Sir Giles's irritating reserve, not even excused by a word of apology, reached the limits of his endurance. He respectfully protested.
"I regret to find, sir," he said, "that I have lost my place in my employer's estimation. The man to whom you confide the superintendence of your clerks and the transaction of your business has, I venture to think, some claim (under the present circumstances) to be trusted."
The banker was now offended on his side.
"I readily admit your claim," he answered, "when you are sitting at your desk in my office. But, even in these days of strikes, co-operations, and bank holidays, an employer has one privilege left--he has not ceased to be a Man, and he has not forfeited a man's right to keep his own secrets. I fail to see anything in my conduct which has given you just reason to complain."
Dennis, rebuked, made his bow in silence, and withdrew.
Did these acts of humility mean that he submitted? They meant exactly the contrary. He had made up his mind that Sir Giles Mountjoy's motives should, sooner or later, cease to be mysteries to Sir Giles Mountjoy's clerk.
CAREFULLY following his instructions, he consulted the third volume of Gibbon's great History, and found, between the seventy-eighth and seventy-ninth pages, something remarkable this time.
It was a sheet of delicately-made paper, pierced with a number of little holes, infinitely varied in size, and cut with the smoothest precision. Having secured this curious object, while the librarian's back was turned, Dennis Howmore reflected.
A page of paper, unintelligibly perforated for some purpose unknown, was in itself a suspicious thing. And what did suspicion suggest to the inquiring mind in South-Western Ireland, before the suppression of the Land League? Unquestionably---Police!
On the way back to his employer, the banker's clerk paid a visit to an old friend--a journalist by profession, and a man of varied learning and experience as well. Invited to inspect the remarkable morsel of paper, and to discover the object with which the perforations had been made, the authority consulted proved to be worthy of the trust reposed in him. Dennis left the newspaper office an enlightened man--with information at the disposal of Sir Giles, and with a sense of relief which expressed itself irreverently in these words: "Now I have got him!"
The bewildered banker looked backwards and forwards from the paper to the clerk, and from the clerk to the paper. "I don't understand it," he said. "Do you?"
Still preserving the appearance of humility, Dennis asked leave to venture on a guess. The perforated paper looked, as he thought, like a Puzzle. "If we wait for a day or two," he suggested, "the Key to it may possibly reach us."
On the next day, nothing happened. On the day after, a second letter made another audacious demand on the fast failing patience of Sir Giles Mountjoy.
Even the envelope proved to be a Puzzle on this occasion; the postmark was "Ardoon." In other words, the writer had used the postman as a messenger, while he or his accomplice was actually in the town, posting the letter within half-a-minute's walk of the bank! The contents presented an impenetrable mystery, the writing looked worthy of a madman. Sentences appeared in the wildest state of confusion, and words were so mutilated as to be unintelligible. This time the force of circumstances was more than Sir Giles could resist. He took the clerk into his confidence at last.
"Let us begin at the beginning," he said. "There is the letter you saw on my bed, when I first sent for you. I found it waiting on my table when I woke; and I don't know who put it there. Read it."
Dennis read as follows:
"Sir Giles Mountjoy,--I have a disclosure to make, in which one of the members of your family is seriously interested. Before I can venture to explain myself, I must be assured that I can trust to your good faith. As a test of this, I require you to fulfil the two conditions that follow--and to do it without the slightest loss of time. I dare not trust you yet with my address, or my signature. Any act of carelessness, on my part, might end fatally for the true friend who writes these lines. If you neglect this warning, you will regret it to the end of your life."
To the conditions on which the letter insisted there is no need to allude. They had been complied with when the discoveries were made at the back of the milestone, and between the pages of Gibson's history. Sir Giles had already arrived at the conclusion that a conspiracy was in progress to assassinate him, and perhaps to rob the bank. The wiser head clerk pointed to the perforated paper and the incomprehensible writing received that morning. "If we can find out what these mean," he said, "you may be better able, sir, to form a correct opinion."
"And who is to do that?" the banker asked.
"I can but try, sir," was the modest reply, "if you see no objection to my making the attempt."
Sir Giles approved of the proposed experiment, silently and satirically, by a bend of his head.
Too discreet a man to make a suspiciously ready use of the information which he had privately obtained, Dennis took care that his first attempt should not be successful. After modestly asking permission to try again, he ventured on the second occasion to arrive at a happy discovery. Lifting the perforated paper, he placed it delicately over the page which contained the unintelligible writing. Words and sentences now appeared (through the holes in the paper) in their right spelling and arrangement, and addressed Sir Giles in these terms:
"I beg to thank you, sir, for complying with my conditions. You have satisfied me of your good faith. At the same time, it is possible that you may hesitate to trust a man who is not yet able to admit you to his confidence. The perilous position in which I stand obliges me to ask for two or three days more of delay, before I can safely make an appointment with you. Pray be patient--and on no account apply for advice or protection to the police."
"Those last words," Sir Giles declared, "are conclusive! The sooner I am under the care of the law the better. Take my card to the police-office."
"May I say a word first, sir?"
"Do you mean that you don't agree with me?"
"I mean that."
"You were always an obstinate man Dennis; and it grows on you as you get older. Never mind! Let's have it out. Who do you say is the person pointed at in these rascally letters?"
The head clerk took up the first letter of the two and pointed to the opening sentence: "Sir Giles Mountjoy, I have a disclosure to make in which one of the members of your family is seriously interested." Dennis emphatically repeated the words: "one of the members of your family." His employer regarded him with a broad stare of astonishment.
"One of the members of my family?" Sir Giles repeated, on his side. "Why, man alive, what are you thinking of? I'm an old bachelor, and I haven't got a family."
"There is your brother, sir."
"My brother is in France--out of the way of the wretches who are threatening me.