The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 3

Duty Before Pleasure

The year ended sadly for Lillian, since she had lost her father, her lover, and her home, gaining instead the doubtful companionship of a paternal uncle, who stepped into the position of guardian. The girl, although she did not know it at the time, was leaving a pleasant flowery lane to turn into a flinty high road, arched by a dismal sky. It is true that she still possessed Mrs. Bolstreath to comfort her, but the loss of Dan could scarcely be compensated by the attentions of the chaperon. Not that Halliday was altogether lost; but he had been pushed out of her life by Sir John Moon, who approved as little of this suitor as the late baronet had done.

“You see, my dear child,” he explained to Lillian, immediately after the new year and when things were more restful, “as your guardian and uncle, I have to see that you make a good match.”

“What is marriage without love?” queried Miss Moon scornfully.

“Love!” Sir John shrugged his elegant shoulders and sneered. “Love is all very well, but a title is better. I say nothing about money, as you have any amount of that useful article. Now, Lord Curberry —”

“I detest Lord Curberry, and I shan’t marry Lord Curberry,” interrupted Lillian, frowning, and her mind held a picture of the lean, ascetic peer with the cruel, grey eyes. As a barrister, Curberry was no doubt admirable; as a nobleman, he filled his new position very well; but she could not see him as a lover, try as she might. Not that she did try, for under no conditions and under no pressure did she intend to become his wife.”

“Your father wished you to marry Lord Curberry,” hinted Uncle John softly.

“My father wished me to be happy,” cried Lillian hotly, “and I can’t be happy unless I marry Dan.”

“That aviator man! Pooh! He has nothing to give you.”

“He gives himself, and that is all I want.”

“I see. Love in a cottage and —”

Lillian interrupted again. “There’s no need for love in a cottage. I have plenty of money; you said as much yourself, Uncle John.”

“My dear,” said the new baronet gravely, “from what I saw of young Halliday he is too proud a man to live on his wife. And you would not respect him if he did. I think better of you than that, my child.”

“Dan has his profession.”

“H’m! And a dangerous one at that. Besides, he doesn’t make much money.”

“He will though. Dan is a genius; he has all kinds of ideas about flying machines, and some day he will conquer the air.”

“Meantime, you will be growing old waiting for him.”

“Not at all,” Lillian assured him. “I shall be with him, helping all I can.”

“You won’t with my consent,” cried her uncle, heatedly.

“Then I shall do without your consent. I shan’t give up Dan.”

“In that case,” sighed Sir John, rising to show that the interview was ended — and certainly it had ended in a clash of wills —“there is nothing for me to do but to make young Halliday give you up.”

“He’ll never do that,” said Miss Moon, pausing at the door with a fluttering heart, for her uncle spoke very decidedly.

“Oh, I think so,” replied Moon, with the air of a man sure of his ground. “He has, I am sure, some notion of honour.”

“It isn’t honourable to give up a woman.”

“It isn’t honourable to live on a woman.”

The two antagonists glared at one another, and a silence ensued. Neither would give way, and neither would compromise in any way. Lillian wanted Dan as her husband, a post Sir John did not intend the young man to fill. But he saw plainly enough that harsh measures would drive Lillian to desperation, and he did not yet know sufficient of Halliday to be sure that he would not grasp at a rich wife. Sir John believed that men were like himself, and would do anything — honourable, or, at a pinch, dishonourable — to secure a life of ease and comfort. However, as he swiftly reflected, Halliday was young, and probably would be wax in the hands of a clever man, such as Moon considered himself to be. It would be best to see him and control the boy’s mind by appealing to his decency — so Sir John put it.

“Very good, my dear,” he said, when he reached this point, “matters are at a dead-lock between us. I suggest that you let me interview Halliday.”

“I don’t mind, so long as I see him first,” pouted the girl, mutinously.

Sir John smiled drily. “So as to arm him for the fray. Very well. I consent, my dear. You can arrange your campaign, and then I can discuss the matter with this very undesirable suitor. But you must give me your promise that you will not run away with him meanwhile.”

Lillian held herself very erect and replied stiffly. “Of course I promise, Uncle John. I am not ashamed of loving Dan, and I shall marry him in a proper manner. But I shan’t marry Lord Curberry,” she ended, and fairly ran away, so as to prevent further objections.

