The interview which he most dreaded in the morning was averted, or at any rate postponed. His mother had had a very bad night and was unable to get up—she might not be able to leave her bed for a week. Her malady, though not actually dangerous, was disquieting because it was so weakening, a bad attack frequently keeping her in bed for ten days or a fortnight; and complete quiet was necessary for her recovery and long afterwards.

Jack breathed again. He had been thinking of the revelation which he had to make to his mother before many hours had passed, and the more he thought of it the greater repugnance did he feel for the discharge of this duty. He breathed more freely. She might not be in a position to hear the story for several days, and what might happen in the meantime?

He could not of course make a suggestion as to what might happen; only one happening might be looked for with certainty, and this was the visit of Marcus Blaydon.

“He will not delay in striking his first blow,” said Priscilla. “You will let me see him alone? I shall know what to say to him, Jack.”

But Jack felt that, clever and all though his wife was, he knew better than she did how to deal with such men as Blaydon.

“Don’t think of such a thing,” said he. “You and I are one. We shall face him together. I know that you have your fears for me. You need have none. I can control myself. But that ruffian—one cannot take too elaborate precautions. Such men are not to be depended on. Revolvers are cheap, so is vitriol. I know that type of rascal, and I’ll make my arrangements accordingly. I have met with blackmailers before now, but I’ve not yet met one that adhered strictly to the artistic methods of the profession; they never move without a revolver or a knife—in the case of a woman they trust a good deal to vitriol.”

“I’m quite willing to submit to your judgment, Jack,” said she. “I’m not afraid of him. If you say that I should not see him I’ll leave him to you, but I think that I should face him with you by my side.”

“So you shall,” said he.

And so she did.

They had not rehearsed an imaginary scene with the man. They had not exchanged views as to what to say to him. Each knew what was in the other’s mind on the subject, so that any planning was unnecessary.

He came early—a man of good presence, he seemed to Jack to be probably from thirty-five to forty years of age. His dark hair was somewhat grizzled and so were his moustache and beard. Priscilla had thought it strange that he had not shaved his face on getting out of gaol and starting life afresh. He had always worn that short, square beard; but it now appeared to her to be shorter and to have much more grey in it. His eyes were queer, neither grey nor hazel; they were not bad eyes, and they had a certain expression of frankness and good spirit at times which was quite pleasing, until the man began to speak, and then the expression changed to one of furtiveness, for he looked at the person whom he was addressing with his head slightly averted so that the pupils of his eyes were not in the centre but awry.

The thought that came to Jack Wingfield at the moment of the man’s entrance was that he could easily understand how one might be imposed on by him; but to Priscilla came the thought that she had been right in distrusting him from the first.

He had been shown into the library by the order of Jack; the room was empty; Jack kept him waiting for some minutes before he entered, saying:

“Good morning. Can I do anything for you, Mr. Blaydon?”

“You can,” said the other. “I came here for my wife, and I mean to have her.”

And then Priscilla entered. The man threw out both hands in an artificial, stagey way, and took a step or two toward her.

“Stay where you are,” said Jack imperatively. “You can talk as well standing where you are. Don’t lay so much as a finger upon her. Now, say what you have to say.”

“Isn’t it natural that I should cross the room to meet my own true wedded wife, sir?” said the visitor. “She can’t deny it; if I know anything of her she won’t deny it—we were married according to the rites of God’s holy ordinance in the Church; and those that God hath joined together—but I know she will not deny it.”

“You know nothing of her,” said Jack. “All that you knew of her—all that you cared to know—was that her father had some money which you hoped to get your hands on to cover up the consequence of your fraud. But now you’re going to learn something of her. She escaped by a hair’s breadth from your clutches, and believing you to be dead—the report of your heroic death was another of your frauds, I suppose.”

“I escaped by the mercy of God, sir, and my first thought was for her.”

“Was it? Why was your first thought on getting out of gaol not for her? How was it that you were aboard that vessel?”

“Circumstances beyond my control—but—ah! I wanted to begin life again and not drag her down with me. I felt that I had it in me, sir; I know that I had it in me.”

“You knew that the report of your death was published in the American papers and you knew that it would appear in all the papers here. That was nearly four months ago, and yet you took no steps whatever to have that report contradicted. You wished everyone to believe that you were dead.”

“What better chance could I have of beginning life afresh? It seemed as if the hand of God——”

“Don’t trouble about the hand of God. You didn’t consider that it was due to the girl whom you had linked to your career of crime, to mention in confidence what your scheme was—to begin life again without being handicapped by your previous adventures that had landed you in gaol?”

“I wanted to wait until I had redeemed the bitter past. I wanted to be able to go to her, an honourable man, and say to her, ‘Priscilla, bitter though the past may have been, yet by the mercy of God——‘”

“Quite so. That was quite a laudable aspiration, and it shows that your heart is in the right place.”

“All that I thought about was her happiness, sir. I said, ‘If I have done her an injustice in the past, she shall find out I have atoned——‘”

“You thought of nothing but her happiness? Well, now that you come here and find that she is happy, what more do you want?”

“I want her—my wife.”

“Because you think that she will be happy with you? Why didn’t you go to her and tell her of your plans the very moment you were released from gaol?”

“I hadn’t the courage to face her after what had happened, sir.”

“That was your only reason?”

“That was my only reason.”

The man bent his head in an attitude of humility, and Jack Wingfield, who had spent six years of his life mingling with all sorts of men that go to make up a world, and who had acquired a good working knowledge of men of all sorts, looked at the man standing before him with bent head, and said:

“You lie, sir; you went straight off to another woman.”

The man gave a start, and his humility vanished. His eyes revealed unsuspected depths of shiftiness as he looked furtively from Jack to Priscilla and back again to Jack.

