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Chapter 1 - The Advertisement

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« on: December 29, 2022, 03:24:18 am »

One July evening in the first year of the present century, two gentlemen were seated on the terrace of the mansion, known as Royabay. A small rose-wood table was placed between the deep arm-chairs, and thereon appeared wine, coffee, and a box of cigars. The young host smoked a briar and sipped coffee, but his guest, very wisely, devoted himself to superlative port and a fragrant cigar. Major Tidman was a battered old soldier of fortune, who appreciated good quarters and made the most of civilised luxuries, when other people paid for them. He had done full justice to a dinner admirably cooked and served, while Ainsleigh, the master of the feast had merely trifled with his food. Now, the wary Tidman gave himself up to the perfect enjoyment of wine, cigar and the quiet evening, while his host restlessly changed his position a dozen times in ten minutes and gloomed misanthropically at the beautiful surroundings.

And these were very beautiful. From the moss-grown terrace shallow steps descended to smooth lawns and rainbow-hued flower-beds, and solemn pines girdled the open space, wherein the house was set. And under the radiance of a saffron coloured sky, stood the house, grey with centuries of wind and weather, bleaching sun and drenching rains. With its Tudor battlements, casements, diamond-paned and low oriel windows, half obliterated escutcheons; its drapery of green ivy, and heavy iron-clamped doors, it looked venerable, picturesque and peaceful. Tennyson sang in the Palace of Art of just such a quiet "English home the haunt of ancient peace."

On the left, the circle of trees receded to reveal the majestic ruins of an abbey, which had supplied the stones used to construct the mansion. Built by the weak but pious Henry III., the Norman-French name Boyabbaye (King's Abbey) still designated the house of the courtier who had obtained the monastery from another Henry, less pious, and more prone to destroy than to build. The country folk had corrupted the name to Royabay, and its significance was almost lost. But the owner of this fair domain knew its meaning, and loved the ancient place, which had been in the Ainsleigh family for over three hundred years. And he loved it the more, as there was a possibility of its passing away from him altogether.

Rupert was the last of the old line, poor in relations, and poorer still in money. Till the reign of George the first the Ainsleighs had been rich and famous: but from the time of the Hanovarian advent their fortunes declined. Charles Ainsleigh had thrown in his lot with the unlucky Stewarts, and paid for his loyalty so largely as to cripple those who succeeded him. Augustus, the Regency buck, wasted still further the diminished property he inherited, and a Victorian Ainsleigh proved to be just such another spendthrift. Followed this wastrel, Gilbert more thrifty, who strove, but vainly, to restore the waning fortunes of his race. His son Markham, endeavouring to acquire wealth for the same purpose, went to the far East. But he died in China,--murdered according to family tradition,--and on hearing the news, his widow sickened and died, leaving an only child to battle with the ancestral curse. For a curse there was, as dire as that which over-shadowed the House of Atreus, and the superstitious believed,--and with much reason,--that young Rupert as one of the Ainsleighs, had to bear the burden of the terrible anathema.

Major Tidman knew all these things very well, but being modern and sceptical and grossly material, he discredited such occult influence. Expressing his scornful surprise, that Rupert should trouble his head about such fantasies, he delivered his opinion in the loud free dictatorial speech, which was characteristic of the bluff soldier. "Bunkum," said the Major sipping his wine with relish, "because an old monk driven to his last fortifications, curses those who burnt him, you believe that his jabber has an effect on the Ainsleighs."

"They have been very unlucky since," said Rupert gloomily.

"Not a bit of it--not a bit. The curse of Abbot Raoul, didn't begin to work,--if work it did, which I for one don't believe,--until many a long day after this place came to your family. I was born in this neighbourhood sixty and more years ago," added the Major, "and I know the history of your family. The Ainsleighs were lucky enough till Anne's reign."

"Till the first George's reign," corrected the young man, "so far as money goes, that is. But not one of them died in his bed."

"Plenty have died in their beds since."

"But have lost all their money," retorted Rupert.

"It's better to lose money than life," said Tidman evasively.

"I'm not so certain of that Major. But you should talk with Mrs. Pettley about Abbot Raoul's curse. She believes in it."

"And you Ainsleigh?"

Rupert shrugged his shoulders. "We certainly seem to be most unlucky," said he, declining to commit himself to an opinion.

"Want of brains," snapped the Major, who was one of those men who have a reason for everything, "your people wasted their money, and refused to soil their hands with trade. Such pig-headedness brings about misfortune, without the aid of a silly old fool's curse."

"I don't think Abbot Raoul was a fool," protested the host mildly, "on the contrary, he is said to have been a learned and clever man. Aymas Ainsleigh, received the abbey from Henry VIII., and burnt Abbot Raoul in his own cloisters," he nodded towards the ruins, "you can see the blackened square of grass yonder, as a proof of the curse. Herbage will not grow there, and never will, till the curse be lifted."

"Huh," said the Major with supreme contempt, "any chance of that?"

