When her father had gone Sybil addressed a note to Mr. Burthon which read:
“I will call upon you, at your club, for a private interview at twelve o’clock precisely. As all your future depends upon this meeting you will not fail to keep the appointment.”
She signed this message with the initials “S. C.” and Mr. Burthon, receiving it as he was about to start for Dominguez in his motor car, for the messenger had had a lively chase over town to catch him, read and reread the epistle carefully, was thoughtful a moment, and then ordered his man to drive him to the club.
“‘S. C.,’” he mused; “who on earth can it be? A woman’s handwriting, of course, crude and unformed. When women intrigue there is usually a reason for it. Better find out what’s in the wind, even at the loss of a little valuable time. That’s the safest plan.”
He reached his club at exactly twelve o’clock and heard a woman inquiring for him of the doorkeeper. 165He met her, bowed, and without a word led her to his own private sitting room, on the third floor. The woman—or was it a girl?—was, he observed, heavily veiled, but as soon as they were alone she removed the veil and looked at him steadfastly from a pair of dark, luminous eyes.
Mr. Burthon shifted uneasily in his chair. He had never seen the girl before, yet there was something singularly familiar in her features.
“Be good enough to tell me who you are,” he said in the gentle tone he invariably employed toward women. “I have granted this interview at your request, but I am very busy to-day and have little time to spare you.”
“I am your niece,” she replied, slowly and deliberately.
“Oh!” he exclaimed; then paused to observe her curiously. “So, you are my sister Marian’s daughter.”
“I knew she had a child, for often she wrote me about it; but her early death and my estrangement with your father prevented me from seeing you, until now. Your mother, my dear, was a—a noble woman.”
“You are not telling the truth,” said Sybil, quietly. “She was quite the contrary.”
He started and flushed. Then he replied, somewhat confused by the girl’s scornful regard:
166“At least, I loved her. She was my only sister.”
“And your accomplice.”
“Eh?” He stared, aghast. Then, quickly recovering himself, he remarked:
“You were rather too young, when she died, to judge your mother’s character correctly.”
“It is true; but I remember her with abhorrence.”
“Your father, on the other hand,” observed Mr. Burthon, his face hardening, “might well deserve your hatred and aversion. He is a scoundrel.”
“I have heard him say so,” replied Sybil, smiling, “but I do not believe it. In any event his iniquity could not equal that of the Burthons.”
“We are complimentary,” said her uncle, returning the smile with seeming amusement. “But I regret to say I have no time to further converse with you to-day. Will you call again, if you have anything especial to say to me?”
“No,” replied Sybil. “You must listen to me to-day.”
“To-morrow,” she interrupted, “you may be in prison. It is not easy to interview criminals in jail, is it?”
He looked at her now with more than curiosity; his gaze was searching, half fearful, inquiring.
167“You speak foolishly,” said he.
“Yet you understand me perfectly,” she returned.
“I confess that I do not,” he coldly persisted.
“Then I must explain,” said she. “When my mother died I was but eight years of age. But I was old for my years, and on her deathbed your sister placed in my hands a sealed envelope, directing me to guard it carefully and secretly, and not to open it until I was eighteen years of age—and not then unless I had in some way incurred the enmity and persecution of my uncle, George Burthon. She said it was her confession.”
He sat perfectly still, as if turned to stone, his eyes fixed full upon the girl’s face. With an effort he said, in a soft voice:
“Have I persecuted you?”
“But you cannot be eighteen yet!”
“No,” she admitted; “I am only seventeen.”
He breathed a sigh of relief.
“But I am half a Burthon,” Sybil continued, “and therefore have little respect for the wishes of others—especially when they interfere with my own desires. I kept the letter my mother gave me, but had no interest in opening it until the other day.”
168“And you read it then?”
“Two or three times—perhaps half a dozen—with great care.”
“Where is that letter now?”
“Where you cannot find it, clever as you are. I may say I have great respect for your cleverness, my dear uncle, since reading the letter. How paltry the story of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde seems after knowing you!”
He moved uneasily in his seat; but the man was on the defensive now, and eyed his accuser steadily.
“You seem much like your mother,” he suggested, reflectively.
“But you are wrong; I am more like my father.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“What matter, my child? You have a rare inheritance, on either side.”
They sat in silence a moment. Then he said:
“You have not yet confided to me your errand.”
“True. I have a request to make which I am sure you will comply with. You must stop annoying the Kanes.”
