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"You needn't; I know. And, mind you, I don't believe he's gone alone either, wherever it is he has gone to. What's the name of that girl down at Brighton that he was so thick with, and your son's sweetheart?"

Mr. Austin started as if something had stung him. He stared at the girl with growing apprehension.

"You can't mean----?"

"Yes, I can. Wasn't her first name Mary? I have heard the other--it's a queer one--and I forget it. But you ask your son, if he cares for the girl, to make inquiries, and if she's missing, and he wants her new address, to find out Rodney Elmore's, and--he'll find hers."

CHAPTER XXVIII



A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE

There are few worse half-hours in life than that in which a man finds that the one person whom he has liked, and respected, and trusted, and believed in before all others, is a scamp, a liar, and a cur. As Mr.

Austin sat cowering in the corner of his cab it was to him almost as if he had been these things, instead of Rodney Elmore. He ascended the steps of the Kensington house a little stiffly, a little bowed, a little shorn of his full height; he bore himself, indeed, as if he were ashamed; it was with a sense of shame that he spoke to his son, who was apparently just about to go out as he went in.

"Tom, I want to speak to you."

The lad looked at his father with a look of surprise.

"Why, pater; what's wrong?"

The father closed the door of the room into which he had preceded his son. There was something shifty in his bearing; he seemed unwilling to meet the youngster's glances.

"Tom, what was that you were saying about--about Mary Carmichael?"

The lad smiled, ruefully enough; there was an awkwardness about his manner. He turned away, as if on his side he had no wish to meet his father's eyes.

"All I can make out is that she has gone. It seems that while that old aunt of hers was out yesterday afternoon--she vanished. She just left a note behind her to say that she was going, and that they weren't to bother, because she wasn't coming back; but they'd hear from her some day--she couldn't say just when."

"Tom, she's gone with Rodney Elmore."

The lad swung round as on a pivot.

"Pater! What do you mean?"

The father told the story as he knew it, the lad listening--first as one in a dream, and then as one in a rage. Then, with a gasp as of astonishment, he blurted out:

"But what about Stella?"

"Yes; what about Stella? Stella's here, and--why, where's Rodney? I thought, father, he'd come with you."

Miss Austin had come running into the room eagerly, happily, laughingly, taking it for granted that her lover was within. As she looked from her father to her brother, and noted the oddity of their manner, her eyes grew wider open.

"Father, where--where is Rodney?"

Then the father told the tale to her; it was the hardest task he had ever had to perform. The girl first scorned him, then laughed, then doubted, and then, in a fit of what was very like fury, announced her intention of going in search of Rodney, whom she declared she believed to be cruelly aspersed, and learning the truth from his own lips. It was with difficulty she was stayed. When she, at last, was brought to understand, she was already another Stella to the one her father had known. She was not to be comforted. And when her mother came, and heard the story, too, she put her arm about her daughter's waist and led her to her room, and there remained alone with her an hour or more. When she came out she also was another woman; and her daughter was in her room, alone.

And that, to all intents and purposes, so far as it is known, is the end of the story, though the real end is not yet. Such stories take a long time ending. Sometimes they are continued in the generation which comes after, and never end. Mr. Philip Walter Augustus Parker was tried for the murder of Graham Patterson, and, apparently to his complete satisfaction, was found guilty. The law plays such pranks oftener than is commonly supposed. The story he told was so well put together, all the joints fitted so well. As the judge instructed the jury they really had no option; on the evidence there was only one possible verdict; and that was returned. Mr. Parker earned his credentials; he was sent, as he desired, on a lengthy visit to Broadmoor. The whole story might have fallen to pieces and his visit to Broadmoor indefinitely postponed had the platform inspector at Brighton station--Edward Giles--given his evidence in another way. A few questions would have changed the whole face of affairs, but they were not asked. He told that it was he who had helped Graham Patterson into the carriage, and also that there already was someone in it when the dead man entered. At that point the questions which were put to him went awry. He was asked if the prisoner was that other person; he replied that he did not recognise him, but as, when the witness had entered the box, Mr. Parker had greeted him with that unpleasant little chuckle of his, and had proclaimed that he recognised him, even before he opened his mouth, as the porter, as he put it, who had been of assistance to Mr. Patterson, for the judge, as for the jury, that was sufficient. Giles himself was evidently taken aback, and while he declared that he did not recognise the prisoner, he admitted that if Parker had not been the man in the carriage, he could not understand how he recognised him. So Mr. Parker had his wish.

Mr. Andrews is still the managing man, as well as a partner, of the firm of Graham Patterson, which continues to thrive on the same sound old lines. And Gladys Patterson is the wife of Stephen Wilkes--that strikes even her, when she thinks of it, as queer. How it came about, she has told her husband more than once, she does not understand; she wonders sometimes, so she tells him, if her father could ever have had it in his mind that that was the match he would have chosen. She is thinking of Rodney's words. Her husband laughs, and assures her that to the best of his knowledge and belief her father never dreamt of anything of the kind. Whereat she thinks all the more of Rodney's words, having a dim suspicion hidden in her somewhere that it was because of what he said that this strange thing had happened, and, in what she feels is in quite an uncanny way, that it was he who brought it all about.

Mabel Joyce is Mrs. George Dale, fairly happy, as the average wife's standard of happiness goes, and Dale is happy too; but there is about him a suggestion of solicitous anxiety, as if he would be glad to be as certain of her satisfaction with the way that things have turned out, as of his own.

Stella is still unmarried, and likely to remain so. She is not quite the ordinary type of girl. When she gave her heart to Rodney Elmore, it was given for ever; although she would probably be the last person in the world to admit it, he has it still. As, she declares, she will never marry save where her heart is, her prospects of remaining Stella Austin are stronger than either her father or her mother care to own.

Tom is married; was married within six months of his heart being finally broken--to the girl with the mischievous eyes. And he is happy as a man may be; and he is a man, even up to his father's standard of manhood. He is practically the head of his father's firm, and a sufficiently effective and energetic head he makes. He declares that it is his wife who has done it, and that she has been and still is and ever will be the only woman in the world to him. He forgets; men--and women--sometimes do.

Nothing definite has ever been heard of Rodney Elmore; but among those who knew him in his youth there is a profound conviction that he still lives. One day, a month or so after his marriage, there came a postcard to Tom Austin from one of the northern States of America, with just these words on the back:

"Congratulations--good wishes--am delighted!

"M."

He was the only person who ever saw the card. He tore it up and burnt it. About him for nearly a week afterwards there was, at odd moments, an unusually reflective air. His wife asked him what he was thinking about.

"Why," he told her, "what should I think about but you."

He was thinking, wondering, how close to "M." was Rodney Elmore--his boyhood's friend!--as one result of what was very like a conspiracy of silence.

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