By Private Treaty

There was little need for the three deeply interested listeners to look long at the letters⁠—one glance was sufficient to show even a careless eye that the hand which had written one of them had certainly not written the other two. The letter which Audrey had handed to Mr. Dennie was penned in the style commonly known as commercial⁠—plain, commonplace, utterly lacking in the characteristics which are supposed to denote imagination and a sense of artistry. It was the sort of caligraphy which one comes across every day in shops and offices and banks⁠—there was nothing in any upstroke, downstroke or letter which lifted it from the very ordinary. But the other two letters were evidently written by a man of literary and artistic sense, possessing imagination and a liking for effect. It needed no expert in handwriting to declare that two totally different individuals had written those letters.

“And now,” observed Mr. Dennie, breaking the silence and putting into words what each of the others was vaguely feeling, “the question is⁠—what does all this mean? To start with, Marston Greyle is a most uncommon name. Is it possible there can be two persons of that name? That, at any rate, is the first thing that strikes me.”

“It is not the first thing that strikes me,” said Mrs. Greyle. She took up the typescript which the old actor had brought in his packet, and held its title page significantly before him. “That is the first thing that strikes me!” she exclaimed. “The Marston Greyle who sent this to Bassett Oliver said according to your story⁠—that he sprang from a very old family in England, and that this is a dramatization of a romantic episode in its annals. Now there is no other old family in England named Greyle, and this episode is of course, the famous legend of how Prince Rupert once sought refuge in the Keep yonder and had a love passage with a lady of the house. Am I right, Mr. Dennie?”

“Quite right, ma’am, quite correct,” replied the old actor. “It is so⁠—you have guessed correctly!”

“Very well, then⁠—the Marston Greyle who wrote this, and those letters, and who met Bassett Oliver was without doubt the son of Marcus Greyle, who went to America many years ago. He was the same Marston Greyle, who, his father being dead, of course succeeded his uncle, Stephen John Greyle⁠—that seems an absolute certainty. And in that case,” continued Mrs. Greyle, looking earnestly from one to the other, “in that case⁠—who is the man now at Scarhaven Keep?”

A dead silence fell on the little room. Audrey started and flushed at her mother’s eager, pregnant question; Mr. Dennie sat up very erect and took a pinch of snuff from his old-fashioned box. Copplestone pushed his chair away from the table and began to walk about. And Mrs. Greyle continued to look from one face to the other as if demanding a reply to her question.

“Mother!” said Audrey in a low voice. “You aren’t suggesting⁠—”

“Ahem!” interrupted Mr. Dennie. “A moment, my dear. There is nothing, I believe,” he continued, waxing a little oracular, “nothing like plain speech. We are all friends⁠—we have a common cause⁠—justice! It may be that justice demands our best endeavours not only as regards our deceased friend, Bassett Oliver, but in the interests of⁠—this young lady. So⁠—”

“I wish you wouldn’t, Mr. Dennie!” exclaimed Audrey. “I don’t like this at all. Please don’t!”

She turned, almost instinctively, to seek Copplestone’s aid in repressing the old man. But Copplestone was standing by the window, staring moodily at the windswept quay beyond the garden, and Mr. Dennie waved his snuffbox and went on.

“An old man’s privilege!” he said. “In your interests, my dear. Allow me.” He turned again to Mrs. Greyle. “In plain words, ma’am, you are wondering if the present holder of the estates is really what he claims to be. Plain English, eh?”

“I am!” answered Mrs. Greyle with a distinct ring of challenge and defiance. “And now that it comes to the truth, I have wondered that ever since he came here. There!”

“Why, mother?” asked Audrey, wonderingly.

“Because he doesn’t possess a single Greyle characteristic,” replied Mrs. Greyle, readily enough, “I ought to know⁠—I married Valentine Greyle, and I knew Stephen John, and I saw plenty of both, and something of their father, too, and a little of Marcus before he emigrated. This man does not possess one single scrap of the Greyle temperament!”

Mr. Dennie put away his snuffbox and drumming on the table with his fingers looked out of his eye corners at Copplestone who still stood with his back to the rest, staring out of the window.

“And what,” said Mr. Dennie, softly, “what⁠—er, does our good friend Mr. Copplestone say?”

Copplestone turned swiftly, and gave Audrey a quick glance.