Rupert smiled. "A chance that will never occur I fear. The curse, or prophecy, or whatever you like to call it----"

"I call it rubbish," interpolated the sceptic.

"Well doubting Thomas, it runs like this,--rude enough verse as you will see, but you can't expect a doomed man to be particular as to literary style," and Rupert recited slowly:--

   "My curse from the tyrants will never depart,
    For a sword in the hands of the angel flashes:
    Till Ainsleigh, poor, weds the poor maid of his heart,
    And gold be brought forth from the holy ashes."

"I spare you the ancient pronunciation Major." Tidman filled another glass with wine, and laughed scornfully. "I expect the old monk made up the second line to rhyme with ashes," he said expanding his broad chest. "I've heard that rubbishy poetry before. But haven't the Ainsleighs always married poor girls?"

"Some did, but then they had money. It must be a poor Ainsleigh to wed a poor girl to fulfil the third line. My father and grandfather were both poor, but they married rich brides."

"And what became of the cash?"

"It went--I don't know how--but it went."

"Gold turns to dry leaves in the hands of fools," said Tidman sagely, "there's some sense in the old fairy tales. But the fourth line? how can you get gold from ashes?"

Young Ainsleigh rose and began to pace the terrace. "I'm sure I don't know," he said, "that's the curse. If I marry Miss Rayner, I certainly fulfil the third line. She is poor and I am a pauper. Perhaps when the enigma of the third line is solved by such a marriage the fourth line will be made clear."

"I shouldn't hang on to that poetry if I were you, Ainsleigh. Let some one else solve the third line, and the fourth also if he likes. My advice to you is to marry a dollar heiress."

Rupert looked savage. "I love Miss Rayner, and I marry her, or no one."

Tidman selected another cigar carefully. "I think you are wrong," said he decisively, "you have only a small income it's true, but you have this grand old place, a fine old name, and you ain't bad-looking. I guess Miss Jonathan of New York would just jump at you."

"I love Olivia Rayner," repeated Ainsleigh doggedly.

"But the obstacles my dear Don Quixote," argued the Major lighting the cigar, "you are poor and she, at the most, will inherit only a few hundreds a year from that aunt of hers. And that mass of granite Miss Wharf, don't like you, nor does her companion, the Pewsey cat."

"Why do you call her a cat--the harmless creature."

"Because she is a cat," said Tidman sturdily, "she'd scratch if she got a chance for all her velvet paws. But she hates you as old Miss Wharf does. Then there's Lady Jabe--"

"Oh heavens," said Rupert and made a wry face.

"You may well say that. She's a bullying Amazon of uncertain age. But she'll do her best to catch Olivia for her nephew Chris Walker."

"Oh he's a nice enough fellow," said Rupert still pacing the terrace. "I've got nothing to say against him, except that he'd better keep out of my way. And after all Olivia would never marry a clerk in a tea merchant's firm."

"But he's nephew to Lady Jabe."

"What of that. She's only the widow of a knight and hasn't a penny to leave him. Why should she want him to marry Olivia?"

"Because Miss Wharf will leave Olivia five hundred a year. Lady Jabe will then live on the young couple. And see here Ainsleigh, if you marry Olivia with that income, you won't be taking to wife the poor girl mentioned in the curse."

"Oh hang the curse," said Rupert crossly.

"By all means," said Tidman serenely, "you didn't bring me here to talk of that did you?"

"No. I want to ask your advice?"

"I've given it--unasked. Marry a dollar-heiress, and let old Jabe make Olivia her niece-in-law. By doing so you will be released from your pecuniary difficulties, and will also escape the hatred of Miss Wharf and that Pewsey cat, who both hate you."

"I wonder why they do?"

"Hum," said Tidman discreetly. He knew pretty well why Miss Wharf hated his host, but he was too wise to speak, "something to do with a love affair."

"What's that got to do with me?"

"Ask me another," replied Major Tidman vulgarly, for he was not going to tell a fiery young man like Rupert, that Markham Ainsleigh, Rupert's father, was mixed up in the romance, "and I wish you would sit down," he went on irritably "you're walking like a cat on hot bricks. What's the matter with you?"

"What's the matter," echoed Ainsleigh returning to the arm-chair.

"I asked you here to tell you."

"Wait till I have another glass. Now fire ahead." But Rupert did not accept the invitation immediately. He looked at the lovely scene spread out before him, and up to the sky which was now of a pale primrose colour. There was a poetic vein in young Ainsleigh, but troubles from his earliest childhood had stultified it considerably. Ever since he left college had he battled to keep the old place, but now, it seemed as if all his trouble had been in vain. He explained his circumstances to the Major, and that astute warrior listened to a long tale of mortgages threatened to be foreclosed, of the sale of old and valuable furniture, and of the disposal of family jewels. "But this last mortgage will finish me," said Rupert in conclusion. "I can't raise the money to pay it off. Miss Wharf will foreclose, and then all the creditors will come down on me. The deluge will come in spite of all I can do."

