Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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A WILD night on a bleak Northumbrian Moor. The hard, frozen road is here and there covered with the snow that has been falling thick and fast for the past hour. But in other places it is kept clear by the wind, which sweeps over it in swirling gusts, rushing on across the moor, as though in frantic haste to reach the mountains that lie beyond. There, upon the steep hillsides, and in the rocky ravines, are woods in which—as it seems to know—it can have fine sport; howling and whistling between trunks, tossing and beating the leafless branches to and fro, and hurling against the defenceless trees the accumulated snow that it is driving before it across the fells.
At one place the roadway widens out as it passes a little hamlet, where, amongst a few small cottages, stands a roadside inn. From its windows and doorway a cheerful radiance falls upon the road, lighting it up on one side, and meeting, near the centre, a ruddy glow that proceeds from a blacksmith's forge upon the other. This glow, and the regular rhythm of beating hammers, tell that the busy smith has not yet finished the labors of the day; but no children are to be seen to-night around his door, nor is there sign of customer or wayfarer. The road, on either side of the lighted space, fades into shadow so suddenly that even the patches of white snow, that lie but a few yards away, can scarcely be discerned in the darkness.
As to the inn, it is call the "Halfway Inn;" but where it is half-way to or from no one knows. This is, indeed, one of the standing jests of the country side, and forms a perennial source of harmless amusement to the travellers who make it their house of call. It certainly is not half-way between the nearest town—Merton-on-the-Moor—and the railway station, for the latter is but a quarter of a mile distant, while the former lies nearly five miles away. Nor are there any other places between which it could be supposed to stand half-way—at least, within a reasonable distance; though some imaginative persons have been known who calculated that in the old posting days it was just half-way from London to some town or other in Scotland. But this is only one amongst dozens of more or less far-fetched explanations that are constantly being hazarded by the clever thinkers of the district; and for the sake of these good folks it may be charitably hoped that the mystery, such as it is, will never be cleared up, for they would then lose their never-failing and very innocent incentive to mild jokes whenever they visited the hostelry. Indeed, such a thing would probably have disastrous effects upon the fortunes of the establishment—and these are none too flourishing as it is—since many might then pass it by who are now tempted to enter it, on their way to or from the station, on purpose to fire off the very latest observation upon the subject that has occurred to them.
At the railway station—where a board with the legend "Merton-on-the Moor" deludes many a stranger who alights there into the mistaken idea that the town is not far away—there is only the station-master's cottage, and a few coal and goods sheds. The station-master's assistant—the one who acts as porter when he is not following his trade of boot and shoe mender, or working in his garden—lives at one of the cottages near the inn. A few other cottages and a farm house make up, with the smithy, the whole of the hamlet, and no other dwellings, save the station-master's habitation, are to be met with for miles in any direction.
Such is the scene—or to turn from the present tense to the past—such was the scene on the night on which this story begins; a bitter night in December, when there had suddenly come on what was the first really severe snowstorm of the season. It was but seven o'clock, and the smith, as has been stated, was still at the forge, though probably he had little expectation of seeing any fresh customers that evening.
Yet, just as the sound of the hammers and of the blowing and roaring of the fire had ceased, and he and his apprentice were preparing to close the place for the night, there came along the sound of a fast-trotting horse. It was only audible at intervals; being muffled here and there where the snow lay; but still, every now and again—and each time more distinctly—the hoof- beats rang out, and plainly there could be heard, amongst them, the "click-clack" of a loose shoe.
Bunce, the smith, pricked up his ears.
"Something yet for us to do to-night, I think, lad," he said to his apprentice. "Better blow up t' fire." And, as the other obeyed Bunce looked out in the direction from which the sounds had come; and now he could see two lamps on a dog-cart, throwing out beams of light on all sides, and growing every moment brighter, as the vehicle rapidly approached.
"Why," said Bunce, "it be Dr. Delmore. I wish it wer' a'most any other body, for that mare of his is a ticklish beast at the forge—'specially when she's in a tearin' hurry to get whoam; an' she's sure t' be that to-night."
The dog-cart drew up at the blacksmith's door, and the groom, clad in a great coat, which was white with snow, got down and went to hold the mare's head.
The one who had been driving, and whose waterproof cape was also thickly covered with white flakes, called out in a cheery tone:
"Bunce, can you fasten a shoe for me?"
"Aye, aye, doctor; I'll see to it."
"Good," said the other, getting down. "I'll go into the house while you do it."
In the passage leading from the door of the inn to the bar, the doctor met the landlady, who had heard the dog-cart drive up, and was coming out to see who the travellers were.
"Good evening, Mrs. Thompson—if one may use that expression on a night like this."
"Why, it be Dr. Delmore! Good evening, sir. Well, this be queer, for we was only jes' now a-talkin' about you!"
"Indeed! How was that?"
"Why, sir, a strange gentleman has bin 'ere a-askin' for you. Not half an hour agone. But come in, sir, come in. There be a good fire inside. Stephen, here be Dr. Delmore. Move out o' that chair."
"No, no," said the new-comer, as he entered the bar-parlor, where a great fire was blazing, "keep your seat, Mr. Thompson. I shall sit over here. I sha'n't come near the fire."
Stephen Thompson, the individual sitting in an arm chair before the fire, with a long clay pipe in his hand, rose up and offered his chair to the visitor; but, finding he would not take it, sat down again. He was a thin, elderly man, with grizzled hair and whiskers, sallow complexion, and a stolid, taciturn manner. His wife, on the other hand, was usually spoken of as "buxom"—whatever that may actually mean—she was a plump, rosy-faced. bustling little woman, who always had plenty to say.
"I'll have some of your mulled elderberry wine, Mrs. Thompson; and put half a teaspoonful of powdered ginger in it. Don't spare the ginger; That's the thing to warm you on a night like this."
The landlady went out of the bar, and the doctor, throwing open his Inverness cape, seated himself at the table on the opposite side from the fireplace. He pulled out a cigar-case, and in leisurely fashion, proceeded to light a cigar.
Dr. Delmore was a man of not more than thirty-two or thirty- three. His hair and eyes were dark, his face clean-shaven, with a mouth that denoted firmness, and a forehead indicative of a high intellect. The features were clear-cut and handsome, and his expression prepossessing. But the pale complexion, and grave, contemplative eyes gave the impression that he was of a quiet, studious turn of mind; the characteristics one usually looks for in the laboratory student rather than in the conventional country doctor. And such was indeed the fact. He had enough to live on, and was able, therefore, to pursue his favorite ideas and theories in the way of chemical research, without troubling himself to work up a practice.
"Well," he presently said, addressing the landlord, who had resumed his occupation of smoking and staring into the fire, "and how are things going with you? Has the place got any nearer the 'half-way' to anywhere in particular yet?"
Everybody who visited the inn made some remark of this kind. No one was ever known to omit it. It seemed to be regarded as a point of honor; so even Dr. Delmore fell in with the general custom.
Stephen Thompson gave a grunt.
"Aye," he said; "it be gettin' halfway to bankruptcy—that's where it be gettin' to, I'm afeared."
"Well, well, so long as it doesn't go further—stops half-way, you know, that won't be so bad. But I'm thinking we shall all feel as if we'd been through the Bankruptcy Court to- morrow."
"How be that, doctor?"
"Why, I think, when we get up in the morning, we shall find the whole country round has started with a clean sheet!"
Old Thompson chuckled at the pleasantry—he always chuckled at his customers' jokes, as in duty bound, however mild or weak they might be. Perhaps he understood the mild ones better, and therefore appreciated them more.
Mrs. Thompson came in, busying herself amongst the bottles in the bar.
"I didn't know you was out this way to-day, sir. Been over to Felton Towers to see Sir Ralph Fergusson, I suppose, sir?" she said.
"Yes, Mrs. Thompson; you've guessed it. Been to see my patient there; my only patient, I may almost say."
"And how be he goin' on, sir?"
"Oh, very well; so well that I shall not need to go again unless he sends for me. And so there is an end, for the present, of my only patient," the doctor replied, laughingly.
"Ah, well, doctor, you know that be your own fault; You could have plenty of patients if you liked. But you prefers to shut yourself up in that place of yourn, and work at scientific things like."
"It be a fine thing to be a larned scientific man," put in old Thompson; with conviction. "Better'n bein' a poor country doctor after all."
"Yes," said Mrs. Thompson, "if you don't go and blow yourself up over it—as your grandfather did, sir."
"Well, he wasn't much hurt, Mrs. Thompson. And, after all, a little blowing up isn't such a great matter. You can get used to it. I know some men who are 'blown up' at least two or three times a week. Eh, Mr. Thompson?"
Old Thompson turned his glance towards the doctor, and gave a sly wink.
Mrs. Thompson saw it, as well as the twinkle in the doctor's eyes, and bridled up at once. She knew the remark was a reference to the 'curtain lectures' to which, now and again, she was known to treat her husband.
"Well," she answered with asperity, "if people gets scolded a bit at times, there's some as deserves it. Wait till you're married yourself, sir—which won't be long, from all I hear."
It was a matter of common knowledge in the district that Dr. Delmore was supposed to be engaged to be married to the beautiful Helen Milborne, the heiress of Fairdale Hall; and the doctor knew at once, therefore what she alluded to. But his reply was of the non-committal order.
"I hope to be very good, and not deserve it, Mrs. Thompson," he said, meekly.
"We shall see," returned Mrs. Thompson darkly. "But, anyway, my man there, he do deserve it. The way he—"
The doctor saw a scene impending, so to draw the talk off from domestic rocks and shoals into a quieter channel, he interrupted the hostess.
"By the way, what about this stranger? You have not told me who he was."
Mrs. Thompson went off at once to this fresh topic.
"Yes, beggin' your pardon, sir, of course, I forgot. Well, he was a very old gentleman, sir."
"Very old?" said, the doctor.
"Oh, yes, as old as as—" Mrs. Thompson hesitated for a simile.
"As the Wandering Jew?" put in the host.
"Ah, yes, sir! It's true what Stephen said. The old gentleman looked just like pictures of him I used to see in an old book at home. And they do say, sir, as a visit—from that party—brings terrible bad luck with it."
"This is very interesting," returned Delmore, with a smile. "And what did he say, this wonderful stranger?"
"He asked about your grandfather, Dr. Malcolm Delmore; then, when we said he was dead, he inquired about your father; and at last, when he found he was dead, too, he said he must see you. But he didn't seem to know you; had never so much as heard your name, sir."
"Has he gone into Merton?"
"Yes; he be gone on foot. Our fly was wanted by the stationmaster for somebody what telegraphed to him for it. So this strange gentleman, he wouldn't wait till it came back, but said he must go on, as he wanted to see you at once. It was very pressing, he said. But, indeed, he looked scarce able to do the walk. He seemed uncommon weak and feeble-like. He nearly fainted when he came in, and we had to give him some brandy."
"He seemed to have plenty of money, though," Thompson remarked, "and he's left some behind him."
"Yes, sir; he took out a purse, and there was a lot of gold pieces in it; an' one big one fell out, and it rolled down into yon crack in the boards. He said it was a furrin coin, an' was worth three or four pounds in English money. My man was goin' to get the board up for to find it, but he said it wouldn't wait, and he'd call fur it when he came back this way. So my man's goin' to get the board up in th' morning, to look for it."
"H'm! He would have done better to have stayed here, as it happened, wouldn't he?" the doctor observed.
"Yes, sir. But then we didn't know as you was over this way, you see."
"No; and I should not have been here now but for a loose shoe, else I should have returned by the other road. I went that way this morning. My man has been on the drink again, and neglected to take the mare to have the shoe fastened, though he acknowledges now that he knew that it was getting a bit loose. I am going to discharge him; I really mean it this time. This is the fourth time he has broken out during the last month. I forgave him before; but I can't put up with it any longer. He doesn't look after the mare properly when he gets like that, and he'll ruin her if I don't sack him.. She might have been lamed to-night if there had been no blacksmith on the road."
"Ah! And she be a beauty, too! Everybody says that!"
Just then Bunce came in to say the mare was ready to start.
"I had to put a new shoe on, doctor," he said. "T' old one wur broke. She'd a bin lame if ye'd taken her much furder."
Dr. Delmore uttered an exclamation of anger.
"That's just what I was saying, Bunce," he answered. "I'll give him the sack over this!"
He paid the smith, adding a shilling besides, to drink his health with, settled with the landlady, and went out with a cheery good-night.
Bunce followed him to the door, and went to hold the mare's head while the doctor and his man seated themselves, and arranged the rugs. He had much to do to hold on to her, for she was fretting at the delay. When the doctor called out, "All right," and he let her go; the animal seemed to gather herself for a leap, as might a hare, then she shot away through the falling snow with a spring that jerked the riders in the dog-cart back in their seats, and which put a heavy strain upon every strap and buckle of the harness.
"Humph!" muttered Bunce, as he stood gazing after the disappearing vehicle. "Lucky t' doctor's got good harness. I'd rayther 'im have to drive that beast to-night than me."
And he went into the tavern to have a glass of "something 'ot."
Meanwhile, the mare tore along the road like a locomotive. After a few jerks and jumps she settled down to a long trot, her head in the air, and her ears pricked well forward, but though, with her long stride, she got over the ground at the rate of some fifteen miles an hour, yet, every now and then, it seemed as though a thought crossed her mind that urged her to try to go one better; whereupon she would put on a spurt that jolted the two behind her, and caused their heads to nod involuntarily.
James Pratt, the doctor's man, was in a sleepy condition, and these occasional jerks just sufficed to keep him from going off altogether into the land of dreams. He had been talking matters horsey with the smith, who was accustomed to get racing tips from one of the guards of the trains that stopped at the station. Bunce had told him the names of two likely winners in a race that was coming off the following week.
Of these horses one was at 16 to 1, and the other at 20 to 1; and Jim was repeating these numbers to himself in a sleepy way, trying to decide which he would back, or whether he would back the two.
Dr. Delmore, sitting firm, with a rein in each hand, found it about as much as he could do to hold the pulling mare, and prevent her from bolting. His arms ached, and his hands were stiff with the cold and the strain upon them. All the while, he kept a sharp look-out on the road ahead, and, as the snow was coming down less thickly, he was now able to get a somewhat better view of the track in front of them than before the visit to the smithy.
"Tell you what it is, Pratt," the doctor presently said, "you've been giving the mare too much corn. You know she's had little work lately; yet I expect you've fed her just the same as if she went over to Felton Towers and back every day. Now, how many feeds a day have you been giving her?"
Jim, whose drowsy thoughts were running on the odds he could get, on hearing the words, "How many?" answered:
"Sixteen! Pratt, you rascal, wake up! I asked you how many—"
"Beg pardon, sir," said the man, rousing himself with a sudden effort. "I should have said twenty."
"You're drunk now" Dr. Delmore exclaimed in disgust. "I'll discharge you for this! I'll have no more—hullo! What's that?"
The mare had suddenly shied and swerved; then she stood still, and next began to back. In the road a dark mass that looked like a bundle was visible in the light of the lamps. But for the animal's quick sight they would have driven over it—probably have been upset.
"Get down and hold her head," said the doctor; and the man bundled out, his master following and going to the object lying in the road.
He soon discovered that the bundle was an old man who had fallen down exhausted; and the snow had already begun to whiten his dark clothes.
Dr. Delmore drew from his pocket a flask, and held it to the stranger's lips. It had a good effect, for the man sat up, and looked vacantly about him. Presently he moaned feebly:
"Dr. Delmore! Dr. Delmore! I want Dr. Delmore."
"I am Dr. Delmore," was the reply. "What do you want with me?"
The stranger stared, then struggled to his feet.
"Are you the boy, then—the son—grandson, I mean, of my old friend?"
"Yes, yes. What do you want with me?"
The light from one of the lamps fell upon the two as they stood thus in the road; the impatient mare fretting and pawing the ground, while the man held her head. Dr. Delmore thought, as his keen glance fell upon the stranger's face and figure, that old Thompson's idea of him as "like the Wandering Jew" was no inapt description.
The old man gripped the doctor's arm and gazed eagerly into his face, scanning his features with a fixed and searching look.
"Boy!" he said, with trembling eagerness, "have you the old cabinet filled with strange chemicals and compounds that your grandfather used to have?"
"Yes, it is in my laboratory."
"Ah! And you have still a sealed jar marked 'Amphil Saturn'?"
The strained anxiety of the speaker, as he asked this question, was almost painful.
"Yes, it is still there; but I know nothing about the use or value of the contents."
The old man's grasp relaxed, and his face expressed unspeakable relief as he exclaimed:
"Heaven be thanked! Now I am saved!"
Then he turned, and again seized Delmore's arm in a vice-like grip.
"Listen, boy! I will show you how to make use of that drug. I have that which will make it, when compounded, worth more than diamonds. Do you seek riches? I can make you rich!"
He paused, and gazed at the doctor in anxious inquiry, but the latter shook his head.
"Ah, ha! Then you have ambition? I can make you famous!"
Delmore looked for a moment into the old man's face; then said, with a shrug of impatience:
"It is cold standing here. Let me help you into my trap. Come to my house, and we can talk this matter over."
He went to the dog-cart and made the necessary alterations in the seat, then helped the stranger up and took his own place. The groom let go of the mare's head, and climbed hastily into the seat behind. Just as he mounted, the animal made one of her plunges, and then started off for home through the swirling snow, her hoofbeats ringing out on the hard, windswept portions of the road as though she had been made of iron and steel instead of ordinary flesh and blood.
"WHAT is the matter this morning, mamma, dear?" asked pretty Helen Milborne, of her mother. "You seem strangely out of sorts."
" 'Strangely' is exactly the word, my dear," Mrs. Milborne answered, with a sigh. "I do not feel in any way unwell, only in low spirits. I feel as though some great trouble were impending. Heaven grant it may be a mistaken feeling—this time."
Helen looked up quickly at her mother from the letter she was reading, and her glance denoted both surprise and some little alarm. She was silent for awhile, during which she returned to her letter; then she said, with a rosy flush:
"As long as you are quite sure you are not unwell, mamma, dear, I don't so much mind. I know it is true that your 'presentiments' have, more than once, proved only too truly prophetic; but somehow—I think you must surely be wrong this time, for I have good news here."
Very charming she looked as she said this, the rosy color coming and going on her face, even as an arch little smile played about her mouth, dimpling the cheeks and puckering the dainty little mouth in a manner that was altogether captivating. The mother's glance noted all this, and dwelt lovingly on her daughter, while listening to her light talk; but she made no reply; only allowed a half-sigh to escape her.
"This note is from Arthur," Helen went on, "and he says he has some very wonderful news to tell me. He does not explain what it is, but I am sure, from the way he writes, that it is something good. And, anyway, he is coming over presently—so we shall not have long to wait to know all about it."
And then the flush upon her cheek grew deeper still; and, to hide it, she rose and went over to the fireplace, where a large cheerful fire was blazing merrily away, two or three hissing logs adding their bright gleams to the little tongues of flame that played in and out among the coals.
The scene was the morning-room at Fairdale Hall; the day of the week, Wednesday; and the "Arthur" referred to by Helen Milborne was Dr. Delmore himself. The snow lay thick upon the ground. Fairdale Park and the surrounding fields and open country, stretching for many miles on every side, were enveloped in a white covering. There was a hard frost, but the sun shone brightly; and, in places, a few people—mostly boys—were out, sliding or skating on ponds, or on the shallow ice that had formed in some low-lying, inundated meadows. Much of all this could be seen from the windows of the room in which Helen and her mother were sitting; and the former turned from the fire and walked to the window.
"It looks so bright and nice outside," she presently observed, "that I think I will go for a walk into the town. Perhaps"—here there came another blush—"I may meet Arthur. But more likely I shall be back before he comes. In any case, I shall not be long away."
She gave her mother a kiss, and ran off to put on her walking dress and hat.
Helen Milborne was about twenty-two; she was an heiress in her own right, and was somewhat peculiarly situated. Her father was dead, and her only living relatives were her mother and her elder brother, Mr. John Esmond Milborne, commonly called the "Squire" amongst the country people, but, by those familiar with him, Jack Milborne. Between this brother and herself there was a large gap as regards age; for he was over forty. There had been other children, but they had all died. Mr. Milborne showed no signs of ever taking unto himself a wife, and if he did not, and should die first, then Helen would become the mistress of Fairdale Hall, and of all the estates and property appertaining thereto—for they were not entailed—in addition to her own separate fortune. But thoughts of all this did not trouble the little family of three who lived at the stately old hall. They were all fond of one another—the brother, the sister, and their mother, the widowed Mrs. Milborne—and they were liked and respected all round the country, not only by their neighbors, but by their servants and dependents.
As regards the neighbors, however, there was one notable and unfortunate exception. The adjoining property on one side, called Merton Park, belonged to a Mr. William Dering, who, for some reason or other, seemed to have conceived a deep dislike to everyone at Fairdale Hall. It had been hinted, among the village gossips, that Mr. Dering had proposed to Miss Milborne and had been scornfully refused, hence the ill-feeling he bore them. But, be this as it may, it is certain that between him and Mr. Jack Milborne there were constant disputes and bickerings, which, at the present time had settled down chiefly into a contention about a belt of zone of ground and a small covert, that lay on the borders of the two estates, and as to the proprietorship of which each asserted exclusive rights. This cause of quarrel naturally became most acute during the shooting season, when one or the other followed game on to the disputed territory.
Presently Helen appeared, daintily dressed in a neat-looking hat and long sealskin jacket, and started off across the park towards the little town or village of Merton-on-the-Moor. The chill wind brought the rich, glowing color into her cheeks, and blew stray wisps of her fair hair about as she walked; and, with her sparkling clear eyes and her pretty face she made a fascinating figure as she stepped lightly along the path that had been trodden down by other pedestrians. On her way she met her brother, who laughingly demanded if she were on her way to meet Dr. Delmore. The Squire, who had his gun and a couple of dogs with him, had already been out for an hour or two, and was now returning laden with a brace of birds. He was a tall, good- looking and good-humored fellow, inclined to stoutness, and with hair turning grey. Otherwise he was dark; a strong contrast to his fair young sister.
"I see you've got something this morning," Helen observed, by way of turning the conversation, and escaping her brother's banter.
The Squire's face clouded. "I should have got more," he grumbled, "if that beggar Dering hadn't been there yesterday, and driven nearly everything out of the copse on his own side and mine too. It's like his cheek, you know; really, I shall have to take some serious steps. I can't put up with his impudent trespassing much longer. That ground is ours, and he knows it well; and I mean to put a stop to it."
Helen sighed; the bright smile vanished, and she looked grave.
"I do so wish you could get that matter settled," she said. "Can't you offer to divide or something? Mother is greatly bothered about it, and fears that trouble will come out of it one day."
"I have offered to divide," Jack answered testily, "and the cad won't agree. What more can I do? I've even put landmarks here and there, right across, and promised I won't go on his side of them if he will not come on mine. But he won't make any promises; he'll agree to nothing that's reasonable. So what am I to do? The 'give-and-take' business is all very well, but it shouldn't be all 'give' on my side, and 'take' on his, you know. But, there—don't let us bother about it just now. If you see Delmore remind him that I am expecting him over to lunch. It's some time since I saw him, you know." For the Squire had been away visiting, though not with his mother and sister.
And with that he called to his dogs and went on; while Helen continued her way across the park.
Now, when she reached the gates and turned into the road, whom should she observe coming towards her but Dr. Delmore. It was very surprising, of course; at least, so she declared it to be; but her air of astonishment did not prevent her from extending a very warm greeting to him.
"This is very unexpected," she said demurely. "I was on my way to make a call in the town, and thought I should be back by the time you arrived. We did not expect you before lunch."
"Well," Delmore returned, "the fact is I am like the Irishman in the story who had 'just stepped over to say he couldn't come.' I have some business in hand which I cannot well put off, so will you make your excuses to your mother and brother, and explain?"
The girl looked anything but pleased at this information. She tossed her head and wanted to know what the urgent business could be. But he evaded the question and laughed it off. Then she asked him what the good news was that he had promised to tell her. At this he suddenly became grave.
"Ah! Well, as to that, I scarcely know how to tell you just now," he declared. "It would take rather long. Shall I leave it till to-morrow, instead? Won't that do?"
No; that wouldn't do at all. She and her mother were going away on a short visit to-morrow, and might be away for a day or two, as well. And having promised to tell her, he had roused her curiosity, and she was not inclined to have it all put off. He could tell her as they strolled together towards the town.
"Very well, then," he began, in a tone, of resignation. "You know, of course, what I am always working at in my laboratory; always experimenting about, thinking of, trying for, scheming, calculating, studying, working for?"
A shade passed over his listener's fair face as he asked this question. She nodded, and said, gravely:
"Yes, I know; and you know, too, that I do not agree with you. I wish you would give it up. It is but the wildest dream I feel, somehow, assured. Give it up, Arthur, and devote the talent God has given you to some line of legitimate scientific research. I am sure you will then have your reward and make a name. Whereas, this chimera that you are pursuing—that your father and grandfather pursued before you—will lead to no result, in your case, anymore than it did in theirs."
She spoke earnestly and with great feeling. It was evident that she had thought much upon the subject, and had made up her mind to use all her influence to gain him over to her own views. And he gave her a tender glance of admiration and appreciation of the loving interest that her words and manner expressed. But he smiled—a curious smile.
"But what will you say, then," he went on slowly, and with emphasis, "if I tell you that I believe the end is gained? That it is found?"
"What?" she exclaimed, "the Elixir?"
"Hush!" he returned, looking round. "I do not wish to speak openly of it until I am more certain as to the fact. Can I trust you not to say anything—save, of course, to your brother—until I give you leave?"
"Certainly, Arthur, I will not talk of it till you say I may. But—oh, no! It can't be; the thing is absurd!"
"Strange—extraordinary, almost incredible, I know it is—or seems," he told her, quietly, "but absurd—no! for I have seen it proved under my own eyes, in my own laboratory, within the past forty-eight hours. At least," he added, thoughtfully, "partially proved; proved so far that I do not see how there can be much doubt about it."
"What have you discovered?" Helen asked, almost with a gasp. "You take my breath away, Arthur. You almost make me fear—"
"That I am a little bit crazy; I suppose, Helen," he responded, laughingly; and his open laugh and clear, keen look were reassuring. "You think my researches have turned my head? No, it is not so, Helen. You may rest quite free from, anxiety upon that score. Indeed, this is no discovery of mine at all; it has come about accidentally, as far as I am concerned. It is, in fact, another man's, not mine. But he has given the secret into my hands in return for something as wanted that I happened to have—"
"Money?" asked Helen.
"No; not money—something else; left me by my grandfather. In return for this he has given me the secret to make use of at my discretion. He has no wish for fame, he says; but it is a thing that will make famous the man who demonstrates it to the world; and that man will now be myself, Helen."
But instead of showing any pleasure at this, his hearer shivered, and looked troubled.
"I don't like these bargains," she declared. "We have heard of such things before. It sounds like those compacts with the Evil One told of in the old-time legends."
At this Dr. Delmore could not help another hearty laugh.
"No; this is only a little friendly arrangement with one who was a friend of my grandfather," he said. "However, I see I must tell you all about it; then I think you will have a better opinion of the matter. I admit the thing sounds strange, as I have put it, thus crudely, to you. But the explanation, though curious, is so simple and straightforward—as it seems to me that I do not think you will feel any more uneasiness when you have heard all there is to tell."
And with that he launched out into an account of his visit to the "Halfway" inn, of what they told him there of a very feeble, very old man, who had been inquiring for him; of his subsequently coming across the old man himself, lying in the roadway in the snow, and of what the old man had said.
"When I got him indoors—in the laboratory," Dr. Delmore went on, "he seemed to wake up considerably. His name, he told me, was Marenza; he said he had known my grandfather intimately in the East, where they had, for many years, been companions, fellow-workers, and fellow-travellers. 'And your grandfather,' he said to me, 'brought back a certain drug of which we had great hopes at the time; but he never found out the secret of how to employ it. I, however, did, after he left me; and I have proved, many times since, its wonderful virtues when compounded in proper proportions with certain other substances. These latter I have with me here; but the other I have not. I lost all my store in a fire some years ago. Since then I have tried in vain to obtain more; I have travelled far in search of it, but vainly. I do not say more cannot be had; but not at present; it takes years to prepare and mature. Then a sudden idea came to me; your grandfather might have preserved the portion I knew he had—have done nothing with it. So it has come about, boy, that I have dragged myself here, after many, many years of vain seeking and searching; and—if you have the drug, I am saved; and then, if you will give me half I will divide with you the half of all I have of what you need to compound with it; and I will teach you the secret of preparing the wonderful Elixir—the Elixir that can make the old young, and take ten, twenty years off an old man's life at every dose!' "
Delmore paused musingly. Helen looked grave, but interested.
