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-THE CROWNING OF ESTHER,

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PUBLISHED BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT. THE CROWNING OF ESTHER, By MORICE GERARD, Author of M isterton," "Cast Out," "The Victoria Cross," BlacK Gun xvock, "Jocko th' Beach," Murray Murgatroyd, Joarnal'st," etc., &c. [C 0 P Y R I G Ti T], STNOPSI5 OF PREVIOUS CHAPTERS. CHIR.T3K? 1. TO III.—Caroline Wrottisley and Stephen Fleetwood, distant relatives of Squire Wrottis- ley, live with him. The old man clings to his great niece, bat discards Stephen, who is not a Wrottisley, and makes a. will iu her favour, leaving a bare .£200 a year to Stephen on the understanding that he keeps out of prison. The two men quarrel and Stephen nines himself to ft professional mesmerist who lectures throughout the country. When the old man dies a new will is found and attested by two nurses, in which he revokes all former wills uiul leaves everything- to Stephen. As the will is discovered by Caroline, Stephen and she come face to face. Cf-IAPTRIW IV. TO VI— Miss Wrottisley is turned out 1". Stephen, the heir, and leaves for London with no pl-ms or prospects. She is annoyed on the way down I.y a fair-haired man who claims acquaintance with her on account of knowing Stephen. She^ seeks the iH-otectiou of a porter, and she obtains lodgings at the Louse of a Mrs Hedger. A niece, Polly, UeeDres that she is fit to go on the stage, and says she will speak to Mr Lefevre, stage manager, for her. CH\P'4E3 VII. TO IX—Polly tells Caroline that ty she herself is a painter's model, and urges her to apply to a painter named Coutaiiee, a, a face such as hers is needed for a painting he is making of Queen Esther. The two meet the light-haired stranger who had persecuted Caroline, and Polly says it is Lord Alfred Poutifex. Caroline refuses to speak to him. At Moat House, Stephen Fleetwood one night is disturbed by the appearance of a man in the grounds who is covering the house with a spy glass. He takes his rifle and fires at the figure, which falls. Chapter X. Stephen Fleetwood, in his eagerness, had forgotten to close the dining-room door after him. Consequently the light from the hall, dim as it was, threw his figure into relief and disclosed to the man with the spy glass covering the room he weapon he held in his hand, Of course Stephen was not aware of this. Had the light been brilliant the idea would probably have occurred to him. As it was, being dim to himself, he forgot it was illumination itself, to all intents and purposes, for any- one in the comparative darkness outside. The moment Stephen saw the watcher's figure in the open he recognised who it was. v Giles Underwood he muttered between his clenched teeth. But the knowledge did not alter; it only .strengthened ihe purpose with which he had fetched the rifle. The weapon was an excellent one, and Stephen himself a capital shot. He raised the ride to his shoulder, took accurate and careful aim at the heart of the mall he covered, and fired. It was not for him to know that the night depredator in posse,' and trespassed in esse,' was his old chum and companion in villainy, Giles Underwood. His death would be very convenient just now, and the master of the House felt that the law. if his act broke it, would be very lenient to the gentleman who shot a man braking out of a strictly-kept preserve evidently with some nefarious intent. The moment Stephen fired, the man fell. That settles him. Dead men tell no tales and with a smile of grim satisfaction on his face the owner of the rifle wiped it affectionately as another man might pat a favourite horse, which had borne him well in the hunting field. The sound of the shot brought a rush of servants into the hall. They had no notion in what direction the gun had been fired, merely having beard the sharp crack. The -omen-servants, who were just on the point of retiring to bed, were huddled together in a great state of alarm, and even the men, of whom there were two— -the old Squire used to keep three, but Stephen preferred to be his own outlet* showed signs of nervousness. As the dining-room door stood open, the household flocked in without ceremony. Them master turned to them You women go to bed: this is no 'business of yours. You two men come cut with me and bring a leaf from the hall table. I saw a man break out of t(ie spinney opposite my rifle was handy and I brousrbt him down. We will go and carry him into the house.' Hereupon one of the women fell down shrieking with hysterics. Stephen filled a wine-glass with brandy, and forced some of the contents down her throat. Take the fool away,, he said as she half-choked under the remedy und the women-servants retired, headed by the housekeeper, to watch proceedings from the room above. The men. meantime, went for the leaf from the hall table. Stephen Fleetwood was a master whom men and women alike obeyed implicitly. The former, in the meanwhile, changed his shoes with calm deliberation. He was not sorry even for the incident of the hysterical maid, for it all gave him more time. He had taken too good an