within two hours afte_e had signed his own last will and testament."
"What a strange coincidence!"
"It was strange; and it was my discovery on that day which formed the subjec_f my thoughts on the following night, the night of the murder, and which kep_e pacing my room until three o'clock in the morning."
"Did Mr. Mainwaring know of your discovery?"
"No; I had no opportunity to see him that evening until too late, even if _ad chosen to broach the subject to him at that time."
"Might he not have discovered in some way that you had found the will?"
"I think not. Why do you inquire?"
"It only occurred to me if it might not be possible that he had reason t_hink his secret had at last been discovered, and, rather than face th_onsequences, committed suicide; but it seems improbable. But to think tha_ou are the son of the one whom I have always considered the noblest of al_he Mainwarings, and that you, and not Hugh, are the rightful heir to the ol_ainwaring estate! I am more than glad, and Hugh will be glad also. He wil_ot begrudge you one shilling or have one unkind thought towards you, though _annot say the same for his father."
"Hugh is a noble-hearted fellow," said Harold, warmly. "He has promised me hi_riendship, and I believe he will stand by it."
He spoke briefly of his plans; of his business in London for a few days; and, when the will should have been probated in the English court, of his return t_merica to establish his claim there.
"Mr. Mainwaring," said Miss Carleton, after a pause, "I am inexpressibly gla_o learn what you have told me, and you have my sincerest wishes for you_mmediate success. I appreciate, more than I can tell, your confidence i_ermitting me to be the first to know of your good fortune. May I be the firs_o congratulate you?"
He took the proffered hand; but, looking into the beautiful eyes sparklin_ith happiness, his own face grew serious, as he replied,—
"I thank you for your congratulations and your good wishes, Miss Carleton, bu_ sometimes question whether my discovery, on that particular day, of th_ill—the last link in the chain of evidence against Hugh Mainwaring—was _atter for congratulation."
"How is that?" she inquired, quickly.
"Do you not see that when all these facts become known, they may be used by m_nemies to direct suspicion against me as the possible murderer of Hug_ainwaring?"
"Who would think of such a thing?" she exclaimed, indignantly.
"Ralph Mainwaring will," was his prompt reply.
"He might try to incite the suspicions of others against you, but he woul_now in his own heart that his insinuations were unfounded."
"I have no fear of him," said Harold, with a smile; "I only mentioned it t_how that I do not anticipate upon my return to America that my pathway wil_e strewn with roses."
He paused a moment, then added, "I had this in mind, Miss Carleton, when _sked you once whether your confidence in me were strong enough to stand _eavy strain, if necessary."
She blushed slightly at the reminder, and a look of quick comprehensio_lashed across her face, as, for an instant, she dropped her eyes before hi_arnest gaze. When she again looked up the luminous eyes met his ow_nwaveringly, as she replied, in firm, low tones,—
"I will believe in you and trust you to the fullest extent, whatever happens."
"I thank you more than I can express," he answered, gravely; "for, believe me, Miss Carleton, I value your confidence and friendship far above any and ever_ther."
"I did not suppose you needed any assurance of my friendship; though, afte_our sudden departure from Fair Oaks, I felt somewhat doubtful whether yo_ared for it."
He did not reply at once, and when he did, it was evident he was repressin_ome strong emotion. "I feel that there is an explanation due you for m_anner of leaving Fair Oaks. I am aware that it had the appearance o_udeness, but I can only say that it was from necessity and not from choice.
There is something more which I hope some day to tell you, Miss Carleton, but, until I can speak as I wish to speak, it is best to remain silent; meanwhile, I will trust to your friendship to pardon whatever in my conduct may see_brupt or inexplicable."
The conversation was terminated at this point by the appearance of Lieutenan_ohen, whom Harold Mainwaring introduced as an old classmate, and presentl_ll three adjourned to the dining-saloon.
To Harold Mainwaring and Miss Carleton the remainder of the voyage passe_wiftly and pleasantly, and the friendship begun at Fair Oaks deepened wit_ach succeeding day. Though no word of love passed between them, and thoug_iss Carleton sometimes detected on the part of her companion a studie_voidance of personal subjects, yet, while wondering slightly at his self- imposed silence, she often read in his dark eyes a language more eloquent tha_ords, and was content to wait.
It was his desire that the other members of her party should still remain i_gnorance of his real identity; and, as the greater part of the voyage prove_omewhat rough, he had little difficulty in preserving his secret. Mr.
Thornton and daughter soon made their appearance and greeted the quonda_ecretary with unaffected cordiality, but Mr. Thornton was too deepl_ngrossed in renewing acquaintance with one or two old friends to pay muc_ttention to the younger man, while Edith felt in duty bound to devote hersel_o the entertainment of Mrs. Mainwaring and Isabel, a task which Miss Carleto_as not at all disposed to share. Not until the last few hours of the trip, when fair weather had become an established fact and land had been sighted, did Mrs. Mainwaring and her daughter appear on deck, and in the genera_xcitement Harold Mainwaring escaped their observation.
The parting between himself and Miss Carleton was necessarily brief. She gav_im her address, saying,—
"I would be delighted if you could consider yourself our guest while i_ondon, and I hope at least that I may see you often before your return."
"I thank you, Miss Carleton," he replied. "If present circumstances woul_dmit of it, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to accept you_nvitation, but under existing conditions it is, of course, impracticable. _annot now say how long I will remain in London, but I wish to make my stay a_rief as possible, and to that end shall devote almost my entire time t_usiness; but," he added, with a peculiar smile, "I shall not repeat th_ffence committed at Fair Oaks. You may rest assured I shall not return t_merica without seeing you, and I hope at that time to be able to speak mor_efinitely regarding my future."
There was that in his eyes as he spoke that suffused the fair English fac_ith lovely color and caused a tender, wistful smile to linger about the swee_outh long after he had left her side.
He was one of the first to land, and Miss Carleton, watching from the deck, saw, almost as soon as he had reached the pier, a fine-looking gentleman i_he prime of life step quickly out from, the crowd, and, grasping hi_ordially by the hand, enter at once into earnest conversation. Harol_ainwaring turned towards the steamer for a parting salute, and, as bot_entlemen raised their hats, she recognized in the new-comer, Alfred Barton, the junior member of the firm of Barton & Barton. She watched them until the_isappeared in the crowd, then, turning to rejoin her companions, she noted, standing at a little distance, the slender, dark-eyed individual whom she ha_bserved on previous occasions, also watching the scene with a smile of quie_atisfaction, much like that which Mr. Merrick's face had worn at th_eginning of the Voyage.