“What do you know about it? Has Lyman been writing to you?”

“Never mind who has been writing to me: the fact remains the same, and I think we have you in a tight place there, Mr. Blaydon,” said Jack, smiling at the result of his drawing a bow at a venture.

“Look here,” cried the visitor. “I know just how I stand. I know what my rights are—restitution of conjugal rights. I’ve been to the right quarter to learn all that, and what’s more, I won’t stand any further nonsense. What right have you to cross-question me—you? It is you who have ruined the girl, not me.”

“Mr. Blaydon,” said Jack quietly, “you are a man of the world, and so am I. You have said enough to show me that you are no fool. Now, speaking as man to man, and without wishing to dispute the legality of your claim or to throw away good money among bad lawyers, how much will you take in hard cash to clear off from here and let things be as they are?”

“Not millions—not millions!” cried the man indignantly. “I’m no blackmailer—don’t let that thought come to you. I don’t ask for money. Good Heavens, sir! what have I done that you should fancy my motives were of that character? No; all I ask is for my wife to come with me.”

“And supposing she went with you to-day, what could you do for her?” said Jack. “Have you a home to which you could take her? What are your prospects?”

“My prospects may be none of the brightest, Mr. Wingfield; I wasn’t born so lucky as you; but I’m her husband, and it’s my duty to think of her first. If she’s the woman I believe her to be, she will acknowledge that her duty is to be with me.”

He looked toward Priscilla, but she remained silent; she made no attempt to acknowledge his complimentary words.

Then Jack went to the mantelpiece, and drew a postcard from behind a bronze ornament—a postcard addressed to himself.

“Take that card in your hand and tell me if you recognize the handwriting,” he said, handing the card to the man who took it and scrutinized the writing closely.

“I never saw that writing in all my life,” he said, and Jack took the card from him smiling. The man looked at his fingers; the card had evidently been leaning against a gum-pot and got a touch of the brush on its border. He wiped his fingers in his pocket-handkerchief, while Jack replaced the postcard where it had been standing.

“If you tell me you have never seen that writing before, I am satisfied,” said he. “But I have a letter or two the writing on which I fancy you would have no difficulty in recognizing. I will not produce them just yet. Now, without wasting more time, Mr. Blaydon, I wish to know from you in one word, now or never, if I offer you the sum of twenty-five thousand pounds——”

Priscilla started up.

“Don’t you speak,” cried Jack, sternly. “I’m prepared to be liberal. But mind, it’s now or never with you, my man; for I’ll swear to you that I’ll never repeat my words—I say now, if I offer you the sum of twenty-five thousand pounds to clear away from here, to go to, let us say, Canada, and sign a paper never to return to England or to make any further claim upon us—well, what do you say—yes or no?”

There was an appalling pause. A great struggle seemed to be going on in the man’s mind, and so there was, but he pretended that it was in his heart, but this was where he made a mistake. He overrated his gifts as an emotional actor. His shifty eyes prevented his being convincing. He turned his head away, and took out his handkerchief. Then he wheeled sharply round and spoke firmly.

“Mr. Wingfield, I’ve told you that I have no thought except for the happiness of my wife. I’ll take the money.”

“Will you indeed?” asked Jack, anxiously.

“I don’t want to stand between her and happiness. I will take the money,” said the visitor.

“I thought that you would decide in that way,” said Jack, “and I’ll pay it to you——”

“Never!” cried Priscilla, speaking for the first time.

“Thank you; that’s the word I was looking for,” said Jack. Then he turned to the man.

“Take yourself away from here, and look slippy about it, my good fellow,” he said. “You have shown yourself to be just what I guessed you were. But I don’t think that you can say so much for us: we’re not just the fools that you fancied, Mr. Blaydon. You thought you were a made man when you learned that the girl you had tricked once had fallen a victim to your second deception. You’ll need a bit of re-making before you can call yourself a man. How much better would our position be if you were to clear off without revealing the fact of your existence to anyone? Our marriage would be legally still no marriage. And you thought that in these circumstances we would hand you over a fortune. Now be off with you, you impudent blackmailer, and do your worst. We shall fight you, and get the better of you on all points. You may take that from me.”

“I have come for my wife, and I mean to have her. You allowed just now that she was my wife,” cried the man, weakly reverting to his original bluff.

“She refuses to go with you, Mr. Blaydon. How do you mean to effect your purpose?”

“I have the law on my side. I know where I stand. Conjugal rights——”

“Two conjugal wrongs don’t make one conjugal right, and you’ll find that out to your cost, my good fellow. We’ve had enough of you now, Mr. Blaydon. I’ve been very patient so far, but my patience has its limits. Go to the attorney or the attorney’s clerk who sent you here, and ask him to advise you as to your next step.” He rang the bell, and the footman had opened the door before he had done speaking.

“Show this person out,” said Jack, choosing a cigar from a box on the mantelpiece, and snipping the end off with as great deliberation as is possible with a snip. Priscilla had already gone out of the room by the other door—the one which led into the dining-room.

The man looked at Jack, and then looked at the respectful but unmistakably muscular footman.

“Good morning, Mr. Wingfield,” he said, picking up his hat.

“Good morning,” said Mr. Wingfield. “Fine weather for the harvest, isn’t it?”

“Admirable,” responded the departing guest. “Admirable! Ha! ha!”

He made a very inefficient villain of melodrama in spite of his “Ha, ha!” laugh.

Yes, but he occupied a very important position as an obstacle to the happiness of Mr. and Mrs. Wingfield. He was legally the husband of the young woman who called herself Mrs. Wingfield, and who had never called herself by his name, and a legal husband is a quantity that has always to be reckoned with. His position is a pretty secure one when considered from the standpoint of English legality. In America he would do well not to step on a slide.

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