As soon as Mrs. Conway received the box she set to work in earnest. Directly the house was still and a sufficient time had elapsed for the Miss Penfolds to have fallen asleep, she rose from the bed on which she had lain down without undressing, put on the coat and hat, and made her way noiselessly down to the library. As she kept the lock well oiled she entered noiselessly, and then locking the door behind her lighted a candle and commenced her search. On the fifth night she was rewarded by finding that the center of what looked like a solidly carved flower in the ornamentation of the mantelpiece gave way under the pressure of her finger, and at the same moment she heard a slight click. Beyond this nothing was apparent; and after trying everything within reach she came to the conclusion that it needed a second spring to be touched to reveal the entrance.
It took her another three weeks before she found this. It was a slight projection, about as large as a button, in the inside of the chimney behind the mantel. Pressing this and the other spring simultaneously, the bookcase on the left of the fireplace suddenly swung open three or four inches. For a moment she stood breathless with excitement, hesitating before she entered; then she swung the bookcase open. There, as she had expected, was a little room seven feet long by four deep; but, to her bitter disappointment, it was bare and empty. A few scraps of paper lay on the ground, but there was no furniture, chest, or boxes in the room. The revulsion was so great that Mrs. Conway returned into the library, threw herself into a chair, and had a long cry. Then she went back into the room and carefully examined the pieces of paper lying on the ground. One of them was a portion of a letter, and she recognized at once the handwriting of Mr. Tallboys.
It contained only the words: "My dear Mr. Penfold—In accordance with your request I send you the—" But above was the date, which was ten days only anterior to Mr. Penfold's death. Mrs. Conway had no doubt that the word that should have followed the fragment was "will," and that this was the letter that Mr. Tallboys had sent over with that document. It was important evidence, as it showed that Mr. Penfold had been in the habit of using this place during his lifetime, and that he had entered it after he had received the will from his solicitor a few days before his death. Why should he have entered it except to put the will in a place of security? Where that place was she did not know, but she felt certain that it was somewhere within reach of her hand.
"If it is here it must be found," she said resolutely; "but I won't begin to look for it to-night. It must be three o'clock already, and I will think the matter over thoroughly before I begin again. It is something to have found out as much as I have. I ought to be encouraged instead of being disappointed."
That day she wrote to Mr. Tallboys, giving him a full account of the discovery which she had made, and inclosing the fragment of his letter. She did not renew her search for the next two nights; for her long watchfulness and excitement had told upon her, and she felt that she needed rest before she set about the second part of the search. She received a letter from Mr. Tallboys in reply to that she had sent him:
"MY DEAR MRS. CONWAY: I congratulate you most heartily upon the great success you have met with. I own that I have never been very hopeful, for after the thorough search we made of the room I hardly thought it likely that you would succeed when we had failed; however, you have done so, and I cannot doubt that a similar success will attend your further efforts. In a small bare room such as you describe the difficulties in the way of finding the hidden receptacle cannot be so great as those you have already overcome. You are perfectly correct in your supposition that the fragment you sent me was part of the letter that I sent over with the will to Mr. Penfold by my clerk. I have compared it with the copy in my letter book, and find that it is the same. As you say, this letter proves conclusively that Mr. Penfold was in this secret room after he received the will, and one can assign no reason for his going there unless to put the will away in what he considered a secure hiding-place. That it is still somewhere there I have no doubt whatever, and I shall await with much anxiety news as to your further progress."
Thinking the matter over, Mrs. Conway had come to the conclusion that the hiding-place could only be under one of the stone flags of the floor or in the wall against the fireplace, or rather in that part of it above the fireplace. There would not be thickness enough in the walls separating the secret chamber from the passage or the rooms on either side of it; but the chimney would not be of the same width as the open fireplace below, and there might well be a space there sufficient for a good-sized closet. It was here, therefore, that she determined to begin her search. The next night, then, after touching the springs and entering the secret chamber, she began carefully to examine each stone in the wall next the fireplace at a distance about four feet above the ground.
In five minutes she uttered an exclamation of satisfaction. One of the stones, above eighteen inches square, although like the rest fitting closely to those adjoining it, was not, like the others, bedded in cement. So close was the join that it needed a close inspection to see that it was different from those around it. Still, upon close examination, it was evident that it was not cemented in. Taking out a penknife from her pocket, she found that the joint was too close even to allow this to be inserted for any distance. There was no keyhole or any other visible means of opening it, and she searched the walls in vain for any hidden spring.