"Well?" she presently said, "what more is there?"
"It is all so curious—so incredible," Delmore replied. "I really ask myself, even now, did I dream it all? However, to go on; I showed this man Marenza, as he called himself, the old- fashioned ebony cabinet, in which my grandfather had kept locked away a few of what he had deemed his most precious drugs and chemicals. The old man found and picked out what he wanted without any difficulty, and at once set to work to compound his Elixir. And a very extraordinary liquid it was when made, I assure you. It foamed and sparkled, and displayed all sorts of opalescent gleams and prismatic hues, in a manner so surprising that I was lost in wonder and admiration. He made enough to fill two bottles of equal size; one for himself, and one for me to retain.
" 'This will last me for many years to come, boy,' he said, 'and the other bottle will last you still longer; for you will not need to take any yourself for many years yet; and as to selling or giving any away, why, no one but a madman would dream of doing so with anything so precious.' He told me that he wished to rest all night and all next day. I said that he was welcome to do so; and that he could occupy the little bedroom next to the laboratory. He particularly wished to avoid going to an inn, or being seen by strangers, he said.
"Then he divided the strange drugs which he had with him, and which he had used in the preparation of his Elixir, and I gave him half of what was left of the other, as we had agreed. Finally, he went to lie down, and fell into a deep sleep, from which he has not yet awakened."
Dr. Delmore again paused, looked at Helen and hesitated.
"That seems a long sleep," she said.
Delmore drew a deep breath, and regarded her with wide-open eyes.
"Yes," he assented, still with hesitation. "But it isn't that. The surprising—the astonishing—the most incredible thing is—"
"What?" she asked, eagerly now; for his manner impressed her.
"It is," he went on, "that—oh, dear! you will never believe it—but, Helen, I declare solemnly to you, he does not look like the same man! Even in his sleep I can see he is different. He seems to change from hour to hour!"
"Arthur! You—surely are dreaming! You have been deceived! There is some trick!"
He shook his head. "No," he declared. "No, there is no trick. But now I go back to him, to be exactly instructed when he awakes, in the uses of the draught that seems already to have accomplished such marvellous results—for he desires to leave as soon as possible, having, he says, urgent business elsewhere. Well, when you return from your short visit I shall know more about it, and shall be able to give you fuller details; be able to tell you, too, perhaps, how I propose to utilise this great secret in the future."
"It sounds an extraordinary adventure, anyhow," was Helen's final comment.
They were now drawing near the outskirts of the town, and they, therefore, soon afterwards parted. Dr. Delmore to go back to his mysterious visitor, and to what the latter had promised to teach him; Helen to finish her errand in the town. But she left him with reluctance; for though the story had interested and even excited her, she somehow felt many misgivings about it. She did not experience the satisfaction and pleasure which Dr. Delmore had thought to convey; and thus they parted differently to what he had pictured to himself—he going away eager and full of delighted anticipation, she filled with a sort of undefined dread and foreboding as to what might be the outcome of the doctor's extraordinary story, and regretting that just at that time she should be leaving home to pay the visit which had been arranged some time ago.
MOORFIELD HOUSE—Dr. Delmore's residence—was a large old-fashioned place, standing in the main street of the town or village of Merton-on-the-Moor. There was, indeed, but one street of any importance in the place—a wide, straggling thoroughfare, in which the houses were placed in irregular fashion, isolated from one another in a manner which suggested that a little ground more or less was no particular object. Even the principal shops followed the prevailing fashion, and stood well back from the road, though the railing that formerly marked off the patch of front garden had in most cases been long ago removed, and the strip thrown open to foot passengers.
Moorfield House was larger than most of those near it, and it lay further back from the road, and "stood in its own grounds," to follow the curious phraseology of the modern house- agent—as though it were a common thing for a house to stand in ground belonging to some other house. The garden in front was in apple-pie order, and the ornamental iron railings that fenced it off from the pavement were freshly painted and the tops heavily gilded. The panels of the front door were also gilded, and the brass plate that bore the inscription, "Dr. Delmore, Physician," and the knocker and bell plates, were kept brilliantly polished. The windows, too, were scrupulously clean, and all the woodwork fresh painted, while on one side were the stables and coach-house also bright with paint and varnish, surmounted by a weathercock in shining gold plumage. Altogether, the establishment had a solid, comfortable air that bespoke the well-to-do country practitioner.
At the rear an extensive garden stretched across to a back lane, which ran parallel with the street, and abutting on this was a roomy building of two floors, the chief part of which the doctor used as a laboratory. Besides these, there were, below, two apartments comfortably furnished as study and smoking-room, and, on the upper floor, two small bedrooms. For it was Dr. Delmore's frequent custom to work at his experiments far into the night, and then he would probably, instead of occupying his usual bedroom at the house, sleep in one of the beds next to his laboratory, these being always kept ready for the purpose.
This outlying building had originally been erected many years before by Dr. Delmore's grandfather, who utilised it in similar fashion, and it was so fitted up as to form, in fact, a small residence, compact and complete in itself, having its own gas and water supply. Though, owing to the thickness of the intervening trees in the garden and shrubbery, it was out of sight of the house. It was connected with it by speaking tubes, laid underground and communicating with the kitchen and stables, enabling the doctor to give orders or receive messages without interrupting his work. At the back, the place overlooked the lane from which, on each side of the little house, the garden was screened off by a high wall, and a door in this wall, close beside the door of the house, opened from the garden to the roadway.
Here it was that Dr. Delmore passed much of his time, especially at night, busy with crucible and retort, and fierce, fiery furnace, boiling and infusing, pounding and mixing, melting and amalgamating, with a perseverance and energy that excited much curiosity, and speculation and the part of his neighbors, especially among those from whom he kept aloof and who felt themselves aggrieved thereby. Often on a dark winter's night a belated pedestrian passing along the dark lane—unlighted by any pubic lamp—would find his pathway illuminated by a weird light that emanated from a sort of luminous smoke rising in fitful, ghostly fashion from the chimney of the doctor's laboratory, emitting, besides the lurid, changeful glow, what Mr. Hopkins, the grocer—one of the neighbors alluded to—sourly described as unholy smells and godless vapors." At times, and especially of late, the doctor would almost shut himself up in his "den," as the place had somehow come to be called, having all his meals brought down to him from the house, and only stirring out for a sharp constitutional across the moor, or a visit to his friends at Fairdale Hall. As he had gas fires, which he could turn on and off at pleasure, an ample water supply, and other necessary adjuncts, he was practically independent of assistance from the servants in his other house. Indeed, no maidservant ever entered the "den," even to make the bed or serve a meal, the doctor preferring that his coachman, who had plenty of time on his hands, should perform these duties, while whatever dusting was required in the laboratory, he attended to himself, allowing no servant to so much as peep inside the door.
What the nature of the work or experiments, carried on in that mysterious "den," was unknown to the people around. Only one person was supposed to be in the secret, and that was "The Squire," Mr. Jack Milborne. That he shared in the secrets of the persevering scientist was inferred from the gossip of the coachman, James Pratt, and also from the fact that he frequently passed whole nights in the "den" assisting—so it was supposed—the worker in his manipulations or, at any rate, watching the operations. At Fairdale Hall it was not at all uncommon to find, at breakfast-time, that Mr. Milborne had not come home the night before; when it would be taken for granted that he had stayed to keep Dr. Delmore company at his work, or had remained with him so late that he preferred to go to bed there instead of returning. One of the two little bedrooms was, indeed, always kept ready for his use.
Dr. Delmore, though ostensibly a practising physician, troubled himself so little to attract patients that he had hardly gone beyond the actual truth when he had spoken of Sir Ralph Fergusson as "his only patient." Certainly, he had a few others who called him in occasionally, and now and again he was sent for suddenly in case of emergency, or when Dr. Bent1ey and Dr. Brown, the other chief practitioners in the district, happened to be out. But in his house, nevertheless, he had a suite of rooms specially set aside for the purpose of receiving patients. There was one marked "Waiting Room," another labelled "Consulting Room," and a third was known as the "Surgery," the latter containing an assortment of bottles and other articles usually to be found in a dispensary. And these rooms, like the rest of the house, were well furnished, always kept in first-rate order by the old housekeeper, Mrs. Joyce, and the housemaid who assisted her. But, as has been said, it was very seldom that they were used to receive Patients. When any called, however, they were shown into the waiting room, While a message was sent per speaking tube, to the doctor in the "den," whereupon he would probably, alter an expression of impatience to relieve his feelings, reluctantly leave his studies or his experimenting, and go to the consulting-room to interview the intruder upon his privacy—as he considered him or her. It was rather curious that in this respect Dr. Delmore followed very much in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Moorfield House had been the residence of three generations of Delmores, all doctors, and all, having sufficient private fortunes to live upon, exhibiting the same preference for the laboratory and scientific research, and the same indifference or dislike to following up the usual duties of the profession. Only the present representative of the family differed from his predecessors in remaining in England. His father and grandfather had spent much of their time abroad, chiefly, it was generally understood, in parts of the remote East, usually but little visited by the ordinary traveller. There they were reputed to have acquired queer ways and habits and—so tradition affirmed—strange secrets and knowledge of an uncanny character. But of these there was no outward evidence beyond the "unholy smells" that in former days, as now, frequently escaped from the laboratory chimney, and caused discomfort and occasional complaints amongst the nearest neighbors. Once or twice, it is true, some mishaps had been known to occur, as when an alarming explosion happened which resulted in a slight injury to the present doctor's grandfather—the incident alluded to by the landlady of the "Halfway Inn." The matter had not been an important one in itself; but it had served to give the good folk something to talk about ever since; and afforded ground to the pessimists or the nervous among them, to express constant fears of worse happenings, seeing that the place was still being used for strange and unknown purposes.
As a consequence, Dr. Delmore had come to be looked upon in very different lights according to the point of view taken up by his various neighbors. By the "country gentry" around—especially those of them who knew him personally—he was thought to be merely a scientific enthusiast; and among these he was respected for his learning and attainments and looked upon as one who might quite reasonably be expected to become great some day. For already—it was whispered—he had written treatises and read papers before learned societies in London which had gained him quite a reputation in scientific circles. But amongst those not so well informed, and more particularly the poorer and more ignorant or more prejudiced of his neighbors, he was regarded either with strong religious disfavor, or with a sort of mingled awe and fear, according to the view they took of the "uncanny" experiments in which, in default of actual knowledge, popular belief persisted in believing him to be engaged.
On the afternoon of the day following his talk with Helen Milborne, Dr. Delmore was busy in his laboratory, when he heard knocks upon the door which opened from the garden into the lane. This door was situated in a part of the wall close to the door of the "den"; it had neither knocker nor bell, but those who wished to gain admittance that way were accustomed to make themselves heard by rapping upon it with whatever came handy. Dr. Delmore opened a window which overlooked the lane, and putting his head out, saw that the visitor was Mr. Jack Milborne. He at once went down and admitted him.
The Squire looked out of sorts; his face, usually so good- humored, was clouded over and gloomy, and he made scarcely any response to the doctor's greeting. The latter led him upstairs into the mysterious chamber where he was a privileged visitor. Arrived there the visitor threw himself into an old-fashioned, low, wicker-work chair which stood near the window, and looked around in a discontented fashion, as though disposed to find fault with everything and everybody in general.
At almost any other time, probably, Delmore would at once have noticed his friend's ill-humor, and have inquired the cause; but just then he was himself preoccupied and more inclined to be silent than to talk. He, therefore went back to the occupation upon which he had been engaged when the knocking had disturbed him. This consisted, so far as could be seen, chiefly in pouring some dark-looking liquid out of one glass into another, and then holding it up to the light as if to watch the effect. As to the room, or rather laboratory, it may be said that a glance round would probably have gone far to confirm the vague ideas which prevailed in the minds of those of the neighbors who were inclined to believe in the occult nature of the doctor's researches. It contained benches and shelves all filled with mysterious apparatus, bottles, jars, and curious-looking instruments, of which only the initiated could guess the use. Retorts, test-tubes in rows, large globular glass shapes narrowing into queer-looking spouts or funnels, glass and chinaware vessels of all sorts of odd patterns were placed here and there in seemingly meaningless confusion. At one end glowed a furnace which sent forth a sound that was sometimes a low hiss and at others rose into a roar something after the fashion of a blacksmith's forge; only here there was no visible bellows to account for the sound. The brickwork in which the furnace was set was dark, heavy and massive-looking, and, above the fire, rose into a wide arch, which narrowed still higher up, into a spacious chimney. The fire itself immediately attracted the gaze of the curious observer, not only on account of its fierce heat and strange weird sounds, but from the changing colors that unceasingly played in its depths. These comprised every hue of the rainbow, and passed from one tint to another with restless activity, lighting up the room, and especially the dark recess in which the furnace was placed with, at times, almost startling intensity. Outside, the short winter afternoon was drawing to a close, and within the room it would have been already dark but for the gleams which shot forth from the fire and threw fantastic shadows upon the strange shapes with which the room abounded. Besides the scientific apparatus, there were many curious objects scattered around, or attached to the woodwork of the roof. The room had no ceiling; overhead the interior followed the slopes of the roof, and rose high above till it was lost in shadow. There were cross-beams and upright supports, and to these, and to the walls, wherever there was space to hang or fasten anything, some queer-looking shape could be dimly made out, often peering down with dull, vacuous eyes from a head and body of startling hideousness. For the place was a veritable museum of stuffed creatures from far and little-known lands, many of them being reptiles or huge spiders, scorpions, centipedes, and other creatures of forms so strange, and withal so preternaturally hideous, that it was difficult to believe they could ever have existed alive upon our earth.
Round one of the beams was coiled part of the body of a huge stuffed snake—apparently a huge python—the head and fore portion hanging poised pendant below, as though waiting to seize any creature venturing within its reach. The great jaws were open, showing the forked tongue and cruel, hooked teeth; and above them two malevolent eyes glittered and gleamed and seemed to shoot out darts of light as they were played upon by the lurid rays from the furnace fire.
Delmore poured the liquid he was examining into a flask, which he then fixed in an iron stand over a burner which flared with a pale, greenish-yellow flame, and leaving it to boil awhile, turned to his visitor.
"You are quiet to-day, Jack," he remarked. "Is anything wrong?"
If Mr. Milborne looked quiet, it shortly became evident that he was far from feeling so. He was, in fact, seething with excitement, with suppressed passion, and his pent-up feelings broke out in a burst of angry words directed against his neighbor, Mr. Dering. That gentleman, it appeared, had been at his tricks again that very day, and had done something or other that had greatly offended the Squire. That usually good-tempered gentleman felt exasperated, and his complaints and vague threats rushed forth in a torrent.
Delmore listened politely, and made appropriate and sympathetic remarks whenever a pause in the outburst gave him a convenient opportunity. But he did not seem to be so much interested as he usually showed himself whenever the old standing quarrel cropped up. At last his visitor seemed to feel something of this, and, his own, excitement having abated, he questioned Delmore in his turn.
"You yourself seem as if something had upset you, Arthur," he began. "Has anything gone wrong?"
Delmore did not reply for a moment. He seated himself on a sort of high stool-chair which he was accustomed to use when at work and first gazed through the window at the gathering gloom outside, then at the dancing shadows around them. Presently he said, quietly:
"I hardly know whether I can say that anything has gone wrong; but I am certainly puzzled and perplexed about something that has happened, and if you had not called this afternoon I should have visited the Hall later in the evening to tell you about it."
"By the way, what's the meaning of the rigmarole Helen tried to explain to me last night? I couldn't make head or tail of her story. Has the trouble anything to do with that?"
"Y–yes. Partly. It is connected with it, anyway."
"I was too much bothered at the time to pay much attention to what she said," Mr. Milborne continued; "but it sounded like a wild-goose tale—something about the Wandering Jew, or some nonsense of that sort."
"The Wandering Jew part is nonsense, of course," Delmore answered gravely, "but as to the rest—why, it's serious and true enough—what I told her, that is," he broke off. "Of course. I don't know whether she remembered it with sufficient clearness to make you understand it."
"By-the-bye, I suppose you were at the station this morning to see her off, weren't you?"
"Yes; and I was hoping to have met you there."
"I ought to have gone, I suppose," Milborne replied. "But the fact is, I was very late this morning, and they were ready to start before I had had my breakfast. And I knew you were sure to be at the station; so I did not trouble."
This referred to the departure of the speaker's mother and sister on their promised visit to some relatives an hour or two's journey by train. The station indicated was not that near the Halfway Inn—which was a good five miles away—but a nearer one on another line, only two miles from the town, and called Merton Bridge.
Delmore nodded, and bit his lip.
"I saw your mother and Helen off." he said, "and when I got back I found that my visitor had given me the slip."
"What visitor?" asked Milborne. "Do you mean the Wandering Jew?"
The doctor looked annoyed. "There is no Wandering Jew in the case," he answered irritably. "I do wish you would be serious, Jack. I feel very much perplexed about then matter; I don't know what to make of it."
"You forget you have not yet told me the story. I know nothing but what my sister endeavored to explain to me; and that was; I confess, neither lucid nor particularly interesting."
"I'd better begin from the beginning," Delmore decided; and he thereupon recapitulated what he had narrated to Miss Milborne. Then he continued:
"All this I had, as you have heard, related to your sister when I met her yesterday. After leaving her I returned here and found my visitor still sleeping. In short, he slept on all night; and when I left him early this morning to go to the station to see your mother and sister off, he was still asleep."
"That was a long sleep," the Squire commented.
"Y–yes; but, then, you see, he had warned me to expect it."
"H'm. Well, go on. You started off to the station, and when you left him he was still asleep. Were there no signs of awakening? Had he not woke up at all during the night?"
"I think not. I was restless and remained up. I was too much excited, I think, to sleep; and I went to look at him several times during the night. Each time I found him the same. Indeed, so deep was the sleep that some would rather have given it the name of trance. Except that he did not grow cold, you might almost, even, have thought the man was dead!"
Jack ruminated awhile, and looked puzzled.
"And yet," he said, after a pause, "he went off in a hurry without so much as a good-bye—to say nothing of waiting to get a meal. Why—after such a long sleep most men would have woke up famished; and their first and only thought, for the moment—one would suppose—would be to get a good square meal."
"Exactly," Delmore agreed. "But he had nothing here—there was nothing here for him to eat in the place; and he, does not seem to have gone elsewhere to seek food."
"How do you know?"
"I have made every inquiry. First of my servants at the house, thinking he might have gone there to seek me; then at the inns in the town—the 'George' and the 'Bell.' I made other inquiries, too, but could not find a person who had seen him, or anyone answering to his description. At last I had the mare saddled and rode over to the station he came to; but could hear nothing of him; no one seems even to have seen a stranger about. Finally, I called in at the Halfway Inn; but he had not been there to reclaim his money. Old Thompson had taken a board up and recovered the coin he left behind and handed it to me to take charge of. Here it is, you see."
And the doctor pulled out of his waistcoat pocket a large, massive, antiquated-looking gold coin, and handed it to the Squire for inspection, which the latter took and examined closely.
"What is it's value?" he asked.
"I haven't the least idea," the doctor avowed. "I've never seen anything like it before; not even in the British Museum—to my recollection. But I know enough of such things to be able to see with half an eye that it must be very rare—possibly unique—and on that account extremely valuable—apart from its intrinsic worth as gold, for it is very heavy. Surely," he added, his tone exhibiting a shade of anxiety, "surely you would think a man losing such a coin would take the trouble to recover it before leaving the neighborhood?"
"Y–yes," Milborne admitted, dubiously, "unless—"
"Unless he was mad." Jack looked keenly at his friend as though doubtful as to how he would receive this suggestion. "That would explain everything."
"Pardon me, but I have thought of that, and, on the contrary, it explains nothing—at least to my mind," Delmore returned rather irritably.
"If he's crazy," said the Squire, sententiously, "he might merely have come to you in one of his mad fits; or have taken himself off suddenly in another—as madmen are apt to do. Of course, it is very disappointing for you to have to admit the possibilities of such a conclusion after the high hopes his talk aroused in your mind. But I fear, Arthur, my boy, we must conclude that it is so. He was insane when he came to you, and he has gone away on some fresh mad impulse. There you are. So ends the little romance of the wonderful Elixir!"
"You forget," Delmore objected obstinately, "that I have told you I myself saw a wonderful change in the man while he slept. The very texture of the skin seemed to undergo an alteration, almost under my very eyes. The sallow, yellow, parched, scraggy skin became soft and wholesome-looking; the man's complexion was transformed. The blood came into the colorless cheeks that had appeared, previously, to be more like half-baked dough! which had been at first, a complexion such as one could imagine a man might have after his age had reached a century, turned, under my own close observation, into that of a healthy, vigorous man of middle age. And surely you will not say that I do not know the difference?"
The Squire looked sorely puzzled, and admitted as much.
"Well, we must wait and see what happens. He may come back," he suggested hopefully. "By the way, did he take all his belongings with him—the mixture he concocted, and the stuff you promised to let him have, and all that?"
"Everything," was the answer. "But he left me what was agreed. As regards that, I have no grievance against him—except that he has left me in such cavalier fashion without a word of thanks. He might at least have written me a line by way of explanation of his sudden departure."
"Let's have a look at the wonderful stuff," said Jack, getting up and going towards the bench on which, as Delmore had already indicated, the bottle stood. He took it up and regarded it attentively. Then he shook it, took out the stopper and smelt it. Finally, he was about to put it to his lips, when the doctor snatched it from his hands.
"Don't be a fool, Jack," he exclaimed. "You seem to forget that I know nothing whatever about the mixture."
"But the other fellow took it—and it did him no harm."
"You said just now he was mad," Delmore replied. "If you believe that, you would not care to take his prescription without investigation or inquiry."
"I should like to try it, all the same," Milborne persisted, "and after what you have told me, I don't mind taking the risk."
The fact was that the elderly bachelor had been turning over in his mind what he conceived to be an exceedingly brilliant idea. He was on the shady side of forty, and, as to appearance—well, he was very conscious of being somewhat "passé." What if he could renew his youth! What if, by merely drinking a dose of this wonderful mixture and falling into a lengthened sleep, he could wake up feeling and looking twenty—or even ten—years younger! The idea appealed strongly to his vanity; so strongly that—forgetful of his suggestions as to the doubtful sanity of the mysterious stranger—he was strongly inclined to swallow a dose and risk the consequences. So he endeavored to get the bottle back from the doctor."
"Jack," exclaimed Delmore earnestly, apparently divining his intentions, "I would not have you run such a risk for anything the world can offer. How should I ever face your sister again if anything went wrong?"
He was thinking of that death-like sleep into which the stranger had fallen. Evidently the drugs were powerful, and who could say what effect an overdose might have?
"Besides," he added, "I thought you wanted to see Dering. Though, for my part, as regards that, I should counsel you to write him rather than essay a personal interview."
This reminder of his grievance turned the current of Milborne's thoughts into another channel. The frown came back to his face, and a strong expression of anger escaped his lips. He strode rapidly up and down the room.
"Confound the cad!" he exclaimed. "I fear you're not far out, Arthur. It's really hardly safe for me to see him; I doubt if I could keep my hands off the fellow. He deserves a thrashing if ever a man did; and my fingers are itching to give him one."
Delmore had taken advantage of the other's attention being turned away from the subject of the mysterious Elixir to lock up the bottle containing it in a cupboard. Then he said cheerfully:
"Oh, bother the fellow! Don't trouble about him. Tell you what; I shall do no more this afternoon, so I'll come out and walk part of the way home with you."
A few minutes later they emerged from the gate into the lane, and went off through the gathering shadows, arm in arm, along the snowy road, in the direction of Fairdale Hall.
THE day following the events described in the last chapter was a memorable one in the usually sleepy annals of Merton-on-the-Moor. Even a stranger passing through the town would have become immediately aware that it was seething with excitement, and that such business as the place boasted was at a standstill. Many of the shops were absolutely deserted. The proprietors had adjourned to the "George" or the "Bell" to discuss matters over sundry glasses, leaving their premises to shop-boys or assistants; and some of these, in turn, slipped cautiously away to gossip with others similarly situated next door or over the way. Magistrates drove or rode into the town to make inquiries at the police-station; while the police, on their side, were mostly away in the country scouring the district, searching for nobody exactly knew what. It was freely stated that the local police had telegraphed for extra officers and detectives to assist them; and telegrams were flying about in all directions giving to the Postmaster and his assistants, in a few hours, more work than they were accustomed to get through in any one average month of the year.
As to what it was that had actually occurred, there were various rumors flying about, some of them highly sensational, and nearly all wildly speculative. Amongst them, however, there were, apparently, two main facts which might be taken as indisputable. First, there had been a poaching affray on the estate of Mr. William Dering, and three or four men had been hurt, perhaps killed. Second, Mr. Jack Milborne had gone to Mr. Dering's house in a very bad temper, and there had an interview with him to which there were no witnesses, but which was known to have been of a very stormy character, since which the Squire had been missing—had, in fact, totally disappeared! The most active inquiry and the most energetic search had failed to trace him or to suggest what could possibly have become of him.
About mid-day, it became known that in the poaching affray three men had been badly hurt, and that of these one had since died; but nothing whatever transpired to throw any light upon the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Jack Milborne. Samuel Perkes, the energetic reporter of the local newspaper, rushed hither and thither pushing his inquiries with pertinacious zeal in every possible quarter in some of the places he visited, it is true, he succeeded in gathering his information only at the risk of getting badly snubbed, but he was thoroughly used to that, and it did not in the least disturb him. Like most gentlemen of his calling he had long learned to get on without any trace of what weak-minded people term sensitiveness. So far, indeed, was he from being thin-skinner, that it was said he rather enjoyed being snubbed than otherwise; and, being an honest little man, he would have considered that he was earning his money almost on false pretences if, in any instance, he had been able to gather his news without experiencing a certain number of "pin pricks." Towards evening, he entered the bar parlor of the "Bell," and making his way between the groups of excited townspeople standing about or sitting at the various tables, and regardless of the noisy questions with which they assailed him, he managed to find a corner where he could go over and arrange his notes in comparative quiet; and this is the connected narrative which he proceeded to piece together.
The Squire, as already related, on leaving the laboratory of Dr. Delmore on the afternoon of the previous day, was at first accompanied on his homeward walk by the doctor. The latter, however, did not go all the way with him, but turned back when he had gone about half the distance, saying that he was anxious to continue his experiments with the mysterious "Elixir," which he desired to analyse and subject to certain tests. The Squire at first pressed the doctor to join him at dinner, reminding him that, his mother and sister being away, he was quite alone; but finally, seeing that his friend was preoccupied and evidently itching to get back to his investigations, he at last desisted from his persuasions and continued his walk alone. On arriving at Fairdale Hall, he found, awaiting him, a letter from the obnoxious Mr. Dering, which Dale, the butler, handed to him, and saw him open it, declares "upset him somethin' orful." During dinner the Squire sat frowning and angry, breaking out every now and again into smothered exclamations and half-finished sentences, amongst which something about "giving the cad a good hiding." "Whipping the flesh off his bones," and such like menaces and objurgations of a sanguinary and bellicose character were distinctly audible. All this, of course, was very wrong, and somewhat indiscreet, not to say undignified—on his part, but neither Dale nor the footman who assisted him took much notice of the words, having both of them before heard very similar talk from which no particular harm had ever, so far, resulted. This time, however, in the light of after-events, such words assumed a much graver complexion.
After dinner, the Squire sat awhile ruminating gloomily over a cigar; then, as though inspired by some sudden thought, he started off to interview his offending neighbor, and it was noticed that he took with him a heavy hunting-crop. Seeing this, and in view of the fact that it was so late—it was then getting on for ten o'clock—Dale for the first time felt uneasy. He would have liked, indeed, had he dared, to venture a hint that it was a late hour for such a visit, but there was that in his master's manner that warned him to be silent. The good old man did venture to suggest that perhaps he—the Squire—might like someone to accompany him, but was met by a curt refusal.
Next, it was certain that Mr. Milborne presented himself in due course at the house of Mr. Dering demanding to see him, and that that gentleman, who at the time was alone in his study, at first declined to admit him, and sent out by his butler a not too courteous refusal. Thereupon, the irate Squire brushed the butler aside and stalked across the hall to the study, which he entered, closing the door noisily behind him. That—so far as could be made out—was the last which was seen of him by anyone save Mr. Dering. What took place in that room no one knew. Certainly, the interview was a long one, and as certainly it was a stormy one, for it appeared that the butler and two other servants listened anxiously at the door, fearful of what the interview might lead to, and ready to rush in to assist their master and turn out the intruder, should occasion arise. The expected summons, however, never came. But through the closed door loud voices could be heard, and though no exact words could be distinguished, the two angry neighbors seemed to be growing each minute more quarrelsome and excited. Then the listeners heard the sound of the opening of one of the French windows of the apartment, which gave access to the lawn, and the two disputants, still talking loudly, went out together. Thereupon the three servants opened the front door and stood in a group upon the steps, keeping, however, in the shadow at one side, in case their master should see them and accuse them of eavesdropping. They heard the two still disputing in loud and angry tones, as they walked together across the snow-covered grass in the direction of a thick wood—called the Hurst wood—which lay at a distance of a few hundred yards from the house, and through which there was a little-used path which led in the direction of Fairdale Hall. As they entered this wood, their voices gradually died away, and the listeners on the steps slowly reentered the house talking to one another in undertones as they did so.
