It was a wild and stormy October night. The big moon-faced clock in the entrance-hall, in its slow and solemn fashion, as of a horologe that felt the burden of its years, had just announced the hour of eleven.
In his study alone, busy among his coins and curios, sat Sir Gilbert Clare of Withington Chase, Hertfordshire, and Chase Ridings, Yorkshire, a handsome, well-preserved man, in years somewhere between fifty and sixty. He had a tall, thin, upright figure, strongly marked features of an aquiline type, a snow-white moustache, and an expression at once proud and imperious.
It would, indeed, have been difficult to find a prouder man than Sir Gilbert. He was proud of the long line of his ancestors, of the brave men and beautiful women who, from their faded frames in the picture gallery, seemed to smile approval on the latest representative of their race. He was proud of the unsullied name which had come down to him from them, on which no action of his had ever cast the shadow of a stain. He was proud of the position, which he accepted as his by right, in his native county; he was proud of his three sturdy boys, at this hour wrapped in the sleep of innocent childhood. But his pride was strictly locked up in his own bosom. No syllable ever escaped him which told of its existence. To the world at large, and even to the members of his own household, he was a man of a quick and irascible temper, of cold manners and unsympathetic ways.
Proud as Sir Gilbert had just cause for being, there was one point, and one that could in no wise be ignored, at which his pride was touched severely.
His eldest son and heir was a disappointment and a failure. He had fought against the knowledge as long as it had been possible for him to do so, but some months had now gone by since the bitter truth had forced itself upon him in a way he could no longer pretend to ignore. He had caused private inquiries to be made, the result of which had satisfied him that, from being simply a good-natured harum-scarum spendthrift, the young man was gradually degenerating into a betting man and a turf gambler of a type especially obnoxious to the fastidious baronet. He told himself that he would almost as soon have had his son become a common pickpocket.
It never entered his mind to suspect that the evidence of Alec's delinquencies which had been laid before him, and to obtain which he had paid a heavy price, might, to some extent, have been manufactured; that the shadows of the picture might have been purposely darkened in order that he might be supplied with that which he presumably looked for. He had accepted it in full and without question.