“I say,” he answered in a sharp, businesslike fashion, “that Gilling, who’s stopping at the inn, you know, is walking up and down outside here, evidently looking out for me, and very anxious to see me, and with your permission, Mrs. Greyle, I’d like to have him in. Now that things have got to this pitch, I’d better tell you something⁠—I don’t see any good in concealing it longer. Gilling isn’t an invalid curate at all!⁠—he’s a private detective. Sir Cresswell Oliver and Petherton, the solicitor, sent him down here to watch Greyle⁠—the Squire, you know⁠—that’s Gilling’s job. They suspect Greyle⁠—have suspected him from the very first⁠—but of what I don’t know. Not⁠—not of this, I think. Anyway, they do suspect him, and Gilling’s had his eye on him ever since he came here. And I’d like to fetch Gilling in here, and I’d like him to know all that Mr. Dennie’s told us. Because, don’t you see, Sir Cresswell and Petherton ought to know all that, immediately, and Gilling’s their man.”

Audrey’s brows had been gathering in lines of dismay and perplexity all the time Copplestone was talking, but her mother showed no signs of anything but complete composure, crowned by something very like satisfaction, and she nodded a ready acquiescence in Copplestone’s proposal.

“By all means!” she responded. “Bring Mr. Gilling in at once.”

Copplestone hurried out into the garden and signalled to the pseudocurate, who came hurrying across from the quay. One glance at him showed Copplestone that something had happened.

“Gad!⁠—I thought I should never attract your attention!” said Gilling hastily. “Been making eyes at you for ten minutes. I say⁠—Greyle’s off!”

“Off!” exclaimed Copplestone. “How do you mean⁠—off?”

“Left Scarhaven, anyhow⁠—for London,” replied Gilling. “An hour ago I happened to be at the station, buying a paper, when he drove up⁠—luggage and man with him, so I knew he was off for some time. And I took good care to dodge round by the booking office when the man took the tickets. King’s Cross. So that’s all right, for the time being.”

“How do you mean⁠—all right?” asked Copplestone. “I thought you were to keep him in sight?”

“All right,” repeated Gilling. “I have more eyes than these, my boy! I’ve a particularly smart partner in London⁠—name of Swallow⁠—and he and I have a cipher code. So soon as the gentleman had left, I repaired to the nearest post office and wired a code message to Swallow. Swallow will meet that train when it strikes King’s Cross. And it doesn’t matter if Greyle hides himself in one of the spikes on top of the Monument or inside the lion house at the Zoo⁠—Swallow will be there! No man ever got away from Swallow⁠—once Swallow had set eyes on him.”

Copplestone looked, listened, and laughed.

“Professional pride!” he said. “All right. I want you to come in here with me⁠—to Mrs. Greyle’s. Something’s happened here, too. And of such a serious nature that I’ve taken the liberty of telling them who and what you really are. You’ll forgive me when you hear what it is that we’ve learnt here this morning.”

Gilling had looked rather doubtful at Copplestone’s announcement, but he immediately turned towards the cottage.

“Oh, well!” he said good-naturedly. “I’m sure you wouldn’t have told if you hadn’t felt there was good reason. What is this fresh news?⁠—something about⁠—him?”

“Very much about him,” answered Copplestone. “Come in.”

He himself, at Mrs. Greyle’s request, gave Gilling a brief account of Mr. Dennie’s revelations, the old actor supplementing it with a shrewd remark or two. And then all four turned to Gilling as to an expert in these matters.

“Queer!” observed Gilling. “Decidedly queer! There may be some explanation, you know: I’ve known stranger things than that turn out to be perfectly straight and plain when they were gone into. But⁠—putting all the facts together⁠—I don’t think there’s much doubt that there’s something considerably wrong in this case. I should like to repeat it to my principals⁠—I must go up to town in any event this afternoon. Better let me have all those documents, Mr. Dennie⁠—I’ll give you a proper receipt for them. There’s something very valuable in them, anyhow.”

“What?” asked Copplestone.

“The address in St. Louis from which that Marston Greyle wrote to Bassett Oliver,” replied Gilling. “We can communicate with that address⁠—at once. We may learn something there. But,” he went on, turning to Mrs. Greyle, “I want to learn something here⁠—and now. I want to know where and under what circumstances the Squire came to Scarhaven. You were here then, of course, Mrs. Greyle? You can tell me?”

“He came very quietly,” replied Mrs. Greyle. “Nobody in Scarhaven⁠—unless it was Peter Chatfield⁠—knew of his coming. In fact, nobody in these parts, at any rate⁠—knew he was in England. The family solicitors in London may have known. But nothing was ever said or written to me, though my daughter, failing this man, is the next in succession.”

“I do wish you’d leave all that out, mother!” exclaimed Audrey. “I don’t like it.”

“Whether you like it or not, it’s the fact,” said Mrs. Greyle imperturbably, “and it can’t be left out. Well, as I say, no one knew the Squire had come to England, until one day Chatfield calmly walked down the quay with him, introducing him right and left. He brought him here.”