Up to this point the facts seemed to be clear enough, and Perkes wrote out his account from his notes quickly and, without hesitation. But thenceforward he had found matters confused, and the various accounts he had gathered were so conflicting that he found much more difficulty in making out anything like a reliable narrative.
What was certain, however, was that just about or just after the time that Mr. Dering and Mr. Milborne entered the Hurst wood, a conflict was taking place in another wood called the Quarry thicket; which lay less than a quarter of a mile beyond the Hurst wood, and was separated from it by a stretch of open park land. Here Mr. Dering's three keepers, who were out watching for poachers, were suddenly set upon by a gang whom they had come to watch but had not yet seen. After a violent struggle, the keepers were getting the best of it, when the gun one of the keepers was carrying went off accidently, and apparently from a scream which followed upon the discharge—must have wounded one of the assailants. The injured one at once retaliated by firing at the keeper, and his example was followed by his companions, each of whom shot his man, and then decamped, leaving their victims on the ground.
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Dering, accompanied by his butler, Bryan, and other servants, arrived at the Quarry wood carrying lanterns. They had heard the shots, and had come out to ascertain what they meant. After a brief search they had come upon footmarks leading into the wood, and presently arrived at the clearing, where they found the injured men.
Mr. Dering only paused a moment or two to give a few hurried directions to Bryan as to the arrangements to be made for fetching a doctor, and summoning further assistance to remove the injured men to the keeper's cottage, and then, taking two men with him, he started off on the track of the poachers. Their footmarks in the snow could be easily seen, and he followed in the hope that he might overtake the poachers before they got into the road outside the park. But in this he failed, and had to turn back when the road was reached, all traces of the fugitives being there merged and lost in the marks made by the general traffic.
By the time Dr. Bentley—who happened to be the nearest doctor—arrived at the keeper's cottage, the three injured men had been carried there and laid upon their own beds—for the two assistants both lodged at the place—and their hurts had already been washed and tended, as far as was possible, by Roberts' wife, aided by the wife of one of the stable-men. Under these ministrations Hall had revived, and Blunt had so far recovered as to be able to sit up; but Roberts still remained insensible; and, in the result, the poor fellow only lived a few hours, and died without recovering consciousness.
Not unnaturally this tragic event, which became speedily noised abroad in the morning, had diverted the attention of those interested from the quarrel between Mr. Dering and the Squire, and the stormy interview which had taken place between them. Nor did Dale—the butler at Fairdale Hall—feel any great surprise when he found on going to his master's room that he had not been home all night. Already he had heard the news of the murderous poaching encounter from one of the laborers on the estate, who had brought it to him early. Doubtless, Mr. Dale thought, the Squire would have been, at the time of the occurrence, somewhere in its vicinity, and had gone to make inquiries, perhaps staying to render assistance, or gone off to fetch his friend, Dr. Delmore, to assist the other doctor with the injured men. Still, Dale felt he ought to send to inquire, and, after turning matters over in his own mind, came to the conclusion that he might as well go himself. Perhaps he was urged to this conclusion by the thought that it would be a convenient excuse for his visiting the scene of the tragedy and learning further and fuller particulars at first hand. So, leaving word of his intention with Mrs. Baker, the housekeeper—in case his master should return in his absence—he set off on his errand, nothing doubting but that he would come across the Squire himself or hear of his whereabouts. Under ordinary circumstances he would have been strongly reluctant to undertake such a duty, for the bad feeling between the two masters extended itself, as is often the case, to the servants of each, and the two butlers, Dale and Bryan, were, consequently, "not on speaking terms." But in the present state of affairs, this fact did not trouble Dale, and he proceeded on his way untroubled by any considerations of the reception he was likely to meet with.
Arrived at Mr. Dering's, he soon found himself confronted by that gentleman's head servant, who received him none too graciously, and declared, in short fashion, his entire ignorance of what had become of Mr. Milborne. Somewhat puzzled at this information—or, rather, want of information—and a good deal nettled at Bryan's manner, Dale demanded to see Mr. Dering, but the butler declared that he was quite sure that that gentleman was too much engaged to see him. Dale persisted, and at last induced the man to take his master a message of inquiry. After some delay, Mr. Dering himself came to the door, and sharply and curtly informed the inquirer that he knew nothing whatever about Mr. Milborne's movements. They had parted, he said, just inside the wood, opposite his study window, and Mr. Dering had been coming back to his house when he had heard shots, and had forthwith called to his servants to follow him, and had then turned back and gone on through the wood to investigate, intending if need be to go as far as his keeper's cottage to make inquiries. Mr. Milborne (Mr. Dering supposed) must have continued on his way, as he saw nothing of him, and did not overtake him. That was all he knew. And, having said so much, he turned and slammed the door in Dale's face.
Finding there was no more to be got in that direction, Dale, very indignant at the brusque treatment he had received, slowly retraced his steps and returned homewards, pondering deeply on his way. The more he thought about the matter, the less he liked it. If his master had started off by that path and had continued on his way, he should have been home in fairly good time. When he had started he had thought it likely enough that if his master had heard the shots he might have turned aside and gone to ascertain what they meant—but—Mr. Dering declared he had not seen him or heard of him. So he could not have made his way to the scene of the tragedy. Moreover, when one now came to think of it, he was scarcely likely to have done so. He would naturally guess that the reports probably meant poachers; he would know from the direction of the sound that such poachers could not be on his own estate, but were on that of his neighbor's—the one he had just left in anger, who would be more likely to resent his interference than to thank him for it. Where, then, had he gone?
Dale felt uncomfortable, and decided to send into Merton to inquire of Dr. Delmore and, if need be, in other quarters, at once. Accordingly as soon as he reached the Hall, he despatched one of the grooms. This groom—a smart young fellow, generally known as George—lost no time in saddling a horse and scampering across the park and along the road to the town. But he returned, in less than an hour, with the information that he had called at Dr. Delmore's, and from there he had gone to the "Bell" and the "George," and several other places, and made all possible inquiries, hut no tidings could he hear of the missing Squire. It was this man's inquiries—becoming more urgent and anxious as he went on from one place to another, and got no satisfactory answers—that, coming on top of the news of the poaching affray, had raised feeling in the town to fever-heat. For the worthy George, who was fond of his master, in his zeal and anxiety, had not hesitated to hint his opinion that Mr. Dering knew more about what had become of the missing Squire than he chose to tell.
It so happened that these dark hints received vastly increased force, later in the day, from the talk of one named Barry, a man employed about the stables in Mr. Dering's establishment. Barry was not a regular servant there; he had only been given a few days' work temporarily, during the illness of one of the regular hands. And he had found the job little to his liking, it seemed, and complained somewhat loudly of the master's hard, overbearing character. Indeed, the only reason—so gossip ran—that he had taken the job, or that he had not already left it—was that he was smitten by the charms of one of the parlormaids, and was willing to put up with more than would otherwise have been the case, in consideration of the fact that he was thereby afforded many opportunities for little flirtations with his charmer. This man, it seemed, had been hanging about the house close to the windows of the study in hopes of getting a word with the young lady—who sometimes stole out for a minute or two by a side door—when he heard high voices within. Then one of the windows opened, and Barry—jumping hastily behind a convenient bush—saw dimly the two come out, cross the lawn, and enter the Hurst wood. They were quarrelling loudly, he declared, all the time they were within hearing—so much so that he really expected every moment that they would come to blows. They, however, disappeared into the wood, and he then left his place of concealment, and was returning to the stable, when he heard a shot—a single shot—which, apparently, came from the wood. Thereupon, he stopped and listened awhile, and saw Dering and his companions going round from the front of the house towards the wood. Barry's curiosity being aroused, he followed the party, and just then heard three shots in succession, all much farther away than the first shot. Almost immediately a man came hurrying back, who, on meeting Barry, told him to follow Bryan in case he was wanted. Barry, therefore, hurried on, and soon came upon Mr. Dering with Bryan and one or two others. They were standing in a group waiting till the man they had sent back returned with lanterns, for the wood was so dark it was almost impossible to make their way through it. Presently the messenger returned with more men carrying lanterns, and the whole party then proceeded on their way, and eventually found the injured as already stated.
Of course Barry's account created much wonder and speculation, and people commented very freely upon its sinister import. The man acknowledged that he had had some "words" with his master that morning in the midst of the excitement, and had thrown up his employment and left. Coming into the town he was eagerly seized upon and carried off to the taproom of the "Bell," where Perkes had interviewed him, and taken down his version of what had happened.
At this point, as it was getting dark and the room had not yet been lighted up, Mr. Samuel Perkes gathered up his notes and stowed them carefully away in his pocket, after which he stayed awhile idle, tapping his front teeth with his pencil, evidently thinking as hard as he could. He was trying to make up his mind whether it would be safe to include Barry's statement in his "copy." It suggested that against Mr. William Dering which it might be risky to put into print, perhaps; for, of course, the reporter has always the law of libel before his eyes, and is compelled to be correspondingly cautious. Moreover, Mr. Dering was not the sort of man likely to put up tamely with anything in the nature of an accusation, or even criticism, without resenting it; and he had at times shown that those who ventured to assail him would have good reason for fearing reprisals. From this it will be guessed that he was certainly not popular; but he was feared by a good many; and probably he—so far as his own feelings were concerned—liked that just as well, and, indeed, possibly preferred it.
So Mr. Perkes had to "think twice" before he ventured to put in his copy anything likely to cause offence to Mr. William Dering; and he sat for some minutes revolving the matter in his mind. From that he got to speculating upon all that Barry's statement might mean, and—having a personal dislike to Mr. Dering—amused himself with thoughts of the unpleasantness that that gentleman would probably shortly suffer if the vague suspicions now floating in men's minds should take a more definite and aggressive form.
Mr. Perkes had had a little experience, and met with success, in the amateur detective line, a vocation for which he had an instinctive liking. Indeed, one might even say that, so far as personal appearance went, nature had probably intended Mr. Perkes for a detective. There was about his sandy hair and eyebrows, and his small red eyes, a something that suggested resemblance to a ferret; while, in his bristling moustache, sticking out starchily under his sharp-looking nose, and his thin half-open lips, which disclosed the teeth, there was a good deal that was "foxey." He was thin and wiry-looking, too, and very lithe and alert in his movements, his body being thin and small as compared with his head, and Hopkins, the grocer, had once said of him that he was like a cat—wherever his head could go his body could follow. Perhaps this was still more true of him metaphorically, for in his reporting work, as has already been indicated, he had developed a marvellous talent for pushing in his little body wherever his head told him there was likely to be any chance of picking up the scraps of information upon which he depended for his livelihood.
As he sat clicking his pencil against his teeth and gazing—apparently vacantly—out of the window which overlooked the yard, he saw through the wire blinds which screened it, two figures pass, the sight of whom instantly set him on the alert. They were those of the talkative little grocer, of whom mention had just been made, and James Pratt, Dr. Delmore's coachman. They had barely been visible as they passed, for the yard was but dimly lighted by a lamp over what was called the side door; but Perkes had recognised the two, and he at once made up his mind to go out and follow them. In that casual glance his keen scent had, somehow, immediately sniffed news, or gossip, or "further particulars," and he was not the sort of man to throw away a chance. He knew that Mr. Hopkins had taken a special interest in the welfare of the doctor's man. The two were often seen together; it was generally understood that Pratt at intervals carried his personal troubles and worries to Mr. Hopkins, and poured out his tribulations in the benevolent grocer's sympathising ears, the while that he—the said Pratt—consumed almost unlimited pots of half-and-half at his (the grocer's) expense. This occurred, perhaps, once a week or so; but it was more noticeable once a month, what time the thirsty coachman trotted from the doctor's to the local bank, and thence round the town, paying sundry bills for his master, and collecting the receipts in return. So there was nothing new in seeing, thus walking familiarly together, two who would otherwise have kept their distance, the one being a servant and the other a prosperous tradesman who usually carried his head high, a deacon of his chapel, and a shining light amongst the local Dissenters. But this evening Mr. Perkes, somehow, scented something "in the wind"; and the result showed that the instinct or detective genius, or whatever it was which guided him, had not urged him to get up and leave the warm bar parlor with its cheery fire for nothing.
AS Mr. Perkes emerged from the passage of the hostelry into the yard he saw the two he was following disappear through a door on the opposite side. The door had glass panels on which were the words "Private Bar," and as it opened there came from within a blaze of light and the sound of many voices. A few seconds later it opened again as Perkes passed in, and swung to behind him with a bang.
The place was the general bar of the house, divided off into compartments, one of the latter, larger than the rest, having a fireplace in which a big fire was blazing, while around were tables and chairs. As in the bar parlor, on the other side of the house, the place was full of people, but they were of a different class, being mostly laboring men or rough farmers; they were altogether more noisy than the occupants of the room Perkes had just left. Some—having been there all the afternoon—had just reached that stage when the misguided individual is seized with a sudden conviction that he can "sing like a bird," and is moved by the spirit (or the beer, as the case may be) to warble forth his various musical reminiscences. On this occasion, two such musical amateurs were performing simultaneously on opposite sides of the room, each indifferent to the fact that what he sang differed from what the other was warbling forth, in several trifling points such as tune, key, time, etc.
As Mr. Perkes entered, the sound of the slamming door attracted the attention of those near at hand, and one of the performers paused for a second in his warbling to turn round and wave towards the newcomer the pewter pot he was swaying about in his hand in time to his melody. Mr. Hopkins and his companion also looked round and, on recognising the reporter, ostentatiously displayed a desire for close and confidential conversation by turning their backs and withdrawing into an unoccupied corner beside the fireplace. At almost any other time Perkes would probably have respected their evident wish to be let alone; but to-day he had worked himself up into a state of mind and feeling which rendered it difficult to repress the instinct within him which seemed to urge him on in his favorite role of amateur detective. He had "tasted blood" so to speak. Never had he had, in sleepy old Merton, such a splendid opportunity for exercising his special gifts—as he deemed them. Never before had there happened, in his neighborhood, events of such a thrilling and exciting character; never before had he found himself in such an atmosphere of mystery and tragedy—actual and potential. The two or three little "mysteries" which had, some years ago, cropped up in the district—and in the Mr. Perkes was considered by his friends and admirers to have greatly distinguished himself—what had they been to this? Nothing, he declared to himself. They had been mere child's play by the side of such startling occurrences as those of the previous twenty-four hours, and of the developments and consequences which—to his prophetic and sanguine view—were looming in the near future. What opportunities might there not be here for him to distinguish himself! What a chance to gain fame in the district and promotion in the office. Perhaps, even Kitty (his chief's pretty daughter) might—
Here the newsman's musings were interrupted, and his imaginative soarings brought down to the level of mother earth, by finding that someone was tramping on his toes. The warbler near him, in his excitement, and to add effect to the flourishes with which he was working up to the end of his self-imposed task, had walked or rather staggered backwards, placidly regardless of the fact that he was walking over Mr. Perkes' toes and corns. An impatient and contemptuous push from the injured gentleman sent the artist reeling amongst a group of his boon companions seated at an adjacent table, causing him to pour over them the contents of the pot he held in his hand, and completely spoiling the effect of his last "top note." Samuel Perkes left him to settle as well as he could with his beer be-splashed and indignant friends and passed onwards towards the corner where the grocer and the coachman were seated.
Judging by the closeness of their heads to each other they were very deep in talk, but Pratt looked round at the sound of squabbling, and Perkes, catching his eye, at once went up to him.
"Hullo! Pratt!" he commenced, cheerily, oblivious of the fact that the man had, on seeing that he was near, turned his head away again; "you are the very man I wanted to see. How is the doctor to-day? What does he think of the Squire's disappearance? Has he formed any theory as to what can have happened to him? Does he think—"
"I don't know nothin' about t' doctor," Pratt blurted out, sulkily, interrupting the other's questions, which came rushing out one on top of the other. The man was evidently in anything but an amiable mood; he had "had a drop," too, Perkes could easily see, and was then in that particular stage which may be considered as the opposite of "mellow."
Perkes had not expected such a surly reception, and for once was somewhat taken aback. In his surprise he looked at the grocer, and his expression plainly asked for an explanation.
As, however, Mr. Hopkins himself was trying to "pump" the doctor's coachman, and had been industriously working at the process in the taproom of the "Half-moon" for the last hour without success, and had then proposed an adjournment to the "Bell," because he hoped they would be less likely to be disturbed there, he was not in a position to enlighten Mr. Perkes, nor in the frame of mind to welcome his interference. He was annoyed with the reporter for pushing himself into the tête- à-tête with one whom he regarded as, in a sense, specially his own property, and felt inclined to administer a rebuff. But he remembered in time that the fussy little man was often useful to him, and frequently did him a good turn by giving him some little puff in his paper; so he swallowed down his impatience, and said, suavely:
"The fact is, Perkes, our good friend here is out of sorts to- day. Something has occurred, I suppose, which has upset him. I have been trying to persuade him to confide in me, but so far I have not been able to induce him to unburden his heart. Concealment of our troubles, as you know my dear Perkes, and as the worthy pastor at our place of worship is always impressing upon us, is—"
"Oh, blazes take y'r place o' worship!" interrupted Pratt, rudely. "Do'n you come none o' your sermonisin' on me to-night, cos I won't stand it—an', what's more, I'll go straight whoam and not tell 'ee nothin' at all."
At the commencement of this outburst the scandalised Mr. Hopkins had leaned back and stared at the speaker in blank amazement and pained astonishment. His first impulse was to reprove the bold scoffer; but on second thoughts he recollected that to drift into a side argument was not the quickest way to attain his object.
"I think this must be the doctor's doing," sighed the pious grocer. "Jim, you never used to talk like that to me before you went to be coachman to Dr. Delmore. In those blest days when you were a youthful groom at Mr. Crossfield's, and I used to bring you round a jar of beer at times when I was comin' that road and you chaps used to drink it on the quiet—"
"An' you used to drink it too," Jim put in roughly. "You could allus do your share, Musser Hopkins—you forgets that."
"As I was sayin'," the grocer went on, ignoring the interruption with a deprecatory wave of his hand—"in those blest days, you used to attend our place o' worship regular, an' we used to mingle our prayers—"
"You sat one side on a cushioned seat, an' I sat t'other on a hard bench," Jim interrupted again. " 'Ow could prayers mingle? An' as for the beer you brought us, it was nothin' but—"
"All who go to a place of worship mingle their prayers together, James, no matter where they sit," answered Mr. Hopkins sententiously. "In those blest days you confided all your troubles to me, and I always advised you for the best. But since you've been with that heathen doctor, as gives all 'is mind to makin' unholy smells and mixin' up concoctions for he and the wicked one himself only knows what heathenism purpose—since, then, my dear young friend, you've bin getting gradually less attentive to your religious duties, less godly in your daily 'abits and conversation, an' "
"Oh, stow that!" Pratt broke in again; and this time Perkes put up his hand and stayed the loquacious grocer's rejoinder. He was getting impatient at the turn the conversation was taking. He had somehow come to the conclusion that Pratt really had something to tell them worth listening to, but evidently the man, being in a surly and quarrelsome mood, wanted to be coaxed rather than preached at.
"Tell you what it is, Hopkins," he exclaimed, "you're forgetting that our friend here has been upset—as you yourself just now said—and isn't in the mood to be reminded of any little forgetfulness in his moral duty. Judging by appearances, I should say he doesn't want cold comfort of that sort—what he wants is cheering up a bit. I'm sure of it; and that's not the stuff to cheer a man when he's in the blues—what's he got there?" And he pointed to the pewter pot of four ale. "Come, Pratt, lad, join me in a glass. What shall it be—Irish or Scotch? Wake up, lad, and call for what you like. Hopkins, what's yours?"
Under this new and improved treatment, Pratt soon began to thaw appreciably. His face lost its sour, defiant look, and presently beamed with approval of the proceedings.
"T' fact is, gentlemen," he suddenly declared, with a burst, "I've got t' sack."
"Got the sack! Good Heavens," exclaimed Hopkins.
"Got the sack! Jee-mima!" was Mr. Perkes' comment. "How did that come to pass?"
Pratt hesitated. He did not like to confess the real reason; indeed, his ill-temper and refusal to tell what had upset him had arisen, in great part, from reluctance to admit the truth, and his inability to hit upon any other reason sufficiently plausible to pass muster. But he had gradually—under the soothing influence of the whisky and lemon and hot water come to the conclusion that—since it must come out sooner or later—he might as well make up his mind to it and take the plunge.
Mr. Hopkins was at first too much surprised to do more than make a comment here and there; but present, as Jim, now that his tongue was loosed, continued talking, the calculating grocer grew perceptibly colder and less friendly, and the face that had erstwhiles smiled so benevolently upon the surly coachman, now slowly hardened into an expression that, to those who did not know the philanthropic and virtuous nature of the man, might have seemed to express chagrin and disgust.
The fact was that Pratt in a situation where he could be of use to the purveyor of hay and oats was one thing, but Pratt out of a situation, discharged for drunkenness, and therefore likely to find it difficult to get another, and likely, too, to come upon Mr. Hopkins to borrow small sums from time to time as a species of blackmail—that Pratt was, to use a slang expression, "a horse of another color."
But as the grocer's interest in the conversation that had ensued waned, that of the alert Perkes began sensibly to increase. For Jim had launched out into a relation of the meeting with "the man in the snow," as he called the stranger who had sought out Dr. Delmore, and this was all fresh to the reporter. As the narrative proceeded, he became more and more interested, and Pratt, finding how the land lay, and perceiving that for the time being, at all events, he was likely to find a better friend in the newsman than in the corn merchant, began to address himself more particularly to the former. Indeed, it is to be feared that in his zeal and his desire to cultivate his new friend, he adorned his tale with flowers of his own imagination. At any rate, the story he told appeared to Mr. Perkes remarkable enough to raise both interest and astonishment. It was the first he had heard of any stranger having visited the doctor; and it surprised and slightly nettled him to be told that a stranger—and one in every way so remarkable—should have been able to visit the town, stay there two nights, and leave again, without coming within range of his lynx eyes.
But if the arrival of the unknown had been strange, his departure, according to Pratt's account, was still more extraordinary. That worthy now confessed to the reporter that he had played the spy upon his master and his mysterious guest all the time that the latter had remained in the place. It appeared that by climbing the wall beside the laboratory window, and peeping under or at the side of blind—which, when pulled down, did not quite screen the whole of the window—he had been able to be a witness of the proceedings that had taken place, though he could not hear what was said.
"I tell 'ee, sur," said Mr. Pratt, bringing his fist down on the table with great emphasis, "there be somethin' monstrous strange an' uncanny about the hull affair. Mistress Thompson, at t' Halfway Inn, tould Bunce, t' smith, as the Wanderin' Jew hisself 'ad bin a-lookin' for t' doctor. An' there must a' bin some hanky-panky business sure enough. First, he come got up as an old man, so old an' tottery that e' might a' bin a 'undred—ah, or two 'undred years old. Then 'ee stays on' over two nights' without bite or sup, so far as I could make out. All that time nothin' whatever was sent from the house, an' I knows as there wasn't nothin' to eat in t' 'boratory. Where he got to, or what 'e did in the place there, for three days, I don' know. But 'e was in hidin', that's what it was, for 'e never stirred out. An' then, at last 'e comes creepin' out disguised—and it wur a darned clever disguise, too!"
"Disguised?" said Mr. Perkes.
Pratt considered a few moments, then said: "I don' rightly know—I can't make up my mind which wur the real disguise—the way he wur made up when he cum, or the way he was like when 'e went away. But it wur good, it wur; both times; uncommon good and clever. It 'ud took in anybody; it 'ud a took me in if I 'adn't been watchin an' 'adn't knowed."
"And the doctor didn't go with him; didn't see him to the station?"
"Noa. That seems to be the quare part of it. T' doctor he 'ad gone to t' station at Merton Bridge, ridin' the mare, an' while 'e were away this old party comes out steppin' it out as right as a trivet. Nobody 'd a believed 'twas the same old party, 'e were that disguised. 'E'd cut 'is 'air an' shaved, un' 'e was upright an' quite good lookin' to what 'e wur when he came."
"How old did he look then, when he went away?" Perkes asked. "Oh, mayhap forty-five or fifty."
"I thinks as 'ow 'e gave the doctor the slip, 'cos t' doctor didn't seem to know 'e was a goin'. When 'e come back and foun' as t' old party 'ad 'ooked it, 'e seemed surprised like, an' asked a lot o' questions. Then 'e 'ad t' mare saddled again an' rode off by hisself, I s'pose to hunt for 'im. Anyway, Bunce telled me 'e went over to t' Halfway a askin' after t' old man; but they 'adn't seen nothin' of 'im."
"It certainly sounds a strange story," remarked Perkes, musingly. "Did the doctor say anything more about his visitor?"
"No; an' 'e seemed all right—only that 'e were very busy in t' 'boratory till this mornin'. Then 'e turned up awful rough. Rounded on me like a 'undred o' bricks, said I wur drunk—when I 'ad gone to bed 't night afore as sober as a judge—an' give me a month's wages, in fact," Pratt added, in a deeply-injured tone.
"What's he going to do? Get another man? Who's looking after the mare?" Perkes inquired.
Pratt chuckled. " 'E's sent her over to t' 'George'; took her there 'isself," he answered.
"What!" exclaimed Hopkins. "D'ye mean to say he's sent the mare over to the 'George'—to stay there at livery?"
The grocer had gradually roused out of his coldness as the narrative proceeded; and though he had not said much, his widely- opened eyes and his whole manner had shown that he was drinking in every word.
"That's t' ticket," Pratt declared. "'E seems too much taken up wi' what he's a-doin' in t' 'boratory t' be able t' trouble about aught else. 'E's scarcely so much as gone over to t' Hall to see Musser Dale about t' Squire."
"But he has been over there," Perkes observed. "I met him myself as I came away. He told me they had telegraphed to Mrs. and Miss Mi1borne to return. I thought he was looking very ill—very i1l indeed—and badly worried. I fancy he is terribly anxious about Mr. Milborne."
"Yes; 'e do look bad," Pratt assented. "An' yet 'e don' seem to be stirrin' hisself to go about and hunt for 'im like. I do wonder what it be as is so secret over in that 'boratory of his?"
"Ah!" said Mr. Hopkins, as he got up to go—an example which the others immediately followed—"that is just what a good many hereabouts have been wantin' to know for many a day past; but he keeps his secret too close for that. Yet," he added, with an air of profound conviction, "you'll see—just you wait! We shall find out one of these days; and when we do, mark my words, Mr. Perkes, his secret will turn out to be something bad, something dreadful, sir; something heathenish and ungodly, sir!"
And with this dark saying Mr. Hopkins walked off towards his shop, and Mr. Perkes walked slowly in the direction of his office, ruminating the while on Mr. Hopkins' gloomy prediction, and wondering whether what he prophesied so confidently would ever come to pass.
ON the morning following the events recorded in the last chapter, Helen Milborne and her mother again sat at breakfast in the morning-room at Fairdale Hall. They had cut their visit short, and returned hastily, in response to a telegram sent by Dale, after consultation with Dr. Delmore the previous afternoon. The scene was very much the same as on that other morning when they had met together at the same meal; a cheerful fire blazed away merrily on the hearth, and through the French windows the sunshine brought in with it a sense of brightness and gaiety. Outside the snow lay on the ground, white and dazzling, stretching away across the park, past the ha-ha fence, and round isolated clumps of trees, to distant woods and belts of firs, that stood out in dark-blue lines in the distance. Without, all looked quiet and peaceful; within, everything spoke of comfort and ease. Soft luxurious carpets, rich furniture, costly ornaments, were everywhere around; upon the table, shining silver plate reposed invitingly upon dainty linen that rivalled the snow outside for whiteness; the logs on the fire cheerily sputtered, and hissed and crackled, while the clock on the mantelpiece ticked away as if it got up that day in specially good humor.
