"Two hours after sunset, Clifford Lynne" (he gave him his Chinese name) "comes into the city by the Gate of Beneficent Rice. Kill him and every paper that he carries bring to me."
Clifford came to the minute, but through the Mandarin Gate, and the watchers missed him. They reported to their master, but he already knew of Clifford's return and the way by which he came.
"You will have many opportunities," said Fing-Su, Bachelor of Arts. "And perhaps it is well that this thing did not happen whilst I was in the city. Tomorrow I go back to England, and I will bring back Power!"
It was exactly six months after Fing-Su left for Europe, that the partners of Narth Brothers sat behind locked doors in their boardroom in London, facing an unusual situation. Stephen Narth sat at the head of the table; his big, heavy, white face with its perpetual frown indicated that he was more than usually troubled.
Major Gregory Spedwell, yellow and cadaverous, sat on his right. Major Spedwell with his black, curly hair and his cigarette-stained fingers, had a history that was not entirely military.
Facing him was Ferdinand Leggat, a wholesome John Bull figure, with his healthy-looking face and his side-whiskers, though in truth the wholesomeness of his appearance was not borne out by his general character, for 'John Bull Leggat' had endured many vicissitudes which were not wholly creditable to himself—before he came to the anchor of comparatively respectable harbourage of Narth Brothers Ltd.
There had been a time when the name of Narth was one with which one could conjure in the City of London. Thomas Ammot Narth, the father of the present head of the firm, had conducted a very excellent, though limited, business on the Stock Exchange, and had for his clients some of the noblest houses in England.
His son had inherited his business acumen without his discrimination, and in consequence, whilst he had increased the business of the firm in volume, he had accepted clients of a character which did not find favour with the older supporters of his firm, and when he found himself in court, as he did on one or two occasions, disputing the accuracy of clients' instructions, the older supporters of his house had fallen away, and he was left with a clerk and speculator which offered him the opportunities rather of sporadic coups than the steadiness of income which is the sure foundation of prosperity.
He had eked out the bad times by the flotation of numerous companies. Some of these had been mildly successful, but the majority had pursued an inevitable and exciting course which landed them eventually before that official whose unhappy duty it is to arrange the winding up of companies.
It was in the course of these adventures that Stephen Narth had met Mr Leggat, a Galician oil speculator, who also conducted a theatrical agency and a moneylending business, and was generally to be found on the ground floor of jerry-built flotations.
The business which had brought the three members of the firm at nine o'clock in the morning to their cold and uninviting offices at Minchester House had nothing whatever to do with the ordinary business of the firm. Mr Leggat said as much, being somewhat oracular in his methods.
"Let us have the matter fair and square," he said. "This business of ours is as near to bankruptcy as makes no difference. I say bankruptcy, and for the time being we will let the matter stay right there. What may be revealed at the bankruptcy proceedings doesn't affect Spedwell and doesn't affect me. I haven't speculated with the company's money—neither has Spedwell."
"You knew——" began Narth hotly.
"I knew nothing." Mr Leggat waved him to silence. "The auditors tell us that the sum of fifty thousand pounds is unaccounted for. Somebody has been gambling on 'Change—not me; not Spedwell."
"It was on your advice——"
Again Mr Leggat held up his hand.
"This isn't the moment for recrimination. We're short fifty thousand, more or less. Where and how are we going to raise the money?"
His eyes met Spedwell's, and for an instant of time that saturnine man showed evidence of approval and amusement.
"It is all very well for you fellows to talk," growled Narth, wiping his moist face with a silk handkerchief. "You were all in the oil speculation—both of you!"
Mr Leggat smiled and shrugged his broad shoulders, but made no comment.
"Fifty thousand pounds is a lot of money." Spedwell spoke for the first time.
"An awful lot," agreed his friend, and waited for Mr Narth to speak.
"We didn't come here today to discuss what we already know," said Narth impatiently, "but to find a remedy. How are we going to face the music? That is the question."
"And simply answered, I think," said Mr Leggat, almost jovially. "I for one have no desire to face again—when I say 'again' let me correct myself and say for the first time—the miseries of Wormwood Scrubbs. We have—I should say you have—got to raise the money. There remains only one possibility," said Mr Leggat slowly, and all the time he was speaking his keen eyes did not leave Stephen Narth's face. "You are the nephew or cousin of Mr Joseph Bray, and, as all the world knows, Mr Joseph Bray is rich beyond the dreams of avarice. He is reputedly the wealthiest man in China, and I understand—correct me if I am wrong—that you and your family are in receipt of a yearly stipend—pension—from this gentleman——"
"Two thousand a year," broke in Narth loudly. "That has nothing whatever to do with this business!"
Mr Leggat glanced at the Major and smiled.
"The man who allows you two thousand a year must be approachable on one side or another. To Joseph Bray fifty thousand pounds is that!" He snapped his finger. "My dear Narth, this is the situation. In four months' time, possibly sooner, you will stand your trial at the Old Bailey, unless you can secure the money to lock up the bloodhounds who will soon be on your trail."
"On all our trails," said Narth sullenly. "I'm not going alone—understand that! And you can get out of your head the idea that I can persuade old Joe Bray to send me a cent more. He is as hard as nails and his manager is harder. You don't suppose that I haven't tried him before, do you? I tell you he is impossible."
Mr Leggat looked at Major Spedwell again, and they both sighed and rose as though some signal, invisible to Narth, had been given.
"We will meet the day after tomorrow," said Leggat, "and you had better work the cable to China, because the only alternative to Mr Joseph Bray may be even more unpleasant than penal servitude."
"What do you mean?" demanded Narth, rage in his smouldering eyes.
"I mean," said Mr Leggat, as he lit a cigar with great deliberation, "the assistance of the gentleman named Mr Grahame St Clay."