For a whole week she continued the search, but without the slightest success, and at last began almost to despair; for at the end of that time she was convinced that she had passed her fingers again and again over every square inch of the floor and walls within her reach. Completely worn out with her sleepless nights, she determined to take a little rest, and to abstain altogether for a few nights from the search. On the third night, however, an idea suddenly occurred to her. She rose at once, dressed herself, and was about to go downstairs, when she thought that she heard a noise below. She returned at once to her room, hid away her hat and coat, and again went to the top of the stairs and listened.
Yes, she had not been mistaken; she distinctly heard sounds below, and, she thought, the murmur of men's voices. After a moment's thought she returned again to her room, took off her dress and threw a shawl round her shoulders, and then stole quietly down the stairs to the next floor and knocked gently at Miss Penfold's door. She repeated the knock two or three times, and then heard Miss Penfold's voice asking who was there. She did not speak, but knocked again. This time the voice came from the other side of the door.
"It is me, Miss Penfold—Anna Sibthorpe."
The door was unlocked and opened.
"What is it, Anna?"
"There is some one in the house, ma'am; I can hear them moving about down below, and I think I can hear men's voices."
Miss Penfold came out and listened.
"Yes, there is some one there," she said. "Go and call the butler and the others. I shall be ready by the time you come down."
In two or three minutes the servants, headed by the butler, who had armed himself with a blunderbuss that always hung in his room ready for action, came downstairs. Miss Penfold came out to meet them half-dressed. She had a pistol in her hand. The maids had armed themselves with pokers and brooms.
"Have you looked to the priming of your blunderbuss?" Miss Penfold asked quietly.
"Well, then, look now," she said sharply. "What's the use of having a weapon if you don't see that it's in order?"
"It's all right, ma'am," the butler said, examining the priming.
"Well, then, come along and don't make a noise."
They went downstairs noiselessly, and paused when they reached the hall. The sounds came from the drawing-room. Miss Penfold led the way to the door, turned the handle, and flung it open. Three men were seen in the act of packing up some of the valuables. They started up with an exclamation. Miss Penfold fired, and there was a cry of pain. A moment later there was a roar as the blunderbuss went off, the contents lodging in the ceiling. "Without hesitating for a moment the three men made a rush to the open window, and were gone.
"John Wilton," Miss Penfold said sternly, "you are a fool! I give you a month's notice from to-day. Fasten up the shutters again and all go off to bed." And without another word she turned and went upstairs. As she reached the landing her sister ran out of her room in great alarm.
"What is the matter, Charlotte? I heard two explosions."
"It is nothing, Eleanor. Some men broke into the house, and we have gone down and frightened them away. I did not think it was worth while disturbing you, as you are so easily alarmed; but it is all over now, and the servants are shutting up the house again. I will tell you all about it in the morning. Go to bed again at once, or you will catch cold. Good-night."
Directly Miss Penfold had gone upstairs a hubbub of talk burst out from the female servants.
"It's disgraceful, John! With that great gun you ought to have shot them all dead."
"It went off by itself," John said, "just as I was going to level it."
"Went off by itself!" the cook said scornfully. "It never went off of itself when it was hanging above your bed. Guns never go off by themselves, no more than girls do. I am surprised at you, John. Why, I have heard you talk a score of times of what you would do if burglars came; and now here you have been and knocked a big hole in the ceiling. Why missus has twenty times as much courage as you have. She shot straight, she did, for I heard one of the men give a squalk. Oh, you men are pitiful creatures, after all!"
"You wouldn't have been so mighty brave, cook, if Miss Penfold and me hadn't been in front of you."
"A lot of use you were!" the cook retorted. "Six feet one of flesh, and no heart in it! Why, I would have knocked him down with a broom if I had been within reach of him."
"Yes, that we would, cook," the under-housemaid said. "I had got my poker ready, and I would have given it them nicely if I could have got within reach. Miss Penfold was just as cool as if she had been eating her breakfast, and so was we all except John."
