When Vendale entered his office the next morning, the dull commercial routine at Cripple Corner met him with a new face. Marguerite had an interest in it now! The whole machinery which Wilding’s death had set in motion, to realise the value of the business — the balancing of ledgers, the estimating of debts, the taking of stock, and the rest of it — was now transformed into machinery which indicated the chances for and against a speedy marriage. After looking over results, as presented by his accountant, and checking additions and subtractions, as rendered by the clerks, Vendale turned his attention to the stock-taking department next, and sent a message to the cellars, desiring to see the report.
The Cellarman’s appearance, the moment he put his head in at the door of his master’s private room, suggested that something very extraordinary must have happened that morning. There was an approach to alacrity in Joey Ladle’s movements! There was something which actually simulated cheerfulness in Joey Ladle’s face
“What’s the matter?” asked Vendale. “Anything wrong?”
“I should wish to mention one thing,” answered Joey. “Young Mr. Vendale, I have never set myself up for a prophet.”
“Who ever said you did?”
“No prophet, as far as I’ve heard I tell of that profession,” proceeded Joey, “ever lived principally underground. No prophet, whatever else he might take in at the pores, ever took in wine from morning to night, for a number of years together. When I said to young Master Wilding, respecting his changing the name of the firm, that one of these days he might find he’d changed the luck of the firm — did I put myself forward as a prophet? No, I didn’t. Has what I said to him come true? Yes, it has. In the time of Pebbleson Nephew, Young Mr. Vendale, no such thing was ever known as a mistake made in a consignment delivered at these doors. There’s a mistake been made now. Please to remark that it happened before Miss Margaret came here. For which reason it don’t go against what I’ve said respecting Miss Margaret singing round the luck. Read that, sir,” concluded Joey, pointing attention to a special passage in the report, with a forefinger which appeared to be in process of taking in through the pores nothing more remarkable than dirt. “It’s foreign to my nature to crow over the house I serve, but I feel it a kind of solemn duty to ask you to read that.”
Vendale read as follows:—“Note, respecting the Swiss champagne. An irregularity has been discovered in the last consignment received from the firm of Defresnier and Co.” Vendale stopped, and referred to a memorandum-book by his side. “That was in Mr. Wilding’s time,” he said. “The vintage was a particularly good one, and he took the whole of it. The Swiss champagne has done very well, hasn’t it?”
“I don’t say it’s done badly,” answered the Cellarman. “It may have got sick in our customers’ bins, or it may have bust in our customers’ hands. But I don’t say it’s done badly with us.”
Vendale resumed the reading of the note: “We find the number of the cases to be quite correct by the books. But six of them, which present a slight difference from the rest in the brand, have been opened, and have been found to contain a red wine instead of champagne. The similarity in the brands, we suppose, caused a mistake to be made in sending the consignment from Neuchatel. The error has not been found to extend beyond six cases.”
“Is that all!” exclaimed Vendale, tossing the note away from him.
Joey Ladle’s eye followed the flying morsel of paper drearily.
“I’m glad to see you take it easy, sir,” he said. “Whatever happens, it will be always a comfort to you to remember that you took it easy at first. Sometimes one mistake leads to another. A man drops a bit of orange-peel on the pavement by mistake, and another man treads on it by mistake, and there’s a job at the hospital, and a party crippled for life. I’m glad you take it easy, sir. In Pebbleson Nephew’s time we shouldn’t have taken it easy till we had seen the end of it. Without desiring to crow over the house, young Mr. Vendale, I wish you well through it. No offence, sir,” said the Cellarman, opening the door to go out, and looking in again ominously before he shut it. “I’m muddled and molloncolly, I grant you. But I’m an old servant of Pebbleson Nephew, and I wish you well through them six cases of red wine.”
Left by himself, Vendale laughed, and took up his pen. “I may as well send a line to Defresnier and Company,” he thought, “before I forget it.” He wrote at once in these terms:
“Dear Sirs. We are taking stock, and a trifling mistake has been discovered in the last consignment of champagne sent by your house to ours. Six of the cases contain red wine — which we hereby return to you. The matter can easily be set right, either by your sending us six cases of the champagne, if they can be produced, or, if not, by your crediting us with the value of six cases on the amount last paid (five hundred pounds) by our firm to yours. Your faithful servants,
“WILDING AND CO.”
