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That same evening (it was on the Thursday), on his return from shooting, Dick Edmonstone found, among the other letters on the table in the passage, one addressed to himself in a strange hand. The writing was bad, but characteristic in its way; Dick had certainly never seen it before. The envelope bore a London postmark. He took the letter into the little back room, the gunroom, and sat down to read it alone.
Twilight was deep in this room, for the window was in an angle of the house, facing eastward, and was overshadowed by the foliage of a fair-sized oak. Some out-lying small branches of this tree beat gently against the upper pane; the lower sash was thrown up. The window was several feet above the ground. The corner below was a delightful spot, shaded all day from the sun; a basket-work table and chair were always there, for the nook was much affected by Mrs. Parish, and even by Alice, in the hot, long, sleepy afternoons.
Edmonstone had read to the end of his letter, when the door opened and Miles entered the room. Dick looked up and greeted him: "This is lucky. I was just coming to look for you. I want to speak to you."
The other's astonishment was unconcealed. Since the small hours of Tuesday the two had not exchanged a dozen words. Edmonstone had avoided Miles on the moor, and elsewhere watched him as a terrier watches a rat in a trap. Miles could not guess what was coming.
"I have a letter here that will interest you," said Dick. "Listen to this:
"'Dear Edmonstone,—I thought I'd look you up yesterday, as I had nothing on, but, like my luck, I found you away. Your people, however, treated me handsomely, and I stayed all the afternoon. We talked Australia; and this brings me to the reason of my writing to you. Your people told me of a rather mysterious Australian who stayed some time with the people you are with now, and went out again very suddenly at the beginning of last month. His name was Miles; your sister described him to me, and the description struck me as uncommon like that of a well-known gentleman at present wanted by the police of the Colony. The fact is, I have stumbled across an old mate of mine (a sergeant in the mounted police), who is over here after this very gent, and who I am helping a bit in the ready-money line. As he is working on the strict q.t., I must not tell you whom he's after. In fact, it's all on my own account I am writing you. I haven't told him anything about it. It's my own idea entirely, and I want you to tell me just this: Have your friends heard anything of this Miles since he left them? because I've been making inquiries, and found that no such name as Miles has been booked for a passage out at any of the London offices during the past two months! Of course I may have got hold of a wild-goose notion; but Miss Edmonstone told me that your friends made this Miles's acquaintance in an offhand kind of a way, and nobody else knew anything about him. Anyway, I'll wait till I hear from you before telling Compton, who's down at the seaside on a fresh clue.—Yours faithfully, Stephen Biggs.'"
"What name was that?" asked Miles quickly. He had listened calmly to the end. But at the very end the colour had suddenly fled from his face.
"Biggs—the Hon. Stephen, M. L. C. A warm man for a campaign, rich as Crœsus. If he's set his heart upon having you, he'll chase you round and round the world——"
"No. I mean the other man—the name of the sergeant."
Dick referred to the letter.
"Compton," he said.
"Compton!" repeated Miles in a whisper. "The only 'trap' in Australia I ever feared—the only man in the world, bar Pound, I have still to fear! Compton! my bitterest enemy!"
Edmonstone rose from the armchair in which he had been sitting, sat down at the table, opened a blotter, and found a sheet of notepaper.
"Must you answer now?" cried Miles.
"Yes; on the spot."
"What do you mean to say?"
"I have not decided. What would you say in my place? I am a poor liar."
"If we changed places, and I had treated you as you have treated me these two days—since our compact—I should write them the worst, and have done with it," said Miles, in a low tone of intense bitterness. "You professed to trust me. Yet you won't trust yourself near me on the moors; you fear foul play at my hands. You watch me like a lynx here at the house; yet I swear man never kept promise as I am keeping mine now! You do things by halves, Edmonstone. You had better end the farce, and wire the truth to your friend."
Reproach mingled with resignation in the last quiet words. Edmonstone experienced a twinge of compunction.
"Nonsense!" he said. "I should be a fool if I didn't watch you—worse than a fool to trust you. But betraying you is another matter. I don't think of doing that, unless——"
"I can keep my word, Edmonstone, bad as I may be! Besides, I am not a fool."
"And you are going on Monday?"
"Yes—to sail on Tuesday; you have seen my ticket."
"Then you shall see my answer to this letter."
Dick then dashed off a few lines. He handed the sheet, with the ink still wet, to Miles, who read these words:
"Dear Biggs,—A false scent, I am afraid. Ladies are never accurate; you have been misinformed about Miles. I knew him in Australia! He cannot be the man you want.—Yours sincerely,
The sheet of writing paper fluttered in Miles's hand. For one moment an emotion of gratitude as fierce as that which he himself had once inspired in the breast of Edmonstone, swelled within his own.
"You are a friend indeed," he murmured, handing back the letter. "And yet your friendship seems like madness!"
"My old mate swears that I am mad on the subject!"
Dick folded and enclosed his note in an envelope, directed it, and got up to go. Miles followed him to the door and wrung his hand in silence.
When the door was closed upon Edmonstone, Miles sank into the armchair, and closed his eyes.
His expression was human then; it quickly hardened, and his face underwent complete transformation. A moment later it was not a pleasant face to look upon. The ugliness of crime had disfigured it in a flash. The devils within him were unchained for once, and his looks were as ugly as his thoughts.