Everything seemed to be the same—except the two seated at the table. They were far, very far, from being the same. To them, indeed, everything totally different; spite of the sunshine, the world seemed dark, sombre, foreboding; spite of the bright fire, the room seemed cold and the atmosphere heavy; to them, even the ticking of the clock sounded solemn and mournful. So true is it that the most cheerful or luxurious surroundings are utterly powerless to charm or to comfort when the heart is heavy with grief, and the soul overshadowed by anxiety. Doubtless, this is but a truism, a commonplace reflection that has nothing particularly novel or original. Yet it is well to remember, at times, that grief is grief, and distress is distress, whether they come to us in a palace or in a hovel. There are those among the poor who are apt to envy the rich and underrate their troubles in this world, as though they thought there could be no misery amid luxurious furniture, and no suffering amongst those bedecked with gold and precious stones.
But though all the surroundings were the same as on that morning—but three days ago—when the same two were seated together at the breakfast table, both the appearance and the talk—such talk as there was—were very different. To-day they sat almost silent, gazing at the fire or out through the windows with "eyes that saw not;" and when they spoke, scarcely raising their voices above a whisper. Mrs. Milborne's kindly face had lost its accustomed look of peaceful content, and when she turned her glance upon her daughter there was in it a painful look of deep commiseration, in place of its former suggestion of natural pride. She looked older, her hair seemed even greyer, and her eyes were red and swollen with weeping. And Helen Milborne's usual gaiety, and the gladsome, joyous manner that had seemed a part of her very nature, had to-day given place to a listless though silent and uncomplaining look of misery very pitiful to see, and very pathetic in one so young and fair. The rosy color had gone from her cheeks, the bewitching smile from her lips, and the light had faded from her eyes. It was difficult to realise that so great a change could have taken place in a few hours, but to these two the torturing anxiety and uncertainty that brooded over their minds seemed almost more cruel and harder to bear, than would have been the knowledge of actual calamity. For the unknown is even more terrible than the known, and there have been many brave hearts which never shrank from facing the greatest dangers and horrors, so long as they could see them and measure their nature and extent, which have broken down, utterly, under the prolonged strain of a vague apprehension of hidden and undefined perils.
For there was still no news of Mr. Milborne, no sort of ground even for conjecture as to what had become of him. This was the beginning of the second day, and they were just as far off, apparently, from getting to the bottom or the cause or meaning of his disappearance as at first. Nothing whatever had transpired calculated to throw any light upon the mystery, or to lighten the gloomy suspense. The two had passed a sleepless night, which, following upon their hurried return from the visit upon which they had started so light-heartedly, had added physical weakness to the mental suffering and depression under which they were laboring. They now sat silent and nervous, beside the scarcely- tasted breakfast, awaiting callers, but starting alarmed at every sound that might herald a visitor, fearful and apprehensive of what he or she might have to tell them. Yet, when no one came, the time seemed to drag on with intolerable slowness, oppressing the waiting ones with a feverish desire to be up and doing, to go out and join in the search—anything rather than to sit idly communing with their own thoughts.
"I cannot think why Arthur does not come," Helen at last said, fretfully. "Surely he must know how anxious you would naturally be to see him, and how trying it is to sit here with not a word from anyone. Why is he so late?"
"Doubtless he has gone out on purpose to gather all the information he can for us, my love," Mrs. Milborne answered, quietly. "He cannot be in two places at once, recollect."
"But we haven't even seen him yet! He never came to the station to meet us."
"He could not tell by which train we should return," her mother reminded her.
"But—still—well, I should have thought he would have gone to the station and waited till we did come," Helen persisted. "Or he might have waited till our wire told Dale what time to expect us. Ah! There he is!"
While speaking, she had heard the front door bell ring, and it told that some visitor had certainly arrived. Her disappointment, therefore, was great when, a minute later, the door opened, and Dale came in and informed her that the caller was Mr. Weston, the curate.
Helen had risen and met the butler half-way from the door. The old servant spoke in a low, hushed tone, plainly indicative of his feeling of anxious, respectful sympathy.
Helen turned back with an air of deep disappointment. "It is only Mr. Weston, mother," she said. "Will you go to him? Dale has shown him into the library."
"Won't you come and see him, my dear?" Mrs. Milborne asked. "He may have something to talk of that you may wish to hear."
Helen had reseated herself, and was gazing thoughtfully into the fire, and the listless look with its unnatural pallor, had already replaced the momentary flush of pleased expectation.
"I have no wish to see Mr. Weston," she returned, listlessly. "I don't suppose he can tell us anything more than others knows, and I do not feel equal to talking to visitors this morning, mother."
"Very well, my dear. If he brings any special information I can come and tell you." And the old lady left the room.
The clock, however, had not marked off many minutes, when Mrs. Milborne returned, accompanied by the visitor.
"Helen, my dear," she said, "Mr. Weston seems to have much to tell us that I am sure you would like to know, and he has come over on purpose. So I have brought him in here, for the library seems very cold this morning. The fire is not burning well. He has kindly consented to waive ceremony under the circumstances," she added, indicating the breakfast-table.
The visitor in question, Mr. Ernest Weston, the local curate, was a fresh-complexioned young fellow who seemed scarcely old enough to occupy such a position. He looked so young, indeed, that one would have thought he could not have been long away from college. Probably, however, he was older than he looked, for he had been installed as curate to Mr. Clements, the vicar of the parish, for two years. He came forward with an air of almost painful embarrassment, blushing furiously.
"My dear Miss Milborne," he said, taking her hand and bowing over it, in his nervousness, somewhat awkwardly, "I would not have ventured to intrude upon you at such a time for—for—oh, not for worlds, you know—only—you see—in fact—well, your mother has told you—" And then, having got thus far, he broke off, helplessly.
He seemed, indeed, quite unable to explain what he wished to say without help; and this was not an uncommon occurrence when he found himself in the presence of Helen Milborne. The truth was that he had conceived a violent admiration for that young lady, and the consciousness of it rendered him awkward and embarrassed when in her presence. With all the world besides, apart from occasional fits of nervousness, he was usually self-possessed; but neither time, nor his own struggling efforts, had enabled him to appear at his ease when he met Miss Milborne. That she was engaged to Dr. Delmore, and that his love was consequently forlorn and hopeless, he knew well enough; and that, naturally, caused him to strive the more to keep down any manifestation of feeling when in her presence. But try as he would, he could not control nervousness, and for that reason he had, for some time past, avoided her as far as possible. To those who knew him, therefore, the mere fact that he had thus ventured to call to-day would have been, in itself, a proof of his honest anxiety to be of service to the two ladies in their present trouble.
Helen, could not, of course, be altogether unconscious of the fact that he admired her, but since he always treated her with the most studious deference, and never ventured upon the slightest act or word that could be construed into paying her attentions, she had grown accustomed to his peculiarity. She could not help liking him, for he ever exhibited a frank, boyish desire to please or serve both her and her mother; and as for his unfortunate bashfulness, she had come to merely pity him, and always tried, as far as she reasonably could, to help him out and put him at his ease. Moreover, it was chiefly during the first few minutes of each separate meeting that this shyness showed itself. Then, after a brief time, it would gradually decrease, and even almost disappear entirely—only to crop up again, however, at the next meeting.
Among the parishioners the young curate was a great favorite. His unvarying good nature and readiness to help all who sought his aid, without distinction of person or class, had won him friends on every side, and amongst rich and poor alike. Now Helen had, when his name had first been announced, felt strongly averse to seeing him. She did not feel equal at such a time, to the exertion often required to unravel his confused stammering utterances, or to encourage him and help him out of the shoals on which he constantly ran, until he became able to navigate the waters of ordinary conversation himself. But she now felt that this was a selfish and not very amiable view to take, for certainly the poor young man would not have ventured into her presence at all at such a time except with the object of being of service to her. That she knew well enough. Thinking of things, she now threw off her listless mood and welcomed him with gracious cordiality. And, thus encouraged, Mr. Weston overcame his bashfulness sooner than usual, and, having much to say, and being very much in earnest, was soon talking away and explaining in a fashion at which not only the two ladies but he himself felt almost surprised.
And that which he had to communicate was very important, and very much to the point, and became apparent as well that he must have been both energetic and industrious to have been able to collect so much information in the time. Indeed, Mr. Perkes himself could scarcely have gathered more in so short a space, or have sifted and mapped it all out more clearly and concisely. In the mere matter of walking to and fro, seeking for clues in all sorts of places widely apart, his performances appeared to the two ladies to have almost bordered on the marvellous.
The pity of it all—for the two sorrowful hearts now so eagerly hanging upon his words—was that all his researches, elaborate and complete as they had evidently been, threw hardly any further light upon the main question—the one absorbing query that now haunted them hour after hour, by day and by night: Where was Mr. Milborne?
"It seems clear," Mr. Weston explained to them, "that Mr. Milborne, at the end of his interview with Mr. Dering, walked with him out of the study by way of the window, crossed the lawn, and entered the wood in his company. Bryan and other servants stated this, and we have the separate testimony of the man Barry. Presently Dering returns alone—and poor Mr. Milborne is never seen again. Dering says simply, 'He went off in a rage, and I turned and came back'; but the man Barry declares, most positively, that before Dering came out of the wood he heard a shot, and he is equally positive that it was close at hand—in the wood, in fact. Yet neither Mr. Dering nor Bryan said anything about such a shot in speaking to Dale and others, but only referred to the three shots they all subsequently heard further away, which were undoubtedly those of the poachers.
Helen hid her face in her handkerchief and cried softly.
"Poor Jack!" she sobbed. "Can it be possible that he was cruelly shot down like that—in the dark wood, and yet so near to his home?"
"There's the strange part of it," said Mr. Weston. "It seems unlikely that Dering should shoot a man so near his own house, with listening servants close at hand. And, again, why should he have done such a thing just then? The two had been quarrelling for a good while—yet matters had never got so bad as to need the intervention of the waiting servants, or to prevent the two walking out together into the wood. They could hardly, one would think, have gone into the wood to fight a duel. Mr. Milborne would not be likely to carry a pistol, would he?"
Both his auditors shook their heads. "And it is difficult to understand why Mr. Dering should have done so—unless he had armed himself on purpose."
"Poor Jack would never have attacked him, I am sure of that," said Helen tearfully. "He might threaten and so on, but, as you yourself know well enough he was always a gentleman, and never really lost control of his temper."
"Well, to come to the crucial point—to what is really the most extraordinary part of the whole affair—what became of Mr. Milborne? Dead or alive"—(here the mother and sister shuddered)—"dead or alive—well, we must look facts and probabilities in the face, you know, ladies—where is the Squire? How was he spirited away—because there is absolutely no trace of him whatever—dead or alive!"
Helen Milborne bravely resolved to try to do as Weston recommended—look facts in the face. She braced herself up, and called all her self-control to her aid.
"It looks as though Mr. Dering must have killed him and hidden him in the wood," she suggested, after a pause.
"He could not have done so without leaving footmarks—and there were none. I went over the wood myself with Blake, the police inspector."
"Did you?" said Helen, in surprise. "How came you to do that? I understood from Dale that the police were on the spot very early in the morning."
"Yes; but I had been called up in the night to go to Blake's poor old mother; they thought she was dying, and Mr. Clements had gone over to Eastbury that day, and was staying the night. When news came to Blake of the poaching encounter I was just leaving his house, so, instead of returning home, I went with him. I thought then only of the poor fellows whom, I was told, were lying dead or dying, and, of course, had no idea that anything about Mr. Milborne entered into the matter; nor had the inspector. I accompanied him to the cottage where they were lying, saw them properly attended to, and remained with them till well into the morning. When I had done all I could, I was once more on the point of starting for home, when a constable arrived, bringing with him your groom George, who, it appeared, had been to the police station making the most anxious inquiries about your brother. I went with them to find the inspector, and came upon him in the park, where he had been busy examining the scene of the fight and endeavoring to trace the tracks of the assailants. George gave a very voluble account of Dale's visit to Mr. Dering that morning, and showed so plainly his anxiety and misgivings, that I felt alarmed, and seeing that the inspector was inclined to pooh-pooh his story as a 'mare's nest,' I insisted that some further inquiry ought at once to be made of Mr. Dering and his servants. About that time Bryan, the butler, came down with a message from his master, and I seized the opportunity to question him."
Just as the young curate had got thus far there was heard another ring at the front door, and Helen once more colored and started up.
"It is Dr. Delmore, no doubt," she said, glancing at her mother and speaking in a tone of evident relief.
But Dale, who opened the door a few minutes later, informed her, again to her disappointment, that it was not Dr. Delmore, but another visitor.
THE new arrival proved to be Mr. Clements, Mr. Weston's vicar, a grave, silver-headed old gentleman, with a benevolent countenance and a cheery, pleasant smile. He had been born in the district, had lived in it the greater part of his life, and had been vicar for something over twenty-five years. Perhaps in the whole countryside there was no man more generally respected; most certainly amongst the poorer classes, there was none more loved than the Rev. Grant Clements, His ears were always ready to listen to the troubles of the members of his flock, and he was always eager and willing to respond to a call from one in illness or distress, no matter what the weather, the time of day or night, or the distance to be traversed. It was whispered, too, that his purse was as open as his ears, though his income was far from being large; but the facts as to this were scarcely known, save to those who had personal experience of them; for the vicar always strove to practice, in every little thing, as well as in greater, what he preached; he did not give his alms before men that he might be seen of them. Whatever he did, in Heaven's good work, he did silently, unobtrusively, and endeavored to keep the secret between himself and those he benefited. If, at times, an instance here and there leaked out it was but by chance, and sorely against the wishes of the doer of the good deed.
Helen Milborne, when she had recovered from her first feelings of renewed disappointment, turned to welcome the old gentleman with unassumed cordiality. He had known her ever since she was a child, and, in some respects, had been almost as a father to her; for, having had no father of her own since she was a baby, she had long learned to seek his advice whenever she felt the need of one more experienced than her own gentle mother. This morning his very presence seemed to soothe her, and the sight of his face, ever placid and peaceful, no matter what the circumstances, seemed to fill her desponding heart with comfort and encouragement.
His greeting to Weston was not less warm than that he gave to the two ladies, for he had a genuine affection for his bashful, boyish curate. He, himself, was a childless widower, and Weston, since his arrival to take up his present duties, had lived with him at the vicarage, and had become, it was said, almost as a son to the lonely old man.
"I'm very glad to have run you to earth here, Ernest," he said genially. "I've been looking for you high and low, and seem to have been following you literally from pillar to post. Each time I thought I had traced you to any particular place, I managed to get there just after you had left it."
"He has been running about and wearing himself out, both by night and by day, to help other people, in his usual impulsive, kind-hearted way, Mr. Clements," Helen said, "and he seems to have been doing a lot for us, in particular. We were just in the midst of his story of it all when you arrived."
"Aye, aye, I know—at least, I know in part. Why, boy, you've scarcely been to bed for the past two nights, from what I can make out. I have not seen him for three days, ladies—since, in fact, I started to go over to Eastbury. Now, tell me all about it."
At Helen Milborne's grateful eulogy, the nervous young curate, who had been up to then getting along in comparative comfort, promptly relapsed, for a while, into hopeless confusion and helplessness.
"Why, really, Miss Milborne," he stammered, "I only pleased myself—in doing you a turn—that is in"—addressing the vicar—"I don't mean that at all—I—oh, yes, I do, you know, but—no, I don't mean that at all—"
Spite of their sorrowful preoccupation, his hearers could scarcely suppress a smile as he blundered on, getting each moment more hopelessly incoherent. But the vicar knew how to treat the attack. He turned away and conversed with the two ladies, to allow him his own time to recover, first giving them the latest news of the condition of the injured men—from whom he had just come. Then Helen proceeded to recapitulate all that Weston had told them, and by the time she had reached the end of it, so far as the recital had gone, Ernest Weston was ready to take up the narrative again.
"What I understand you to imply, Ernest," said the elder man, "is that there would seem to be no trace of Mr. Milborne having left the wood."
"Exactly," answered Weston, quite at his ease, and showing himself very keen and alert now that the vicar had taken up the questioning. "You see it is this way: The path by which Mr. Milborne and Mr. Dering entered the Home Wood branches off and divides into three at the end of a few hundred yards, and these, again, branch off into others. The middle path of all these was the only one which bore traces of footsteps. In all the others the snow was lying just as it had fallen. But along this one path there were, of course, any number of marks, since this had been the route taken by the whole party as they went down to find out the cause of the shooting, and also as one and another came to and fro afterwards. Mr. Milborne's road home lay along the first path that led off to the left, but along that path he most clearly never went. Neither did he branch off to the right, which would have been his nearest way, supposing he had intended going into Merton. It would seem equally clear, according to the declarations of Mr. Dering and his servants—including what I may term the "hostile witness" (as against them), the man Barry—that he did not turn back and quit the wood by the same path as he entered. If he ever walked out of that wood alive, therefore—that is, unless he was carried—he must have gone by the very path which the others afterwards traversed, preceding them, so that his footsteps were obliterated by or mixing up with theirs."
"Well, that might be it."
"It might be, sir, but—as Blake pointed out to me—reluctantly enough, as it seemed—there is no conceivable reason why the Squire should choose that path—a path which led to nowhere in particular—to nowhere, that is, save into the open park."
"He might have taken it by mistake in the dark, if he were laboring under excitement at the time."
"Again, sir, he 'might'; but as the Squire knows every inch of the ground almost as well as he knows his own garden—so I have reason to believe—"
"Oh, dear, yes," Helen put in. "I know that Jack and Mr. Dering were playmates when they were boys, and they played about in the grounds and woods there almost as much as here."
"Then you see that it is highly improbable that he would miss his way. Even had he done so, would he not very quickly have discovered his mistake, and either returned to where the paths joined, or struck off further out? In the further case he would have met the others; in the latter, his footsteps would show where he branched off."
"There is yet one other thought that occurred to us. He 'might,' as you say, have gone straight along the middle path by mistake until, hearing the three shots ahead of him, he might have suddenly resolved to follow the sound in order to discover what was happening. He would, of course, know that such sounds at that time of night could, in all probability, only mean one thing—a poaching affair—and he may have acted upon a sudden impulse to go in the direction of the sound. In that case, the party from the house who followed him, with Mr. Dering at their head, 'might' have exactly followed his footsteps—so, exactly that no trace of a separate track can be seen."
"Humph! Well," said the vicar, hesitatingly, "of course that might be, too."
"Yes; but don't you see, sir, that that lands us in a greater difficulty than ever. We will suppose that all those 'might-be's' actually occurred. Mr. Milborne followed the sound, and came upon the scene of the fight, arriving there just after the poachers had made off. Then, instead of doing what he could to aid the stricken men lying bleeding on the ground, he takes no notice of them, but makes off by some track where (again) his particular footsteps do not show."
"Jack would never have done that," Helen exclaimed hotly. "He would have stayed and helped the poor fellows."
Both she and her mother had been listening eagerly and attentively, but thus far neither had made any observation.
"I should think so, indeed," Mrs. Milborne joined in, indignantly. "Why, Jack would have been foremost in succoring them, and would certainly either have gone off for help, or have stayed till Mr. Dering's party came up."
"Yes, Mrs. Milborne, and in either case we should have heard of him soon afterwards."
"Unless," said Mr. Clements, slowly, and with a judicial air, "he had arrived in time to catch sight of the poachers and had started in hot pursuit of them."
"Yes. We thought of that also," Mr. Weston replied. "But, then, again, we should have heard of him; should we not? Why should he have then and there disappeared—vanished into thin air?"
As no one this time said anything, Weston continued, musingly, evidently following out a train of thought: "Of course, we can carry out our suppositions further somewhat thus: He follows these men and overtakes them; they are in a murderous mood and desperate; they turn on him and kill him, and hide the body. But, again—where is he? Blake and his men have searched high and low, following out every possible step that even that theory—which involves such a long succession of 'mights'—can point to—but absolutely without the ghost of a clue. Besides, all these suppositions involve such a series of coincidences that one is forced back to the conclusion that Mr. Milborne either never went into the wood at all—you must remember that no one but Mr. Dering actually saw him go, the others only heard him—or, if he did enter the wood, he never left it, unless he was somehow and some time carried out of it."
"You have clearly gone very deeply into the mystery, and taken a lot of pains and trouble, Mr. Weston," said Helen gratefully. "Thank you very, very much."
"And your theories and deductions are certainly clever," Mr. Clements added.
"I only repeat to you what the inspector thought, and what we discussed together," the young man answered quietly. "As to the rest, Miss Milborne, you may rest assured that what I have stated is absolutely reliable. I went over the whole of the ground more than once—first with Blake alone, and afterwards with his men add other search parties—to and fro. I also had some talk with Mr. Dering and his people—not much, for I must say they are extremely reticent, and seem determined to give as little information as possible—and I could tell you many additional details, and give you many more theories that are flying about. But they would all add nothing to what you now know so far as reliable facts are concerned, and I see no use in retailing to you all the wild improbabilities and amazing tales that have been offered first by one and then by another."
Ernest Weston did not tell them how large a share he had taken in directing the search into the most likely channels, and drawing those deductions which he modestly referred to as Inspector Blake's. The truth really was that except for his foresight and promptitude the wood and park would never have been explored in the systematic manner he had described—at least, until all the original footmarks and unmarked paths had been overrun. Mr. Clements, however, guessed something of this, for he knew Inspector Blake too well to give him the credit; and, on the other hand, the young curate, ordinarily so bashful and retiring, had more than once surprised him by exhibiting, in cases where his interest had been strongly aroused, a power of reasoning and deduction far beyond the common in acuteness.
"You would have made a very fair detective, Ernest," he said presently. "They ought to give you charge of the investigations. We should get on better than we shall be likely to if they are left in Blake's hands."
"They will not be left in Blake's hands," Weston replied, rising to take his leave. "Already another man has arrived and taken them in hand. He is a detective from Manchester; a clever man, so they say. I must be leaving you now, Mrs. Milborne. I have some calls I must make this morning."
"What is the detective's name?" Mr. Clements asked. "Do you know?"
"Warren; Robert Warren. 'Sharp Bob,' they generally call him, I believe," Weston answered.
He shook hands and left the room, Mrs. Milborne accompanying him into the hall. She did not return, and Mr. Clements and Helen were left alone.
"A good lad, a good lad. Aye, and a clever lad, too; sharp as a needle when he likes." He glanced at Helen, and then turned away with a sigh and looked thoughtfully out of the window across the snow-covered path. "Poor lad!" his thoughts ran. "I cannot blame him—it is not to be wondered at where she is concerned; but—I would he had never seen her."
THE old clergyman gazed out for some minutes in silence upon the wintry landscape, which now looked greyer and colder than it had done when, half-an-hour previously, he had walked across the path, for the sun had become hidden behind a bank of heavy-looking clouds. "I think we shall have some more snow," he presently said. "It is well they made good use of the time yesterday."
He turned away from the window and walked across to the fireplace, where the warm blaze offered a pleasant contrast to the dreary landscape without.
Helen still sat looking into the fire, sorrowful and preoccupied. As Mr. Clements moved from the window, she addressed him in a low tone:
"Mr. Clements, have you seen Ar—I mean, Dr. Delmore?"
"Yes, my dear; I saw him for a moment this morning."
"This morning! Where did you see him?"
"I saw him in his own place that is, in the little house at the bottom of the garden. He was looking out of the upper window of the laboratory—as I passed."
"You passed there this morning?"
"Yes; it happened that my nearest way lay through the lane."
"And he was down there—in that room where he spends so much of his time this morning again. At that time! What time would that be, Mr. Clements?"
"It was early, for I was abroad just after daylight."
"And he was already there! He seems to spend nearly his whole time in that place."
"Scientific research exercises a strange kind of fascination over some natures—and Delmore's is one of that kind," Mr. Clements returned, speaking slowly and thoughtfully.
"Yes; I can understand that. It is the case—so one is told—with all clever scientists, as a rule. I suppose if they did not love their work they would never get clever. Yet—somehow—oh, dear Mr. Clements, I hardly know how to explain to you what is in my mind—but don't you think that Arthur gives too much time to this never-ending 'research'? What I mean is, don't you think he gives to it more time than—?"
"Than to you, my dear?" said the old gentleman, with a quiet smile. "I fear my dear young friend here is inclined to a little jealousy anent one she is inclined to regard as a sort or rival—an attractive siren known as 'Mistress Science'? Eh?"
Helen colored, and bent her head a little lower to avoid the look she knew the speaker had fixed upon her. At another time she would have repudiated the suggestion with a good deal of indignation, more or less real; but to-day she was in too sorrowful a humor. She knew, too, that her kind-hearted friend's intention had been more to draw off her thoughts from dwelling on her troubles than to tease her about her absent lover. As it was, she only shook her head. "It isn't that, dear Mr. Clements," she answered in the same low tone; "it is something beyond that that troubles me. What I mean is—oh, dear, I hardly know how to express it—but when anyone—no matter whether a scientist or—a—an ordinary person gives more time and thought to a particular pursuit, or to a particular object which he coverts—than to—to—"
"To his daily duties, to what he owes to his fellow- creatures—to his God?" said Mr. Clements, gravely, nodding his head. "Like the miser with his gold? Aye, aye, my dear; aye, but—surely, surely—that does not apply to our dear friend Delmore?"
"Mr. Clements," said Helen; with an abrupt change, and turning to look the vicar straight in the face, "tell me truly what you think of this mystery about my brother? Is he—is he—dead, do you think, or is it a false alarm, as it were? Once, some years ago, he disappeared almost as suddenly and strangely, and gave us all an awful fright; and at the end of the week it turned out that he had merely gone off for a few days with a friend in his yacht, and that a telegram he had given to a stranger to send to us had never been handed in."
"Yes, yes; I remember. The strange man stuck to the money and never sent the telegram. But in those days Mr. Milborne was younger and more impulsive. I scarcely think—I should be only too glad, my dear Helen, if I could comfort you by bidding you trust to any such supposition—but I fear that this time—"
"That this time we must, as Mr. Weston says, look facts in the face, and be prepared for the worst," Helen interrupted, talking rapidly. "That's just it, Mr. Clements. If I could only believe that Arthur thinks there is no real cause for alarm—that we are making too much fuss—I could understand."
"I see, my child," said Mr. Clements, kindly, "you are fretting because—because—Well, because Dr. Delmore has not been here this morning, I suppose. Is that it?"
"Partly, Mr. Clements," was the reply, given now in a very quiet down-cast tone. "Yet, even now, I have not made myself quite clear. Mr. Clements," here she looked up with an abrupt change, "tell me truly, do you think it wrong to—to—well, to seek after what is termed occult mysteries?"
The good old gentleman was evidently taken aback. He rubbed his chin and looked very puzzled.
"Surely, surely," he said, "you are now going very far afield, my dear? Launching out into irrelevant talk?"
Helen shook her head.
"Not irrelevant at all, dear Mr. Clements," she returned, in a tone too sorrowful to allow any doubt of her entire sincerity to remain in the other's mind. "I speak of it to you in confidence—but I know, of course, that with you I need not say that—but the truth is I have been worried—at times terribly worried—about it for several days past."
"My dear Helen, what can you possibly mean? These are not the days of alchemists and fanatical seekers after the mythical touchstone, or the fabled Elixir of Life, or—"
"That's just—it—you have named it, dear Mr. Clements."
"What? The El—Impossible! The Elix—Why, Helen, my child, you are dreaming!"
The worthy clergyman was so mystified he seemed now unable even to pronounce the objectionable word again in sober earnest. At first, he had spoken of "touchstone" and "elixir" as merely part of the jargon of half-mad fanatics. To think of such things and speak of them seriously, as something thus come into touch with the modern workaday world, with his own every-day life, was quite a poser to the scandalised old gentleman.
Helen shook her head.
"It is the case, my dear friend," she proceeded to explain to him, "that Arthur has for some time past been engaged in some such research. Ostensibly—i.e., to other people—he is seeking merely for some new and beneficent panacea for human complaints; but. in reality, as he has admitted to me, he believes it to be possible to discover a drug, a mixture, a medicine—call it what you will—which shall have the property of prolonging life indefinitely, and of restoring youth to the aged."
"What!" exclaimed Mr. Clements, "you mean to tell me that Delmore—our good, clever, sensible Delmore—the writer of learned treatises upon obscure medical questions of the day, the reader of brilliant papers before gatherings of the elite of his profession, the Delmore who, in London, has been praised and flattered by some of the most eminent men of these enlightened times—you mean to tell me that he has gone over to the beliefs of the mad enthusiasts of the dark ages? My child! Why, 'tis impossible! Again I say, you must be dreaming. Or, ah—yes, yes—you have somehow misunderstood him; most strangely misunderstood him."
"No, Mr. Clements. I tell you, no. My brother Jack knew it well enough, too. He was quite in his confidence in this matter."
"Helen, you astonish me more and more! Jack in it too—our sensible Squire—a convert to such folly!"
"I scarcely know whether he could be called a convert; but I know that he always displayed deep interest in it. But you must understand that it was all in strict confidence; just between the three of us, and I have never spoken to a soul about it before, not even to my mother. Nor should I have done so now, only—only—I want to know whether you—you think such a thing—wicked?"