This letter despatched to the post, the subject dropped at once out of Vendale’s mind. He had other and far more interesting matters to think of. Later in the day he paid the visit to Obenreizer which had been agreed on between them. Certain evenings in the week were set apart which he was privileged to spend with Marguerite — always, however, in the presence of a third person. On this stipulation Obenreizer politely but positively insisted. The one concession he made was to give Vendale his choice of who the third person should be. Confiding in past experience, his choice fell unhesitatingly upon the excellent woman who mended Obenreizer’s stockings. On hearing of the responsibility entrusted to her, Madame Dor’s intellectual nature burst suddenly into a new stage of development. She waited till Obenreizer’s eye was off her — and then she looked at Vendale, and dimly winked.
The time passed — the happy evenings with Marguerite came and went. It was the tenth morning since Vendale had written to the Swiss firm, when the answer appeared, on his desk, with the other letters of the day:
“Dear Sirs. We beg to offer our excuses for the little mistake which has happened. At the same time, we regret to add that the statement of our error, with which you have favoured us, has led to a very unexpected discovery. The affair is a most serious one for you and for us. The particulars are as follows:
“Having no more champagne of the vintage last sent to you, we made arrangements to credit your firm to the value of six cases, as suggested by yourself. On taking this step, certain forms observed in our mode of doing business necessitated a reference to our bankers’ book, as well as to our ledger. The result is a moral certainty that no such remittance as you mention can have reached our house, and a literal certainty that no such remittance has been paid to our account at the bank.
“It is needless, at this stage of the proceedings, to trouble you with details. The money has unquestionably been stolen in the course of its transit from you to us. Certain peculiarities which we observe, relating to the manner in which the fraud has been perpetrated, lead us to conclude that the thief may have calculated on being able to pay the missing sum to our bankers, before an inevitable discovery followed the annual striking of our balance. This would not have happened, in the usual course, for another three months. During that period, but for your letter, we might have remained perfectly unconscious of the robbery that has been committed.
“We mention this last circumstance, as it may help to show you that we have to do, in this case, with no ordinary thief. Thus far we have not even a suspicion of who that thief is. But we believe you will assist us in making some advance towards discovery, by examining the receipt (forged, of course) which has no doubt purported to come to you from our house. Be pleased to look and see whether it is a receipt entirely in manuscript, or whether it is a numbered and printed form which merely requires the filling in of the amount. The settlement of this apparently trivial question is, we assure you, a matter of vital importance. Anxiously awaiting your reply, we remain, with high esteem and consideration,
“DEFRESNIER & CIE.”
Vendale had the letter on his desk, and waited a moment to steady his mind under the shock that had fallen on it. At the time of all others when it was most important to him to increase the value of his business, that business was threatened with a loss of five hundred pounds. He thought of Marguerite, as he took the key from his pocket and opened the iron chamber in the wall in which the books and papers of the firm were kept.
He was still in the chamber, searching for the forged receipt, when he was startled by a voice speaking close behind him.
“A thousand pardons,” said the voice; “I am afraid I disturb you.”
He turned, and found himself face to face with Marguerite’s guardian.
“I have called,” pursued Obenreizer, “to know if I can be of any use. Business of my own takes me away for some days to Manchester and Liverpool. Can I combine any business of yours with it? I am entirely at your disposal, in the character of commercial traveller for the firm of Wilding and Co.”
“Excuse me for one moment,” said Vendale; “I will speak to you directly.” He turned round again, and continued his search among the papers. “You come at a time when friendly offers are more than usually precious to me,” he resumed. “I have had very bad news this morning from Neuchatel.”
“Bad news,” exclaimed Obenreizer. “From Defresnier and Company?”
“Yes. A remittance we sent to them has been stolen. I am threatened with a loss of five hundred pounds. What’s that?”
Turning sharply, and looking into the room for the second time, Vendale discovered his envelope case overthrown on the floor, and Obenreizer on his knees picking up the contents.
“All my awkwardness,” said Obenreizer. “This dreadful news of yours startled me; I stepped back —” He became too deeply interested in collecting the scattered envelopes to finish the sentence.
