Chapter 63




Next morning, after a sleepless night, Nancy Rouse said to Mr. Penfold, "Haven't I heard you say as bank-notes could he traced to folk?"

"Certainly, madam," said Michael. "But it is necessary to take the numbers of them."

"Oh! And how do you do that?"

"Why, every note has its own number."

"La! ye don't say so; then them fifties are all numbered, belike."

"Certainly, and if you wish me to take down the numbers, I will do so."

"Well, sir, some other day you shall. I could not bear the sight of them just yet; for it is them as has been the ruin of poor Joe Wylie, I do think."

Michael could not follow this; but, the question having been raised, he advised her, on grounds of common prudence, not to keep them in the house without taking down their numbers.

"We will talk about that in the evening," said Nancy.

Accordingly, at night, Nancy produced the notes, and Michael took down the numbers and descriptions in his pocket-book. They ran from 16,444 to 16,463. And he promised her to try and ascertain through what hands they had passed. He said he had a friend in the Bank of England, who might perhaps be able to discover to what private bank they had been issued in the first instance, and then those bankers, on a strong representation, might perhaps examine their books, and say to whom they had paid them. He told her the notes were quite new, and evidently had not been separated since their first issue.

Nancy caught a glimpse of his meaning, and set herself doggedly to watch until the person who had passed the notes through the chimney should come for them. "He will miss them," said she, you mark my words."

Thus Helen, though reduced to a standstill herself, had set an inquiry on foot which was alive and ramifying.

In the course of a few days she received a visit from Mrs. Undercliff. That lady came in, and laid a prayer-book on the table, saying, "I have brought it you back, miss; and I want you to do something for my satisfaction."

"Oh, certainly," said Helen. "What is it?"

"Well, miss, first examine the book and the writing. Is it all right?"

Helen examined it, and said it was: "Indeed," said she, "the binding looks fresher, if anything."

"You have a good eye," said Mrs. Undercliff. "Well, what I want you to do is-- Of course Mr. Wardlaw is a good deal about you?"

"Yes."

"Does he go to church with you ever?"

"No."

"But he would, if you were to ask him."

"I have no doubt he would; but why?"

"Manage matters so that he shall go to church with you, and then put the book down for him to see the writing, all in a moment. Watch his face and tell me."

Helen colored up and said: "No; I can't do that. Why, it would be turning God's temple into a trap! Besides--"

"The real reason first, if you please," said this horribly shrewd old woman.

"Well, Mr. Arthur Wardlaw is the gentleman I am going to marry."

"Good Heavens!" cried Mrs. Undercliff, taken utterly aback by this most unexpected turn. "Why, you never told me that!"

"No," said Helen, blushing. "I did not think it necessary to go into that. Well, of course, it is not in human nature that Mr. Wardlaw should be zealous in my good work, or put himself forward; but he has never refused to lend me any help that was in his power; and it is repugnant to my nature to suspect him of a harm, and to my feelings to lay a trap for him."

"Quite right," said Mrs. Undercliff; "of course I had no idea you were going to marry Mr. Wardlaw. I made sure Mr. Penfold was the man."

Helen blushed higher still, but made no reply.

Mrs. Undercliff turned the conversation directly. "My son has given many hours to Mr. Hand's two letters, and he told me to tell you he is beginning to doubt whether Mr. Hand is a real person, with a real handwriting, at all.

"Oh, Mrs. Undercliff! Why, he wrote me two letters! However, I will ask Mr. Penfold whether Mr. Hand exists or not. When shall I have the pleasure of seeing you again?"

"Whenever you like, my dear young lady; but not upon this business of Penfold and Wardlaw. I have done with it forever; and my advice to you, miss, is not to stir the mud any more." And with these mysterious words the old lady retired, leaving Helen deeply discouraged at her desertion.

However, she noted down the conversation in her diary, and made this comment: People find no pleasure in proving an accused person innocent; the charm is to detect guilt. This day a good, kind friend abandons me because I will not turn aside from my charitable mission to suspect another person as wrongfully as he I love has been suspected.

Mem.: To see, or make inquiries about Mr. Hand.


       *      *      *      *      *      *      *


General Rolleston had taken a furnished house in Hanover Square. He now moved into it, and Helen was compelled to busy herself in household arrangements.

She made the house charming; but unfortunately stood in a draught while heated, and caught a chill, which a year ago would very likely have gone to her lungs and killed her, but now settled on her limbs in violent neuralgic pains, and confined her to her bed for a fortnight.

She suffered severely, but had the consolation of finding she was tenderly beloved. Arthur sent flowers every day and affectionate notes twice a day. And her father was constantly by her bedside.

At last she came down to the drawing-room, but lay on the sofa well wrapped up, and received only her most intimate friends.

The neuralgia had now settled on her right arm and hand, so that she could not write a letter; and she said to herself with a sigh, "Oh, how unfit a girl is to do anything great! We always fall ill just when health and strength are most needed."

Nevertheless, during this period of illness and inaction, circumstances occurred that gave her joy.

