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"FORGERIES!" cried Helen, with innocent horror.
"RANK FORGERIES," repeated the expert coolly.
"Forgeries!" cried Helen. "Why, how can printed things be that?"
"That is what I should like to know," said the old lady.
"Why, what else can you call them?" said the expert. "They are got up to look like extracts from newspapers. But they were printed as they are, and were never in any journal. Shall I tell you how I found that out?"
"If you please, sir," said Helen.
"Well, then, I looked at the reverse side, and I found seven misprints in one slip, and five in the other. That was a great number to creep into printed slips of that length. The trial part did not show a single erratum. 'Hullo!' said I to myself; 'why, one side is printed more carefully than the other.' And that was not natural. The printing of advertisements is looked after quite as sharply as any other part in a journal. Why, the advertisers themselves cry out if they are misprinted!"
"Oh, how shrewd!" cried Helen.
"Child's play," said the expert. "Well, from that blot I went on. I looked at the edges, and they were cut too clean. A gentleman with a pair of scissors can't cut slips out of a paper like this. They were cut in the printer's office. Lastly, on holding them to the light, I found they had not been machined upon the plan now adopted by all newspapers; but worked by hand. In one word--forgeries!"
"Oh," said Helen, "to think I should have handled forgeries, and shown them to you for real. Ah! I'm so glad; for now I have committed the same crime as Robert Penfold; I have uttered a forged document. Take me up, and have me put in prison, for I am as guilty as ever he was." Her face shone with rapture at sharing Robert's guilt.
The expert was a little puzzled by sentiments so high-flown and unpractical.
"I think," said he, "you are hardly aware what a valuable discovery this may prove to you. However, the next step is to get me a specimen of the person's handwriting who furnished you with these. The chances are he is the writer of the forged note."
Helen uttered an exclamation that was almost a scream. The inference took her quite by surprise. She looked at Mrs. Undercliff.
"He is right, I think," said the old lady.
"Right or wrong," said the expert, "the next step in the inquiry is to do what I said. But that demands great caution. You must write a short civil note to Mr. Hand, and just ask him some question. Let me see. Ask him what newspapers his extracts are from, and whether he has got any more. He will not tell you the truth; but no matter, we shall get hold of his handwriting."
"But, sir," said Helen, "there is no need for that. Mr. Hand sent me a note along with the extracts."
"The deuce he did. All the better. Any words in it that are in the forged note? Is Penfold in it, or Wardlaw?"
Helen reflected a moment, and then said she thought both those names were in it.
"Fetch me that note," said Undercliff, and his eyes sparkled. He was on a hot scent now.
"And let me study the genuine reports, and compare what they say with the forged ones," said Mrs. Undercliff.
"Oh, what friends I have found at last!" cried Helen.
She thanked them both warmly, and hurried home, for it was getting late.
Next day she brought Hand's letter to Mr. Undercliff, and devoured his countenance while he inspected it keenly and compared it with the forged note.
The comparison was long and careful, but unsatisfactory. Mr. Undercliff could not conscientiously say whether Hand had written the forged note or not. There were pros and cons.
"We are in deeper water than I thought," said he. "The comparison must be enlarged. You must write as I suggested, and get another note out of Mr. Hand."
"And leave the prayer-book with me," said Mrs. Undercliff.
Helen complied with these instructions, and in due course received a civil line from Mr. Hand, to say that the extracts had been sent him from the country by one of his fellow-clerks, and he had locked them up, lest Mr. Michael Penfold, who was much respected in the office, should see them. He could not say where they came from; perhaps from some provincial paper. If of any value to Miss Rolleston, she was quite at liberty to keep them. He added there was a coffee-house in the city where she could read all the London papers of that date. This letter, which contained a great many more words than the other, was submitted to Undercliff. It puzzled him so that he set to work, and dissected every curve the writer's pen had made; but he could come to no positive conclusion, and he refused to utter his conjectures.
"We are in a deep water," said he.
Finally, he told his mother he was at a stand-still for the present.
"But I am not," said Mrs. Undercliff. She added, after a while, "I think there's felony at the bottom of this."
"Smells like it to me," said the expert.
"Then I want you to do something very clever for me."
"What is that?"
"I want you to forge something."
"Come! I say."
"Quite innocent, I assure you."
"Well, but it is a bad habit to commence."
"All depends on the object. This is to take in a forger, that is all."
The expert's eyes sparkled. He had always been sadly discontented with the efforts of forgers, and thought he could do better.
"I'll do it," said he, gayly.
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