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In the days before the Welshman began to expend his surplus energy in playing football, he was accustomed, whenever the monotony of his everyday life began to oppress him, to collect a few friends and make raids across the border into England, to the huge discomfort of the dwellers on the other side. It was to cope with this habit that Corven Abbey, in Shropshire, came into existence. It met a long-felt want. Ministering to the spiritual needs of the neighborhood in times of peace, it became a haven of refuge when trouble began. From all sides people poured into it, emerging cautiously when the marauders had disappeared.
In the whole history of the abbey there is but one instance recorded of a bandit attempting to take the place by storm, and the attack was an emphatic failure. On receipt of one ladle full of molten lead, aimed to a nicety by John the Novice, who seems to have been anything but a novice at marksmanship, this warrior retired, done to a turn, to his mountain fastnesses, and is never heard of again. He would seem, however, to have passed the word round among his friends, for subsequent raiding parties studiously avoided the abbey, and a peasant who had succeeded in crossing its threshold was for the future considered to be "home" and out of the game. Corven Abbey, as a result, grew in power and popularity. Abbot succeeded abbot, the lake at the foot of the hill was restocked at intervals, the lichen grew on the walls; and still the abbey endured.
But time, assisted by his majesty, King Henry the Eighth, had done its work. The monks had fled. The walls had crumbled, and in the twentieth century, the abbey was a modern country house, and the owner a rich American.
Of this gentleman the world knew but little. That he had made money, and a good deal of it, was certain. His name, Patrick McEachern, suggested Irish parentage, and a slight brogue, noticeable, however, only in moments of excitement, supported this theory. He had arrived in London some four years back, taken rooms at the Albany, and gone into society.
England still firmly believes that wealth accrues to every resident of New York by some mysterious process not understandable of the Briton. McEachern and his money were accepted by society without question. His solecisms, which at first were numerous, were passed over as so quaint and refreshing. People liked his rugged good humor. He speedily made friends, among them Lady Jane Blunt, the still youthful widow of a man about town, who, after trying for several years to live at the rate of ten thousand per annum with an income of two and a half, had finally given up the struggle and drank himself peacefully into the tomb, leaving her in sole charge of their one son, Spencer Archbald.
Possibly because he was the exact antithesis of the late lamented, Lady Jane found herself drawn to Mr. McEachern. Whatever his faults, he had strength; and after her experience of married life with a weak man, Lady Jane had come to the conclusion that strength was the only male quality worth consideration. When a year later, McEachern's daughter, Molly, had come over, it was Lady Jane who took her under her wing and introduced her everywhere.
In the fifth month of the second year of their acquaintance, Mr. McEachern proposed and was accepted. "The bridegroom," said a society paper, "is one of those typical captains of industry of whom our cousins 'across the streak' can boast so many. Tall, muscular, square-shouldered, with the bulldog jaw and twinkling gray eye of the born leader. You look at him and turn away satisfied. You have seen a man!"
Lady Jane, who had fallen in love with the abbey some years before, during a visit to the neighborhood, had prevailed upon her square-shouldered lord to turn his twinkling gray eye in that direction, and the captain of industry, with the remark that here, at last, was a real bully old sure-fire English stately home, had sent down builders and their like, not in single spies, but in battalions, with instructions to get busy.
The results were excellent. A happy combination of deep purse on the part of the employer and excellent taste on the part of the architect had led to the erection of one of the handsomest buildings in Shropshire. To stand on the hill at the back of the house was to see a view worth remembering. The lower portion of the hill, between the house and the lake, had been cut into broad terraces. The lake itself, with its island with the little boathouse in the centre, was a glimpse of fairyland. Mr. McEachern was not poetical, but he had secured as his private sanctum a room which commanded this view.
He was sitting in this room one evening, about a week after the meeting between Spennie and Jimmy Pitt at the Savoy.
"See, here, Jane," he was saying, "this is my point. I've been fixing up things in my mind, and this is the way I make it out. I reckon there's no sense in taking risks when you needn't. You've a mighty high-toned bunch of guests here. I'm not saying you haven't. What I say is, it would make us all feel more comfortable if we knew there was a detective in the house keeping his eye skinned. I'm not alluding to any of them in particular, but how are we to know that all these social headliners are on the level?"
"If you mean our guests, Pat, I can assure you that they are all perfectly honest."
Lady Jane looked out of the window, as she spoke, at a group of those under discussion. Certainly at the moment the sternest censor could have found nothing to cavil at in their movements. Some were playing tennis, some clock golf, and the rest were smoking. She had frequently complained, in her gentle, languid way, of her husband's unhappily suspicious nature. She could never understand it. For her part she suspected no one. She liked and trusted everybody, which was the reason why she was so popular, and so often taken in.
Mr. McEachern looked bovine, as was his habit when he was endeavoring to gain a point against opposition.
"They may be on the level," he said. "I'm not saying anything against any one. But I've seen a lot of crooks in my time, and it's not the ones with the low brows and the cauliflower ears that you want to watch for. It's the innocent Willies who look as if all they could do was to lead the cotillon and wear bangles on their ankles. I've had a lot to do with them, and it's up to a man that don't want to be stung not to go by what a fellow looks like."