Helen hesitated a good deal as she came to the crucial query, and finally brought out the last word with a sort of jerk.
"Wicked?" repeated Mr. Clements, a little vaguely. He seemed altogether too overwhelmed to grasp, even yet, the full meaning of her communication.
"Yes; that's what I wish to know, dear Mr. Clements. In the old days, as you know, to seek after such secrets was accounted unlawful and wicked. Arthur laughs at that, and reminds you that all workers in what we now know to be bona-fide scientific research were regarded in the same light. And he argues, moreover, that the whole meaning and object of his work, and the spirit in which it is carried on, differed entirely from the work of the old alchemists. He is merely trying, he contends, to find out what almost every medical student hopes he may be clever enough, or fortunate enough, to find—a new—medicine—only something ever so much better than anything they have hitherto discovered."
"That is, he would treat the 'Elixir of Life,' if he discovers it, and makes use of it, merely as a sort of glorified patent medicine. For, of course—if he is so very practical and up- to-date in the matter—he would patent it, and advertise it in the papers, with portraits of the people who had tried it. No. 1 portrait would represent the gentleman as he appeared before he took the Elixir. This one would show an old man bent double, toothless and hairless; and No. 2 would portray him restored to his early youth—as a child with his feeding-bottle, say, growing a fresh crop of hair; and cutting another set of teeth, I suppose?"
In his bewilderment the Rev. Grant Clements, usually so gentle and so a kindly, had lapsed into what was, for him, a very unusual vein—he had turned sarcastic!
But the mood quickly passed, and, he returned to his usual mild manner.
"Well, well," he continued, "never mind that now. Tell me, my child—what has this to do with the trouble about your brother? It seems to me a—ah—a—"
"A somewhat inappropriate time to choose for telling you this, dear Mr. Clements," Helen interrupted. "But the two things are connected in my mind—very, very unpleasantly connected—I had almost said horribly connected. For, indeed, I feel—somehow, a sort of horror of this quest of Arthur's. I always felt mistrustful and doubtful—but now—since this great trouble has come upon us—I regard it I with aversion and loathing. I have been thinking that it is wicked; and that is what I wanted to hear from you. Do you think it is wicked?"
Evidently the good clergyman was perplexed. The problem put before him had been so unexpected, he found a difficulty in answering it at once.
"Why do you ask me just now?" he inquired.
"It's this way, Mr. Clements. Arthur did not come to meet us at the station last evening; we did not find him here when we arrived. To-day he has not been to see us, has not even sent us a letter, a note, a message. All this is very unlike him. We are not accustomed to such strange treatment from him—least of all should we have looked for it at such a time. At this time, when we are plunged in the depths of the most cruel anxiety, Arthur seems to have deserted us; and we are left dependent for the information we are so anxiously awaiting upon the kindness of others, of yourself, dear Mr. Clements, of Mr. Weston—who seems to have exerted himself so kindly and thoughtfully—or upon the gossip our servants can pick up. Yet you tell me you saw him, almost at early dawn, this morning, in his laboratory where he was working away, I presume—had been working all night very possibly—he often does, I know—upon this questionable quest of his. Is it not strange?"
Finding that Mr. Clements, did not at once reply, Helen went on: "I also know—he told me indeed himself—that something occurred a few days ago which greatly excited him. Something which he declared to be the end of all his research. In fact, he declared that the Elixir was discovered! That some old man had come to see him who knew how to concoct the wonderful draught, that they had in very truth actually manufactured it between them, and that he had it then in his possession—that is, at the laboratory. And he was so anxious to get back to experiment further with it, that he would not come here to lunch that day, as he had promised. He was wonderfully elated, and talked about the fame and distinction it would bring him. Altogether, I am oppressed with the fear, dear Mr. Clements, that the pursuit of this secret has worked upon Arthur's peculiar temperament until it has turned his brain—that he is—in effect—at this moment, not in his right mind. This miserable search has taken possession of him to such an extent that he can now think of nothing else. All other things in the world appear to be unworthy of attention, in his eyes, by the side of his fancied success in this his great ambition. You can see for yourself that we—I—mother—are now of no account with him—and even poor Jack—who loved him like a brother—he cannot tear himself away, apparently, from that hateful laboratory even for a few hours, to go out and search for him, as Mr. Weston did. Why should it have been Mr. Weston and not Arthur, who went here and there and everywhere with Blake and the others, hunting and seeking, and questioning regardless of time, or weather, or personal convenience? Don't you see it all, Mr. Clements? He can't be in his right mind! And so," she went on, now hysterically sobbing as if her heart would break, "I have not only lost poor dear Jack, but Arthur, too—for he is as much lost to me as if he, too, had disappeared."
Mr. Clements did his best to soothe and comfort her, but for some time without success. Presently, however, she became more composed, and said again: "Tell me, do you think it was wicked?"
"Why, my dear?" Mr. Clements queried, not quite following her train of thought.
"Was it wicked of Arthur to engage in this pursuit? Was it wicked of Jack and myself to applaud and encourage him in it—as I, I admit, certainly did at first? I have come to think differently now, and I cannot get it out of my mind that all these troubles which have come upon us are a punishment from Heaven for our sin. Arthur engaged in a wicked and forbidden search—that's how it now appears to me—and seeking the possession of an unholy power. For a punishment, the Evil One has obtained power over him and wrecks his intelligence. And in all this I wrongly joined, instead of protesting and using all my influence against it. Thus have I helped to bring the punishment upon the one I love best. Oh, Arthur, dear Arthur! I ought to have warned you and turned you from it."
And the sorrowing maiden again broke out into sobbing lamentation, while Mr. Clements essayed, at first vainly, to comfort her. After a pause, as she became quieter, he said:
"As to whether the quest was, in itself, wicked, as you fear, Helen, in the sight of God, I really cannot take upon myself to say, without further consideration and a clearer knowledge of the facts. But of one thing I am satisfied, you, my child, are not in any way to blame. Nor do I believe that Delmore is out of his mind—at least, I hope and trust you are altogether mistaken. He spoke quietly and sensibly enough to me this morning, only—"
"Only what?" Helen queried, as her friend hesitated.
"Well," he told her, "I do not wish to alarm you, but he looked to me very unwell—ill, in fact. I have never seen him look so bad. But all I thought about it was—naturally enough—that he was taking Jack's disappearance very much to heart. I saw—or thought I could see—that the anxiety had told cruelly on him, even as it has upon you. Indeed—"
At this moment Dale opened the door and announced:
DR. DELMORE entered close upon the heels of the old butler, and came, slowly forward to greet his fiancée. And as he advanced, and Helen looked upon him, she saw in him a change that even Mr. Clements' statement had not prepared her for. His face had fallen in, and there were dark circles round the eyes, such as, one would have said, could only have arisen from prolonged vigils, or sudden serious illness; and in the complexion there was an unnatural pallor, altogether different from his accustomed paleness. Not only that, but his entire manner had changed. His step had lost, its elasticity and firmness, and seemed comparatively feeble and uncertain, and his usually brisk and cheery manner had given place to a nervous self-consciousness that had in it, to Helen's eyes, something altogether new and pathetic.
So marked was the change, so obvious the sense of physical weakness accompanying it, that Helen; in her surprise, stood for a few moments and looked upon him in dismay, which had the effect of causing him also to pause, evidently painfully in doubt as to the nature of the reception she intended to accord him. But as she saw this, and read the marks of suffering so clearly written in his face, in his gait, in his whole manner, she forgot all her late feelings of disappointment and annoyance, and, with the one word "Arthur," she threw herself into his arms and buried her face in his breast.
Mr. Clements turned to go, but Delmore saw the movement and gently disengaging himself, intimated by signs rather than by words that he desired him to remain.
Though the vicar had spoken of having seen the doctor but a few hours ago, that had been at a distance and in a bad light, and he was almost as much surprised and shocked as Helen herself now that he came to see him in the clear light of day.
"I will return presently," said Mr. Clements, but Delmore put a hand upon his arm.
"Nay, dear friend, do not leave us; I wish to see you, and am glad that I have met you here."
The tone was so wistful, so humbly appealing, that the old gentleman gazed at him with increased surprise, and acquiesced without further ado. Then, with his accustomed kindly feeling, he endeavored to cheer them both by adopting a cheery tone.
"Your coming just now is most opportune, doctor," he began briskly. "Helen is in very low spirits—and no wonder, poor child—and she was just wondering why you had not called before, and beginning to feel anxious."
"I have been ill—very ill," said the doctor, and then stopped.
He had seated himself beside his sweetheart with an air of great weariness. As he spoke, she laid her hand upon his and said tenderly: "Mr. Clements was just telling me that he feared it must be so, Arthur. Tell me, dear, what is the matter?"
"I cannot tell you more, I fear, than that I feel very unwell," was the reply, given in a strange, listless manner. "It has been a sudden attack—different to anything I have ever had before—and I feel very weak and—"
"Poor Arthur! And you have no one to nurse you, or care for you at your home; only Mrs. Joyce—and I don't think she is very sympathetic when anyone is ill, is she?. You feel as we do, dear Arthur; we have all had a shock—a terrible shock—and you are naturally feeling its effects."
"Yes," he said, in a listless tone; "I have had a great shock."
Mr. Clements regarded him keenly and anxiously, revolving in his mind the fear that had been in Helen's mind—that his mind was giving way. Certainly the doctor must either be very ill, or something must have occurred to greatly change him. It was not like him to confess weakness; to give in thus, almost without a struggle.
"Ah," the vicar went on, "poor Jack's extraordinary disappearance has been a shock to all of us. I do not wonder that it should have upset one so constantly with him." Delmore shivered, and a spasm of pain passed over his face. "Still we must not give up hope," he continued. "There is plenty of ground for the hope that he may yet turn up."
And he went on in the same strain, striving his best, and in the kindliest manner, to put a little hope and encouragement into the other two, but with very slight apparent result. For the doctor's spirits seemed only to fall lower and lower—if they could be said to fall when they were already so low—and in sympathy with him, Helen's temporary excitement, which had followed upon his arrival disappeared also, and she gradually lapsed into a depressed silence.
Presently she roused herself like one who, after pondering a while upon some contemplated course, suddenly resolves to make the plunge.
"Arthur," she said, "I have been speaking to our dear friend here—for you know we can entirely trust him—about—about—that is—the wonderful Elixir!"
She looked at him a little anxiously while she said this, fearing that he would be annoyed; but, to her surprise, he showed no sign of being displeased, and merely bowed his head.
"Yes," said the vicar, willing to help her out. "She has told me about it—and I think rightly, for the affair has evidently caused her much concern and was worrying her."
Again Delmore said nothing; he only nodded slowly.
"She asked me a question, Delmore," the vicar went on, "a question which at first seemed a strange one, but which, as I now understand things, I think she was justified in asking. It was whether I considered the pursuit of occult secrets was permissible, or—whether it was—in effect—wicked."
Still the doctor only nodded.
"And she told me, Delmore," he continued, laying his hand kindly on the other's shoulder, "that this question has lain heavily upon her conscience. She fears that such pursuits are unholy, and may bring their punishment; and she is tormented by a fear that the trouble that has fallen upon her—upon you—upon us all, I may say—for I myself feel this as a heavy personal trouble—she is tormented by the idea that it is a sort of punishment for having engaged in a quest which is ungodly in the sight of heaven. Now, as to this question, I—"
Mr. Clements had spoken the foregoing slowly and hesitatingly. His affectionate regard for Delmore made it an unpleasant task to have to hint serious disapproval of his actions, and he, as well as Helen, quite expected that their views would meet with his strenuous opposition. Great, therefore, was their surprise at the words with which he answered the vicar's exordium.
"I fear she is right. I have been thinking so myself, Mr. Clements," was the unexpected reply. And so surprised were both his hearers at the avowal that they gazed at him for a space without a word.
"You are surprised at my admission," he continued, looking at first one and then the other, "but you need not be. I have pondered over it long and anxiously—ah, how long and how anxiously you, my friends, will never know. And feeling, as I do, that my time in this world is now not very long—"
"Arthur, dear Arthur," she exclaimed, in a broken voice, "do not let me hear you say that! In heaven's name do not say such things to me now—at such a time. It cannot—it shall not be."
"Would that I could feel otherwise!" he said, with a sigh. "But God knows I have no desire to alarm or grieve you, my deafest. Forgive me; I am far from well—and after all that has occurred I am plunged in deepest grief, so much so that at times I scarcely know what I am saying."
Helen glanced at the vicar; it was a reminder of the fears she had expressed to him. To her mind Delmore's behavior was but a confirmation of her dim forebodings. As for the vicar, he was grievously puzzled, and found himself sorely at a loss what to think.
"You were saying, my dearest," Delmore resumed, now in a sort of dreamy voice, "that you have been tormented by the fear that the question which I have been engaging all my best energies, and exercising all my learning and intelligence—to which I have, moreover—let me now confess it—been so ready to sacrifice time, and health, and strength, aye, even the time I might have devoted to you, my tender-hearted darling—that this quest is one forbidden by the laws of our being, and hateful in the sight of God. Would that I had so regarded it when I first entered upon it. Would that I had listened to your gently-hinted warnings, to the signs of repulsion that your purer nature could not entirely conceal, though your loving desire to do nothing to thwart my ambition led you, for a while, to listen to my sophistical reasoning. For I feel now that I was wrong, and that you were right. I laughed at your fears, and pooh-poohed your scruples; I pushed aside your timid-misgivings, and trusted to my own intelligence, when I should have done better to have listened to the guidance of your purer instincts. Ah! my dear, kind- hearted friend"—addressing himself to the vicar—"we men—'lords of creation,' as we so fatuously style ourselves—and more particularly those amongst us who think ourselves so specially gifted—who dub ourselves 'learned scientists'—we should do better to remember, a little oftener, that there are some things in heaven and earth which are hidden from the wise and prudent and 'revealed unto babes and sucklings.' "
"I say 'Amen' to that, my dear Delmore," the old clergyman replied, gravely. "But, my dear friend, I fear me you are falling into another error; you are taking too much to heart, and grieving more than the case requires, over what has been with you, I feel convinced, no more than an error of judgment. Besides, you had good aims in view. You wished to benefit your fellow-men—"
Delmore waved his hand as the speaker paused, and shook his head despondently. "Would that I could console myself with that comfort." He sighed; then went on dreamily, speaking in a voice so low that his hearers could scarcely catch the words.
"But it would not be true—it would not be true. For now, when the bitter truth lies before me, and the punishment has come, I am no longer self-deceiving—no longer is my perception clouded and my conscience lulled by the sophistries that so lately sufficed for guidance. I see things as they really are; I am not now ashamed to confess, I have the courage to call things by their right names, and I know now, and admit to myself—and to you, and before God—that the motives by which I was chiefly actuated were not a wish to benefit my fellow-creatures; or to assuage their sufferings—though I weakly persuaded myself that I had some such objects—but a desire for fame and honor; for the applause of the world."
His voice had become so soft that it almost dropped to a whisper at the last, and, as he finished, he reeled in his chair as though about to faint. Mr. Clements and Helen both sprang up together to assist him, thinking be was about to fall from his chair; but he recovered himself by an effort and waved them away.
"Forgive me, Helen, dearest, I gave way for a moment; I am better now—yes, much better."
But Helen had gone to the sideboard whence she brought decanters and glasses.
"Arthur, you are ill-terribly ill. Take something—oh! dear Mr. Clements, make him take some brandy."
Delmore, at her solicitation, drank sparingly of the cordial she had poured out, and seemed gradually to recover himself.
Meanwhile the worthy vicar had been rapidly revolving matters in his mind, and had come to a decision to go and find Mrs. Milborne and so leave the two together for a while.
"Delmore, you are overwrought, and further talk upon this matter will only excite and upset you further. So we will postpone further discussion till you are in a better state of health. Moreover, I want to see Mrs. Milborne, and shall go now to find her. I daresay I ought to send for another doctor, one of your rivals hereabout, to talk to you and prescribe for you; but I know that I am leaving you in good hands—in the care of one who can just now, I venture to believe, do you more good than all the doctors in the country." And with a meaning glance at Helen and waving aside all remonstrance in very decided fashion, the benevolent old gentleman went out and left the two lovers together.
IN one of the parlors of the "George"—that hostelry boasted several—Mr. Perkes again sat hobnobbing with his good friend Mr. Hopkins, and the latter's protégé, the doctor's discarded servant. The date was two days later than that of the last chapter, and a Sunday had intervened; it was now Monday afternoon. They had been dining at the formers' "ordinary"—a function that took place but once a month—and now sat drinking their after-dinner grog, and smoking their after-dinner "churchwardens" with great gusto and complacency.
On the fourth Monday in every month—and this was the fourth Monday—there was a small market held in Merton, to which came many farmers from the surrounding country, bringing with them produce and stock of various kinds and descriptions, both dead and living. As there was no particular ground or open space available for the purposes of a cattle market, two of the smaller streets of the town were utilised for this purpose, the requisite pens being formed by hurdles against the houses adjacent thereto. For the dwellers in these particular streets did not boast front gardens, as did those more fortunate inhabitants who lived in the main thoroughfare.
The words "more fortunate" may certainly be applied in this case to those who lived not in the streets given over, on "Fourth Monday," to be marked out into pens for cattle, sheep and pigs. It cannot exactly be considered a privilege—to say the least of it—to have the pavement in front of your house or shop taken up by grunting, squeaking, baaing pigs and sheep, or bellowing bullocks, poking their noses in at your ground floor windows, if they are open, or possibly through the glass of the same, if closed, unless you choose to put your shutters up (if you have any) and sit in the dark.
Even to passers-by it is not a pleasant experience to find all the pavements thus appropriated, and to be compelled to struggle along the road amid a confused mass of wagons, farm laborers, loaded, bustling market-carts, vehicles of all sorts, burly, loud-voiced farmers, stolid slow-moving farm laborers, loaded, bustling women, shouting drovers, stray cows, sheep, pigs, goats, ducks, fowls, turkeys, geese, and dogs of every conceivable shape, size and color, and all degrees of temper, from the ferocious savageness of the keeper's watch-dog to the inane mildness of a litter of puppies but just able to totter and flop about under your feet. Should you get so used to all this, however, to sigh for something livelier and more exciting, you would not remain long without other distractions, such as a vicious bull or wicked-looking bullock running amok, or a frantic hunt after a drove of young pigs screaming and scampering and doubling and running in and out amongst the legs of the crowd, with a rush of perspiring yokels in hot pursuit, flourishing ash saplings, regardless of heads or eyes, and madly charging hither and thither, oblivious of the toes they trod upon, or the luckless bystanders they upset.
Altogether the fourth Monday of the month was a bustling, busy, noisy day in Merton, especially in the streets referred to; and the focus, so to speak, of all the bustle and noise and babble was to be found outside, inside, and all round about the George Hotel. The George was an old-fashioned inn, situated at the corner of the two streets, having one of its sides in each, while two wide gateways, running under the first floor windows, led into a courtyard. All day long a constant stream of people crowded into these gateways, and into the courtyard, surging, jostling, walking, shouting, wrangling, and bargaining, pushing their ways through the four or five doorways, and in and out of the maze of passages, bars and parlors, and up and down the several flights of stairs of the rambling old inn.
Mr. Perkes and the pious-minded grocer had managed to secure one of the smallest of the parlors to themselves. It was, indeed, so small that when, as was now the case, two persons were seated one on either side of the table, and one with his back to the door, it was impossible for anyone else to occupy the fourth place—the vacant chair with its back to the fire—except one of those present made way for him, or unless he stepped across the table, or manoeuvred himself over the heads of "the men in possession."
From time to time, wandering seekers after vacant seats in these cosy parlors—in every one of which a piled-up fire beamed in enticing contrast to the cold without—pushed open the door and thrust in a head and shoulders, only, however, to withdraw them again, as a rule, promptly, on seeing how matters stood, and divining that the fourth place was reserved and guarded for an absent friend by those already in tenancy. Sometimes, however, these prospectors were in companies of two or upwards, in which case the leaders, being pressed upon by those behind them, who were themselves in turn, pushed along by other groups making their way through the narrow passage, were forced roughly through the doorway into the room, banging the door against the chair of the nearest occupant—who happened to be Mr. James Pratt—in a fashion so unceremonious as at times to threaten to upset that worthy physically, as completely as the repeated shocks upset him metaphorically and morally.
After enduring and surviving a pretty long succession of these "amateur earthquakes," as Mr. Perkes facetiously styled them, the irate Mr. Pratt came to the end of his slender stock of patience, and resolved upon heroic measures—he got up and locked the door.
"Ah," said Mr. Hopkins, rubbing his hands, "I am glad you've done that, Jim. Now—as I do hope and trust—we shall be spared those outbursts of ungodly language that have so shocked and distressed me. If you only reflected, my dear friend, upon the harm indulgence in such adjectives inflicts upon your moral tone, and the terrible pain it has given me—"
"Where's the pain?" said Jim roughly. "in your stomach?"
"Why, no!" indignantly exclaimed the grocer. "You know quite well—"
"Oh! I thought it was; and that was why you've bin swelterin' down two glasses o' hot gin to our one," Jim answered.
"Mr. Perkes, sir, this is scandalous!" burst out the offended little man, bringing his fist down on the table with a thump.
The blow nearly "jumped" the glasses off, and incidentally spilled some of the contents of the tumbler allotted to Mr. Pratt, which happened at the moment to contain the most.
"I put it to you, Mr. Perkes," Hopkins went on, "as a level- headed third party, whether such language is not insulting and—"
"Look at my drink!" cried Pratt, wrathfully. "If 'e doan't use slang words, Mr. Perkes, 'e can use hard thumps strong enough to spill my liquor and nigh smash t' glasses. An' you knows, Mr. Perkes, as my strong words doan't mean no more'n 'is strong thumps—'cos 'is fist-bangs is a kind o' muscular swearin', just as much as anythin' I sez when I'm rattled."
This further unkind suggestion evidently deeply hurt the grocer, but this time he disdained to reply to it, and contented himself with waving his hand with an air of grave contempt, and turning further round towards the fire, thus showing more of his back to the offending Jim.
During the last few days Mr. Pratt had been having what the Americans call "a high old time" of it. To his two present companions his state of prosperity presented an interesting mystery, and he took considerable pains to prevent them from penetrating it. The actual explanation, however, was that Mr. Robert Warren, the detective referred to by Ernest Weston, had fished Pratt out, and, for reasons of his own, had decided that he could be of use to him, and that it would answer his purpose to pay him to enter his service for the time being. But as it also fitted in with his aims that the man should appear to be still unemployed, Pratt still appeared to onlookers to be merely loafing about for a situation, the while that he was, in reality, "subsidised" by Warren, and was busily engaged in picking up for him stray scraps of information in all sorts of places. Under pretence of looking for a situation in his own line, he went to and fro in all quarters, likely and unlikely, gossiping and talking with coachmen, grooms and ostlers, from the country houses, at all the inns and taverns, and at the surrounding farms, at the doctors' and lawyers', at the vicar's, and amongst any of the tradespeople who kept vans, carts or traps. Wherever, in short, there were stables there Jim loitered, and gossiped, and talked, ready to treat almost everybody who would talk with him. This latter fact, of course, very quickly gained him plenty of friends, for he seemed always to be well provided with something to offer a congenial spirit on the quiet. It was not necessary, in order to enjoy his hospitality, to resort to a neighboring tavern, and that was fortunate, since these were not to be found in the country districts and remote corners into which Jim penetrated. He was generally so prepared, however to be able, at the psychological moment, to produce from some convenient pocket a tempting-looking bottle, some fragrantly- scented tobacco, or even a "twopenny smoke."
The marvel was that with all this freehandedness—so new to him withal—Jim did not get drunk himself. He did not stint himself either—that was certain—but he managed to stop short of overstepping the narrow dividing-line. The actual explanation of this fact—so amazing to those who knew him—was that once when—at the very beginning—he had so overstepped the limit, he had promptly been led away by Mr. Warren, and taken straight home to that gentleman's lodgings.
Then he was no more seen till the middle of the following day, when he was much more sober than any judge. What Mr. Warren did to him, or how he effected his purpose, Jim never told, either then or subsequently, but it was certainly effectual. For it naturally did not suit Mr. Warren's purpose that what Jim learned during the day, for his employer's special use, and at his expense, should be made public property in the evening by the indiscretions of a drunken babbler. So he took his own measures to guard against anything of the kind—and it is sufficient for our purpose to say, as already intimated, that they were successful. Perhaps if Mr. Warren could be induced to reveal his secret, his method might form a useful substitute for the inebriates' Homes now being erected, at so much expense, throughout England. The cure would—it is fair to assume—be far quicker and more certain, and it would probably prove a considerable economy for the overburdened ratepayers if it could be adopted in place of those costly establishments. But that does not concern us at present.
Mr. Pratt having thus been "warrened"—to coin a convenient word—into what Mr. Hopkins with happy alliteration termed "a tantalising temporary temperance," managed to keep his mouth shut, and to loaf and gossip and talk and draw out information from others, without betraying his employer's confidence in return. He was by nature—when sober—pretty astute and inclined to keep his own counsel; and he was also—when sober—a good whip and a shrewd judge of horseflesh. He was, therefore, just the man for the detective's purpose, if he could only keep him from talking in his cups; and Warren took care as to that.
Between the grocer and Jim there was at this time a somewhat curious state of strained relations. The grocer had expected to see his quandoin friend quickly sunk into very low water, with the disagreeable consequence—for the grocer—that he would be in frequent need of applying for the loan of half-a- crown. So Mr. Hopkins had determined to button up his pockets, as it were, in advance, and had, in accordance with that resolve, at first put on an unmistakably cold and uninviting manner towards him. Seeing this, and being for the time independent of the grocer's help, Mr. Pratt proceeded to show his disgust and resentment in his own characteristic manner. It was a part of his tactics in following this line to appear even more reckless than usual in his company, that he might first tempt the good man into an expression of his righteous grief at the exhibition, and then turn upon him and ridicule his remonstrances. The grocer would better have consulted his own dignity by avoiding his society; at any other time he would have done so; but in present circumstances his curiosity proved too strong. He knew that Pratt was now much in the society of both Perkes and the new detective—the very centre of information, the fountain-head to which to carry the latest rumors for confirmation or contradiction—and the gossiping grocer could not resist the attraction, even at the cost of putting up with Pratt's ill- mannered gibes.
On the present occasion the three were the guests of Mr. Warren. That politic gentleman had invited them to dine with him at the farmers' ordinary, where knowing everybody and being familiar with all the local politics and gossip, their presence was of great help to him in following out the line he had laid down for himself. Needless to state, after this explanation, the empty chair near the fire in the snug parlor was reserved for the detective. He had gone out upon some errand, and his guests were awaiting his return.
Across the lower part of the window was a wire blind which, however, only partially veiled the view of what went on in the street, while the outside was guarded by movable iron bars, which were fixed in position only on the fourth Monday of the month, as a protection against the live stock. Below them was now a pen of sheep, and one or other of these, pressed back by its fellows, would now and then rise on its hind legs and peer curiously into the room with a quaint, wondering look that was very amusing to see.
"How do matters really stand now in regard to Mr. Dering, do you think, Mr. Perkes?" Mr. Hopkins presently asked, confidentially. He hazarded the inquiry in the hopes that Perkes might "in a friendly way," now that Warren was out of the room, be more communicative than that gentleman had proved to be. For the grocer had begun to realise, what most people whom the detective favored with his company discovered sooner or later, that he seemed to talk a great deal and yet tell them very little.
As it happened, Perkes was in a communicative mood. The dinner, the wine—for they had drunk sherry as well as beer—and the churchwardens had combined to soothe his mind and placate his feelings. "I really can't make out exactly how the land lies—Warren keeps his hand so dark—but I know that he is piling up the case against Dering pretty strong."
"He doesn't seem to be gettin' on very fast though," returned the grocer, in a discontented tone. "There's a good deal o' talk goin' on, and no end o' runnin' about, but little enough to show for it. Here's two people murdered, poor Roberts and the Squire, an' two more half-killed, and no one's took up for it and nothin' done, though days have gone by. Why don't he have Dering arrested?"
"As regards Mr. Dering, Warren is on very ticklish ground, I can see that," Perkes returned. "You see, the Squire's body has never been found—and you can't charge one man with murdering another when you can't even show that the other man's dead."
"Humph! I don't see's you've any call to wait for that. And surely he ought to have been able to find out before this who killed Roberts. What about that?"
"You're very impatient to have somebody locked up, Mr. Hopkins," said Perkes, smiling.
"Well, if 't had been me I'd have had Dering in quod long before this, I know," was the answer.
"An' Dr. Delmore too, I guess, for that matter," Jim put in.
"Ah! And the doctor, too," Hopkins declared defiantly.