John had by this time fastened up the shutter again, and feeling that his persecutors were too many for him he slunk off at once to his room; and the others, beginning to feel that their garments were scarcely fitted for the cold night air postponed their discussion of the affair until the following morning. The next morning after breakfast the servants were called into the dining-room, and Miss Penfold interrogated them closely as to whether any of them had seen strange men about, or had been questioned by any one they knew as to valuables at the Hall.
"If it had not been for Anna," she said, when she had finished without eliciting any information, "the house would have been robbed, and not any of us would have been any the wiser. It was most fortunate that, as she says, she happened to be awake and heard the sounds; and she acted very properly in coming quietly down to wake me. If the one man in the house," and she looked scornfully at the unfortunate butler, "had been possessed of the courage of a man the whole of them would have been shot; for they were standing close together, and he could hardly have missed them if he had tried.
"If that weapon had been in the hands of Anna, instead of those of John Wilton, the results would have been very different. However, John Wilton, you have been a, good servant generally, and I suppose it is not your fault if you have not the courage of a mouse, therefore I shall withdraw my notice for you to leave. I shall make arrangements for the gardener to sleep in the house in future, and you will hand that blunderbuss over to him. I shall write to-day to the ironmonger at Weymouth to come over and fix bells to all the shutters, and to arrange wires for a bell from my room to that which the gardener will occupy."
At breakfast Miss Penfold informed her sister of what had taken place the night before.
"I shall write, of course, to the head constable at Weymouth to send over to inquire about it, but I have very little hope that he will discover anything, Eleanor."
"Why do you think that, Charlotte? You said that you were convinced you had wounded one of the men; so they ought to be able to trace him."
"I dare say they would if this had been an ordinary theft; but I am convinced that it was not."
"Not an ordinary theft! What do you mean?"
"I have no doubt in my mind, Eleanor, that it was another attempt to discover the will."
"Do you think so?" Eleanor said in an awed voice. "That is terrible. But you said the men were engaged in packing up the candlesticks and ornaments."
"Oh, I believe that was a mere blind. Of course they would wish us to believe they were simply burglars, and therefore they acted as such to begin with. But there has never been any attempt on the house during the forty years we have lived here. Why should there be so now? If Anna had not fortunately heard those men I believe that when they had packed up a few things to give the idea that they were burglars, they would have gone to the library and set to to ransack it and find the will."
"But they would never have found it, Charlotte. It is too well hidden for that."
"There is no knowing," Miss Penfold said gloomily. So long as it is in existence we shall never feel comfortable. It will be much better to destroy it."
"No, no!" Eleanor exclaimed. "We agreed, Charlotte, that there was no reason why we should assist them to find it; but that is altogether a different thing from destroying it. I should never feel happy again if we did."
"As for that," Miss Penfold said somewhat scornfully, "you don't seem very happy now. You are always fretting and fidgeting over it."
"It is not I who am fancying that these burglars came after the will," Eleanor answered in an aggrieved voice.
"No; that is the way with timid people," Miss Penfold said. "They are often afraid of shadows, and see no danger where danger really exists. At any rate, I am determined to see whether the will really is where we suppose it to be. If it is I shall take it out and hide it in the mattress of my bed. We know that it will be safe there at any rate as long as I live, though I think it wiser to destroy it."
"No, no," Eleanor exclaimed; "anything but that. I sleep badly enough now, and am always dreaming that Herbert is standing by my bedside with a reproachful look upon his face. I should never dare sleep at all if we were to destroy it."
"I have no patience with such childish fancies, as I told you over and over again," Miss Penfold said sharply. "If I am ready to take the risk of doing it, I do not see that you need fret about it. However, I am ready to give in to your prejudices, and indeed would rather not destroy it myself if it can be safely kept elsewhere. At any rate I shall move it from its hiding-place. We know that it is there and nowhere else that it will be searched for, and with it in my room we need have no more uneasiness. I can unsew the straw pailliasse at the bottom of my bed, and when it is safely in there I shall have no fear whatever."
"Of course you can do as you like, Charlotte," Eleanor said feebly; "but for my part I would much rather go on as we are. We don't know now that the will really exists, and I would much rather go on thinking that there is a doubt about it."
"Very well, then; go on so, Eleanor. You need ask no questions of me, and I shall tell you nothing. Only remember, if I die before you don't part with the pailliasse on my bed."