He smiled at her.
“You have marked them for your own prey—you and your precious father?”
“Yes. Your persecution must cease, and at once.”
169He seemed thoughtful.
“I have an end in view,” said he; “an important end.”
“I know; you want to force Orissa to marry you. But that is absurd. She is scarcely half your age, and—she despises you.”
He flushed at this.
“I won’t have it!” cried Sybil, sternly. “And, another thing: you must withdraw your aëroplane from the aviation meet to-morrow.”
“I used the word advisedly. I have the power to compel you to obey me, and I intend to use it.”
He sat watching her with his eyes slightly narrowed. Sybil was absolutely composed.
“Your mother, my dear,” he presently remarked, “was a—charming woman, but inclined to be visionary and imaginative. I have no idea what she wrote in that letter, but if it is anything that asperses my character, my integrity or fairness, it is not true, and can only be accounted for by the fact that the poor creature was driven insane by your father, and did not know what she was doing.”
“Oh, indeed!” the girl retorted. “Is it not true, then, that you were convicted in Baltimore, twenty years ago, of a dastardly murder and robbery, 170and sentenced by the court to life imprisonment? Is it not true that my mother at that time contrived your escape and secreted you so cleverly that the officers of the law could never find you?”
“It is not true,” he declared, speaking with apparent effort.
“The letter states that you were arrested and convicted under the name of Harcliffe; that when active search for you was finally abandoned you went with my mother to Chicago, and there began a new life under your right name of Burthon; that there your sister met and married my father, although you opposed the match bitterly, fearing she would betray your secret to her husband. But she never did.”
“It is not true,” he repeated. “The whole story is but a tissue of lies.”
“Then,” said Sybil, “I will telegraph to the police of Baltimore that the escaped prisoner, Harcliffe, whom they have been seeking these twenty years, is here in Los Angeles, and ask them to send at once someone to identify him. You need not be afraid, for the story is false. They will come, I will point you out to them, and they will declare you are not the man. Then I will believe you—not before.”
He sat a long time, his head upon his hand, looking at her reflectively. At the same time her dark eyes were fixed upon him with equal intentness.
171By and by she laughed aloud, but there was no mirth in the sound.
“Not that, dear uncle,” she said, as if he had spoken. “Am I not my mother’s daughter, and my clever uncle’s own niece? You cannot quiet me by murder, for in that case my revenge is fully provided for. I know you, and I did not venture upon this disagreeable errand unprepared. There is a plain clothes man at the street door, who, if I do not emerge from this club in—” she looked at her watch—“in fifteen minutes, will summon assistance, guard every exit, and then search your rooms for my body. The doorkeeper has my name and knows that I am here. Therefore, to injure me now would be to thrust your head into the hangman’s noose. Afterward you will be very considerate of my welfare, for from this day any harm that befalls me will lead to your prompt arrest and the disclosure of your secret.”
He threw out his hands with a despairing, helpless gesture.
“What a demon you are!” he cried.
“I believe I am,” said Sybil, slowly. “I hate myself for being obliged to act in this dramatic fashion—to threaten and bully like a coward—but being blessed with so unscrupulous an uncle I cannot accomplish my purpose in a more dignified way.”
172“State your demands, then,” said he.
“I have stated them.”
“To withdraw my aëroplane from the aviation meet would mean my ruin. I have sold my real estate and brokerage business and invested my money in aviation; I positively cannot withdraw now.”
“You must. To whine of ruin is absurd. I know that my father paid you a quarter of a million for your mine. You also obtained, without doubt, a good sum for your business. So far you cannot have invested more than a few thousand dollars in your attempt to steal Stephen Kane’s invention. My advice, sir, is to get away from here as soon as you can. Go to London or Paris, where there is more interest in aviation than here, and make a business of flying, if you will. But the Kane device is fully protected by foreign patents, and any infringement will be promptly prosecuted.”
“You are merciless,” he complained.
“You will find me so.”
“I am a member of the Aëro Club. I cannot, without arousing suspicion, withdraw my aëroplane from the meet.”
“If you do not I will telegraph to Baltimore.”
The threat seemed to crush him and still any further remonstrances.
173“Very well,” he returned; “if you have finished your errand please leave me. I must—consider—my—position.”
She rose, cast one scornful glance at him and walked out of the room, leaving him seated with bowed head, dejected and utterly defeated.