aim to doubt for an instant that Giles Uuder- wood was dead, but men have been known to linger a few minutes even when shot through a vital part; and alt-hough it is true that dead men tell no tales,' dying men are apt to make use of their last moments in taking advantage of an opportunity which is fast slipping from their gra sp for ever. z, The footmen fumbled a good deal in their attempts to get the leaf out of the table, partly in consequence of nervousness, and partly because of the half gloom. Stephen waited patiently at any other time they would have been hurried up with an oath. At last they were ready. Stephen stepped out of the low window first, followed by the two men bearing the improvised stretcher, who managed to knock over the table and break the coffee cup and saucer in their nervousnesss. Stephen swore at them beneath his breath. Even he felt a trifle excited, however, as he stepped out upon the award which was now steeped in abysmal darkness, the light of the sun having entirely departed, and the night being one without a moon. Had Stephen not felt perfectly certain that be could go to the place where the man fell, blindfold, he would have had a lantern fetched but he trusted implicitly in his own retrieving instincts. The master, followed by the men, walked straight forward until he had got three parts across the grass then he stopped and began to feel about with his feet. Nothing resulted. Put the table leaf down on the ground at my feet and walk around me. If you feel anything tell me.' The men did not relish the duty but they fancied the result of disobedience less, so they obeyed. Now take a step out and do the same.' This manoeuvre was repeated twice, at increasing in- tervals of space, Stephen meanwhile standing quietly resting 011 his rifle. Nothing resulted. Stephen was nonplussed. Iow, Gwiney,' he said to one of the footmen, hold my riliti and stand here. Don't budge an inch until I come back.' If you please sir, we would rather you did not go away,' came simultaneously from the two footmen, who were awed by the darkness and the horror of the strange quest. Don't be such cursed fools. I am only going to the trees and back." The dark outline of the fir-trees was just perceptible. Stephen wanted to make'sure the footmen were in direct line between the spinney and the dining-room window. With some difficulty he made sure that the tree was the right one and then looked back but so intense tll" intermediate darkness that the figures of the foot- men were invisible to their master. There was no fear iu Stephen's heart at that moment. But there might have been. and not without reason. As he stood under the fir tree. he was covered by a gun not so elegant in construction as the rifle he had but recently fired, but in the hands by which it was held, tli- wesipon was quite as deadly, and instead of being fifteen yards away as he had been, this was so close toot had Stephen stretched out his hand suddenly, he might have touched the cold steel of the gun. Sèi phen never was nearer his end, until it actually t"\>ne, than he was d that moment; but the mnzzie, was lowered, and L was reprieved not out of mercy, but out of policy. trike ¡¡, light one of you.' shouted Stephen Fleet- wood, Rpe:1kiu above his breath for the first time. One of the footmen fumbled out a match, and after some futile attempts struck it. The light was in a bee-line between the place where the Master was standing and the window. Stephen leid pone to the right spot accurately enough only the result differed from what he had expected. He walked back puz.:l«'d. The only solution he could think of that Giles Underwood had crawled some distance after the shot had taken effect. That it had not taken effect at all did no", even occur to him and this is not to be wondered ftt, since he had taken deliberate aim end had seen the man aimed at simultaneously fall. '?ne of you go round to the stables 111111 bring the big lantern.' May we both go, sir?' Curse it, yes. if you like. Only be quick.' Steihen knew that all animals when wounded make for til8 nearest cover. Giles was three parts i,i animal, and had imbibed most of their instincts. Possibly he he'd done the same thing during his last moments. Stephen did not intend to go to bed until his search was rewarded. In what seemed a long time, but was ready only a few moments, the footmen returned, followed by the coachman bearing the big stable lantern. The man w'.io had held the rifle had laid it on the ground when he was sent off for the lantern. The party now proceeded to make a most careiul search of the grass, taking all the centre of the ground first and then working to the bushes which ran round the plat on three sides. The search, which lasted for more than an hour, was quite unrewarded. Every perch of the ground was carefully exav ed, and even Stephen at last had to confess himsei, jeateii. He returned alone to pick up his rifle, carrying the lantern. His surprise may be better imagined than described. The weapon was nowhere to be found. CHAPTER XI. Mrs. Pledger had not reached home when Polly and I, somewhat breathless, entered the