"The doctor!" Perkes repeated, opening his eyes. "Why, what has the doctor done?"
"They doan't go to ee's place o' wusup, neither ov 'em," said Jim. "That's why ee's so down on 'em."
"James Pratt, you ought to be ashamed of yourself," Mr. Hopkins hotly retorted. "But I scorn such insinuations. What I mean about the doctor, Mr. Perkes, is that I feel certain he's engaged in heathenish practices—goin's on that they used to say in the old days was servin' the devil. In them times he'd 'a bin put in prison sure enough—an' first tortured to death, an' then burnt alive afterwards. And serve 'im right," concluded the pious-minded grocer, with a burst of self-righteous conviction.
Perkes shook his head. "Wouldn't do, sir; wouldn't do in these days, Mr. Hopkins. People wouldn't stand it."
" 'Sides you'd lose 'is account," grinned Jim. "There'd be no more bills for oats an' 'ay."
"I've lost it now," said the grocer, with a sigh. "The mare's in the stables here."
"SHARP BOB," otherwise Mr. Robert Warren, entered the room with an alert, vivacious manner, smiling to himself with an air of great self-satisfaction. In one hand he carried a newspaper, in the other a notebook, and between his lips a cigar. He was a man apparently of about forty-five years of age, slightly above middle height, with rather washed-out- looking hair, eyebrows and moustache. His eyes were a cold grey, their expression keen and restless, darting here, there and everywhere, glances which seemed to take in everything at once, in front of him, beside him, and even behind him. Although neither tall nor stout, he was strong and muscular, and well- developed physically; in the polite athletic sports he had formerly been a well-known figure, carrying off many of the best prizes. His most prominent characteristic, probably, was a high- placed confidence in his own abilities, an unmistakably good opinion of himself generally, and a thinly-veiled attitude of contemptuous tolerance towards anyone else in his own line—especially amateurs. Like the usual run of detectives, he had received but an indifferent education, but nature had compensated him to some extent for this by bestowing upon him a considerable proportion of shrewd cunning and quick intuition. Amongst those who knew him best he was reputed to be good-humored and good-natured, but these qualities were largely neutralised, in the opinion of some, by the constant and somewhat vulgar display of egotism and exaggerated self-esteem which had become so prominent in his manner and conversation.
Mr. Hopkins rose as the detective entered, and moved his chair to make room—for him to pass.
"Any news, sir?" he asked.
"News? Aye, lots o' news Mr. Hopkins—leastways, so some people would call it, I suppose," with a glance at Perkes. "But to them that knows a thing or two, and knows how to sift it, it very soon shows what it's made of, and that, Mr. Hopkins, is rubbish, bunkum, moonshine."
"Sorry to hear you say so, Mr. Warren, very sorry," said the grocer. "Such a statement, Mr. Warren, reflects no credit upon our community; it is as much as to say—if I take you aright—that our townsfolk are given to unfounded gossip, or even wilful exaggeration. As our worthy pastor impresses upon us at our place of worship—"
"Oh, stow it, man, stow it!" James Pratt interrupted impatiently. "This ain't a prayer-meeting; your worthy pastor ought to be ashamed of 'isself."
"Eh! What! What do you mean?" gasped the indignant corn merchant.
"Why, if 'e done 'is duty 'e'd put you in a lunatic asylum long ago," was the rude and jeering answer. "Well, guv'nor, will 'e 'scuse me now? 'Cos I'd like to be out and about a bit. I might run again a man as could give me a job."
And receiving an assenting nod from Mr. Warren, Pratt, entirely regardless of the angry glances darted at him by the indignant Hopkins, departed once more on his seemingly never- ending search for prospective employers.
A moment later a small boy darted into the room and addressed the grocer.
"You're wanted in the shop, sir," he jerked out, and pausing a moment to cast an admiring glance at the detective—who was, in his eyes, a fearsome and awe-inspiring personage—the youngster darted off, his master slowly following.
Mr. Warren got up and locked the door.
"That rids us of those two Johnnies," he remarked. "And now to business. Did you see Dr. Bentley?"
"What did he say? How is the underkeeper Hall going on?"
"Favorably, but slowly. You won't be able to see him for a day or two yet."
"Humph! That's unfortunate." Mr. Warren was a Lancashire man, and his "oo's" were very marked.
"Because, Perkes, I've got my eye on a man here that I believe knows more of this shooting affair than you or I do at present. But I want to get from Hall whether he spotted him. Blunt says that Hall knows the man well. He believes he was one of the poachers, and that Hall was near enough to recognise him. He would—Blunt thinks—have known him by his voice; he may even have caught sight of his face when the guns flashed. I am only waiting till Hall speaks to make my move, and I don't want to give my man a chance to slip off meantime."
"Dering is as cheeky and confident as ever. He keeps his counsel and says very little—which is wise of him—but what he does say is decidedly cheeky."
"He knows you can't touch him."
"Y–es; botheration. At least, until we find the missing man."
"And that seems as if it would never be," Perkes observed, despondently. "I confess I grow less hopeful with every day that passes."
"Ha! But you'd never do for a detective, man," Warren returned contemptuously. "We're like cats—we watch and wait, and watch and wait again. And you mustn't count the time."
"I'm thinking of to-morrow—our publishing day. I must have something to tell our readers, you know. Really, at this rate—you won't let me say this, and you won't let me say that—at this rate—"
"Well, man, you must fake it up your own way. No use trying to draw me before I choose."
"I know, Mr. Warren—and I don't wish to 'draw' you, as you call it; but, in a friendly way—apart from the paper—"
"Oh, yes!" Mr. Warren gave a contemptuous sniff.
"Oh, honor! I'll not make use of it. I only ask for myself."
"Well, then," said the detective, appearing to relent. "I don't mind telling you—on the strict q.t.—that something has been found—"
"Where—what, Mr. Warren?"
"Near the fatal spot—a pocket-knife. Do you happen to know it?" and the speaker produced a rough-looking bone-handled clasp knife. Perkes examined it with curiosity, but could contribute nothing towards the problem of identifying it.
"One of the laboring men in town to-day came to me with a very mysterious face on him just now, and wanted to make a bargain of giving up his find; but I very sharply frightened it out of him. However, it doesn't tell us much till we find who it belongs to, eh? By the way, have you heard anything about Dr. Delmore"
"Yes; I hear that he is very ill; confined to his room, they say."
"Ah, I know that; I meant have you found out anything more about his visitor—the strange old man Pratt talked of?"
"No; it is a curious business."
"Tis so. Even Blake knows nothing as to what's become of that man. He's inclined to think that it's a cock-and-bull story—that Pratt was very drunk that night and went to bed and dreamt it."
"I hardly think so. He told us the very same day. He wasn't drunk then, though he had certainly had a drop."
"Humph! Well I don't know exactly what to think about it. I don't know that I should have thought about it again—only—"
"Only—what?" Perkes queried, as the other hesitated.
"Well, it seems to me his behavior's strange for one who's ill. He don't live in his own house properly where his servants can wait on him and nurse him; but shuts himself up in that laboratory, as he calls it, and has all his meals brought to him. And yet, though he's not too ill to manage for himself—for no servant goes into the place—yet he is too ill to go out for so much as a walk—even to see his sweetheart, the sister of the man we're hunting for."
"Ah, but that's his way. The doctor's main mad on his experimenting, and won't, leave it so long as he's got life and strength enough in him to crawl about"
"Humph! Maybe, maybe—but it seems queer goings on to an outsider."
"What made you take so much interest in him as to find out all this?"
"I want to know the truth about that story of Jim Pratt's. I want to know whether there's a queer character—a lunatic, maybe—wanderin' about the country," he remarked. "For I can't find that any such stranger ever went away in any regular manner."
"Well, to go back to Mr. Dering," said Perkes, who, knowing that Dr. Delmore's habits had for some years past appeared to be eccentric and strange in the eyes of the neighbors, and therefore did not find in what the detective had said matter for either interest or surprise. "Have you made any progress in clearing up that question of the single shot in the Home Wood?"
Warren shook his head. "If I knew the truth of that," he said, "I should probably be able to guess something as to what had become of Mr. Milborne."
"It's all very strange," said Perkes, thoughtfully. "The Squire goes into the wood and never comes out again—simply disappears—is spirited away, in fact. Yet he's not in the Wood."
"No; he's not there, that's sure enough."
"What do you make of it yourself, Mr. Warren, really?" asked Perkes, his tone as confidential and persuasive as he could make it.
But Warren only shook his head and rose to go. "I must be off now; I've plenty to do in the crowd round about," he said; and with a shake of the hand he unlocked the door and went out.
Perkes laid down his pipe and, putting on his overcoat which was hanging over the back of his chair, made his way slowly out of the inn. The crowd was much less now, most of the live stock had been already driven off, and those in charge of the remaining lots were making their preparations for departure. The business of the day was practically over, and the farmers and others who remained for a gossip preferred to have their talk indoors over a pipe and glass to standing about in the street.
Perkes walked to the main street where the offices of his paper were situated. These consisted of the lower rooms in a recently-built house, the upper part of which was occupied by Mr. Peter Briddon, the editor and proprietor, his wife and daughter. As the reporter drew near the front door, which always stood open during business hours, he was rather surprised to see standing there, as though waiting for him, Miss Kitty Briddon, the "chief's" pretty daughter. She was dressed in hat and cloak, and upon her face was a rosy flush—which might have arisen from a sharp walk in the keen air. Her dark hair, too, clustering round her forehead, looked as if it had been blown about in the wind. In the dark eyes—which were at all times full of gaiety and fire—there was now a light which at once told Perkes that she had something of importance to tell him. Between these two there had long been a growing understanding, rather than a definite engagement, for Mr. Briddon would have gone half- demented with wrath at the mere suggestion of such an impertinence upon the part of the hardworking, but as yet impecunious reporter. So they had, perforce, to content themselves, for the nonce, with such stolen interviews as a kindly fate might now and again render possible.
As Mr. Perkes came near, Miss Kitty made signs to him to be silent, and then turned and led the way through a door that opened out of the passage into the outer office. It was beginning to grow somewhat dark indoors, and the fire in the grate was low. The young lady crossed the office and took up a strategical position against another door at the other end of the room through which she would be able to effect a timely retreat should necessity arise. Then she indicated to the reporter that he should remain in the bow window, which commanded a good outlook up the street, across the street, and down the street. Having thus taken their measures for guarding against surprises, she began in a low tone:
"Father has gone out with a man who came with a message from someone who wanted to see him at the 'Bell,' and mother has gone out to have tea with Mrs. Dawson. She won't be back till the evening, and I don't think father is likely to return soon, either, as he knows mother's out and thinks I am too. But you'd better stand there and keep a good lookout."
"All right, Kit. But what's up? You look as mysterious as—"
"Hush! Don't talk so loud! Jane's in the kitchen, and she might—"
"Oh, Jane's all right. We have no cause to be afraid of her."
"No; I don't mean that; but I don't want her to hear. I've just come from the Hall."
Perkes pricked up his ears. His sweetheart often did him a good turn by picking up gossip in quarters where he could not penetrate himself.
"Did you see Miss Milborne?" he asked, quickly.
"Yes; that's what I want to tell you about. She took me into her own room, and made me have a glass of wine and a biscuit."
"How is she? Did she tell you anything particular?"
"She told me a great deal, Sam, and she was just as kind as ever she could be. And, what's more, she said that I could tell it to you if I liked. She said the information might be useful to you; and so it will, Sam; I saw that the moment she told me. It's awfully good of her; it'll make father's mouth water when he knows about it; and he will think it awfully clever of you. So mind you make the most of it."
"All right, Kit. What is it, then?"
"She told me—and I could hardly believe it at first—and I couldn't make it out very well either, because she's terribly upset, poor thing, and every now and then she bursts into tears, and—"
"Yes, yes. Never mind about the tears, Kit," Perkes burst out, impatiently. "I am very sorry for her—very sorry indeed—but what was it she told you?"
"Oh, but Sam you've no idea how ill the poor young lady looks. I've never seen her anything like it. Such a change! I'm sure she looks years older!"
"Yes, yes. I'm quite shure she must feel it very much, Kit. But do tell me what she said. The governor may come back at any moment, as you know, and then we mayn't get another chance for you to tell me till goodness knows when."
"How impatient you are, Sam. Am I not telling you as fast as I can? And she said she wanted you to know, too; told me on purpose. It appears, Sam, that Mr. Warren, the detective, has been there a-worrying her, and I think he must have managed to offend her, for she spoke of him very offhand like. And I really do believe that she's told me this to tell you so's you could be beforehand with him."
"Well, well, that's very kind of her—very kind indeed; but Kit, for goodness sake, what is it? Out with it, there's a good girl."
In his impatience, Mr. Perkes spoke rather more sharply than perhaps he intended. Or perhaps Miss Kitty, womanlike, wanted to have the luxury of retaining her secret till the last possible moment. Anyway, the damsel took offence and answered coldly:
"If you're going to speak like that, Sam, I won't tell you at all. I've been trying to tell you for the past ten minutes, and you do nothing but keep interrupting me."
Thereupon Mr. Samuel, throwing caution to the winds, suddenly crossed the room and caught the young lady in his arms. There was a short struggle, and then—he returned to his post of observation, and Kitty, after a short pause to smooth her rumpled hair and collar, proceeded at last to settle down in earnest to the unfolding of her news.
Kitty Briddon was a sort of protégée of Helen Milborne's, and had, for some years past, been a privileged visitor at the Hall. Helen took a great interest and spent a considerable proportion of her time in parish work, and the sprightly Kitty was one of her most indefatigable helpers. And Kitty had made a confidante of her protectress as regards the position of affairs between Mr. Perkes and herself; and Helen, with her accustomed good-nature, had listened sympathetically, and shown her interest and sympathy in many ways and by numerous little kindnesses. And she had, it now appeared, given another proof of her friendship by sending a groom over that morning with a message to Kitty, asking her to come up to see her in the afternoon. And at that visit she had entrusted her young friend with the first news of a discovery which had just come to her knowledge, and which she was willing to give the persevering reporter the opportunity of being the first to make public.
ERNEST WESTON, returning from his duties at evening service on the Sunday evening, had nearly reached the vicarage when, at a part of the road where overhanging shadows threw a deeper shadow than usual, a woman suddenly emerged from their shade, and after cautiously looking round to see if she were observed, crept timidly up to him and addressed him.
"For the love of God. Mr. Weston, sir, come and see my poor husband. He—be—dyin'!"
The address startled Weston, for so softly had the woman approached that he had not even heard a footstep. He had been walking slowly, with bent head, immersed in his thoughts, which were running upon the continued mystery that overhung the fate of John Milborne. The sight of Helen Milborne's face—he had called there for a few minutes before church, making a long detour in order to do so—so full of sorrow and suffering, so pathetic in its patience and silence, had affected him very deeply. And now, as he went over in his mind once more what had occurred at that brief interview—or, rather, what it had suggested to his mind—he felt himself weighed down by a feeling of oppression that lay heavy on his spirits and refused to be shaken off. His own sorrow and sympathy for the suffering girl were deep and true; and it was all the deeper in that he perceived that in this, her trouble, she was not receiving that comfort and support from her fiancé which one would have naturally looked for. That the doctor was himself altogether too weak and ill to be of much real help or service to her—that much seemed certain. He was, indeed, as it now appeared from the most recent report, too unwell to get out for more than a very short walk. Therefore, it was apparent to him that Helen, in addition to the trouble arising from her brother's enigmatical disappearance, had now this additional anxiety in regard to her affianced husband, besides being deprived, at such a critical time, of his advice and assistance. Ernest turned it all over in his mind again and again, and thought it seemed to grow more puzzling and less hopeful at each review.
As the woman spoke, he turned with a start, but for a few moments seemed scarcely to understand what she had said. Then, however, as the meaning came home to him, he glanced keenly at her, and the look confirming the vague impression that the voice had produced, he exclaimed:
"Why! Is it you, Mrs. Steen? What d'you say—your husband dying? I did not know he was ill."
She seized his arm and looked eagerly into his face.
"Oh, Mr. Weston, that be jist it. Nobody knows as he be ill—an' no one must know, sir. For the love of God, come to him, sir; but first, let me hear you say true—true as heaven, sir—as you won't tell no one as he be ill."
Weston paused and looked at her in doubt. There was a moon behind the clouds that night, and he could see her face well enough to perceive that it was pinched and haggard with pain and misery. She was a young woman of less than thirty years of age, and but two or three years before had been fairly good looking. But she had lost her only child by a painful illness, during which Weston had visited and nursed it constantly and assiduously, saving its life once—so the doctor had said—only, however, to see it die at last. Since then everything seemed to have gone badly with her, and she had lost her good looks. He had no wish to add to her present pain or prolong her anxiety by delaying to give the promise she begged with such urgency. But, of course, if her husband were ill he needed a doctor as much as a clergyman; and he pointed this out to her; but she turned it aside and pressed him the more to give his promise and to accompany her at once. After but a slight further hesitation, therefore, he gave her the desired promise, saying that he would set out forthwith.
Her husband, Richard Steen, was known to him as a laboring man who had formerly been employed at a brick works in the neighborhood, but had been discharged for some reason a few weeks ago. Since then but little had been seen of him in the district, and it was thought that he had gone away to seek work elsewhere, and that, perhaps, he had found a temporary job out of the district. At any rate, he had been seen in the town only once or twice—at intervals of a week or ten days—and had each time disappeared again. As the cottage in which he lived was situated at some distance from the town, in rather a lonely spot, and off the main road, no one seemed to be aware whether he had actually gone away or was simply keeping out of sight at home.
From the place where the woman had accosted Weston to this cottage, situated at a part called Gad's Corner, was a distance of some three miles; but that fact did not influence Weston once he had made up his mind that he ought to go. In view of the fact, however, that the time of his return was uncertain, he decided to go on to the vicarage first, to change some of his clothes, and leave word that he might be late; after which he started after the woman, whom he had told to go on first.
He arrived in due time at Steen s habitation, and found the wife waiting for him at the gate of the little garden patch that surrounded their abode. She seized his arm as he passed through the gate and, without a word, almost dragged, rather than led, him to the door of the hovel—for such the place really was.
The door opened direct into the room, and in this, upon a bed made up on the floor, Weston found the sick man. He was a rough but not bad looking man of some thirty years, and was lying with his head and shoulders propped up so that he could see the door, at which he was gazing anxiously, his labored breathing coming and going with painful frequency. A poor light was shed upon him by a cheap lamp that was slung upon a nail in the wall near at hand. A small fire of peat was burning in the grate, the rest of the place was in such shadow that one could scarcely make out the contents; but enough could be seen to make it clear that the furniture was of the scantiest and roughest description. There was a perceptible odor of spirits, and, looking more closely, Weston saw a glass with a teaspoon in it by the side of the bed. It contained brandy and water, and during the talk that followed, the wife frequently gave her husband a spoonful of the mixture. At the very first glance Weston saw that the man was in very truth, dying—and as he felt the pulse, listened to the panting breath, and noted the glazing eye, he quickly became convinced that he had but a very short time to live.
"Why, how is this?" he exclaimed, turning to the man's wife; "how is it that he has had no doctor? We must send for one at once. There is not a moment to lose. Even now I fear—"
"That it be too late!" said the sick man, rousing himself with a painful effort, and speaking more loudly and clearly than anyone would have expected. "Doan't 'ee trouble about me, parson. It's no sort o' good. I knows I ain't got long to live, sir—I be glad on it—an' you'll know directly—when I tells 'ee. 'Tain't no good sendin' for no doctors. But 'fore I tell 'ee what I got to say, I wants 'ee to swear, afore God, as 'ee won't tell the police."
"The police!" echoed Weston, somewhat startled. "Is it then—"
"Do 'ee swear?" the man interrupted, with a strained, anxious gaze. "'Cos I can't tell 'ee nuthin' till I've heard 'ee swear—an' te' time's gettin' short. Aye," he added, leaning back wearily, "so short, parson."
Weston felt that in such circumstances he had no option. He could see, as the man himself said, that it was too late to send for a doctor; and he could not well refuse the request of the dying man. But first he wished to be a little clearer as to the exact conditions.
"You wish," he said, "that I should not inform the police; what does that mean? Whom then may I tell?"
"You may tell it to anyone you may think best, parson, as you can trust, an' as you knows won't tell th' police. I leaves it to yer honor, parson."
"But if I tell one or two, will they not tell others in time?"
"Aye, aye; but my poor wife 'll be fur away by then. It be she I be thinkin' of. But for that I doan't like to die an' not tell 'ee, parson, I'd say nuthin'. An' I'd say nuthin', anyways, if I couldn't trust 'ee. But everyone knows as they can trust t' young parson."
"Say on then, Steen. You have my word. I pray God what you have to tell is not a heavy sin."
"Ah, but it be, parson. It be, parson." Here he half-rose and, stretching out a lean hand, laid it on Weston's arm. "Parson, I shot John Roberts, Musser Dering's keeper!"
"You, Steen! Surely—"
"Aye, aye. I did it, sure enough, parson. But I didn't 'zactly go for to do it. 'E shot I fust; an 'ee a' killed I now. So it's only tit-for-tat."
"He shot you! That is what is the matter with you! And no one guessed you were ill!"
The dying man gave a ghastly chuckle. "Aw shot 'im just in a moment 'cause I were mad wi' pain. Else aw wouldn't a' done it parson. Aw can say that truthful."
"Heaven grant that may be true, Steen," said Weston solemnly. "I think I begin to understand matters better now. His gun went off accidentally—so it is believed—"
"A did; I do believe a did."
"And it wounded you, and you, stung by the pain and hardly knowing what you did, fired in return in a moment of frenzy. Is that your meaning?"
"Thank 'ee, parson, thank 'ee kindly. You've got it right. 'Fore God, parson, I swear it was so."
"It would have been better, Steen, to have sent for a doctor—and even now it would have been better and have done you no harm, if you had made your confession before witnesses. Others may be accused of murder for what you did, and your written statement would clear them."
"I've thought of that, parson," put in the wife, "an' I've written it out. Here it is, an' Dick'll sign it in front of you."
With this the woman—who was, as Weston knew, far better educated than her spouse—produced for his perusal a lengthy statement, which she had written out. Weston read it carefully and approved it, merely making one or two slight alterations for the sake of greater clearness. It was not, of course, exactly all that could have been desired, but it was, he considered sufficient for the purpose. And there would be no time for him to write out another himself; he could see that, for Steen, now that he had got this off his mind seemed to have suddenly become weaker, and was evidently sinking. Without further delay, therefore, a pen was put into his hand and, with much painful effort, he signed his name, Weston and the wife adding theirs as witnesses.
The confession signed, the man lay back for a space in a state of exhaustion. Then he signed to his wife, who gave him another spoonful of brandy and water. It seemed to revive him a little, and he resumed:
"There be summat else; parson. About t' Squire."
"About the Squire—Mr. Milborne? Do you know what happened to him, then?" exclaimed Weston, with reawakened and anxious interest.
The man slowly shook his head.
"Noa, parson. I doan't rightly know only—'tain't what they think."
"What who thinks? What, then, do you know?"
"Liz," said the man to his wife, "gie the parson the gew- gaw."
The woman had scarcely moved throughout the interview. She had sat at one side listening, dry-eyed, silent and apparently apathetic. Only when asked for the written paper and pen and ink had she made any movement. She now rose, crossed the room and opened a box which was lying upon a shelf. She took something from it and, coming back, handed it to Weston, who saw that it was a loose cuff, apparently torn off a shirt. In it was a gold solitaire with a diamond centre, which he at once recognised as one of a pair he had seen the Squire wear. He could not suppress an exclamation.
"Aye, it be t' Squire's," said Steen. "An' I doan't want fur 'em to say I stole it. So do take it parson, and give it to his sister, Miss Milborne. She's been main good to me an' my missus, 'as Miss. Milborne. God bless her!"
"But what about the Squire, Steen? How did you come by this?"
"I'm goin' to tell 'ee, parson. Ye see we—three or four o' the lads and myself—had agreed to have a night of it and get some birds with the net. Black Steve was the man 'as planned it. Ye know Black Steve, parson?"
"I think I know whom you mean, Stephen Bradley."
"Aye. Well, we'd marked out our ground, an' the other three waur to work t' net, an' I waur to play watchman up in t' Home Wood. I guess Roberts an' his men must 'ave got wind of it, somehow, cos they waur out that night a watchin' of us—an' we didn't know it."
"Go on. What had the Squire to do with it?"
"I'se comin' to that. 'Twas agreed as I waur t' watch, as I tould 'ee, in t' Home Wood in case anyone coomed from t' house. There was another man a watchin' in the direction of the keepers, not knawin' as they was out a ready, a lyin' in wait. Well, I was a standin' in t' Home Wood, when I 'ears some parties a talkin' an' comin' towards me. I listened carefully, and made out as they parted, an' one went back while t' other coom straight on to wheer I waur. Well, 'ee coom so quick that I moved sudden to get off the path, but put my foot on a stick as cracked. Then I heard t' man say summat loud like, and heard as he was coomin' on faster to get 'old of me. So I started to run, but 'fore I'd got three yards I caught my foot in a root and fell down, and in a moment t' other man was on me. I couldn't see and couldn't tell who t'was, but I thought 'twere Mr. Dering. He hold on ter me tight, but I wriggled free and got my gun loose, and hit him a whack on t' head wi' it as quieted him for a moment, and then I started to run again. But 'ee started t' run, too, an' followed me close till I got out o' t' wood, and could see plainer. Then I could run faster, an' got away a bit; but I saw as 'ee waur follerin' me, and I then saw as our game waur all oop for that night, so I fired one o' the barrels o' my gun, which waur the signal agreed on for t' others to clear out."
"I see," said Weston, thoughtfully. "That, then, was the first shot that was heard—the one they thought was fired in the wood."
"Likely enough; though 't wurn't in t' wood, but just out of it. Well, t' feller arter me swore hard at that—I 'eard 'im—an follered me faster than ever. I've thought, since, as may be 'ee thought I'd fired at 'ee—but I did not. I only fired to let the others knaw as the game was oop an' they'd best clear out."
"I daresay he would put that construction upon your firing a shot like that; and in that case I can understand his being all the more determined to catch you," Weston commented.
"Yes, parson; I s'pose 'twere like that. Well, 'ee follered me so close, I waur about dead beat by t' time I got across into t' Quarry Wood. But as I got there, Steve Bradley waur standin t' waitin' fur me. He seed how it waur, and pushed me into some bushes. "I'll draw un off," 'ee said, and began runnin' off so's the feller after me could see 'im. An' 'ee—t' squire, as I could then see it waur—started after 'im thinkin' it waur me, an' passed close to where I waur lyin'. Black Steve, 'ee went off along the path leadin' to the road, t' Squire follerin', and them I heard some un laffin' very low, an' foun' t' other chaps was all hidin' close to where I waur. An' we thought we was all right, then, you see, cos Steve's a powerful good runner, and we knowed as t' Squire'd never catch un. They whispered t' me t' make fur that there piece o' stuff, an' the gew-gaw in it, caught in one o' my buttons; so I just shoved un into me pocket. Then we moved off quiet and comfortable, thinkin' 'twere all right, when just as we got into that first clearin', where t' old dead oak- tree be, t' keepers burst out on us like a troop o' wild Indians, an' then 'twas each for hisself. Roberts, 'ee got 'old o' me and we had a rough-and-tumble, an' then 'ee shot I, an' I waur mad like, an' shot back wi' t' barrel as were still loaded. That t'other fellers, when they heerd the shootin', and saw Roberts fall, used their guns too, to get theirselves free, an' we all started off an' made fur t' road t' nighest way—same way as t' Squire'd follered Steve. I didn't know then as I waur hurt so bad; I didn't seem to feel it much at first—'cept my side wur smartin' a good deal. But when we got to t' road I was a'most faitin'; but we had a trap not fur away, an' t' other fellers carried me to it and drew me home. And here I've bin ever since, an' durst not sen' for t' doctor. I thought I shud pull round, for t' wife's mother taught her a lot about herbs and docterin'; but this mornin' I waur wuss, an' brought up a lot o' blood an' arter that I waur so weak I knawed as 't were all oop. I doan't mind; only fur 't wife; an' she'll go back to t' old country among her own people. Give her plenty of time to do that—an' then ye can use that paper if it should be wanted to clear anyone else."
"I will do exactly as you wish, Steen. That I solemnly promise you."
"Thank 'ee sur, thank 'ee. Ye's always bin a good sort, an' always had a kind wurd for us poor folk. Everybody knaws that."
"But what about the Squire? You saw nothing more of him, you say?"
"Naw, sur, naw. I ain't seed 'im or Black Steve since. Steve's never bin a-nigh me—nor t'other chaps. An' in coorse, aw couldn't go to look 'em oop. Nor t' wife, either. She's bin kep' close a-nursin' me. Lucky we had a few things in t' house, or we should 'ave starved. But Miss Milborne, she sent us somethin', too. God bless her."