Mrs. Conway thought a good deal during the day about the events of the night before, and determined to be more cautious than ever in her operations; for she thought it probable that Miss Penfold would be even more wakeful and suspicious than before. She would have left the search alone for a few days had it not been for the idea that had taken her from her bed the night before. It had struck her then as possible that the spring opening the secret closet might be in the chimney behind it, and that it was necessary to touch this from the outside before opening the door of the secret room.
She was convinced that had there been a spring in the room itself she must have discovered it, but it never before struck her that it might be at the back of the closet. She felt that she must satisfy herself on this point whatever the risk of discovery. Accordingly at the usual hour she made her way downstairs. She had put the key in the door, and was in the act of turning it when she heard a noise upstairs. She opened the door and stood looking up the stairs. In a moment she saw a light, and directly afterward Miss Penfold appeared at the top holding a candle in her hand. Knowing she was as yet unseen, Mrs. Conway entered the library and closed the door behind her. Then she hurried to the fireplace, touched the two springs, pulled the bookcase open and entered the secret chamber, and closed the bookcase behind her.
She had often examined the lock, thinking that the secret spring of the closet might be concealed here. It was a large old-fashioned one, and moved two bolts, one at the top of the door and one at the bottom. These she had already discovered could be easily opened from the inside. She imagined that Miss Penfold was merely going round the house to see that all was secure, and she had, contrary to her practice, taken the key from the door of the library in order that Miss Penfold might enter it if she chose. But the thought now flashed across her that possibly she might intend to open the secret room; and to prevent this she now thrust the barrel of the pistol she carried in between the back of the bolt and the piece of iron against which it shot, so that the action of the springs could not throw it out of its place.
Breathlessly she listened. Presently she heard a sharp click in the wall behind her. She had scarcely time to wonder what this meant when she heard a sound in the lock close to her. It was repeated again and again. Then she felt a slight tremor of the door as if somebody was trying to shake it. Her heart almost stood still. Miss Penfold was evidently trying to open the chamber; and, though she knew the lock could not open so long as she held the pistol in the place, she felt her breath coming fast and her heart beating. For five minutes the attempts to open the door continued. Then all was still again.
For half an hour she remained without moving; then, as all continued quiet, she guessed that Miss Penfold, finding the springs did not act, had returned to her room. She now rose to her feet, drew out her dark lantern, and turned to the wall by her side. She gave an exclamation of joy—the stone that she had so long vainly endeavored to move was swung open. Miss Penfold who of course had the secret, had touched the spring outside before attempting to open the chamber, and the stone, which was set in iron, had swung open on a hinge. In a moment Mrs. Conway explored the contents. The closet was about two feet square by nine inches in depth, and contained two shelves. There were several papers in it, and the very first upon which she placed her hand was marked "The Last Will and Testament of Herbert Penfold."
So overwhelmed was Mrs. Conway at this termination to her long search that she sank on the ground, and it was some time before she could collect herself sufficiently to consider what was her best course. It was evident that for some reason Miss Penfold had been about to visit the secret room to see that the will was still in safety. The failure of the springs to act had, of course, disconcerted her; but she might try again in the morning, and would then be able to enter the room, and would discover that the will was missing.
It was clearly the best course to make off at once. She remembered now that she had noticed a tiny hole no bigger than a nail-hole in the door, and had found that upon the other side it was just above a row of books in the shelves somewhat lower in height than the rest, and was evidently intended to enable the occupant of the chamber to obtain a view of the library, and see whether that room was occupied. She applied her eye to it at once, and saw that all was dark. Concealing the lantern again beneath her coat, she drew back the bolts gently and stepped out. Then she went to one of the windows, took down the bell, carefully unbarred the shutters, threw up the window and stepped out.
She sped cross the garden, down the drive, and through the gate, and then hurried at the top of her speed toward the village. She had gone about half the distance when she heard a horse's footsteps approaching. The road ran between two high hedges and there was no place for concealment. She therefore walked along by the edge of the road close to the hedge, hoping that the horseman would pass without noticing her. His eyes, however, were too much accustomed to the darkness. He reined in his horse when he came to her, and a moment later the light of a small lantern fell on her face.
"Who are you?" a voice asked, "and where are you going?"
"I am going to the vicarage," she said, "to see Mr. Withers."