Old Wardlaw had long been exerting himself in influential channels to obtain what he called justice for his friend Rolleston, and had received some very encouraging promises; for the general's services were indisputable; and, while he was stirring the matter, Helen was unconsciously co-operating by her beauty, and the noise her adventure made in society. At last a gentleman whose wife was about the Queen, promised old Wardlaw one day that, if a fair opportunity should occur, that lady should tell Helen's adventure, and how the gallant old general, when everybody else despaired, had gone out to the Pacific, and found his daughter and brought her home. This lady was a courtier of ten years' standing, and waited her opportunity; but when it did come, she took it, and she soon found that no great tact or skill was necessary on such an occasion as this. She was listened to with ready sympathy, and the very next day some inquiries were made, the result of which was that the Horse Guards offered Lieutenant-General Rolleston the command of a crack regiment and a full generalship. At the same time, it was intimated to him from another official quarter that a baronetcy was at his service if he felt disposed to accept it. The tears came into the stout old warrior's eyes at this sudden sunshine of royal favor, and Helen kissed old Wardlaw of her own accord; and the star of the Wardlaws rose into the ascendant, and for a time Robert Penfold seemed to be quite forgotten.


       *      *      *      *      *      *      *


The very day General Rolleston became Sir Edward, a man and a woman called at the Charing Cross Hotel, and asked for Miss Helen Rolleston.

The answer was, she had left the hotel about ten days.

"Where is she gone, if you please?"

"We don't know."

"Why, hasn't she left her new address?"

"No. The footman came for letters several times."

No information was to be got here, and Mr. Penfold and Nancy Rouse went home greatly disappointed, and puzzled what to do.

At first sight it might appear easy for Mr. Penfold to learn the new address of Miss Rolleston. He had only to ask Arthur Wardlaw. But, to tell the truth, during the last fortnight Nancy Rouse had impressed her views steadily and persistently on his mind, and he had also made a discovery that co-operated with her influence and arguments to undermine his confidence in his employer. What that discovery was we must leave him to relate.

Looking, then, at matters with a less unsuspicious eye than heretofore, he could not help observing that Arthur Wardlaw never put into the office letter-box a single letter for his sweetheart. "He must write to her," thought Michael; "but I am not to know her address. Suppose, after all, he did intercept that letter."

And now, like other simple, credulous men whose confidence has been shaken, he was literally brimful of suspicions, some of them reasonable, some of them rather absurd.

He had too little art to conceal his change of mind; and so, very soon after his vain attempt to see Helen Rolleston at the inn, he was bundled off to Scotland on business of the office.

Nancy missed him sorely. She felt quite alone in the world. She managed to get through the day--work helped her; but at night she sat disconsolate and bewildered, and she was now beginning to doubt her own theory. For certainly, if all that money had been Joe Wylie's, he would hardly have left the country without it.

Now, the second evening after Michael's departure, she was seated in his room, brooding, when suddenly she heard a peculiar knocking next door.

She listened a little while, and then stole softly downstairs to her own little room.

Her suspicions were correct. It was the same sort of knocking that had preceded the phenomenon of the hand and bank-notes. She peeped into the kitchen and whispered, "Jenny--Polly--come here."

A stout washerwoman and the mite of a servant came, wondering.

"Now you stand there," said Nancy, "and do as I bid you. Hold your tongues, now. I know all about it."

The myrmidons stood silent, but with panting bosoms; for the mysterious knocking now concluded, and a brick in the chimney began to move.

It came out, and immediately a hand with a ring on it came through the aperture, and felt about.

The mite stood firm, but the big washerwoman gave signs of agitation that promised to end in a scream.

Nancy put her hand roughly before the woman's mouth. "Hold your tongue, ye great soft--" And, without finishing her sentence, she darted to the chimney and seized the hand with both her own and pulled it with such violence that the wrist followed it through the masonry, and a roar was heard.

"Hold on to my waist, Polly," she cried. "Jenny, take the poker, and that string, and tie his hand to it while we hold on. Quick! quick! Are ye asleep?"

Thus adjured, the mite got the poker against the wall and tried to tie the wrist to it.

This, however, was not easy, the hand struggled so desperately.

However, pulling is a matter of weight rather than muscle. And the weight of the two women pulling downward overpowered the violent struggles of the man; and the mite contrived to tie the poker to the wrist, and repeat the ligatures a dozen times in a figure of eight.

Then the owner of the hand, who had hitherto shown violent strength, taken at a disadvantage, now showed intelligence. Convinced that skill as well as force were against him, he ceased to struggle and became quite quiet.

The women contemplated their feat with flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes.

When they had feasted a reasonable time on the imprisoned hand, and two of them, true to their sex, had scrutinized a green stone upon one of the fingers, to see whether it was real or false, Nancy took them by the shoulders, and bundled them good-humoredly out of the room.

She then lowered the gas and came out, and locked the room up, and put the key in her pocket.

"I'll have my supper with you," said she. "Come, Jenny, I'm cook; and you make the kitchen as a body could eat off it, for I expect vicitors."

"La, ma'am," said the mite; "he can't get out of the chimbly to visit hus through the street door."

"No, girl," said Nancy. "But he can send a hambassador; so Show her heyes and plague her art, as the play says, for of all the dirty kitchens give me hers. I never was there but once, and my slipper come off for the muck, a sticking to a body like bird-lime."

There was a knock at Nancy's street door; the little servant, full of curiosity, was for running to it on the instant. But Nancy checked her.

"Take your time," said she. "It is only a lodging-house keeper."




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