“Oh, my dear, I think you will,” grinned Sir John at the closed door, and he sat down to pen a diplomatic letter to Mr. Halliday, earnestly wishing to have the matter settled and done with. “These romantic young nuisances,” said the schemer crossly.

The new baronet was a slim, well-preserved dandy of sixty, who looked no older than forty-five, owing to the means he took to keep himself fit. He was the younger and only brother of Moon, and inherited the title since there was no nephew to take it. He also inherited ten thousand a year on condition that he acted as Lillian’s guardian. It was no mean task, for the girl had an income of £50,000 coming in every twelve months. There would be plenty of hard-up flies gathering round this honey-pot, and Sir John foresaw that it would not be an easy business to settle the young lady’s matrimonial future, especially as the said young lady was obstinate beyond belief. Sir John, being a loafer by nature, had never possessed sufficient money to indulge to the full in his luxurious tastes, since his brother had not financed him as largely as he could have wished. But now that he was safe for the rest of his life on an income which would enable him to enjoy the world’s good, Sir John did not wish to be bothered. It was his aim to get his niece married and settled as soon as possible, so that she could be looked after by a husband.

Under these circumstances, and since Lillian was anxious to marry Dan, it was strange that the baronet should not allow her to indulge her fancy. He objected for two reasons: one was that he really did not think Halliday a good match; and, moreover, he knew of his late brother’s opinion concerning the matter of the wooing. The second reason had to do with the fact that he had borrowed a large sum of money from Lord Curberry, and did not wish to pay it back again, even though he could do so easily enough in his present flourishing circumstances. Curberry offered to forego the payment if Sir John could persuade Lillian to marry him. And as Moon wanted to be able to talk about the girl as a peeress, and did not want to reduce his new income by frittering it away in paying back debts, he was determined to bring about the very desirable marriage, as he truly considered it to be.

“Curberry is sure to go in for politics,” thought the plotter, “and he has enough brains to become Prime Minister if he likes. He’s got a decent income, too, and a very old title. With Lillian’s money and beauty she should have a titled husband. Besides,” this was an after-thought, “Curberry can make himself deuced disagreeable if he likes.” And perhaps it was this last idea which made Sir John so anxious for the marriage to take place.

The late Sir Charles had been a big, burly, broad-shouldered man, with a powerful clean-shaven face — the kind of over-bearing, pushing personality which was bound to come up top wherever men were congregated. And Sir Charles had massively pushed his way from poverty to affluence, from obscurity into notoriety, if not fame. Now his honours and wealth were in the hands of two people infinitely weaker than he had been. Lillian was but a delicate girl, solely bent upon marriage with an undesirable suitor, while Sir John had no desire to do anything with his new income and new title save to enjoy the goods which the gods had sent him so unexpectedly. He was by no means a strong man, being finical, self-indulgent, and quite feminine in his love for dress and luxury. Much smaller and slighter than his masterful brother, he was perfectly arrayed on all occasions in purple and fine linen; very self-possessed, very polite, and invariably quiet in his manner. He had several small talents, and indulged in painting, poetry, and music, producing specimens of each as weak and neatly finished as he was himself. He also collected china and stamps, old lace and jewels, which he loved for their colour and glitter. Such a man was too fantastical to earn the respect of Lillian, who adored the strength which showed itself in Dan. Consequently, she felt certain that she would be able to force him to consent to her desires.

But in this, the girl, inexperienced in worldly matters and in human nature, reckoned without knowledge of Sir John’s obstinacy, which was a singularly striking trait of the man’s character. Like most weak people the new baronet loved to domineer, and, moreover, when his ease was at stake, he could be strong even to cruelty, since fear begets that quality as much as it fosters cowardice. Moon had removed Lillian and Mrs. Bolstreath to his new house in Mayfair, because it was not wise that the girl should remain at Hampstead where everything served to remind her of the good father she had lost. Therefore Sir John wished for no trouble to take place under his roof, as such — so he put it — would shatter his nerves. The mere fact that Lillian wished to marry young Halliday, and that Curberry wished to marry her, was a fruitful source of ills. It stands to Sir John’s credit that he did not take the easiest method of getting rid of his niece by allowing her to become Mrs. Halliday. He had a conscience of some sort, and intended to carry out his late brother’s desire that Lillian should become a peeress. So far as the girl’s inclinations were concerned he cared little, since he looked upon her as a child who required guidance. And to guide her in the proper direction — that is, towards the altar in Curberry’s company — Sir John put himself to considerable inconvenience, and acted honestly with the very best intentions. His egotism — the powerful egotism of a weak man — prevented him from seeing that Lillian was also a human being, and had her right to freedom of choice.