"Really, Pat, dear, I sometimes think you ought to have been a policeman. What is the matter?"
"Shouted? Not me. Spark from my cigar fell on my hand."
"You know, you smoke too much, Pat," said his wife, seizing the opening with the instinct which makes an Irishman at a fair hit every head he sees.
"I'm all right, me dear. Faith, I c'u'd smoke wan hondred a day and no harm done."
By way of proving the assertion he puffed out with increased vigor at his cigar. The pause gave him time to think of another argument, which might otherwise have escaped him.
"When we were married, me dear Jane," he said, "there was a detective in the room to watch the presents. Two of them. I remimber seeing them at once. There go two of the boys, I said to mysilf. I mean," he added hastily, "two of the police force."
"But detectives at wedding receptions are quite ordinary. Nobody minds them. You see, the presents are so valuable that it would be silly to risk losing them."
"And are there not valuable things here," asked McEachern triumphantly, "which it would be silly to risk losing? And Sir Thomas is coming to-day with his wife. And you know what a deal of jewelry she always takes about her."
"Oh, Julia!" said Lady Jane, a little disdainfully. Her late husband's brother Thomas' wife was one of the few people to whom she objected. And, indeed, she was not alone in this prejudice. Few who had much to do with her did like Lady Blunt.
"That rope of pearls of hers," said Mr. McEachern, "cost forty thousand pounds, no less, so they say."
"So she says. But if you were thinking of bringing down a detective to watch over Julia's necklace, Pat, you needn't trouble. I believe she takes one about with her wherever she goes, disguised as Thomas' valet."
"Still, me dear----"
"Pat, you're absurd," laughed Lady Jane. "I won't have you littering up the house with great, clumsy detectives. You must remember that you aren't in horrid New York now, where everybody you meet wants to rob you. Who is it that you suspect? Who is the--what is the word you're so fond of? Crook. That's it. Who is the crook?"
"I don't want to mention names," said McEachern cautiously, "and I cast no suspicions, but who is that pale, thin Willie who came yesterday? The one that says the clever things that nobody understands?"
"Lulu Wesson! Why, Patrick! He's the most delightful boy. What can you suspect him of?"
"I don't suspect him of anything. But you'll remimber what I was telling about the sort of boy you want to watch. That's what that boy is. He may be the straightest ever, but if I was told there was a crook in the company, and wasn't put next who it was, he's the boy that would get my vote."
"What dreadful nonsense you are talking, Pat. I believe you suspect every one you meet. I suppose you will jump to the conclusion that this man whom Spennie is bringing down with him to-day is a criminal of some sort."
"How's that? Spennie bringing a friend?"
There was not a great deal of enthusiasm in McEachern's voice. His stepson was not a young man whom he respected very highly. Spennie regarded his stepfather with nervous apprehension, as one who would deal with his shortcomings with a vigor and severity of which his mother was incapable. The change of treatment which had begun after her marriage with the American had had an excellent effect upon him, but it had not been pleasant. As Nebuchadnezzar is reported to have said of his vegetarian diet, it may have been wholesome, but it was not good. McEachern, for his part, regarded Spennie as a boy who would get into mischief unless he had an eye fixed upon him. So he proceeded to fix that eye.
"Yes, I must be seeing Harding about getting the rooms ready. Spennie's friend is bringing his man with him."
"Who is his friend?"
"He doesn't say. He just says he's a man he met in London."
"And what does that grunt mean, I should like to know? I believe you've begun to suspect the poor man already, without seeing him."
"I don't say I have. But a man can pick up strange people in London."
"Pat, you're perfectly awful. I believe you suspect every one you meet. What do you suspect me of, I wonder?"
"That's easy answered," said McEachern. "Robbery from the person."
"What have I stolen?"
"Me heart, me dear," replied McEachern gallantly, with a vast grin.
"After that," said his wife, "I think I had better go. I had no idea you could make such pretty speeches. Pat!"
"Well, me dear?"
"Don't send for that detective. It really wouldn't do. If it got about that we couldn't trust our guests, we should never live it down. You won't, will you?"
"Very well, me dear."
What followed may afford some slight clue to the secret of Mr. Patrick McEachern's rise in the world. It certainly suggests singleness of purpose, which is one of the essentials of success.
No sooner had the door closed behind Lady Jane than he went to his writing table, took pen and paper, and wrote the following letter:
To the Manager,
Wragge's Detective Agency,
Holborn Bars, London, E. C.
With ref'ce to my last of the 28th ult., I should be glad if you would send down immediately one of your best men. Am making arrangements to receive him. Shall be glad if you will instruct him as follows, viz. (a) that he shall stay at the village inn in character of American seeing sights of England and anxious to inspect the abbey; (b) that he shall call and ask to see me. I shall then recognize him as old New York friend, and move his baggage from above inn to the abbey. Yours faithfully,
P.S.--Kindly not send a rube, but a real smart man.
This brief but pregnant letter cost him some pains in its composition. He was not a ready writer. But he completed it at last to his satisfaction. There was a crisp purity in the style which pleased him. He read it over, and put in a couple of commas. Then he placed it in an envelope, and lit another cigar.
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