Major Tidman stared. "Do you mean to say that Miss Wharf"--

"She holds the mortgage."

"And she hates you," said Tidman, his eyes bulging, "huh! This is a nice kettle of fish."

Rupert threw himself back in the deep chair with an angry look. He was a tall finely built young man of twenty-five, of Saxon fairness, with clear blue eyes and a skin tanned by an out-door life. In spite of his poverty and perhaps because of it, he was accurately dressed by a crack London tailor, and looked singularly handsome in his well-fitting evening suit. Pulling his well-trimmed fair moustache, he eyed the tips of his neat, patent leather shoes gloomily, and waited to hear what the Major had to say.

That warrior ruminated, and puffed himself out like the frog in the fable. Tidman was thickset and stout, bald-headed and plethoric. He had a long grey moustache which he tugged at viciously, and on the whole looked a comfortable old gentleman, peaceful enough when let alone. But his face was that of a fighter and his grey eyes were hot and angry. All over the world had the Major fought, and his rank had been gained in South America. With enough to live on, he had returned to the cot where he was born, and was passing his declining days very, pleasantly. Having known Rupert for many years and Rupert's father before him, he usually gave his advice when it was asked for, and knew more about the young man's affairs than anyone else did. But the extent of the ruin, as revealed by the late explanation, amazed him. "What's to be done?" he asked.

"That's what I wish you to suggest," said Rupert grimly, "things are coming to a climax, and perhaps when the last Ainsleigh is driven from home, Abbot Raoul will rest quiet in his grave. His ghost walks you know. Ask Mrs. Pettley. She's seen it, or him."

"Stuff-stuff-stuff," grumbled the Major staring, "let the ghost and the curse and all that rubbish alone. What's to be done?"

"Well," said the young man meditatively, "either I must sell up, and clear out to seek my fortune, leaving Olivia to marry young Walker, or--"

"Or what?" asked Tidman seeing Rupert hesitating.

For answer Ainsleigh took a pocket-book from the lower ledge of the table and produced therefrom a slip of printed paper.

"I cut that out of 'The Daily Telegraph,'" said he handing it to the Major, "what do you make of it?"

Tidman mounted a gold pince-nez and read aloud, as follows:--

"The jade fan of Mandarin Lo-Keong, with the four and half beads and the yellow cord. Wealth and long life to the holder, who gives it to Hwei, but death and the doom of the god Kwang-ho to that one who refuses. Address Kan-su at the Joss-house of the Five Thousand Blessings, 43 Perry Street, Whitechapel."

"A mixture of the Far East and the Near West, isn't it?" asked Rupert, when the Major laid down the slip and stared.

"Lo-Keong," said Tidman searching his memory, "wasn't that the man your father knew?"

"The same. That is why I cut out the slip, and why I asked you to see me. You remember my father's expedition to China?"

"Of course. He went there twenty years ago when you were five years of age. I was home at the time--it was just before I went to fight in that Janjalla Republic war in South America. I wanted your father to come with me and see if he couldn't make money: but he was bent on China."

"Well," said Rupert, "I understood he knew of a gold-mine there."

"Yes, on the Hwei River," Major Tidman snatched the slip of print and read the lines again, "and here's the name, Hwei--that's strange."

"But what's stranger still," said Rupert, bending forward "is, that I looked up some papers of my father and learn that the Hwei River is in the Kan-su province."

"Address Kan-su," murmured Tidman staring harder than ever. "Yes. It seems as though this had something to do with your father."

"It must have something to do with him," insisted Rupert, "my father found that gold-mine near the Hwei River in the Kan-su province, and Lo-Keong was the Boxer leader who protected my father from the enmity of the Chinese. I believe he sent my father's papers to England--at least so Dr. Forge says."

"Forge," cried Tidman rising, "quite so. He was with your father. Why not see him, and ask questions."

"I'll do so. Perhaps he may tell me something about this fan."

"What if he does?"

"I might find it."

"And if you do?" asked the Major, his eyes protruding.

Rupert sprang to his feet and took up the slip. "Wealth and long life to the holder who gives it to Hwei," he read: then replaced the slip in his pocket-book, "why shouldn't I find that fan and get enough money to pay off Miss Wharf and others and keep Royabay."

"But it's such a mad idea?"

"I don't see it. If it hadn't to do with my father it would be," said Ainsleigh lighting his pipe, "but my father knew Lo-Keong, and by the names Hwei and Kan-su, it seems as though the locality of the gold-mine had something to do with the matter. I'll see old Forge and try to find this fan."

"Oh," said Tidman, a light breaking on him, "you think Lo-Keong may have given the fan to your father?"

"Yes, and Forge may know what luggage and papers were sent home, at the time my father died--"

"Was murdered you mean."

"We can't be sure of that," said Rupert his face flushing, "but I'll find that out, and get hold of the fan also. It's my chance to make money, and I believe Providence has opened this way to me."

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