"And who the devil is Grahame St Clay?" asked the astonished Narth.
Mr Leggat smiled cryptically.
Stephen Narth ordinarily left his office in Old Broad Street at four o'clock, at which hour his limousine was waiting to carry him to his beautiful house at Sunningdale. But this evening he lingered on, not because he had any especial business to transact, or because he needed the time to brood over his unfortunate position, but because the China mail was due by the five o'clock post, and he expected the monthly draft to which Leggat had made reference.
Joseph Bray was his second cousin, and in the days when the Narths were princes of commerce and the Brays the poorest of poor relations (they called themselves Bray-Narth, but old Joseph had dropped the hyphenated style, being a man of little education), the great family was scarcely cognisant of Joe Bray's movements. Until, ten years before, Mr Narth had received a letter from his cousin saying that he was anxious to get in touch with his only relative, they were unaware that such a man as Joseph existed, and Mr Stephen Narth's first inclination, as he read the ill-spelt, illiterate letter, was to tear it up and throw it into the wastepaper basket, for he had sufficient troubles of his own without being called upon to shoulder the burden of distant relatives. It was only at the tag-end of the letter that he discovered his correspondent was that Bray whose name was famous in the Stock Exchanges of the world—the veritable Bray, of Yun Nan Concession. Thereafter, Joseph assumed a new importance.
They had never met. He had seen a photograph of the old man, grim and grey and hard, and it was probably this picture which had inhibited those appeals for further help which he so glibly claimed to have sent.
Perkins, his clerk, came in with a letter soon after five.
"Miss Joan came this afternoon, sir, whilst you were at the board meeting."
"Oh!" replied Stephen Narth indifferently.
Here was a Bray that represented a responsibility, one of the two members of the cadet family he had known about until old Joseph's letter came. She was a distant cousin, had been brought up in his home and had received the good but inexpensive education to which poor relations are entitled. Her position in his household he would have found it difficult to define. Joan was very useful. She could take charge of the house when the girls were away. She could keep accounts and could replace a housekeeper or, for the matter of that, a housemaid. Though she was a little younger than Letty, and very much younger than Mabel, she could serve to chaperone either.
Sometimes she joined the theatre parties that the girls organized, and occasionally she went to a dance when an extra partner was wanted. But usually Joan Bray remained in the background. There were times when it was inconvenient even that she should join one of his select little dinner parties, and then Joan had her meal in her big attic room, and, if the truth be told, was more than a little relieved.
"What did she want?" asked Mr Narth as he cut open the flap of the only letter that counted.
"She wanted to know if there was anything to take back to Sunningdale. She came up to do some shopping with Miss Letty," said his old clerk, and then: "She asked me if any of the young ladies had telephoned about the Chinamen."
Perkins explained. There had appeared that morning in the grounds of Sunni Lodge two yellow men, "not wearing much clothing either." Letty had seen them lying in the long grass near the farm meadow—two powerful-looking men, who at the sight of her had leapt up and had fled to the little plantation which divided Lord Knowesley's estate from the less pretentious domain of Mr Narth.
"Miss Letty was a little frightened," said Perkins.
Miss Letty, who lived on the raw edge of hysteria, would be frightened, undoubtedly.
"Miss Joan thought the men belonged to a circus which passed through Sunningdale this morning," said Perkins.
Mr Narth saw little in the incident, and beyond making a mental note to bring the matter to the notice of the local police, dismissed from his mind all thought of Chinamen.
Slowly he tore open the flap of the envelope. The cheque was there, but also, as he had realized when he handled the package, a letter of unusual length. Joe Bray was not in the habit of sending long epistles. As a rule, a sheet of paper bearing the inscription 'With Comps.' was all that accompanied the draft.
He folded the purple-coloured draft and put it into his pocket, and then began to read the letter, wondering why this relative of his had grown suddenly so communicative. It was written in his own crabbed hand and every fourth word was mis-spelt.
Dear Mr Narth (
Joe never addressed him in any other way
I dare say you will wonder why I have written to you such a long letter. Well, dear Mr Narth, I must tell you that I have had a bad stroke, and am only getting better very slowly. The doctor says he can't be sure how long I've got to live, so I thought I would fix up the future and make a will, which I have now done, through Mr Albert Van Rys, the lawyer. Dear Mr Narth, I must tell you that I have got a great admiration for your family, as you well know, and I have been long thinking how I should help your family, and this is what I have done. My manager, Clifford Lynne, who has been with me since a boy and was my partner when I found this reef, is a good young fellow (Clifford Lynne, I mean), so I have decided he should marry into my family and keep the name going. I know you have several girls in your house, two daughters and a cousin, and I want Clifford to marry one of these, which he has agreed to do. He is on his way over now and should be with you any day. My will is as follows: I leave you two thirds of my share in the mine, one-third to Clifford, on condition that one of these girls marries him. If these girls refuse, all the money goes to Clifford. The marriage is to occur before the thirty-first of December of this year. Dear Mr Narth, if this is not agreeable to you, you will get nothing on my death.
Stephen Narth read the letter open-mouthed, his mind in a whirl. Salvation had come from the most unexpected quarter. He rang a bell to summon the clerk and gave him a few hasty instructions, and, not waiting for the lift, ran down the stairs and boarded his car. All the way to Sunningdale he turned over in his mind the letter and its strange proposal.
Mabel, of course! She was the eldest. Or Letty—the money was as good as in his pocket...
As the car went up the drive between bushes of flowering rhododendrons he was almost gay, and he sprang out with a smile so radiant that the watchful Mabel, who saw him from he lawn, realized that something unusual had happened and came running to meet him, as Letty appeared at the big front door. They were handsome girls, a little plumper than he could wish, and the elder inclined to take a sour view of life which was occasionally uncomfortable.