“Was Benton with him?” asked Mr. Peters.
“No. Benton went to New York about two months before.”
“H’m! And how soon after your father’s return did he come home?”
“I think it was about three months. He was in America five months altogether, I believe.”
The old man, still curled in his chair, smoked his cigar in silence. Apparently he was thinking deeply.
“So Benton has induced you to go down to Shapley in order that you may be near his adopted daughter, in the hope that you will marry her! In the meantime you are deeply in love with Lady Ranscomb’s daughter. I know her—a truly charming girl. I congratulate you,” he added, as though speaking to himself. “But the situation is indeed a very complicated one.”
“For me it is terrible. I am living under a cloud, and in constant fear of arrest. What can be done?”
“I fear nothing much can be done at present,” said the old man, shaking his head gravely. “I quite realize that you are victim of certain enemies who intend to get hold of your father’s fortune. It is for us to combat them—if we can.”
“Then you will continue to help me?” asked Hugh eagerly, looking into the mysterious face of the old fellow who wore the black glove.
“I promise you my aid,” he replied, putting out his gloved hand as pledge.
Then, as Hugh took it, he looked straight into those keen eyes, and asked:
“You have asked me many questions, sir, and I have replied to them all. May I ask one of you—my friend?”
“Certainly,” replied the older man.
“Then am I correct in assuming that you are actually the person of whom I have heard so much up and down Europe—the man of whom certain men and women speak with admiration, and with bated breath—the man known in certain circles as—as Il Passero?”
The countenance of the little man with the bristly white hair and the black glove relaxed into a smile, as, still holding Hugh’s hand in friendship, he replied:
“Yes. It is true. Some know me as ‘The Sparrow!’”
Hugh Henfrey was at last face to face with the most notorious criminal in Europe!
The black-gloved hand of the wizened, bristly-haired old man was the hand that controlled a great organization spread all over Europe—an organization which only knew Il Passero by repute, but had never seen him in the flesh.
Yet there he was, a discreet, rather petulant old gentleman, who lived at ease in an exclusive West End street, and was entirely unsuspected!
When “Mr. Peters” admitted his identity, Hugh drew a long breath. He was staggered. He was profuse in his thanks, but “The Sparrow” merely smiled, saying:
“It is true that I and certain of my friends make war upon Society—and more especially upon those who have profiteered upon those brave fellows who laid down their lives for us in the war. Whatever you have heard concerning me I hope you will forgive, Mr. Henfrey. At least I am the friend of those who are in distress, or who are wrongly judged—as you are to-day.”