hospitable and friendly door of No. 7, Haggerstone Place, on the Sunday morn- ing of our walk. Probably the good lady had met with some friends at church, and was taking a turn,' as she would have phrased it, with them. tV8 girls were not sorry to have a few ml1:ll+r's' spare time in which to recover our equanimity and to put, oitr- selves straight, before that observant eye should be upon us. The contretemps with Lord Alfred Pontifex, as Polly had styled mv former persecutor, had disturbed us both considerably, in different ways. Polly was alarmed and anxious for me. I was simply angry. This kind of persecution was new to me. To Polly it was the fa,miliar atmosphere in which she habitually lived, and moved, and had her being. His last threat had not been lost upon her. and to Polly, who knew the man, and the resources at his command, the alarm which she felt for my safety was only natural. Who is that man ? How could you bring yourself to speak to him ?' I dare not do otherwise.' Yv iiy P' He has tremendous power, and if he were lo take it into his head to do for me in my profession, he could easily. He is a friend of half the managers of theatres and music halls in London, and wib them his will is very nearly law. He knows me well enough, for he often comes round to the back of the Pamphyllion. Ho once tried to take a fancy to me, but I managed to keep him off, and somehow he has never borne me a grudge. I never knew him come up this way before. It looks as if he came after you especially what he said at the last. Where did you meet him i" I told her. As I did so, her face fed. You will have to be very c:1r('£n1.' she said and her tone conveyed even more than her words. I think you oug-ht to tell me more.' Well, I never knew him take so much trouble be- fore. He hates trouble. Yet he must have set him- self to find out where you were lodging I saw him drive past in a hansom,' I interrupted, il,-Ly I arrived.' 'Drive in Polly, with mild scorn. "Where should he drive PI.,t -to P Islington is not quite on the high road from King's Cross to Buckingham Palace Gate. Of course he told the hansom driver—probably his own coachman, for I expect the hansom was his private one-to keep your cab in sight. Then his find- ing out where Aunt went to church He has a man who is devoted to liim—a who does all these sort of things for him. It is all part of 11 huge: plot.' Never mind don't be frightened I shall defeat it: you make up your mind to that.' I was so indignant that it gave me courage. In fact, since the Squire's death, and I came to London, I have been quite a different women. It has aged me ever so I only wonder I look so much the same in'the glass I feel so "iffereiit inwardly, that I am surprised not to see the reflection of the change outwardly. Mrs Hedger caaie in at this moment, and greeted Polly with effusion mingled with surprise, or as I might say, kisses tempered with questions. Kiss! kiss! What brings you hero? Kiss kiss! Very glad to see you but, lor. when were you here on a Sunday before ? Kiss kiss Oh, I thought a walk would do me good, so I fetched Miss Wrottisley here and we have had a good one.' Mrs Hedges did not look very pleased. He embraces determined; and she proceeded to remove her lavender- liued bonnet with deliberation, and some dignity. She felt in the first place that she herself had been evaded, and therefore Slighted, and even aunts are sometimes jealous. In the second place, she felt that the airy edifice of Polly's sabbatical devotion, which had been erected for my edification, fell to the ground before that young lady's somewhat flippant rejoinder. With the bonnet Mrs Hedger quite unintentionally unhitched a false front, wdch had got cemented to it by the heat of her favo unite tabernacle. This did not improve either the good lady's temper or appearance. I suppose now I'm come you'll be off, having got what you wllIlted i" she questioned tartly, after a few moments spent in gathering up her forces, and adjust- ing the niceties of her outward woman. No, Aunt, I have come to dinner, if you'll give rue some.' Mrs Hedger's hospitable soul was mollified at once. Well, I'm sure, who would ha' thought it? I do hope Mary Ann will turn out a good pudding. The girl varies every week but when she gives her mind to it, there isn't a better Yorkshire pudding in Haggerstone Place—no, nor yet in Islington, for that matter. You must have a snack with us, too, Miss Wrottisley and we shall be all comfortable like together. But, lor', Polly, what has become of your young man ¡' Oh, he's gone into the country to see his ma so I'm off duty to-day, Aunt Whereupon Mrs Hedger departed to seek her cap, and to inspect the result of Mary Ann's efforts. The pudding was all that, a Yorkshire pudding should be, crisp and brown, and done to a turn* The Ö sirloin, in whose honourable company the pudding made its appearance, was worthy in every way of its society. In spite of the unpleasant experience which had spoiled our morning walk, our appetites were healthy aud we both—Polly and I—did justice to the excellent fare. Mrs Hedger beamed with rubicund satisfaction. This is like old