It must be said that for a dilettante Sir John acted with surprising promptitude. He took the two women to his own house, and let the mansion at Hampstead to an Australian millionaire, who paid an excellent rent. Then he saw the lawyers, and went into details concerning the property. Luckily, Sir Charles had gradually withdrawn from business a few years before his death, since he had more or less concentrated his mind on politics. Therefore, the income was mostly well invested, and, with the exception of the line of steamers with which Mrs. Brown’s son had been concerned, there were few interests which required personal supervision. Sir John, having power under the will, sold the dead man’s interest in the ships, withdrew from several other speculations, and having seen that the securities, which meant fifty thousand a year to Lillian, and ten thousand a year to himself, were all in good order, he settled down to enjoy results. The lawyers — on whom he kept an eye — received the money and banked it, and consulted with Sir John regarding re-investments. They also, by the new baronet’s direction, offered a reward of £1,000 for the discovery of the murderess. So, shortly after the new year everything was more or less settled, and Sir John found himself able to attend once more to his lace and jewels, his music and poetry. Only Lillian’s marriage remained to be arranged, and after his conversation with the girl, Sir John appointed a day for Dan to call. That young gentleman, who had been hovering round, lost no time in obeying the summons, which was worded amiably enough, and presented himself in due time. Sir John received him with great affability; offered him a chair and a cigarette, and came to the point at once.

“It’s about Lillian I wish to see you, Mr. Halliday,” he remarked, placing the tips of his fingers delicately together. “You can go up to the drawing-room afterwards and have tea with her and with Mrs. Bolstreath. But we must have a chat first to adjust the situation.”

“What situation?” asked Dan, wilfully dense.

“Oh, I think you understand,” rejoined Sir John, drily. “Well?”

“I love her,” was all that Dan could find to say.

“Naturally. Lillian is a charming girl, and you are a young man of discernment. At least, I hope so, as I wish you to give Lillian up.”

Dan rose and pitched his cigarette into the fire. “Never!” he cried, looking pale and determined and singularly virile and handsome. “How can you ask such a thing, Mr. Moon — I mean Sir John.”

“My new title doesn’t come easily, I see,” said the baronet smoothly. “Oh, I quite understand! My poor brother died so unexpectedly that none of us have got used to the new order of things. You least of all, Mr. Halliday.”

“Why not ‘Dan’?” asked that young gentleman, leaning against the mantelpiece since he felt that he could talk better standing than sitting.

“Because, as I say, there is a new order of things. I have known you all your life, my dear boy, as your parents placed you in my late brother’s charge when you were only five years of age. But I say Mr. Halliday instead of Dan as I wish you to understand that we are talking as businessmen and not as old friends.”

“You take away your friendship —”

“Not at all, Mr. Halliday. We shall be better friends than ever when we have had our talk and you have done the right thing. Probably I shall then call you Dan, as of yore.”

“You can call me what you please,” said Dan obstinately, and rather angrily, for the fiddling methods of Sir John annoyed him. “But I won’t give up the dearest girl in the world.”

“Her father wished her to marry Lord Curberry.”

“If her father had lived, bless him!” retorted Halliday vehemently, “he would have seen that Lillian loves me, and not Curberry, in which case he would not have withheld his consent.”

“Oh, I think he would,” said Sir John amiably. “Lillian is rich, and my poor brother wished to obtain a title for her. Very natural, Mr. Halliday, as you must see for yourself. Charles always aimed at high things.”

“He loved Lillian and would not have seen her unhappy,” said Dan bluffly.

“I don’t see that Curberry would make her unhappy. He is devoted to her.”

“But she does not love him,” argued Halliday crossly; “and how can there be happiness when love is lacking? Come, Sir John, you have, as you said just now, known me all my life. I am honourable and clean-living and well-born, while Lillian loves me. What objection have you to the match?”

“The same objection as my brother had, Mr. Halliday. Lillian is wealthy and you are poor.”

“I have only a few hundreds a year, it is true, but —”

“No ‘buts’ if you please.” Sir John flung up a delicate hand in protest. “You can’t argue away facts. If you marry Lillian, you will live on her.”