“Don’t trouble yourself,” said Vendale. “The clerk will pick the things up.”
“This dreadful news!” repeated Obenreizer, persisting in collecting the envelopes. “This dreadful news!”
“If you will read the letter,” said Vendale, “you will find I have exaggerated nothing. There it is, open on my desk.”
He resumed his search, and in a moment more discovered the forged receipt. It was on the numbered and printed form, described by the Swiss firm. Vendale made a memorandum of the number and the date. Having replaced the receipt and locked up the iron chamber, he had leisure to notice Obenreizer, reading the letter in the recess of a window at the far end of the room.
“Come to the fire,” said Vendale. “You look perished with the cold out there. I will ring for some more coals.”
Obenreizer rose, and came slowly back to the desk. “Marguerite will be as sorry to hear of this as I am,” he said, kindly. “What do you mean to do?”
“I am in the hands of Defresnier and Company,” answered Vendale. “In my total ignorance of the circumstances, I can only do what they recommend. The receipt which I have just found, turns out to be the numbered and printed form. They seem to attach some special importance to its discovery. You have had experience, when you were in the Swiss house, of their way of doing business. Can you guess what object they have in view?”
Obenreizer offered a suggestion.
“Suppose I examine the receipt?” he said.
“Are you ill?” asked Vendale, startled by the change in his face, which now showed itself plainly for the first time. “Pray go to the fire. You seem to be shivering — I hope you are not going to be ill?”
“Not I!” said Obenreizer. “Perhaps I have caught cold. Your English climate might have spared an admirer of your English institutions. Let me look at the receipt.”
Vendale opened the iron chamber. Obenreizer took a chair, and drew it close to the fire. He held both hands over the flames. “Let me look at the receipt,” he repeated, eagerly, as Vendale reappeared with the paper in his hand. At the same moment a porter entered the room with a fresh supply of coals. Vendale told him to make a good fire. The man obeyed the order with a disastrous alacrity. As he stepped forward and raised the scuttle, his foot caught in a fold of the rug, and he discharged his entire cargo of coals into the grate. The result was an instant smothering of the flame, and the production of a stream of yellow smoke, without a visible morsel of fire to account for it.
“Imbecile!” whispered Obenreizer to himself, with a look at the man which the man remembered for many a long day afterwards.
“Will you come into the clerks’ room?” asked Vendale. “They have a stove there.”
“No, no. No matter.”
Vendale handed him the receipt. Obenreizer’s interest in examining it appeared to have been quenched as suddenly and as effectually as the fire itself. He just glanced over the document, and said, “No; I don’t understand it! I am sorry to be of no use.”
“I will write to Neuchatel by to-night’s post,” said Vendale, putting away the receipt for the second time. “We must wait, and see what comes of it.”
“By to-night’s post,” repeated Obenreizer. “Let me see. You will get the answer in eight or nine days’ time. I shall be back before that. If I can be of any service, as commercial traveller, perhaps you will let me know between this and then. You will send me written instructions? My best thanks. I shall be most anxious for your answer from Neuchatel. Who knows? It may be a mistake, my dear friend, after all. Courage! courage! courage!” He had entered the room with no appearance of being pressed for time. He now snatched up his hat, and took his leave with the air of a man who had not another moment to lose.
Left by himself, Vendale took a turn thoughtfully in the room.
His previous impression of Obenreizer was shaken by what he had heard and seen at the interview which had just taken place. He was disposed, for the first time, to doubt whether, in this case, he had not been a little hasty and hard in his judgment on another man. Obenreizer’s surprise and regret, on hearing the news from Neuchatel, bore the plainest marks of being honestly felt — not politely assumed for the occasion. With troubles of his own to encounter, suffering, to all appearance, from the first insidious attack of a serious illness, he had looked and spoken like a man who really deplored the disaster that had fallen on his friend. Hitherto Vendale had tried vainly to alter his first opinion of Marguerite’s guardian, for Marguerite’s sake. All the generous instincts in his nature now combined together and shook the evidence which had seemed unanswerable up to this time. “Who knows?” he thought. “I may have read that man’s face wrongly, after all.”