"Curse it!"—he was thinking—"I must be losing my nerve: I get heated and flurried as I never did before. Yet it was not altogether put on, my gratitude to this young fellow: I do feel some of it. Nor were they all lies that I told him the other night; I am altered in some ways. I believe it was that spice of truth that saved me—for saved I am so far as he is concerned. Anyway, I have fooled him rather successfully, and he'll know it before he has done with me! True, I did not bargain to meet him here, after what the Colonel wrote; but I flatter myself I made the best of it—I can congratulate myself upon every step. No; one was a false step: I was an idiot to show him the passage-money receipt; it was telling him the name and line of the steamer and opening up the track for pursuit when we are gone. And yet, and yet—I could not have laid a cleverer false scent if I had tried! Instead of money flung away, that passage-money will turn out a glorious investment; we'll show a clean pair of heels in the opposite direction, while our good friends here think of nothing but that one steamer! And so, once more, everything is turning out well, if only I can keep this up three days longer; if only Jem Pound and Frank Compton do not trouble me; if only—if only I am not mistaken and misled as to the ease with which I may carry off—my prize!"
And strange to say, as he thought of that final coup, the villainy faded out of his face—though the act contemplated was bad enough, in all conscience!
All at once a creaking noise startled Miles. He rose from his chair, and crossed with swift noiseless steps over to the window. A man was lifting himself gingerly from the basket-work chair—the man was Philip Robson.
Miles leant out of the window, seized him by the collar, and drew him backward with a thud against the wall below the window.
"Eavesdropper! listener!" hissed Miles; and quick as lightning he changed his hold from the doctor's collar to the doctor's wrists, which he grabbed with each iron hand and drew upward over the sill.
The sill was more than six feet from the ground. The doctor stood on tiptoe—helpless—in a trap. The doctor's face was white and guilty. The doctor's tongue was for the moment useless.
"What were you doing there?" Miles demanded quietly, but with a nasty look about the eyes.
"I—I had been asleep. I came back early from the moors because Edmonstone insulted me. I was just awake. Let go my hands, will you? I heard something—a very little—I could not help it. What do you mean by holding my wrists like this? Leave loose of them, I say!"
"Then tell me what you heard."
"Something that I could not understand. If you don't let me go this instant, I'll sing out!"
"Will you stand and talk sensibly, and listen to what I tell you?"
"Yes, I swear I will."
"There, then, you're free. Now I'll just tell you, in effect, what you did hear," said Miles, whose inventive brain had been busy from the moment he had discovered Robson. "You heard Edmonstone speak to me as though I was a villain: well, he firmly believes I am one. You heard him read me a letter from some one 'wanting' me: he has read me many such letters. I believe you heard me asking him in effect not to tell any one, and thanking him: this is what I make a point of doing. The fact is, Edmonstone is under the delusion that I am a man who robbed him in Australia. This is what's the matter!"
Miles tapped his forehead significantly.
"You don't mean it!" cried Robson, starting back.
"I do; but not so loud, man. His friends don't suspect anything; they needn't know; it's only on this one point. What, didn't you hear our last words? I said, 'It seems like madness.' He answered, 'My old mate'—meaning the man who was with him at the time of the robbery—'my old mate,' he says, 'swears that I am mad on that subject.'"
"Whew!" whistled the doctor. "Yes, I heard that."
"It speaks for itself, eh? But I put it to you as a medical man," said Miles, rising still more fully to the occasion, and remembering the doctor's weak point: "I put it to you as a medical man—has there not been something strange about his manner?"
Robson thought at once of the disagreeable incident of the morning.
"There has, indeed," he said, without hesitation; "I have noticed it myself!"
Even Miles marvelled at his own adroitness; he was elated, and showed it by fetching a deep sigh.
"Poor Edmonstone! he is quite touched on the point. Perhaps the affair brought on a fever at the time, for he is an excitable fellow, and that would account for it."
"But is he safe?" asked Robson, eagerly. "He can't be!"
"Oh, yes, he is; quite. I repeat, it is only on that one point, and nobody knows it here. And, mind, you are not to breathe a word of it to any single soul!"
Philip was entirely taken in for the time being; but his silence was another matter. That could only be pardoned, even on short lease, by an apology from the rude Colonial. The doctor's wrists smarted yet; his self-esteem was still more sore.
"I am so likely," said he, with fine irony, "to do your bidding after the manner in which you have treated me!"
"Call it taking my hint," said Miles, with a nasty expression in the eyes again. "You will find it a hint worth acting upon."
"You had no business to treat me as you did. It was a gross outrage!" said the doctor, haughtily.
"Come, now, I apologise. It arose from my irritation on Edmonstone's account, at the thing getting out. For his sake, you must indeed promise to hold your tongue."
"Very well," said Philip Robson, reluctantly; "I—I promise."
And he meant at the time to keep his promise, if he could. In fact, he did keep it. For a little calm reflection, away from the glamour thrown by Miles's plausibility, and in the sober light of Philip's own professional knowledge, served to weaken the case of insanity against Dick Edmonstone. At the same time, reflection strengthened Edmonstone's case against Miles, though Robson had only oblique information as to the specific nature of that case. But at any rate there was no harm in opening the letter-box (which was cleared in the morning) late at night, and sending just one anonymous line to the same name and address as those upon the envelope directed in Edmonstone's hand. If Miles was really a forger of some kind, and Edmonstone was really shielding him, then there was an excellent chance of scoring off them both at once. And Philip Robson had contracted a pretty strong grudge against both these men since morning.
Meanwhile Miles remained subdued and pensive, furtively attentive, but extremely humble, towards Miss Bristo, and talkative to one person only—Mrs. Parish. He was indeed, as he said, no fool. He was full of cunning and coolness, foresight and resource. He was biding his time—but for what?
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