Dan bit his lip and clenched his hands to prevent his temper from showing itself too strongly. “If another man had said that to me, Sir John, I should have knocked him down.”

“Brute force is no argument,” rejoined Moon unruffled. “Consider, Mr. Halliday, you have a few hundreds a year and Lillian has fifty thousand coming in every twelve months. Being wealthy, she can scarcely live on your income, so to keep up the position she has been born to she must live on her own. Husband and wife are one, as we are assured by the Church, therefore if she lives on the fifty thousand per annum, you must live on it also.”

“I wouldn’t take a single penny!” cried Dan, hotly and boyishly.

“Oh, I am not suggesting that you would,” said Sir John easily, “but Lillian cannot live in the cottage your few hundreds would run to, and if she lives, as she must, being rich, in a large house, you must live there also, and in a style which your income does not warrant. You know what people will say under the circumstances. Either you must take Lillian to live on your small income, which is not fair to her, or you must live on her large one, which is not fair to you. I speak to a man of honour, remember.”

“These arguments are sophistical.”

“Not at all. You can’t escape from facts.”

“Then is this miserable money to stand between us?” asked Dan in despair, for he could not deny that there was great truth in what Sir John said.

The baronet shrugged his shoulders. “It seems likely unless you can make a fortune equal to Lillian’s.”

“Why not? Aviation is yet in its infancy.”

“Quite so, and thus accidents are continually happening. If you marry my niece, it is probable that you will shortly leave her a widow. No! No! In whatever way you look at the matter, Mr. Halliday, the match is most undesirable. Be a man — a man of honour — and give Lillian up.”

“To be miserable with Lord Curberry,” said Dan fiercely, “never!” And he meant what he said, as Sir John saw very plainly.

This being the case the baronet used another argument to obtain what he wanted. “I have been young myself, and I know how you feel,” he said quietly. “Very good. I suggest a compromise.”

“What is it?” muttered Dan dropping into his chair again and looking very miserable, as was natural, seeing what he stood to lose.

“My poor brother,” went on Sir John smoothly, and crossing his legs, “has been struck down when most enjoying life. The person who murdered him — presumably the woman who called herself Mrs. Brown — has not yet been discovered in spite of the efforts of the police backed by a substantial reward. I propose, Mr. Halliday, that you search for this person, the period of searching to be limited to one year. If you find her and she is punished, then you shall marry Lillian; if you fail, then you must stand aside and allow her to marry Lord Curberry.”

“You forget,” said Dan, not jumping at the chance as Sir John expected, “if I do bring the woman to justice, your arguments regarding my living on Lillian remain in full force.”

“Oh, as to that, Mr. Halliday, when the time comes, I can find arguments equally strong on the other side. To use one now, if you revenge my brother’s death, no one will deny but what you have every right to marry his daughter and enjoy her income. That would be only fair. Well?”

“Well,” echoed Dan dully, and reflected with his sad eyes on the carpet. Then he looked up anxiously. “Meanwhile, Lillian may marry Lord Curberry.”

“Oh,” said Sir John, coolly, “if you can’t trust her —”

“He can trust her,” cried the voice of the girl, herself, and the curtain of the folding doors was drawn quickly aside.

“Lillian!” cried Dan, springing to his feet and opening his arms.

Sir John saw his niece rush into those same arms and laughed. “H’m!” said he whimsically. “I quite forgot that the folding-doors into the next room were open. You have been listening.”

Lillian twisted herself in Dan’s arms, but did not leave them, as she felt safe within that warm embrace.

“Of course I have been listening,” she cried scornfully; “as soon as I knew Dan was in the house, and in the library, I listened. I told Bolly that I was coming down to listen, and though she tried to prevent me, I came. Who has a better right to listen when all the conversation was about me, and remember, I should have seen him first?”

“Well,” said her uncle unmoved, “it’s no use arguing with you. A man’s idea of honour and a woman’s are quite opposed to one another. You heard. What have you to say?”

“I think you’re horrid,” snapped Lillian, in a school-girl manner; “as if my money mattered. I am quite willing to give it to you and marry Dan on what he has. It’s better to love in a garret than to hate in a drawing-room.”

“Quite epigrammatic,” murmured Sir John cynically. “Well, my dear, I am much obliged to you for your fifty thousand a year offer, but I fancy what I have is enough for me. I never did care for millions, and always wondered why my late brother should wear himself out in obtaining them. I decline.”