"Miss Milborne! Did she know you were ill?" asked Weston, in surprise.
"I went an' saw her," the wife explained, speaking almost for the first time. She spoke in a hard, dry tone, looking straight before her, and seeming to be addressing herself to the bit of fire in the grate rather than to Weston.
"You went to her for help, and yet never told her that which you know—which might have relieved her anxiety about her brother, and clear the doubt that has been hanging over Mr. Dering!" exclaimed Weston, with reproach in his voice.
"Dursn't tell her; she'd a gone after Black Steve an' 'ee'd a thought we'd peached, an' brought t' police down on me, ye see," said Steen, shaking his head. "Besides, it doan't take away her trouble—as I can see—cos her brother's still a missin' just as much, bean't 'ee?"
This was, Weston saw, only too true. The information he had gained, while it cleared up to some extent the mystery of the poaching affray, threw little real light upon that part of the affair which concerned the Milbornes. It only moved the matter a little farther. It cleared Mr. Dering, and threw suspicion, instead, upon Black Steve and his companions; but it did no more. Indeed, in some respects, it made the mystery only the deeper, for what in the world could Black Steve and his confederate have done with the Squire?
IT was getting late when Weston quitted the humble abode of Richard Steen, but the walk back to the vicarage, long and lonely though it was, scarcely seemed to him to occupy more than a few minutes, so absorbed was he in reflecting upon all that he had heard. He had remained with the dying man so long as he needed his ministration, but the latter had fallen after a while into a comatose state, in which he was oblivious of the past, and unconscious of his surroundings. His wife had preserved throughout the same stolid demeanor and had towards the last exhibited so marked a disinclination to speak, and so evident a desire to be left undisturbed with her charge, that the young curate, loth as he was to leave her alone in such trouble, felt he could not well prolong his visit. He promised her, however, to come again next day, though he scarcely expected that the man would be then alive to see him; and he had also thoughtfully announced his intention of seeing Miss Milborne early in the morning, when he felt sure she would send someone to do what was possible to aid her in her distress.
When he reached the vicarage, everyone had gone to bed, and he had therefore to postpone any communication with the vicar till they should meet at breakfast-time, when Weston had fully resolved to tell him everything that had taken place.
Great was the good vicar's surprise at the recital, and very grave his face when Ernest had finished, and asked his advice.
"It is a strange tale," said he, "though I see no reason to doubt its truth. It is, above all, matter for surprise that the police should have had no suspicion of this man."
"You see he was known to be out of work and had been away, more than once, for a week at a time, so that his not being seen for a few days occasioned no remark and raised no suspicion. And he lives in a spot that is very little frequented."
"It is curious, too," the vicar continued, "that your if's' and 'might be's,' which appeared so improbable at the time, presented, nevertheless, the true explanation of how Mr. Milborne left the wood. I suppose that the party led by Mr. Dering who came after them, passed over precisely the same ground, and so merged all their footsteps into one track."
"Yes; and, after all, that is easy to understand, knowing what we now do. While in the wood there was but one path leading in the direction from which the sound of the shots had come; when they left the wood and began to cross the open park, I suspect that the leaders—Mr. Dering and the butler—instinctively followed the footsteps which they would, with the aid of the lanterns they carried, have seen plainly enough before them. If Mr. Dering had only told us this—if he had only had the grace to let us know that he came upon the tracks of two men leading out of the wood, and followed them up, he would have saved himself from a very great deal of suspicion and many hard words, which, it is now evident, he did not deserve."
"Humph! He's not a man to care much about that. He would think it rather a good joke, too, to see some of these hard things finding their way into print so that he might come down upon all and sundry concerned in writing or publishing them."
"Yes; it's just possible there may have been design in his reticence." Weston responded, thoughtfully. "And there's no saying how many he might find in his net when he came to haul it in. However, I suppose we may, without failing in my promise to Steen, let it be known that no suspicion now attaches to him."
"Y–es. I—think—it—might be done," said Mr. Clements hesitatingly.
"We shall be compelled to. We are bound, as a matter of fairness, sir, to say what we can to exonerate him."
"Yes," was the vicar's reply, again given with obvious hesitation. "But we must be careful, or we shall be plied with questions and have to choose between telling too much, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, showing we know more than we tell. See here, Ernest, Helen Milborne could give a hint to her young friend Kate Briddon, who, in turn, would pass it on to her father."
"To her admirer, Mr. Samuel Perkes, you mean, sir; I think that's more likely. And the difference doesn't matter; it will be all the same in the end."
Mr. Clements laughed a genial good-natured laugh, as he made answer.
"Dear me, dear me, Ernest, I'm forgetting that as I myself grow old, the children grow up and become sweethearts and lovers. Kitty Briddon and Perkes, eh? So that's the latest, is it?"
"Nothing so very new, sir. I've known it a long time; so has Miss Milborne."
"Ah! It was plain to your young eyes, I suppose. There is a good deal in that way going on which escapes me but does not escape you, eh? Or is this a rare instance? Is it a case of 'Love me love my dog,' eh? Does your interest in Miss Milborne extend itself to her protégées?"
Poor Ernest colored up so painfully at this that the kindly old gentleman instantly regretted the allusion, and proceeded to turn his attention into another channel by saying. Gravely:
"All the same, 'tis a good suggestion. See to it, Ernest. Go over to Fairdale this morning. I need not say, be gentle and careful in talking to the poor girl; this news will be like the opening up of a wound that has almost begun to close—or rather, since it has had not time yet to begin to heal—like touching it with caustic. Be gentle, be discreet."
"But if I go to the Hall how about the poor fellow Steen?"
"I will go there myself and see what can be done, and do you beg Helen to send some assistance from the Hall as soon as she can. I shall not be able to stay there long; this is market day, and several farmers will be in town whom I should like to see."
"Miss Milborne is sure to question me, Mr. Clements, as to your views upon this new development. What answer shall I give her? What do you think about it? Are there any steps we can take?"
"What steps, Ernest?"
"Well, sir, I scarcely know. But certainly this information opens up entirely new fields for investigation, does it not?"
"I suppose it does, in one sense. It moves everything on one notch; so to speak, eh?"
"It narrows the field, sir."
"Y—es; but I don't see that it throws any really fresh light upon the one tantalising question—What has become of Jack Milborne?"
"I wonder if Stephen Bradley's cottage has been searched?" said Weston, musingly.
"Surely, surely, I should say."
"Yet they never thought of searching Steen's."
"No; because Steen is not known to be a poacher, as Bradley is. Besides, as you said just now, it was generally thought that Steen had left the neighborhood. But as to Bradley—Black Steve, as they call him—why, if a sparrow were missing off my garden wall and I made a complaint, the first thing they'd do would be to go and hunt for it in Bradley's domicile. He's got a name for laying hands on anything with feathers or fur, that would make his fortune as a shikkari, if he only lived in the Indian jungles instead of in a sleepy old English country town."
"Yes; he knows how to snare a bird or a hare on the quiet, I believe, as well as any man in England, or, as you say, any shikkari in India. But in this case he knows something far more important to us than that. He knows what has become of Mr. Jack Milborne. He must know; that is now certain. Would that we could make him speak!"
Mr. Clements ruminated for a few moments, then said:
"Well, why don't you try?"
"Try what, sir?"
"Try to make him speak. You have begun well in the unravelling of this mystery. Providence has put the first clues into your hands; why don't you follow them up? There is nothing, I believe, in your promise to Steen to prevent your trying to get the truth from Bradley?"
"Nothing. I only promised not to inform the police or do anything that might bring the police down on him or any of the gang."
"Just so. That is my view. Then try your hand on Bradley. If you're careful and tactful, it may be that you may at least move matters on one more notch."
"Thank you for the suggestion, sir. Yes! I will try my hand on 'Black Steve.' "
"Take care," said Mr. Clements, half-seriously, half- banteringly. "Don't trust yourself alone with him. It might not be safe, from all I've heard—especially now, carrying as you do a dangerous secret—for dangerous it is to him."
"If I go in the name of truth and of mercy—mercy towards our missing friend's sister who is drooping under the incubus of a mystery which perhaps a word from this man can clear up," answered Weston, with quiet firmness. "It may be, Mr. Clements," he went on dreamily, "as you say, that Providence has put the first of his mystery into my hands and with the intent that I should follow it out to the end. If so, of whom then shall I be afraid?"
He had taken his hat and coat while speaking, turned and left the room; but not before Mr. Clements, who ever watched him with a fatherly concern, had had time to mark a new light in his eyes and a new decision in his bearing. And he guessed that this question of following out the clue he had come upon, in the interest of those to whom he had given his loyal friendship had inspired him with new interest and resolve.
The vicar sighed as he looked after him, as he had often done before. His heart sorrowed for the boy, for the pain that he knew this foolish passion must bring him, yet he could not but admire him for his loyal and utterly unselfish devotion, and he murmured, "'Tis a good lad, a good lad! Would that there were more in the world like him. May God be good to him!"
In the meanwhile, Weston had started off on his walk to Fairdale Hall, his head busy with plans for carrying out the suggestion that had been made about Black Steve, and his heart full of the contending emotions which always surged and raged and struggled in his breast whenever he found himself on the road to an interview with the object of his chivalrous devotion. To-day there was, as the vicar had divined, a fresh inspiration, an increased energy. He had suddenly grasped the idea—the hope—that Providence had entrusted him with the unravelling of the mystery that so troubled the peace of mind of the one he was ever willing and anxious to serve, If so, he would accept the mission and fulfil it in a thankful reverent spirit fulfil it to the end, no matter what time or trouble it might involve. And he felt proud and elated at the very thought that such an opportunity should have come to him.
He found Helen Milborne alone, or, rather, she came alone to see him. Her mother, she told him, had quite broken down under the load of trouble, and harrowing anxiety. Ernest thought, as he looked at the sorely-tried girl, that she seemed, also, to be almost on the point of breaking-down. In his sorrow for her, and aided by the influence of the idea that now filled his thoughts, he conquered his usual bashfulness and quickly and tersely explained the reasons for his visit. So tactful did he show himself, and so truly sympathetic as well as considerate, that Helen conceived a new regard for him. She began to feel a sort of sisterly confidence and gratitude for the kindly solicitude and respectful sympathy which showed so plainly through everything that he said or suggested, and which she now for the first time saw and understood in its true light, and appreciated at its true value.
When Weston came to the suggestion that concerned Miss Kitty Briddon, Helen at once understood and approved, and, shortly after, despached a groom with the message which resulted in that young lady's visit, as has already been told. She also gave the necessary instructions for sending one of her woman servants with a basket of necessaries to the aid of Steen's wife.
After all these several points had been arranged, and Weston rose to take his leave, Helen, after a short pause of hesitation, addressed him in a tone that at once arrested his attention.
"Mr. Weston," she said, timidly at first, but gathering confidence as she proceeded: "you have shown yourself so—so—kind—so very considerate—"
"Oh! please say no more," stammered the young curate, now suddenly turning as shy and nervous as ever. "I assure you I never meant to—that is, of course, I did mean to—that is, you know—oh, dear, what am I saying?"
"Nay, pray listen to me, Mr. Weston: You have behaved like a very, very kind, considerate brother, and I thank you with all my heart and soul. I—"
"Oh, don't! Please don't, Miss Milborne. If you say any more I shall have to go away at once and not stay even to say how-de- do—of course. I don't mean that—I mean good-bye."
"But, Mr. Weston, I want to ask a further favor of you. I want you, if you will—if I have not already put you to too much trouble and bother—"
"Oh! if it's anything I can do for you, you have only to tell me, Miss Milborne," said Weston, becoming more composed. "Be assured you have only to ask me."
She looked at him a moment in doubt and hesitation. Then, bracing herself as for an effort, said in a low voice, and with bowed head:
"It concerns Ar—Dr. Delmore. I am very anxious about him. Would you—could you—see him and tell me how he is?"
The commission was a hard one perhaps; and Miss Milborne guessed that it would be. Yet, in her anxiety and trouble she knew not whom else to ask. She knew that Mr. Clements had gone in another direction, and that she would be unlikely to see him; and anxiety as to the condition of her lover urged her to appeal to the curate. But as Weston looked at her, there was something so pathetic, so humbly appealing in her eyes, in her voice, in her whole manner, that his hesitation gave way to eagerness. He burst out, forthwith, into a most earnest declaration that he would gladly undertake anything she required of him, whatever it might be.
"Let me explain," Helen said, speaking very slowly and distinctly, as though repeating something that she had written down beforehand. "I am sure that Dr. Delmore is very ill—that is to say, I believe him to be more ill than he will admit. Evidently he is too ill to come out—else, of course, he would come to me. You can see that, can't you?" she finished argumentatively.
"Yes, yes. Of course, it must be so."
"There is more, however, than that. He had—a visitor—an old man—just before—this trouble—and there was something—I hardly know how to explain, because you do not know anything of the—"
"I think I do, Miss Milborne. Mr. Clements explained it all to me yesterday—as well as he could, for it was all new to him, also, I believe."
"Ah, well; then you know something about it. That will make it easier for you to understand. This old man paid him a visit; he was there, in his (Dr. Delmore's) house when I saw the doctor last Thursday. He was then in very high spirits—greatly elated—and spoke in most enthusiastic terms of this old man, and of the great things he was going to accomplish with him, or through him, in some way. When next I saw him—on Saturday—he was ill—broken down—in despair, as it seemed—"
"The shock of your brother's disappearance, Miss Helen—"
"Yes; but also something beyond. He now turned against his late visitor and everything connected with—with—the—quest in which they had intended to work together. The trouble about my brother had upset him very cruelly. But there is something beyond that which I do not know about, that I cannot fathom, that he will not tell me. It is something connected with that—hateful infatuation—of his—with the visit of this mysterious old man. Of this quest about which he used to be so enthusiastic, he now speaks with regret and sometimes more—almost with abhorrence. Now do you think you understand?"
"I think I do, Miss Milborne; and you may trust me implicitly."
"You will see him and find out—somehow?"
"I will; you may rely upon me to do my very best."
"And you—will be—careful, too? Not lead him to think I sent you there—to—pray into his secrets—because—I did not trust him?"
"I will be careful, my dear Miss Milborne, and I humbly pray God that I may be of service to you—to him—to you both."
"God will bless you for your kindness, Mr. Weston," said Helen, in a broken voice. And, seeing that she was worn out with her trouble and anxiety, Weston left her, and set out promptly upon the new mission with which he had been entrusted.
ON the road to Dr. Delmore's house, Weston passed up the main thoroughfare of the town, which he found fairly quiet and presenting few signs of the busy stir that reigned in the streets where the market was held. There were rather more market carts and waggons than usual, and now and again a farmer would jog along on his nag, or a drove of cattle, or a flock of sheep, passing along the road, reminded those who might otherwise forget the fact, that it was the fourth Monday in the month. Most of the people he passed, whether town or country folk, knew the young curate, and many were the salutations given and returned. Just as he got to Moorfield House, he came upon James Pratt, who was loafing about on the other side of the road, apparently busily engaged in keeping his hands in his pockets and staring at nothing in particular. On seeing Mr. Weston, the man walked across the road, took his hands out of his pockets, and touched his cap.
"Beg pardon for addressin' you, sur," said he, "but I did want to speak a word with you, sur. I come round last night arter church time, but they said as 'ow as you'd gone out to pay a visit. In the country, I think they said, sur."
This was not true, nothing had been said as to where the curate had gone. It was merely a trial shot of Pratt's, fired off in pursuance of the role he had now taken up—that of spying upon everybody in general on behalf of his new employer.
Weston had never liked the ex-groom, and he regarded his behavior in thus accosting him with some instinctive distrust, particularly in view of what he had now said as to the previous evening.
"Why did you seek me, Pratt?" he asked.
"Well, sur, I thought as maybe you might be goin' to see t' doctor."
"I am going there now. What is it you want? Why do you not see him yourself?"
"'E be main angered wi' me 'cos 'ee thinks I took too much drink. I be sorry, sur, an' I've turned over a new leaf. I've never bin boosed since I left 'im; arst anybody. Everybody in t' town knows I've turned steady; an' I've bin tryin' 'igh an' low for a job."
"I suppose funds are low," Weston remarked, though as soon as he had said it he regretted the expression. It had escaped him almost unconsciously; but, on second thoughts, it had too much the appearance of a sneer at the expense of a poor fellow "down on his luck." From Ernest Weston the words had been a slip; it was not his wont to utter a word that could hurt the feelings of the poor people with whom he came in contact. The remark had, however, an effect that was unexpected; it threw Mr. Pratt off his guard. In a moment his natural boastful nature came to the surface, and forgetting whom he was talking to he pulled out a handful of money. There was gold and silver, with a few coppers.
"'Tain't that," he said, with a cunning grin. "I ain't so 'ard oop but I could by meself a drink if I wanted it."
The next moment the man was sorry for the boast, as he saw the look on Weston's face. He felt he had made a mistake, and tried, blunderingly, to undo it.
"It ain't all mine, that 'ere, in coorse. It belongs to—a—a—party—as I'm doin' a little job for."
"Oh, indeed. Then you have something to do?"
Pratt scratched his head; he had no answer ready. If he'd thought of it in time he might have made up some tale about a temporary job for market day, or about a farmer having given him some money to do an errand, or to pay an account for him; but these stories, he felt, would scarcely be consistent with Weston's having found him loafing idly near the doctor's house.
"It's only for a day or two," Jim tried to explain. "If t' doctor'd have me back, I could come in two or three days. The mare ain't properly looked arter where she be. She won't do no good there."
"Where is she?" Weston asked, for he had not heard that the doctor had sent her to the livery stables.
"At t' George. And when she comes back she'll a' lost twenty pun in value, see if she ain't."
"I'll mention it to the doctor—if I see him," Weston promised, and passed on to the doctor's front door.
The servant who opened it, gazed at him, at first, with some surprise, as though it was an unusual thing to see a visitor. Then, recovering her presence of mind, she showed him into the waiting room. She said she did not know whether Dr. Delmore was in or could see him, but she would inquire of the housekeeper.
During her absence, Weston pondered upon the incident of his meeting with the discharged coachman, and the more he thought about it the stronger grew his conviction that there was more in it than appeared upon the surface. It was singular, to say the least, that Pratt should be in possession of so much money, and still more singular that he should carry it about in his pocket. If he had been of a saving disposition—and that Weston did not believe—he would be more likely to have put it away in some safe place—the post-office savings bank—or even have locked it up at home. Why should he be carrying it about in his pocket ready to display to the first comer? And then, again, how came he to be loafing about in the evidently lazy manner that Weston had noticed when he first caught sight of him—before Pratt had seen him—if he had had a 'new job,' even if a temporary one? Besides, it was altogether unlike the man's known character to be thus idly waiting about in that part on that particular morning when, a few streets away, there was sure to be many acquaintances of his from the surrounding country, with whom, one would have thought, he would have been only too ready to gossip and drink.
And then, by an inspiration, a possible explanation suddenly flashed upon him—had the fellow been set there as a watch upon Dr. Delmore's house?
This idea seemed so unlikely that at first he was inclined to reject it and dismiss the matter from his thoughts. But, somehow, it fixed itself in his mind and refused to budge, until he found himself speculating as to all it might imply if true. Yet—who could have set a watch upon the doctor? And why? That was a very difficult query to answer. Otherwise—supposing there was anyone who thought it worth while, all that he had seen would precisely fit the theory.
The discharged coachman Pratt himself had termed it. He had nothing else to do; he knew better than anyone else, the doctor's habits and visitors, and his tale of wishing to see his late master to ask his forgiveness and beg him to take him back, would, of course, serve as an admirable reason for his hanging about near the house. The money he displayed was the money he had received, and his unwonted abstinence and avoidance of the temptations of market day in the town—these were virtues that had been enforced upon him as conditions of the employment.
And just as Weston had carried his cogitations thus far, the door opened, and Mrs. Joyce appeared.
Dr. Delmore's housekeeper was an active-looking, matronly old lady of nearly sixty years of age, grey-haired but comely, and well known to the curate, who now greeted her cordially, shaking hands with her with the unaffected kindliness that formed part of his nature and had everywhere gained him friends. He quickly perceived that her eyes were red and, indeed, distress and anxiety were so plainly written in her face that Weston hastened to inquire whether the doctor was worse that morning.
"No; I don't know that he be worse, sir," answered the old lady, "but I am in very great trouble about him, very great trouble indeed. I am so glad you have called, sir. I was thinking only last night, and again this morning, that I wished I could see Mr. Clements or yourself. You see, sir, I don't care to leave the house while he be so queer. I did not like even to go to church yesterday."
"Why, is he so very bad, then? Is he in bed, Mrs. Joyce?"
Mrs. Joyce shook her head and sighed.
"No, sir; I almost wish he would take to his bed; then I should know what to do. I could nurse him, get him to take nourishing food, perhaps, and medicine, and mayhap call in another doctor, don't you see, sir?"
"How does he seem, then? Won't he go to bed?"
"No, sir. And as to how he really be, or what's the matter with him, why I can't tell you no more than that door-handle, for I scarcely ever see him."
"Never see him? Surely you must see him at meal-times?"
Mrs. Joyce shook her head distressfully. "There be no meals," she declared, "or scarcely any. What he be a-livin' on the good Lord only knows. He eats nothing—not enough to keep a sparrow alive. I get him everything I can think of likely to tempt him—and I know his usual likings so well, having lived with him all his life and with his father before him—but I can't tempt him to eat nothing. And he won't tell me nothing as to what's the matter. He scarce answers when I speak, but looks that dismal and sorrowful it be terrifying, it be, to look at him. Not that I see much of him, for as I was a- going to say, he just pops in and eats a bit when the fit takes him and out again, afore you can catch a sight of him."
"Down the garden to his laboratory."
"Why, is he still at work there—ill as he is?" Weston asked in surprise.
"Whether he works there, or what he does, no soul knows or can guess, Mr. Weston. All I know is, as he seems to pass all his time there or in the garden a-walking up and down—he's so restless like."
"Walking up and down? I thought he was too ill to go out! Miss Milborne told me—." Here Weston hesitated.
"Ah, poor, dear, young lady! How be she, Mr. Weston?"
"Very bad, Mrs. Joyce; very bad indeed. To tell you the truth, Mrs. Joyce," he added, dropping his voice and speaking very gravely, "I don't mind confiding to you, in strict confidence, since you know them both so well, that I have come here really more upon her account than upon my own. All these events are exercising a most baneful effect upon her mother and herself. And, above all, I think may take upon myself to say she is disturbed—more than disturbed—alarmed, even regarding Dr. Delmore. She fears—I scarcely think she can frame her fears herself, and I am sure I cannot. They are, no doubt, vague and undefined, possibly exaggerated or even altogether unfounded, but to her they constitute, none the less, just at this present time, a real, greatly-dreaded terror, that is breaking down her health and destroying her peace of mind."
"Aye, poor child, I do not wonder. For I, myself, feel the same, and if I feel it so acutely, what must she be a-feelin', sir! I, too, sir, live here, day and night, like to one under a great dread—"
"A dread, Mrs. Joyce! Dread of what?"
The good lady hesitated, and gave no answer. Evidently she was reluctant to declare what was in her mind.
"Pray tell me what you fear, Mrs. Joyce. You know that I am a friend to them both—one you can trust."
"Aye, I do know it, sir; and I will tell you what be on my mind," Mrs. Joyce at last answered; "and God knows," she added, with a sigh, "I shall be main glad to tell it to another; for to bear it all alone seems, at times, a'most too much for my poor brain. It be goin' round with it all, at times."
"Tell me, then, Mrs. Joyce. You may speak freely. My only object in coming here this morning is to endeavor to aid them. That I have already declared to you; and I repeat it, upon my word as a gentleman."
"I be sure of it, sir; I be sure of it," she replied wearily. "But God only knows whether you can help. What's on my mind, Mr. Weston, be this: I be afraid as the doctor be mad—or on the point of going mad!"
Weston started slightly, and gave no answer for a space, but rapidly turned matters over in his mind. The suggestion came upon him as a sort of shock, yet did not altogether surprise him, for Mr. Clements had, in some measure, prepared the curate for it by telling him what Helen Milborne had hinted to the same effect, and the wild fears she had expressed. Nevertheless, it came upon him as a shock to hear those fears confirmed by one like Mrs. Joyce, whom he knew as a close observed in all that concerned her beloved master's well-being. And he knew the faithful old housekeeper well enough to be aware that she would have protested hotly and indignantly, as long as she could in honesty do so, had such a suggestion been made but a short time before by any third person, no matter whom. Sorely pressed by a sense of duty, and by a conviction of the truth of her fears, must the poor old lady have been, before she could have brought herself to admit the possibility of such a calamity.
Weston was not the one to lightly pooh-pooh the idea in such circumstances. All he therefore now said was:
"Tell me why you think so, Mrs. Joyce?"
"Why, the way he do behave, Mr. Weston. He takes no sleep, but walks the garden all night long, a-talking to hisself, and a throwing his arms about like one demented."
"Walks about all night!"
"Aye, sir; he thinks we be sound asleep—in our rooms, which be in the front of the house. And I takes care to see as the girl be asleep. But I've watched him from the window in the passage opposite my room through the laths of the blind. Aye, for hours I've stood there in the cold and watched him, I be that anxious. And if I goes away, and sleeps for an hour, two, three hours, and comes back again, there he be still, ever a-going up and down, up and down, till he makes me heart ache and me brain giddy to look at him."
"Aye, sir; every night that be. You can see for yourself as you goes down the garden. Mark the paths and the lawn, how the snow be all trodden down. That be the doctor's doin'—all on it. There be scarce anybody's footmarks but his. For he won't let Begges—the man as comes here to see to the garden—do a single thing—brush up the snow, or even see to the plants in the greenhouse. They be all killed off with the frost. The doctor sent him away, and won't let him come into the place. Be they the goings on of a man in his right senses, sir?"
"It is strange, very strange—and terribly sad, Mrs. Joyce, it seems to me."
"Aye, it be all that, sir."
"Well, I wish to see him, if he will receive me."
"I will ask him through the speaking tube; I dursn't let anybody go down to him without his permission. And I don't know at all whether he will see you, sir. I do hope he will; but he has refused everybody so far."
"Have you had many callers, Mrs. Joyce?"
"No, only a few. One was that detective man. Warren, I think his name is; and Jim. You know he discharged Jim?"
"Yes; what did the man Warren want?"
"Goodness only knows, sir. The doctor wouldn't see him."
"And what about Jim. What did he want?"
"Said he wanted to beg the doctor's pardon. And when the doctor sent a message to say he wouldn't see him, he kep' comin' a-worryin' for money."
"For money? Didn't the doctor pay him his wages?"
"Certainly, sir. But he says he's very hard up, and he keeps coming a-botherin' a me two or three times a day, sayin' can't he see the doctor, because he's very hard up. And he hangs about to try to see the doctor when he goes out, and keeps asking me when the doctor is likely to be goin' out, so's he can speak to him, and all sorts of questions like that, quite impertinent like. I should be angry with him, only that I feels for the poor fellow if he's got nothing to get food and firing with this terrible weather. I'd give him a shilling or two myself, just to help him, poor chap; for I must say I think the doctor's bin a bit hard with him. Terrible angry the doctor must be with him, too, for he won't send him out a shillin'—and that, again, be very unlike the doctor—to refuse to help an old servant in such weather as this, even if he be ever so angry with him."
"So it is, as I quite believe, Mrs. Joyce," said Weston; and he thought of Pratt's boastful exhibition of the money in his pocket. "Yes! As you say—there must be something wrong somewhere."
Mrs. Joyce then quitted the room, and Weston, left to himself, gazed from the window in deep thought, and more than once shook his head with a very doubtful, puzzled air. Then Mrs. Joyce returned, and told him that Dr. Delmore had sent word, through the speaking tube, requesting the curate to go to the laboratory, where he would see him.
WESTON made his way through the grounds to the little house on the lane, and as he looked about him he could not help noticing what Mrs. Joyce had referred to—the way the snow had been trodden down. In all directions and on all sides, on the grass as well as on the paths, it had been trampled upon as though a multitude had passed that way. "If all those marks," Weston thought to himself, "were made by one man—and that man Dr. Delmore—he must have indeed kept unceasing vigil through the past night. What could be the meaning of such restless wanderings to and fro in the dark?"
He found the doctor awaiting him at the open door. He extended a hand as Weston drew near, uttering no word of welcome, but silently leading him into the sitting-room on the lower floor. An asbestos fire was burning clearly and cheerily in the grate, and the room looked cosy and comfortable enough. On the table were writing materials, and scraps of papers so arranged—or rather disarranged—as to suggest to him the idea that the occupant of the apartment had been engaged in writing when disturbed, and had put away whatever he had been engaged upon, without troubling to take up the rest of the litter. In the fireplace Weston noticed small heaps of ashes. They were evidently the remains of bundles of paper which had been burned with care upon the tiled hearth, in order to avoid choking the asbestos fire.