"A likely story that," he said. "What is this? A woman with a man's hat and coat! There is something wrong here," and leaning down he caught her by the collar. She saw by the light of his lantern that he was a mounted patrol.
"It is quite true, constable," she said. "I have put these things on in a hurry, but I am going to see Mr. Withers on a question of life and death. Take me to the vicarage, and if when you get there you find my story is not true you can lock me up if you like."
The constable was puzzled. The voice was apparently that of a lady, and yet her attire, and her presence abroad at two o'clock in the morning, was suspicious in the extreme. He paused irresolute.
"I don't like to disturb the vicar at this time of night," he said. "I will take you to the village lockup and go up to him in the morning."
"Please don't do that," she said. "I am a lady, and have a very good reason for what I am doing. I can promise you that Mr. Withers will not be angry at being called up; indeed he will be greatly pleased. Come, constable," she went on, seeing that he hesitated, "I will give you a couple of guineas to take me direct to the vicarage."
"Well, ma'am," the constable said, "if you are sure Mr. Withers will not be angry at being called up at such an hour I will take you; but you know he is a magistrate, and it would never do to play tricks upon him."
"There are no tricks, constable. He knows me very well, and will be pleased to see me even at this hour."
Greatly puzzled over the whole proceeding the constable turned, and still keeping a firm hold of her collar walked his horse back toward the village.
"You really need not hold me so tightly," Mrs. Conway said. "If I wanted to get away I could have done so in a moment; for I have a pistol in my pocket, and could have shot you the moment you turned your lantern away from me."
Somewhat startled at this information the constable released his hold, satisfied that his prisoner could not escape by speed. As a measure of precaution he made her walk a pace or two ahead, and kept the light of his lantern upon her while he held his pistol ready for action in his hand in case she should suddenly turn upon him. They went through the village, and five minutes afterward entered the gate of the vicarage. On reaching the door Mrs. Conway rang the bell. A moment later a window above opened.
"What is it?" a man's voice asked. "Am I wanted anywhere?"
"I am the mounted patrol, sir," the constable said, "and I have met a suspicious sort of person in the road. She said she was coming to you, and you knew her; and though it didn't seem a likely sort of story, I thought it better to run the risk of disturbing you instead of taking her to the lockup."
"It is I, Mr. Withers," Mrs. Conway said, taking off her hat and stepping out so that the light of the policeman's lantern fell upon her. "Please let me in, I have got it."
"Good heavens!" Mr. Withers exclaimed, startled out of his usual tranquillity. "It is all right, constable, I will be down in a minute."
"There, constable, you see I spoke truly," Mrs. Conway said, and taking her purse from her pocket she extracted by the light of the lantern two guineas and handed them to the man.
"Oh, I don't want to take your money, ma'am," he said apologetically. "You must excuse my not believing you, but it did seem a rum start."
"You are quite right, constable," she replied. "The circumstances were suspicious, and you only did your duty. However, you might have made it very unpleasant for me if you had chosen to take me to the lockup instead of bringing me here, and I am very willing to give you what I promised you. I can afford it very well," she said cheerfully, as he still hesitated, "and I dare say it will be useful to you."
The man took the money and touched his hat, and sat quiet until the door opened, and Mr. Withers in a dressing-gown and holding a candle appeared.
"You have done quite right in bringing the lady up here," Mr. Withers said; "but you need not go talking about it in the village."
"Very well, sir; I will say nothing about it. Good-night, sir. Good-night ma'am."
"My dear Mrs. Conway, what has happened to bring you here at this hour of the night?" Mr. Withers asked as he closed the door behind. "Did I understand you to say that you have got it? Is it possible that you have found the will?"
"Quite possible, Mr. Withers. Here it is in its envelope, with the seals unbroken."
"You astound me!" Mr. Withers exclaimed. At this moment Mrs. Withers made her appearance at the top of the stairs, her husband having briefly said as he hurried out of the room that it was Mrs. Conway.
"Amy," he said, "here is Mrs. Conway. And, what do you think? she has brought the missing will with her."
With an exclamation Mrs. Withers ran downstairs and threw her arms round Mrs. Conway. "You dear brave creature," she said, "I have been longing to speak to you for the last six months. It seems so unnatural your being close to us, and my not being able to see you, And you have really found the will? I can hardly believe it. How has it all come about?"