“Whether you decline or not, I marry Dan,” said Lillian hotly.

“What does Dan say?”

The young man disengaged himself. He had kept silent during the passage of arms between uncle and niece. “I say that I can trust Lillian to remain true to me for twelve months.”

“For ever, for ever, for ever!” cried the girl, her face flaming and her eyes flashing; “but don’t make any promise of letting our marriage depend upon finding the woman who murdered my poor father.”

“Ah,” said Sir John contemptuously, “you never loved your father, I see.”

“How dare you say that?” flashed out the girl, panting with anger.

“My dear, ask yourself,” replied Moon patiently; “your father has been basely murdered. Yet you do not wish to avenge his death and prefer your own happiness to the fulfilment of a solemn duty. Of course,” added Sir John, with a shrug, for he now knew what line of argument to take, “you can’t trust yourself to be faithful for twelve months and —”

“I can trust myself to be faithful, and for twelve centuries, if necessary.”

“No, no, no!” smiled Moon, shaking his head. “You prefer pleasure to duty. I see you love yourself more than you loved your father. Well,” he rose and waved his hands with a gesture of dismissal, “go your way, my dear, and marry Dan — you observe I call you ‘Dan’, Mr. Halliday, since you are to become my nephew straight away. When is the wedding to be?”

“You consent?” cried Lillian, opening her eyes widely.

“I can’t stop you,” said Moon, still continuing his crafty diplomacy. “You will soon be of age and you can buy your husband at once, since you dare not risk a probation of twelve months.”

“I can risk twelve years,” retorted Lillian uneasily, for in a flash she understood how selfishly she was behaving, seeing that her father’s assassin was still at large, “and to prove it —” She looked at Dan.

He understood and spoke, although he had already made up his mind as to the best course to pursue. “To prove it,” he said steadily, “we accept your proposal, Sir John. Lillian will wait twelve months, and during that time I shall search for the woman who murdered Sir Charles. If I don’t find her —”

“Lillian marries Lord Curberry,” said Moon quickly.

“No,” cried the girl defiantly; “that part of the agreement I decline to assent to. Twelve months or twelve years it may take before the truth comes to light, but I marry no one but Dan.”

Sir John reflected on the dangers of aviation and swiftly came to a conclusion. “We’ll see at the end of the year,” he said cautiously, “much may happen in that time.”

“So long as Lillian’s wedding to Curberry doesn’t happen,” said Dan obstinately, “I don’t care. But it is understood that Lillian is not to be worried about the matter?”

“That depends upon what you and Lillian call worry,” said Moon drily; “so far as I am concerned I shall not coerce her in any way. All I wish for is the promise of you both that you will wait twelve months before taking any steps to marry. Meantime, you must not see too much of Lillian.”

“Oh,” cried the girl, indignantly, “you would push Dan out of my life!”

“It’s a test,” explained Sir John, blinking nervously. “You will be in mourning for the next twelve months, and should see few people.”

“Of whom Dan will be one,” she flashed out.

“Occasionally — very occasionally, you can see him. But, of course, if you can’t trust yourself to be true without being continually reminded that Mr. Halliday exists, there is no more to be said.”

“I can trust myself,” muttered the girl uneasily.

“And I can trust Lillian,” said Dan promptly and decisively.

“It does not look like it since you always wish to see one another. And remember, Lillian, you owe it to your father’s memory to put all thoughts of love, which is self, out of your heart until the mystery of his death is entirely solved.”

“There is something in that,” said Halliday thoughtfully, and Lillian nodded; “but of course I can write to Lillian.”

“Occasionally,” said the baronet again; “you must both be tested by a year’s separation, with a meeting or a letter every now and then. Duty must be the keynote of the twelve months and not pleasure. Well?”

The lovers looked at one another and sighed. The terms were hard, but not so hard as Sir John might have made them. Still both the boy and the girl — they were little else — recognised that their duty was to the dead. Afterwards pleasure would be theirs. Silently they accepted and silently adjusted to the situation. “We agree!” said the two almost simultaneously.

“Very good,” said Moon, rubbing his hands, “how do you intend to begin your search for the missing woman, Mr. Halliday?”

“I don’t know,” murmured Dan, miserably.

“Neither do I,” rejoined Sir John with great amiability. “Come to tea?”

And to tea the lovers went as to a funeral feast. But Sir John rejoiced.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42