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Wolfenden was careful to reach the hall before the dinner gong had sounded. His father greeted him warmly, and Wolfenden was surprised to see so little outward change in him. He was carefully dressed, well groomed in every respect, and he wore a delicate orchid in his button-hole.
During dinner he discussed the little round of London life and its various social events with perfect sanity, and permitted himself his usual good-natured grumble at Wolfenden for his dilatoriness in the choice of a profession.
He did not once refer to the subject of his own weakness until dessert had been served, when he passed the claret to Wolfenden without filling his own glass.
“You will excuse my not joining you,” he said to his son, “but I have still three or four hours’ writing to do, and such work as mine requires a very clear head—you can understand that, I daresay.”
Wolfenden assented in silence. For the first time, perhaps, he fully realised the ethical pity of seeing a man so distinguished the victim of a hopeless and incurable mania. He watched him sitting at the head of his table, courteous, gentle, dignified; noted too the air of intellectual abstraction which followed upon his last speech, and in which he seemed to dwell for the rest of the time during which they sat together. Instinctively he knew what disillusionment must mean for him. Sooner anything than that. It must never be. Never! he repeated firmly to himself as he smoked a solitary cigar later on in the empty smoking-room. Whatever happens he must be saved from that. There was a knock at the door, and in response to his invitation to enter, Mr. Blatherwick came in. Wolfenden, who was in the humour to prefer any one’s society to his own, greeted him pleasantly, and wheeled up an easy chair opposite to his own.
“Come to have a smoke, Blatherwick?” he said. “That’s right. Try one of these cigars; the governor’s are all right, but they are in such shocking condition.”
Mr. Blatherwick accepted one with some hesitation, and puffed slowly at it with an air of great deliberation. He was a young man of mild demeanour and deportment, and clerical aspirations. He wore thick spectacles, and suffered from chronic biliousness.
“I am much obliged to you, Lord Wolfenden,” he said. “I seldom smoke cigars—it is not good for my sight. An occasional cigarette is all I permit myself.”
Wolfenden groaned inwardly, for his regalias were priceless and not to be replaced; but he said nothing.
“I have taken the liberty, Lord Wolfenden,” Mr. Blatherwick continued, “of bringing for your inspection a letter I received this morning. It is, I presume, intended for a practical joke, and I need not say that I intend to treat it as such. At the same time as you were in the house, I imagined that no—er—harm would ensue if I ventured to ask for your opinion.”
He handed an open letter to Wolfenden, who took it and read it through. It was dated “—— London,” and bore the postmark of the previous day.
“Mr. Arnold Blatherwick.
“Dear Sir,—The writer of this letter is prepared to offer you one thousand pounds in return for a certain service which you are in a position to perform. The details of that service can only be explained to you in a personal interview, but broadly speaking it is as follows:—
“You are engaged as private secretary to the Earl of Deringham, lately an admiral in the British Navy. Your duties, it is presumed, are to copy and revise papers and calculations having reference to the coast defences and navy of Great Britain. The writer is himself engaged upon a somewhat similar task, but not having had the facilities accorded to Lord Deringham, is without one or two important particulars. The service required of you is the supplying of these, and for this you are offered one thousand pounds.
“As a man of honour you may possibly hesitate to at once embrace this offer. You need not! Lord Deringham’s work is practically useless, for it is the work of a lunatic. You yourself, from your intimate association with him, must know that this statement is true. He will never be able to give coherent form to the mass of statistics and information which he has collected. Therefore you do him no harm in supplying these few particulars to one who will be able to make use of them. The sum you are offered is out of all proportion to their value—a few months’ delay and they could easily be acquired by the writer without the expenditure of a single halfpenny. That, however, is not the point.
“I am rich and I have no time to spare. Hence this offer. I take it that you are a man of common sense, and I take it for granted, therefore, that you will not hesitate to accept this offer. Your acquiescence will be assumed if you lunch at the Grand Hotel, Cromer, between one and two, on Thursday following the receipt of this letter. You will then be put in full possession of all the information necessary to the carrying out of the proposals made to you. You are well known to the writer, who will take the liberty of joining you at your table.”
The letter ended thus somewhat abruptly. Wolfenden, who had only glanced it through at first, now re-read it carefully. Then he handed it back to Blatherwick.
“It is a very curious communication,” he said thoughtfully, “a very curious communication indeed. I do not know what to think of it.”
Mr. Blatherwick laid down his cigar with an air of great relief. He would have liked to have thrown it away, but dared not.
“It must surely be intended for a practical joke, Lord Wolfenden,” he said. “Either that, or my correspondent has been ludicrously misinformed.”
“You do not consider, then, that my father’s work is of any value at all?” Wolfenden asked.
Mr. Blatherwick coughed apologetically, and watched the extinction of the cigar by his side with obvious satisfaction.