times,' she said, as she drunk her second glass of ale. Redder always enjoyed his Sun- day's dinner, and we always had sirloin and Yorkshire pudding. I have kept up the custom in honour of your poor deal" uncle, Polly; but sometimes, when I'vo thought of him sitting opposite to me, and him there no longer, the pudding has fairly stuck in my throat.' After dinner Mrs Hedger supervised the removal of the accessories of th3 meal, and then settled herself in her arm chair for a nap. Polly and I went back to my sittill-room, for grea-er freedom of conversation. Now Polly,' I slid, I want to know all you know about Lord Alfred Pontifex.' That won't take you long. You can see for your- salf what he's like—a bit of a dandy, and good-looking I think, if it were not for his eyes. It isn't only that they are set too close together, but they are cruel. I feel as if lie would torture a dumb animal or kill me without feeling it one bit: no man with those eyes could littv(,, a Who are the PoLtifexes ? I have never heard of them at all.' You certainly were brought up in a mole hole. Why, the Pontitexes are as well known as the Houses of Parliament or the British Museum. They are most of them as wicked as they are wealthy, and if they are not wicked they are eccentric, which, to my mind, is almost as bad. The last Marquis, Lord Alfred's father, after carrying on as his son does now, the first part of his life, shut himself up in the family castle somewhere in Hampshire, and never saw daylight, so the tale goes, for twenty years. He looked after all his property by night, going about the fields and farm buildings with a lantern, a manservant, and a bulldog. Often enough he would knock up one of his tenant farmers and lower or raise his rent as the case might be, in the middle of the night, or promise him a new system of drainage, or a repaired roof. He was a capital landlord, and liberal to a fault; -and there was never a poacher for miles round. Bless you, they daren't go out after nightfall for fear of the Marquis They knew he had been as wicked as sin itself and was as strong as any four other men. Besides, there wasn't a labour- ing man or woman in the district that didn't believe the Wicked Marquis was possessed. Police P They didn't require any ill his part of Hampshire as long as the Marquis prowled about at night. But surely you. must have heard something about his death. I was only a chit of a child myself, but I quite remember father reading the whole account out to -Lis--piottier was alive then. There was a terrible snowstorm one Thn lIlarquis was out as usual and it came on suddenly. He did not come home, and early in the morning the alarm bell of the Castle was rang and the whole country side turned out to search. At last he was found, with the, lantern smashed near, quite dead, and the maaserrant- lying in such a position that his master must have been carrying him on his btick until he, two sank down. The bulldog was lying dead in the snow; but much deeper than the two men. He had probably been some hours before and the Marqms must have been ca vy- ing the man round in a circle for hours before his strength failed, thinking he was carrying him home to the Castle. The Marchioness had two sons. The tljra? lived en another estate in Yorkshire, not very far. T farcy,'from where you come from. Lord Alfred has it now. She died soon after her husband. The eldest Ron. the present Marquis, became very queer soon after Lis father's death. YiTien he was eighteen, he left hjme and went abroad, and has never been near any of his people or estates since.' lie Oil, 110, he isn't. Lord Alfred told me himself that every detail of the property is submitted to him for decision, through his solicitor, who is the only person who has an idea where lie lives or what he ie doing. Lord Alfred says openly that he would only be too glid to hear that his brother was dead, for then he would co:ne into it all. At present he has only what his mother had.' Soon after this Mrs. Hedger was :1(::3.1 stimag aud we went in to have a cup of tea. About five o'clock Polly sail she. must go. She came into my room to 'fix herself,' as she called it, and took th? opportunity of saying, Yon will go to Coutanee, won't you, there's a eear r He wants you to go 011 Wednesday atteraoon at ihres o'clock. VvVii'i you go with me?' i ^o..1 cannot, x nave a matinee at uiiO i amphj iduw. See. here are all the directions he has written them down so that you cannot make a mistak?.' I have that precious paper by me stiU. It was simple enough only a chart to tell me bow to find Contunce. Only that I little knew or guesssed all that it would come to mean to me C'IAPTES XII. As soon as Polly had gone my courage failed me, and I repented. That is the way with us women. There is hardlv a step we take of any moment in our lives that we don't repent the moment our foot is down. No woman ever accepted an oli'er of marriage without xeel- | ing that of ali the mistakes she had ever made that was j the biggest.

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-THE CROWNING OF ESTHER,

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