"Don't bother her, Amy," Mr. Withers said; for now that the excitement was past Mrs. Conway was trembling all over, and was scarcely able to keep her feet. "She is overtired and overexcited. Take her straight up to the spare room and get her to bed. I will make her a tumbler of hot port wine and water. The water is sure to be warm in the kitchen, and a stick or two will make it boil by the time she is ready for it. We will hear all about it in the morning. We have got the will safe, and we have got her; that is quite enough for us for to-night, all the rest will keep very well until to-morrow."
In a few minutes Mrs. Conway was in bed, and after drinking the tumbler of hot negus Mr. Withers had prepared for her she soon fell asleep.
Mrs. Withers came into the room early in the morning. "My husband says you are not to think of getting up unless you feel quite equal to it, and I agree with him; so if you like I will bring breakfast up to you, and then you can go off to sleep again for a bit."
"Oh, no, thank you," Mrs. Conway replied. "Now that I am fairly awake and realize where I am, I am perfectly ready to get up. I could not think the first moment I opened my eyes where I had got to, and fancied I had overslept myself and should get a nice scolding."
"You must wear one of my dresses, my dear," the vicar's wife said. "You have done with that servant's gown for good. I will bring you one in a few minutes."
In half an hour Mrs. Conway came down in a pretty morning dress of Mrs. Withers'. Mabel had that moment made her appearance in the breakfast-room. She had returned only a week before from her stay at Bath, having positively mutinied against the proposal that she should stay there for another six months. She started at the entry of a stranger.
"Don't you know me, Mabel?" Mrs. Conway said, holding out her hand.
"Why—why—" Mabel exclaimed, "it's Mrs. Conway. When did you come, and what have you been doing to yourself? Why, your hair is quite a different color! What does it all mean, mamma?" she asked in bewilderment.
"Mrs. Conway came last night, Mabel, after you were in bed."
"But you didn't tell me she was coming, mamma."
"We didn't know ourselves, dear; she arrived quite unexpectedly."
"And—" and Mabel stopped.
"And I have got on one of your mamma's dresses," Mrs. Conway laughed, interpreting Mabel's look of surprise. "Yes, dear, and as you say, I have dyed my hair."
"But why, Mrs. Conway? It was such a pretty color before."
"And it will be again some day, I hope, for I am not going to dye it any more."
"I am glad of that," Mabel said frankly; "for you look quite different somehow. But why did you do it? and why—Is there anything the matter, Mrs. Conway," she broke off suddenly, "that you come here without being expected, and are wearing one of mamma's dresses, and have dyed your hair, and look so different altogether? Have you heard anything about Ralph?"
"You will hear all about it presently, Mabel," Mr. Withers, who had just come into the room, said. "You owe a great debt of gratitude to Mrs. Conway, as you will hear presently; for she has for six months been working in the interest of Ralph and you. Now, don't open your eyes so wide, but sit down to the table. After we have had breakfast Mrs. Conway will tell us all about it."
"By the way, Mrs. Conway, have you heard the news?"
"What news, Mrs. Withers?"
"In the newspaper I got yesterday evening it was said that a despatch had just been received from the Duke of Wellington saying he had news that Bonaparte was advancing, and that he had just issued orders for the troops to march forward to support the Prussians, who were likely to be first attacked."
"No, I had heard nothing about it," Mrs. Conway said, turning pale. "Then there is going to be a battle, and Ralph will be engaged."
"You must not alarm yourself," the vicar said. "You know the troops are very widely scattered, and his regiment may not be up in time; beside, you see, the Prussians are likely to be first attacked, and they may beat the French before the English get up to join in the battle."
"Now, Mrs. Conway," Mr. Withers said when they had finished breakfast, "please take pity on us and tell us all about it."
"Is Mabel to go away, or is she to hear it all, James?" Mrs. Withers asked.
"What do you think, Mrs. Conway?"
"I see no reason whatever against her hearing. Mabel is fast growing up. You are past fifteen now, are you not, Mabel?"
"Yes, Mrs. Conway."
"Then I think she has a right to hear all about it. She is, after all, the party most interested."
"Thank you, Mrs. Conway," the girl said. "Please let us go out into the garden and sit in the chairs under the shade of that tree. I can see it is going to be a long story, and it will be delightful out there; and then papa can smoke his after-breakfast cigar."