“You would, I am sure, prefer,” he said, “that I gave you a perfectly straightforward answer to that question. I—er—cannot conceive that the work upon which his lordship and I are engaged can be of the slightest interest or use to anybody. I can assure you, Lord Wolfenden, that my brain at times reels—positively reels—from the extraordinary nature of the manuscripts which your father has passed on to me to copy. It is not that they are merely technical, they are absolutely and entirely meaningless. You ask me for my opinion, Lord Wolfenden, and I conceive it to be my duty to answer you honestly. I am quite sure that his lordship is not in a fit state of mind to undertake any serious work.”
“The person who wrote that letter,” Wolfenden remarked, “thought otherwise.”
“The person who wrote that letter,” Mr. Blatherwick retorted quickly, “if indeed it was written in good faith, is scarcely likely to know so much about his lordship’s condition of mind as I, who have spent the greater portion of every day for three months with him.”
“Do you consider that my father is getting worse, Mr. Blatherwick?” Wolfenden asked.
“A week ago,” Mr. Blatherwick said, “I should have replied that his lordship’s state of mind was exactly the same as when I first came here. But there has been a change for the worse during the last week. It commenced with his sudden, and I am bound to say, unfounded suspicions of Miss Merton, whom I believe to be a most estimable and worthy young lady.”
Mr. Blatherwick paused, and appeared to be troubled with a slight cough. The smile, which Wolfenden was not altogether able to conceal, seemed somewhat to increase his embarrassment.
“The extraordinary occurrence of last night, which her ladyship has probably detailed to you,” Mr. Blatherwick continued, “was the next development of what, I fear, we can only regard as downright insanity. I regret having to speak so plainly, but I am afraid that any milder phrase would be inapplicable.”
“I am very sorry to hear this,” Wolfenden remarked gravely.
“Under the circumstances,” Mr. Blatherwick said, picking up his cigar which was now extinct, and immediately laying it down again, “I trust that you and Lady Deringham will excuse my not giving the customary notice of my desire to leave. It is of course impossible for me to continue to draw a—er—a stipend such as I am in receipt of for services so ludicrously inadequate.”
“Lady Deringham will be sorry to have you go,” Wolfenden said. “Couldn’t you put up with it a little longer?”
“I would much prefer to leave,” Mr. Blatherwick said decidedly. “I am not physically strong, and I must confess that his lordship’s attitude at times positively alarms me. I fear that there is no doubt that he committed an unprovoked assault last night upon that unfortunate keeper. There is—er—no telling whom he might select for his next victim. If quite convenient, Lord Wolfenden, I should like to leave to-morrow by an early train.”
“Oh! you can’t go so soon as that,” Wolfenden said. “How about this letter?”
“You can take any steps you think proper with regard to it,” Mr. Blatherwick answered nervously. “Personally, I have nothing to do with it. I thought of going to spend a week with an aunt of mine in Cornwall, and I should like to leave by the early train to-morrow.”
Wolfenden could scarcely keep from laughing, although he was a little annoyed.
“Look here, Blatherwick,” he said, “you must help me a little before you go, there’s a good fellow. I don’t doubt for a moment what you say about the poor old governor’s condition of mind; but at the same time it’s rather an odd thing, isn’t it, that his own sudden fear of having his work stolen is followed up by the receipt of this letter to you? There is some one, at any rate, who places a very high value upon his manuscripts. I must say that I should like to know whom that letter came from.”
“I can assure you,” Mr. Blatherwick said, “that I have not the faintest idea.”
“Of course you haven’t,” Wolfenden assented, a little impatiently. “But don’t you see how easy it will be for us to find out? You must go to the Grand Hotel on Thursday for lunch, and meet this mysterious person.”
“I would very much rather not,” Mr. Blatherwick declared promptly. “I should feel exceedingly uncomfortable; I should not like it at all!”
“Look here,” Wolfenden said persuasively “I must find out who wrote that letter, and can only do so with your help. You need only be there, I will come up directly I have marked the man who comes to your table. Your presence is all that is required; and I shall take it as a favour if you will allow me to make you a present of a fifty-pound note.”
Mr. Blatherwick flushed a little and hesitated. He had brothers and sisters, whose bringing up was a terrible strain upon the slim purse of his father, a country clergyman, and a great deal could be done with fifty pounds. It was against his conscience as well as his inclinations to remain in a post where his duties were a farce, but this was different.
“You are very generous, Lord Wolfenden,” he said. “I will stay until after Thursday.”
“There’s a good fellow,” Wolfenden said, much relieved. “Have another cigar?”
Mr. Blatherwick rose hastily, and shook his head. “You must excuse me, if you please,” he said. “I will not smoke any more. I think if you will not mind——”
Wolfenden turned to the window and held up his hand.
“Listen!” he said. “Is that a carriage at this time of night?”
A carriage it certainly was, passing by the window. In a moment they heard it draw up at the front door, and some one alighted.
“Odd time for callers,” Wolfenden remarked.
Mr. Blatherwick did not reply. He, too, was listening. In a moment they heard the rustling of a woman’s skirts outside, and the smoking-room door opened.
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