The time passed — the happy evenings with Marguerite came and went. It was again the tenth morning since Vendale had written to the Swiss firm; and again the answer appeared on his desk with the other letters of the day
“Dear Sir. My senior partner, M. Defresnier, has been called away, by urgent business, to Milan. In his absence (and with his full concurrence and authority), I now write to you again on the subject of the missing five hundred pounds.
“Your discovery that the forged receipt is executed upon one of our numbered and printed forms has caused inexpressible surprise and distress to my partner and to myself. At the time when your remittance was stolen, but three keys were in existence opening the strong-box in which our receipt-forms are invariably kept. My partner had one key; I had the other. The third was in the possession of a gentleman who, at that period, occupied a position of trust in our house. We should as soon have thought of suspecting one of ourselves as of suspecting this person. Suspicion now points at him, nevertheless. I cannot prevail on myself to inform you who the person is, so long as there is the shadow of a chance that he may come innocently out of the inquiry which must now be instituted. Forgive my silence; the motive of it is good.
“The form our investigation must now take is simple enough. The handwriting of your receipt must be compared, by competent persons whom we have at our disposal, with certain specimens of handwriting in our possession. I cannot send you the specimens for business reasons, which, when you hear them, you are sure to approve. I must beg you to send me the receipt to Neuchatel — and, in making this request, I must accompany it by a word of necessary warning.
“If the person, at whom suspicion now points, really proves to be the person who has committed this forger and theft, I have reason to fear that circumstances may have already put him on his guard. The only evidence against him is the evidence in your hands, and he will move heaven and earth to obtain and destroy it. I strongly urge you not to trust the receipt to the post. Send it to me, without loss of time, by a private hand, and choose nobody for your messenger but a person long established in your own employment, accustomed to travelling, capable of speaking French; a man of courage, a man of honesty, and, above all things, a man who can be trusted to let no stranger scrape acquaintance with him on the route. Tell no one — absolutely no one — but your messenger of the turn this matter has now taken. The safe transit of the receipt may depend on your interpreting LITERALLY the advice which I give you at the end of this letter.
“I have only to add that every possible saving of time is now of the last importance. More than one of our receipt-forms is missing — and it is impossible to say what new frauds may not be committed if we fail to lay our hands on the thief.
Your faithful servant
ROLLAND, (Signing for Defresnier and Cie.)
Who was the suspected man? In Vendale’s position, it seemed useless to inquire.
Who was to be sent to Neuchatel with the receipt? Men of courage and men of honesty were to be had at Cripple Corner for the asking. But where was the man who was accustomed to foreign travelling, who could speak the French language, and who could be really relied on to let no stranger scrape acquaintance with him on his route? There was but one man at hand who combined all those requisites in his own person, and that man was Vendale himself.
It was a sacrifice to leave his business; it was a greater sacrifice to leave Marguerite. But a matter of five hundred pounds was involved in the pending inquiry; and a literal interpretation of M. Rolland’s advice was insisted on in terms which there was no trifling with. The more Vendale thought of it, the more plainly the necessity faced him, and said, “Go!”
As he locked up the letter with the receipt, the association of ideas reminded him of Obenreizer. A guess at the identity of the suspected man looked more possible now. Obenreizer might know.
The thought had barely passed through his mind, when the door opened, and Obenreizer entered the room.
“They told me at Soho Square you were expected back last night,” said Vendale, greeting him. “Have you done well in the country? Are you better?”
A thousand thanks. Obenreizer had done admirably well; Obenreizer was infinitely better. And now, what news? Any letter from Neuchatel?
“A very strange letter,” answered Vendale. “The matter has taken a new turn, and the letter insists — without excepting anybody — on my keeping our next proceedings a profound secret.”
“Without excepting anybody?” repeated Obenreizer. As he said the words, he walked away again, thoughtfully, to the window at the other end of the room, looked out for a moment, and suddenly came back to Vendale. “Surely they must have forgotten?” he resumed, “or they would have excepted me?”
“It is Monsieur Rolland who writes,” said Vendale. “And, as you say, he must certainly have forgotten. That view of the matter quite escaped me. I was just wishing I had you to consult, when you came into the room. And here I am tried by a formal prohibition, which cannot possibly have been intended to include you. How very annoying!”
Obenreizer’s filmy eyes fixed on Vendale attentively.