“Ah!” said Gilling. “That’s interesting. Now I wonder if you found out if he was well up in the family history?”

“Not then, but afterwards,” answered Mrs. Greyle. “He is particularly well up in the Greyle records⁠—suspiciously well up.”

“Why suspiciously?” asked Cobblestone.

“He knows more⁠—in a sort of antiquarian and historian fashion⁠—than you’d suppose a young man of his age would,” said Mrs. Greyle. “He gives you the impression of having read it up⁠—studied it deeply. And⁠—his usual tastes don’t lie in that direction.”

“Ah!” observed Mr. Dennie, musingly. “Bad sign, ma’am⁠—bad sign! Looks as if he had been⁠—shall we say put up to overstudying his part. That’s possible! I have known men who were so anxious to be what one calls letter-perfect, Mr. Copplestone, that though they knew their parts, they didn’t know how to play them. Fact, sir!”

While the old actor was chuckling over this reminiscence, Gilling turned quietly to Mrs. Greyle.

“I think you suspect this man?” he said.

“Frankly⁠—yes,” replied Mrs. Greyle. “I always have done, though I have said so little⁠—”

“Mother!” interrupted Audrey. “Is it really worth while saying so much now! After all, we know nothing, and if this is all mere supposition⁠—however,” she broke off, rising and going away from the group, “perhaps I had better say nothing.”

Copplestone too rose and followed her into the window recess.

“I say!” he said entreatingly. “I hope you don’t think me interfering? I assure you⁠—”

“You!” she exclaimed. “Oh, no!⁠—of course. I think you’re anxious to clear things up about Mr. Oliver. But I don’t want my mother dragged into it⁠—for a simple reason. We’ve got to live here⁠—and Chatfield is a vindictive man.”

“You’re frightened of him?” said Copplestone incredulously. “You!”

“Not for myself,” she answered, giving him a warning look and glancing apprehensively at Mrs. Greyle, who was talking eagerly to Mr. Dennie and Gilling. “But my mother is not as strong as she looks and it would be a blow to her to leave this place and we are the Squire’s tenants, and therefore at Chatfield’s mercy. And you know that Chatfield does as he likes! Now do you understand?”

“It maddens me to think that you should be at Chatfield’s mercy!” muttered Copplestone. “But do you really mean to say that if⁠—if Chatfield thought you⁠—that is, your mother⁠—were mixed up in anything relating to the clearing up of this affair he would⁠—”

“Drive us out without mercy,” replied Audrey. “That’s dead certain.”

“And that your cousin would let him?” exclaimed Copplestone. “Surely not!”

“I don’t think the Squire has any control over Chatfield,” she answered. “You have seen them together.”

“If that’s so,” said Copplestone, “I shall begin to think there is something queer about the Squire in the way your mother suggests. It looks as if Chatfield had a hold on him. And in that case⁠—”

He suddenly broke off as a smart automobile drove up to the cottage door and set down a tall, distinguished-looking man who after a glance at the little house walked quickly up the garden. Audrey’s face showed surprise.

“Mother!” she said, turning to Mrs. Greyle. “There’s Lord Altmore here! He must want you. Or shall I go?”

Mrs. Greyle quitted the room hastily. The others heard her welcome the visitor, lead him up the tiny hall; they heard a door shut. Audrey looked at Copplestone.

“You’ve heard of Lord Altmore, haven’t you?” she said. “He’s our biggest man in these parts⁠—he owns all the country at the back, mountains, valleys, everything. The Greyle land shuts him off from the sea. In the old days, Greyles and Altmores used to fight over their boundaries, and⁠—”

Mrs. Greyle suddenly showed herself again and looked at her daughter.

“Will you come here, Audrey?” she said. “You gentlemen will excuse both of us for a few minutes?”

Mother and daughter went away, and the two young men drew up their chairs to the table at which Mr. Dennie sat and exchanged views with him on the curious situation. Half an hour went by; then steps and voices were heard in the hall and the garden; Mrs. Greyle and Audrey were seeing their visitor out to his car. In a few minutes the car sped away, and they came back to the parlour. One glance at their faces showed Gilling that some new development had cropped up and he nudged Copplestone.

“Here is remarkable news!” said Mrs. Greyle as she went back to her chair. “Lord Altmore called to tell me of something that he thought I ought to know. It is almost unbelievable, yet it is a fact. Marston Greyle⁠—if he is Marston Greyle!⁠—has offered to sell Lord Altmore the entire Scarhaven estate, by private treaty. Imagine it!⁠—the estate which has belonged to the Greyles for five hundred years!”