"Very well, Mabel; if your mamma has no objection, I am quite willing."
The chairs were taken out into the shade of the tree and the party sat down, Mabel all excitement, for as yet she knew nothing whatever of what had happened, and was puzzling herself in vain as to how Mrs. Conway could have been working in her interest.
"In the first place, Mabel," Mrs. Conway began, "I suppose you have no idea why you were sent away to Bath?"
Mabel opened her eyes in surprise.
"I thought I went there to get lessons in music and French and dancing."
"Well, you did go for that purpose, but for something else also. You were sent away in order that you might not see me."
"Not see you, Mrs. Conway! Why, you must be joking. Why, papa, what reason could there possibly be why I should not see Mrs. Conway? And beside, you never told me in your letter that she had been here."
"I have not been here—at least not in this house; but I was in the church every Sunday. I was there before you went away, although you did not see me. I was sitting in the pew with the Hall servants."
"With the Hall servants!" Mabel repeated in astonishment. "What did you sit with them for? and where were you staying? and why did you come to the church every Sunday and not come here?"
"That's just the story you are going to hear, Mabel. You heard of course, that it was Mr. Penfold's intention to leave you half his estates?"
"Yes, I heard that; and then there was no will found so of course I didn't get it."
"No, my dear; but as we all believed that there was such a will, we were naturally unwilling to let the matter rest. Still, the chance of finding it seemed very remote. You remember we spoke to you about it when they offered you that hundred a year."
"Yes, papa, you told me then that you thought they were keeping me out of my rights, and that was why I ought to refuse to take it. Yes, you did say they were keeping Ralph out too, and that was partly why you thought I ought not to agree to take the money; and of course I thought so too, because that would seem as if we had deserted Ralph."
"Well, Mabel, at that time the chance of our ever hearing anything of the will was so remote that I think both your mother and myself had entirely given up hope, and I am sure we should never have taken any more steps in the matter. Fortunately Mrs. Conway possesses a great deal more energy and perseverance than we have, and when she found that we gave it up, and that Mr. Tallboys gave it up, she determined to take the matter in her own hands. Now she will tell us how she has succeeded, and you must listen quietly and not ask more questions than you can help till she has finished."
"Well, my dear," Mrs. Conway went on, "Mr. Tallboys, Mr. Penfold's lawyer, did everything he possibly could to find the will, but he could not do so; and as my son was with you the person that had been robbed, I thought it was my duty to undertake the search myself."
Mrs. Conway then related step by step the measures she had taken to obtain a situation as servant at the Hall, and then went on to tell the manner in which she had carried on the search, and how success had finally crowned her efforts, her story being frequently interrupted by exclamations and questions from her hearers.
"What do you mean to do next?" Mr. Withers asked when she concluded.
"I will ask you to drive me over at once to Weymouth. I shall not feel comfortable until I have placed the will in Mr. Tallboys' hands; and directly I have done that I shall go over to Brussels. I may perhaps get there before any great battle is fought; and I should like to see Ralph before that, if possible, and at any rate be there to nurse him if he was wounded. I shall ask Mr. Tallboys if he can spare time to go across with me to Brussels. I should not want him to stop there, but only to take me over. I should think there would be no difficulty in hiring a small vessel at Weymouth to take me to Ostend, especially as money is no object now. If Mr. Tallboys cannot spare time himself, he can send a clerk with me or get somebody who will take me in charge; but at any rate I intend to go by myself if necessary. I do not suppose it will cause any delay about the will, Mr. Withers; for of course there must be some trouble in having it proved."
"It can make no difference, Mrs. Conway. I do not give that the least thought. I will go round at once and tell William to put in the horses."
"Mabel and I will go over too, James," Mrs. Withers said; "we cannot sit quiet all day after this excitement. Beside, I want to hear what Mr. Tallboys says."
Mr. Withers returned in a few minutes, looking grave.
"William has just come up from the village, and says that half an hour ago a man rode up from the Hall with word that the doctor was to go over at once, for that Eleanor Penfold had just had a stroke or fit of some sort and was terribly bad. I am sorry this new trouble has befallen them; but they have brought it entirely upon themselves, poor ladies. However, justice must be done; but I am sure you will agree with me, Mrs. Conway, that if the matter can possibly be arranged without exposure and publicity it shall be done so."