“Perhaps it is more than annoying!” he said. “I came this morning not only to hear the news, but to offer myself as messenger, negotiator — what you will. Would you believe it? I have letters which oblige me to go to Switzerland immediately. Messages, documents, anything — I could have taken them all to Defresnier and Rolland for you.”
“You are the very man I wanted,” returned Vendale. “I had decided, most unwillingly, on going to Neuchatel myself, not five minutes since, because I could find no one here capable of taking my place. Let me look at the letter again.”
He opened the strong room to get at the letter. Obenreizer, after first glancing round him to make sure that they were alone, followed a step or two and waited, measuring Vendale with his eye. Vendale was the tallest man, and unmistakably the strongest man also of the two. Obenreizer turned away, and warmed himself at the fire.
Meanwhile, Vendale read the last paragraph in the letter for the third time. There was the plain warning — there was the closing sentence, which insisted on a literal interpretation of it. The hand, which was leading Vendale in the dark, led him on that condition only. A large sum was at stake: a terrible suspicion remained to be verified. If he acted on his own responsibility, and if anything happened to defeat the object in view, who would be blamed? As a man of business, Vendale had but one course to follow. He locked the letter up again.
“It is most annoying,” he said to Obenreizer —“it is a piece of forgetfulness on Monsieur Rolland’s part which puts me to serious inconvenience, and places me in an absurdly false position towards you. What am I to do? I am acting in a very serious matter, and acting entirely in the dark. I have no choice but to be guided, not by the spirit, but by the letter of my instructions. You understand me, I am sure? You know, if I had not been fettered in this way, how gladly I should have accepted your services?”
“Say no more!” returned Obenreizer. “In your place I should have done the same. My good friend, I take no offence. I thank you for your compliment. We shall be travelling companions, at any rate,” added Obenreizer. “You go, as I go, at once?”
“At once. I must speak to Marguerite first, of course!”
“Surely! surely! Speak to her this evening. Come, and pick me up on the way to the station. We go together by the mail train to- night?”
“By the mail train to-night.”
It was later than Vendale had anticipated when he drove up to the house in Soho Square. Business difficulties, occasioned by his sudden departure, had presented themselves by dozens. A cruelly large share of the time which he had hoped to devote to Marguerite had been claimed by duties at his office which it was impossible to neglect.
To his surprise and delight, she was alone in the drawing-room when he entered it.
“We have only a few minutes, George,” she said. “But Madame Dor has been good to me — and we can have those few minutes alone.” She threw her arms round his neck, and whispered eagerly, “Have you done anything to offend Mr. Obenreizer?”
“I!” exclaimed Vendale, in amazement.
“Hush!” she said, “I want to whisper it. You know the little photograph I have got of you. This afternoon it happened to be on the chimney-piece. He took it up and looked at it — and I saw his face in the glass. I know you have offended him! He is merciless; he is revengeful; he is as secret as the grave. Don’t go with him, George — don’t go with him!”
“My own love,” returned Vendale, “you are letting your fancy frighten you! Obenreizer and I were never better friends than we are at this moment.”
Before a word more could be said, the sudden movement of some ponderous body shook the floor of the next room. The shock was followed by the appearance of Madame Dor. “Obenreizer” exclaimed this excellent person in a whisper, and plumped down instantly in her regular place by the stove.
Obenreizer came in with a courier’s big strapped over his shoulder. “Are you ready?” he asked, addressing Vendale. “Can I take anything for you? You have no travelling-bag. I have got one. Here is the compartment for papers, open at your service.”
“Thank you,” said Vendale. “I have only one paper of importance with me; and that paper I am bound to take charge of myself. Here it is,” he added, touching the breast-pocket of his coat, “and here it must remain till we get to Neuchatel.”
As he said those words, Marguerite’s hand caught his, and pressed it significantly. She was looking towards Obenreizer. Before Vendale could look, in his turn, Obenreizer had wheeled round, and was taking leave of Madame Dor.
“Adieu, my charming niece!” he said, turning to Marguerite next. “En route, my friend, for Neuchatel!” He tapped Vendale lightly over the breast-pocket of his coat and led the way to the door.
Vendale’s last look was for Marguerite. Marguerite’s last words to him were, “Don’t go!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49