These little signs, all acutely noted by Ernest Weston, struck him, somehow, with a sort of cold chill. There was such a suggestion of method and preparation about them. Was it, in very truth, the method of madness?
As to the man himself, the change in him since the curate had last seen him—when he had been full of strength and vigor, his eyes alight with good humor, and his face glowing with health—was so great that Weston—partly prepared as he had been—could scarcely repress an exclamation. He was indeed struck almost dumb with horror as he gazed upon what seemed to be now but the wreck—a most ghastly counterfeit—of the man he had known. Hollow-eyed, hollow- cheeked, the high cheekbones showing painfully through the skin; with unshaven chin and unkempt hair, Weston could scarcely recognise him as the bright, clever Dr. Delmore. Everything in his appearance, in his bearing, and in his speech, when he spoke, told of utter weakness, of physical exhaustion, of intense heart weariness; while the wild light in the restless, wandering eyes was certainly, to Weston's mind, the light either of insanity or of a high, deadly, consuming fever.
For some minutes neither spoke. Weston could find no words; he could only gaze in wonder and pity. It was Delmore who spoke first, and his utterance was as changed as everything else. It was low and hesitating; so much so that he now and then stopped and gasped, as though short of breath.
"This is kind, very, very kind of you, Weston," were his words, "for I know you have come with a kindly intent—and your visit is timely. I am glad to see you—to-day."
"Why, Doctor Delmore?"
"Because, because—I wanted to—see—someone like yourself—you or—Mr. Clements—before I go—for you see in me—a dying man."
Weston scarcely knew how to answer such an address. That the assertion, if not true, was not much exaggerated, he could see for himself. Ernest answered him almost at random, with the object of gaining time for thought rather than with any settled intention at the moment. His first idea was to urge the calling in of another doctor, and a short, half-hearted argument ensued—half-hearted because each knew that the other had deeper thoughts in his mind—which came to nothing. Delmore resolutely put aside all the curate's well-meant advice and suggestions, refused to see anybody whatever in the way of medical consultation, and brushed everything of the kind aside in such a manner that the talk quickly died out of itself.
Presently Weston made up his mind to speak more plainly.
"Doctor Delmore," he began, in a tone in which firmness and kindly solicitude were delicately mingled, "to myself what you choose to do or do not choose to do, as regards any advice I may venture to offer, is a small matter compared with the pain your refusal will—as I but too well know, inflict upon one who has more right than I have to your consideration. Personally I know—I am so much younger than yourself, you have known me such a comparatively short time—I have no sort of right to seem to pry into your secrets, to ask you for any confidence you do not volunteer, or to seem to wish to interfere in your private affairs. Do—do—believe that I am very, very conscious of this; and that I speak now with the greatest reluctance, and only under the strongest sense of duty—a sense so strong that it would not be silenced or stifled even if you were to show anger at what you may consider my impertinent interference. For I speak not in any own name—I am here not of my own initiative—but at the request—at the most earnest and tearful solicitation—of one who surely has a right to your confidence, one to whom you appear (I only say appear) to refuse that confidence, one whom you appear even to avoid. Whatever I say, therefore, I say in her name—in all respect and sympathy towards both of you, deeply concerned for both of you—and in the name of mercy towards her poor suffering heart, in the name of God's justice begging, imploring you to consider what is your duty towards that sorrow-laden lady who has now no brother beside her to whom she can entrust so delicate a mission. I am here at her wish; she desired me to speak in her name—as the best friend she could—at the moment entrust with such a commission."
As Weston proceeded, Delmore had first fidgeted restlessly, then turned once or twice abruptly as though about to angrily interrupt the speaker; but at last he seemed to break down, and, leaning his elbows upon the table, he buried his face in his hands. Weston saw that a great struggle was going on in his breast, and he forbore to say anything further, but waited patiently till the other chose to speak. Gasps and sobs that escaped convulsively from the suffering man's breast, and which shook him from head to foot, told, only too vividly, of the emotion that swayed him. Soon, however; he became more calm, and presently he spoke, but at first without removing his hands from his face.
"God bless you, Weston, for your good heart, and for your kindness to—the one of whom you speak. I feel—I know, too well, the truth, the force of all you say—of all that I know you would urge. Oh, great God! do you think I do not feel it? Every word that you say is like a fresh stab that pierces my very heart. Pray—I pray you, in mercy, say no more. I am broken down utterly. I know that I have not long to live—but—I can say nothing—nothing, oh, my God! Nothing!"
The man's agony of soul was so deep and so terrible that Weston shuddered as he looked and listened, for Delmore swayed from side to side as though about to fall. Each moment he, the curate, half-expected that he would collapse in a faint or burst a blood-vessel. He knew not what to answer, what to do.
Then Delmore, as by a great effort, controlled himself and became a little calmer. He rose and paced up and down, as might a lion wounded to the death, that had been caught and imprisoned—but without its fierceness. There was in his eyes only a dumb despair, a wistful yearning such as that with which the condemned soul might take its last hungering look upon the paradise it had lost. Weston, as he saw it, felt the blood run cold. He could find nothing to say, and only gazed at him in silence, offering the while an unspoken prayer, that came from the depths of his soul, to the One above who alone, he truly felt, could assuage such cruel agony.
"Go, Weston, go! I pray you, I implore you leave me. I must wrestle this out alone. To you I can tell nothing—now. You shall know—she shall know—hereafter. An awful fate has crushed me, and I am dying slowly, inch by inch, under its relentless power. When it is all over you will find—papers, letters—for her—for you—that will tell you everything. Now go. I cannot bear anyone near me. I must be—alone!"
And the suffering man laid a hot, dry hand on the other's and urged him to leave him.
Weston stood irresolute. To leave him in such a state seemed cruel—unmanly. Yet to remain seemed impossible—against the doctor's wish, so pitifully expressed.
"Delmore, I had much to tell you that I thought you would like to hear. Much about Mr. Milborne."
"Leave me! Oh, leave me! I can bear no more. You are killing me!"
Weston suddenly resolved to go—at once and seek the vicar. His own head was in a whirl with the strangeness and unexpectedness of the whole thing. He felt he must have the aid and advice of some other friend, and there was none to turn to in such circumstances like the vicar. He determined to seek him forthwith.
"I will do as you so urgently desire—now," he said, slowly, "but only on one condition—that I or Mr. Clements may come again."
"Yes, yes—another time—I may be calm—I will try."
"And meanwhile—till I see you again—you will do nothing—nothing—that is—"
Delmore took Weston's hand in one of his, and placing the other on his shoulder, looked steadily into his eyes. Alas! it was a look that might have melted a stone—but it spoke, nevertheless, something to Weston's heart that satisfied him for the moment.
"It is a promise—I will trust you—on your honor."
"On my honor, Weston. When you come again I will give you what I have written down, and when you have read it then you will know everything. But leave me now."
Ernest nodded his head slowly and meaningly, then went out into the garden, the doctor accompanying him, and, after a glance of inquiry, opening the door that led into the lane. As it closed behind him, and he turned along the road, Weston saw a figure, about a hundred yards further in, hastily disappearing into a thicket of firs and dense bush that bordered the lane. But he had had time to recognise James Pratt.
"So I was right," he said to himself. "He has come round here now to watch. I've a great mind to catch him up and tackle him, and insist upon knowing by what right, or at whose instigation, he is carrying on this espionage."
But Pratt went off at a nimble pace, being by that time due at the "George," where he had arranged to meet his patron, and join him in discussing the merits of the farmers' ordinary; and by the time the curate had rounded the thicket the watcher was out of sight.
Weston walked into the town, inquiring here and there of those he met, and eventually learned that the vicar had come into town and had gone to the parish schoolroom. There he found him, and a little later, as they walked together back to the vicarage to their mid-day meal, Ernest related all that had occurred, and asked Mr. Clements his opinion as to what was to be done.
"I feel that I have failed utterly in the mission with which Miss Milborne entrusted me," Weston confessed regretfully, "and it went sorely against both my reason and my feelings to leave that poor fellow alone. What can I do? I feel so helpless, Mr. Clements. I really feel I cannot face that poor girl again until I have at least something more definite to tell her. And meantime—Delmore is certainly not in a fit state to be left alone."
"Let us carry our trouble to the One who rules the hearts of all men and pities their afflictions," said the vicar, solemnly, "and counsel will come to us."
"Steen died this morning," he presently told the curate, "about an hour after I got there. The woman sent from Fairdale Hall arrived before I left, and also two other women—the nearest neighbors."
"How is the widow?" Weston asked, after a pause.
"She bears up well so far; and she gave me a message for you—she wants to see you very particularly."
"Wants to see me?"
"Yes; that was her message. She asked me to beg you to go over there this afternoon or evening, and declared it was something of importance. But I could not get her to tell me what it was. You will go, I suppose?"
"I suppose I had better. But—Miss Milborne and Delmore?"
"I will do all that can be done. I think you had better see what it is Mrs. Steen wishes to see you about. It may turn out to be nothing, or it may be something that we want to hear. I think she knows more than she has yet told; and may have a fancy for saying it to you in preference to me. And she is evidently packing up and preparing to leave; so I advise that you should not delay."
"What will they do about a certificate of death?"
"I have already managed that with Dr. Bentley."
When, however, they reached the Vicarage, they found that a note had been left, some half-hour previously, by a boy who had immediately gone away, without a word.
The note consisted of a dirty piece of paper addressed to Weston, folded up in a very confused and complicated fashion. When opened it was found to contain some writing in pencil so faint as to be almost illegible. After considerable trouble, however, and several ineffectual guesses on the part of the two reverend gentlemen, the message it was intended to convey was thus construed:—
"Mr. Weston. Reverend sir. Be sure and coom to nite but donte get hear before nine o'clock. E. Steen."
In compliance with this request, Ernest Weston shortly after eight o'clock once more set out in the dark for the lonely dwelling at Gad's Corner.
IT was a wild, stormy-looking night when Weston started for his lonely walk, and he found the wintry blast keen and biting as he plodded steadily on to keep his tryst. The moon would have shed some light but for heavy masses of cloud which spread over nearly the whole of the visible firmament. Now and again they would break sufficiently long to give a brief glimpse of the moon, nearly half full, riding high in a sky of sombre indigo, but the momentary play of light only served to make the succeeding interval appear darker by the contrast. At times a few flakes of snow fell, apparently the harbingers of a heavier fall to come. The way lay across the open moor, and there were no hedges to serve as partial screens against the icy blast that came sweeping across direct from the mountains, which lay in silent grandeur not far distant, grim towering masses of ice- covered rock and wastes of gleaming snow. The swirl and swish of the hurrying gusts were the only sounds to be heard for minutes together; but as they died down for a space there could be heard the faint barking of a dog at some farm-house that lay isolated and lonely in the midst of the storm-swept moor. Then would follow a slight rustling, a faint sighing moan, that rose and fell, and rose still more, the first threatenings of the next squall, as yet far away. Soon, above this, would be heard a dull, low sound, like that of a distant sea, as the oncoming blast tore through first one and then another of the fir thickets that, at intervals, dotted the open country. The sound seemed to be thrown to and fro, from the one to the other of the masses of swaying tree-tops, till it had reached the nearest, a few hundred yards away. Then it suddenly gathered strength and, swelling into a great roar, came rushing across the road in one mad, angry leap to the nearest trees on the other side. For a moment the passing traveller had to turn and lower his head, and bend sturdily forward to prevent himself from being carried into the ditch that ran alongside the road. But the wind is ever changeful and inconstant, and it stayed not to renew its assault, scurrying on its way with a howl of disappointed fury that rose almost to a screech. But gradually it died down once more, as it passed from thicket to thicket, ever hurrying madly—hurrying whither no man might know.
Weston was a keen lover of nature, and the wind in all its moods had ever a great fascination for him, whether it assumed the form it took this winter's night, of the icy, cold blast, searching, bitter, furious, or the soft, dreamy whisper of the zephyrs of midsummer. But he did not now feel the delight he would have experienced at almost any other time in such a walk on such a night. Instead, his thoughts were of the gloomiest, and his mind became oppressed by heavy forebodings as he went over and over again the events of the last few days, and recalled the various details of the interviews he had had that day, first with Helen Milborne, and then with her lover.
As to the latter, he could come to no sort of conclusion with regard to him. Was he really insane, or on the verge of insanity? he asked himself a hundred times. And yet—though there had been in his eyes a light that might be that of insanity, it also might be but the sign of a consuming fever in which lunacy had no part. Weston recalled the touch of the hot burning hand, the yellow skin that almost began to look as though dried up into parchment; these symptoms showed clearly enough that the man was in high fever, but his talk had scarcely been that of one demented. Rather did it resemble that of one who felt himself driven nearly to madness—but who had not yet quite reached it—by the pressure of some awful trouble or fear, by the dread of an impending catastrophe too overwhelming, too appalling for the tottering brain to much longer contemplate without giving way. If so, what could that calamity be that could crush so strong a will, and threaten with madness that evenly-balanced, scientifically-trained brain?
Weston thought of every solution that occurred to him as reasonable or possible, without lighting upon any that seemed adequate to explain the enigma. He tried to recall everything he had ever heard about alchemists and the legendary perils they had braved in their reputed search after the fabulous Elixir—of mythical stories of unholy compacts with the Powers of Evil, which finally led their dupes on to insanity or other horrible punishment. But as he did not believe in the legends, the speculation did not assist him. And in the result he found himself at the end of his journey sooner than he had thought—so immersed had he been in his musing—and without having been able to frame any theory that would fit satisfactorily into every corner, curve, and angle of his mental puzzle.
Mrs. Steen was waiting for him at the gate at the bottom of the garden, as on the previous night. She spoke in a whisper, and, by many signs which he could just make out in the dim light, impressed upon him the necessity of silence and caution.
This unexpected procedure, coming on top of the thoughts that had just been in his mind, added greatly to his perplexity. He seemed to have been moving, during the last few days, in an atmosphere of mystery and tragedy, and now this woman's behavior appeared to herald yet more of it to come. A passing thought came into his mind that caused him for a moment to hesitate. He wondered if the appointment at this lonely spot had been made with any sinister object? But he dismissed the idea as soon as he was aware of it. Even if it were so, he was not the one to be afraid, or to shrink from going through with whatever he considered to be his duty from any personal fear. Ernest Weston's faith and trust were fixed on a higher Power than anything human or earthly, and he feared nothing that man could do to him, so long as his own conscience approved of his actions.
The Woman led the way in silence the cottage which he found, to his further surprise, was dark and apparently deserted. She pulled him within the door and carefully closed and bolted it, then shuffled across the floor, leaving him standing in the dark.
There was a fire, but it was low, and gave forth scarcely any light. Presently, however, she lighted a match, and he then saw that she was bending down in one corner over a lantern. A moment later she had lighted a candle within it, and closed the door. Then she took it up and, moving to the side of the low bed, threw the light upon it just sufficiently to allow Weston to perceive that it was empty; that no dead form now reposed upon the humble pallet. Then she carried it back to the corner from which she had taken it, seeming, as she did so, to be careful to screen its feeble light with her dress, and finally placed it in such a position that it was almost hidden altogether. Certainly no ray could reach to either window or door. She seated herself on a rickety chair and placed another for Weston, who followed her example. The conversation which followed was carried on in a whisper.
This was the effect of it: The body of her late husband had been put into a shell and removed to the dwelling of some neighbors—who lived a mile or so away—that afternoon. They were Irish people and kinsfolk of Steen's, and they were going to hold a wake. She herself was going on there later to stay the night; but before leaving expected a visitor—no other than Steven Bradley, the poacher—the one known as "Black Steve." Eliza Steen knew that Weston was anxious to solve the riddle of Squire Milborne's disappearance, and she was desirous of assisting him, if she could, before she and Bradley left the neighborhood—as they hoped to do immediately and for ever. She had never forgotten, she said, the great kindness that Weston had once rendered her; and she wished to show her gratitude before her departure by doing what she could to clear up the mystery that was causing so much trouble to him and his friends.
Black Steve, who it now appeared was Mr. Steen's cousin, was being sought for by the police, and was in hiding, but had sent a message promising to run the risk of leaving his hiding-place and coming to her cottage that night in order that they might arrange together the details of their projected flight. "But he would never come near the place if he thought there would be anyone else here," Mrs. Steen explained. "He is that suspicious he may hang and spy about the place for an hour to make sure who is here before he shows himself to me; and if he knew I had brought you here he would think I had betrayed him, and would be pretty sure to kill us both. He believes that they will try to fasten the killing of Roberts on to him and he swears he won't be taken alive. He is always armed with a loaded revolver; and I fear me there will be more blood shed before the end if anyone runs against him," the woman concluded, with a sigh. "God have mercy on us all, and forgive us. This all comes a' Steen's getting mixed up in poaching."
"Try to do your duty now, and God will comfort you and lead you through this trouble to better times," Weston answered earnestly.
"Aye, aye; I ain't forgot all I learned at the Soonday-school, sir. And the Bible they gived me for a prize be my greatest coomfort now. But you must hide, sir."
"Hide!" Weston repeated, looking round. "Where can I hide here?"
Without a word, Mrs. Steen took up the lantern, and, carefully shading the light, pointed to a recess in the wall at the foot of the bed, and furthest away from the fireplace. The recess was screened by a piece of sacking, and in the narrow space Weston crouched down, and the woman carefully adjusted the sacking, then pushed the foot of the bed close against it. That done, she resumed her seat by the fire, and silently awaited the arrival of Bradley.
FOR what appeared to him a very long time Weston crouched without a word or movement in his place of concealment. The widow had left him, after her last whispered caution, and seated herself upon a low stool beside the fire. He heard her place upon it another piece of peat, and then everything subsided into absolute silence. The stillness was so profound that he could, at times, faintly hear his own watch ticking, buried though it was in his pocket under many wraps.
Suddenly there was heard a slight scratching at the door, and Mrs. Steen rose at once and opened it. But there seemed to be no one there, and she looked out in surprise. The snow was coming down very lightly now; but a good deal had fallen, sufficient, as she noticed, to cover up the tracks on the garden path. But, looking down, she could make out the prints of feet in the fresh snow close to the door. It was too dark to trace them far without going out; but she saw enough to make it certain that someone had been at the door and then retreated.
She gave a soft, low whistle, once, twice, thrice, and a few moments later a similar whistle was heard in return, sounding three notes as she had done, but with different intervals between. Then she gave one more long whistle and waited. A shadow came round the corner of the cottage, seeming to glide along past the window towards her, resolving itself, as it came on, into the figure of a tall, burly man. Another shadow turned the same corner, but remained standing there, and the first figure, making a sign to it, entered the house and closed the door, leaving the other outside, presumably on guard.
"I be glad you be coome, Steve," said the woman in a low tone. "I begun to be afeared you weren't coomin' at all. You be cold, beant ye?"
"Cold as—!" growled a deep, surly voice in reply, with an oath. "Have ye got a drink? I be fair mizzled."
Without replying, Mrs. Steen went to a shelf and took down a bottle containing whisky, a jug of water, and a damaged mug, and placed them on the table; then resumed her seat upon the stool upon which she had been sitting before the other's arrival. This left the other side of the fireplace clear for the visitor, who, after throwing his cap and a long, many-pocketed overcoat across the bed, seated himself facing the window and door, and with his back to where Weston was concealed.
Steven Bradley was a big, powerfully built man, with long hair, full beard, and busy eyebrows, all of them black, and shaggy looking. His face was swarthy, his great brown hands, broad and sinewy, and in movement he had the rolling, lumbering gait of a navvy. His face bore a habitual scowl, and altogether he was about as uninviting-looking a ruffian as one would care to meet.
He poured, some of the fiery spirit into the mug, and ignoring the jug of water—which the woman had pushed over towards him rather significantly—drank it off at a draught.
"Taffy's outside on the look-out," he observed shortly. The woman nodded. She understood the name to indicate an associate of Bradley's, upon whom this designation had been conferred in consequence of his having migrated from Wales.
Bradley then proceeded to talk in a low, growling voice, interspersed with many oaths and curses, of the plans he had arranged for their intended flight, his auditor, for the most part, merely nodding or asking a brief question here and there. After a while, when all the details had been gone over, and the woman, in reply to his repeated queries, had declared that she fully understood and would remember the part she had to play, the conversation dropped, and Steve, who had by that time emptied the bottle, began to show signs of an intention to take his leave.
"I'd best be off before t' snow's over," he said, "so's there'll be moore coom down to cover up our tracks. Else aw can't say what might foller us oop."
This gave the woman the opening she had been looking for.
"Why be they huntin' for 'ee, Steve?" she asked. "D'ye think they 'ave got anythin' certain to go on; or is it only suspicion?"
He growled out another oath mingled with curses against the police who were after him, and finally explained that he did not believe he had been seen or recognised on the night of the fray, that, therefore, he guessed they had no direct evidence, and were only trying to take him on spec before he could get away—as they shrewdly expected he would try to do—and hoping that something might crop up subsequently to connect him more directly with the affair.
"But ye never knaws," he added. "One of them other two might peach at any moment; so it's best fur me to be off out of t' way as quick as aw can."
"But do ye think Tom Painter or Bill Rogers 'd peach, Steve? 'Sides, even if they did, they couldn't do much, could they? If ye wasn't there, an' I know ye wasn't there, because Steen, o' course, said as 'ow you had gone off to draw away the Squire. But where on earth be the Squire noo, then?"
Bradley laughed a loud, unpleasant laugh before replying.
"You must ask t' doctor that, lass. He be t' only man as can answer that question."
"But, Steve—man alive—be ye speaking t' truth now? It surely—it can't be!"
"It can be—'cos 'tis," said the man, doggedly. "What I be tellin' 'ee be gospel truth."
"Then—Steve—why is it t' doctor haven't told everybody where t' Squire be?"
"Ask t' doctor 'isself—not me" was the stolid reply.
"An' why 'aven't you told, Steve?"
Bradley hesitated, and it was some time before he answered, at last he said, slowly:
"Well, 'ee see, lass, it's this way. I doan't be over fond of t' Squire. 'Ee's put me in prison twice—an' 'ee's always bin hard on me whenever 'ee got t' chance. What do I care what's become of him? Why should I trouble? If t' doctor's got a little game of his own to play—why should I go an' peach on him fur t' sake o' t' Squire? Nay, lass. T' doctor can do as he likes as fur as I be concerned. Let him play his own game, says I. I won't interfere—not fur t' sake of t' Squire—not I." And Steve went on chuckling to himself hugely, rubbing his hands and evidently enjoying the idea.
"But what in t' world can it all mean? Where can t' Squire be? What's coom to him? Be 'ee dead or alive?"
But Bradley did not answer. He seemed to consider that he had told all he felt called upon to state, and the rest was a matter that did not interest him. He only shook his head, and continued to chuckle to himself.
"Could t' doctor an' 'ee have had a quarrel?" queried Mrs. Steen, after many disjointed exclamations of wonder. Bradley rose to go, saying in a tone of indifference:
"Like enough, like enough. T' Squire were ever a hot-tempered 'un—ye knaw that. An' like enough they had a row, an' t' doctor got t' best of it an' killed 'un—and doan't like to say so, 'cos he was goin' to marry t' sister."
And then, after reverting for a few moments to the arrangements he had come to discuss, and impressing upon her the necessity of strict secrecy and caution, Bradley put on his cap and coat and left the cottage.
As for Weston, who had scarcely been able to control himself in the face of assertions so utterly unexpected, it would be hard indeed to give any idea of what his feelings were.. His brain seemed in a whirl, and it came as a grateful relief when he was able to rise up from his unpleasant position and walk up and down to stretch his cramped limbs.
Naturally, he was anxious to be alone, to think over the extraordinary statements Bradley had made, and to arrange the ideas which seemed to be jostling each other in his mind amidst a mad rush of questions, suggestions and conjectures, which surged up, one after the other, in maddening confusion. In a few minutes, after expressing his thanks to Mrs. Steen, and promising to see her again in a day or two, he left the cottage and, regardless of the darkness and of the falling snow, started off at a rapid walk for the vicarage.
On the road he tried, perseveringly, but uselessly, to find some reasonable, plausible or harmless explanation of the statement Bradley had made; to evolve from it some theory that would account for Dr. Delmore's silence on innocent ground, but he could find none. That Bradley had told the truth he took for granted. Certainly he wished he could have cross-examined him, have put some questions that would have tested his assertions a little further, but the very manner in which the man had spoken, the selfish indifference he showed to the consequences, were all so many proofs of the truth of his story. That being so, what could he think—what could anyone think—of Dr. Delmore's silence—taken in conjunction with his palpable state of nervous and physical prostration—but that it assumed a sinister, a terrible aspect in the light of what he now knew? How could he put away from himself the fear—nay, the absolute conviction—that some terrible tragedy had taken place utterly different from—more horrible even—anything they had hitherto imagined in even their wildest guesses as to the fate of Mr. Milborne.
But all his conjecture and speculation failed to point out to Ernest Weston the proper course now to be pursued, and he arrived at the vicarage with only one clear resolve in his mind—and that was to at once seek Mr. Clements and ask his counsel.
But herein a fresh trouble awaited him, for he found that the vicar had been called away, and was not expected to return till some time on the following day. He had, therefore, he felt, no option but to postpone any further step until Mr. Clements came back, and, in the meantime, to seek such rest and sleep as his bewildered brain might allow him to take.
ON the morning of the next day, Mr. Robert Warren was walking briskly in the direction of the police- station, with the usual object of ascertaining from Inspector Blake what reports had come in from his subordinates and auxiliaries, when he was accosted by the loquacious Mr. Hopkins. The grocer seemed to be carrying himself with an air of even more self-importance and satisfied self-righteousness than usual; but Mr. Warren did not notice this; he happened to feel rather worried and irritated that morning, and he was in no mood to stop and listen to the other's gossip.
"Pray, Mr. Warren, tell me what news you have," Hopkins began; "there are so many rumors flying about, one doesn't know what to believe. But you, sir, you who are the repository of the secrets of the legal guardians of our lives and property, the fountain- head, so to speak, of the rippling waters of—ahem!—truth—and—ahem!— news—well, sir, and what can you tell me this morning?"
"I can tell you nothing, sir," said Warren shortly. "I am myself on the way to see what reports have come in."
"Why, then, you've heard nothing. Dear, dear! Then perhaps it isn't true, after all?"
"What isn't true?"
"What Mr. Perkes has just told me."
"Oh!" returned Warren, contemptuously, "you don't expect me to be interested in every fresh mare's nest that our imaginative friend, the town reporter, stumbles upon, do you?"
"Mr. Warren, sir, I have known Samuel Perkes, man and boy, for many years. It is true he does not attend our place of worship. As our worthy pastor says—"
"Oh, bother your worthy pastor!" exclaimed the detective impatiently. "I've told you that I have not yet been to the station to get the morning's reports, and I'm in a hurry."
"Well, well, then I won't detain you to listen to what I was going to tell you. Only I thought, if you haven't heard it, that you ought to know what is reported."
"Of course, I'm always open to hear whatever is going; it's part of my duty. It's what I'm here for—partly. But when you want to lug in, by the ears, your worthy pastor—who may be a very good sort of fellow for all I know—and your place of worship—"
"True, sir, true. That, as you would point out, has no direct connection, and I admit it, with the question who killed Cock Rob—I mean, sir, who murdered Mr. Milborne."
"We don't know that he's dead yet, please remember," snapped Mr. Warren.
"No; but we know now that Mr. Dering did not kill him, don't we?"
"I never said so."
"But Mr. Perkes does. He declares it is positively certain now that Dering had nothing to do with it."
"Oh, indeed!" said Warren, with a sneer. "And how and why is he so suddenly convinced of that?"
"Why, it seems—but here is Mr. Perkes. You'd better ask him yourself, sir, if you'd like to know" answered Hopkins, who at that moment descried the reporter walking towards them.
Mr. Warren shrugged his shoulders, but turned, nevertheless, to greet the newcomer.
"Perkes," said the grocer, "tell our good friend here your news. He seems very sceptically inclined this morning. I fear me something has occurred to jar the usual repose of his character. His belief in human veracity has been shaken by some unworthy persons who have endeavored to impose upon his credulity by fairy tales. Alas! that people in general are not more rigid adherers to simple, plain, unvarnished truth! As our worthy pastor puts it—"
"What is it he is talking about?" Warren asked abruptly, turning to Perkes.
For answer, that individual drew out of his pocket a long narrow strip of paper, of the kind that printers use for striking off proofs, as it is termed. It was, in fact, a proof of matter already set up in type for his paper, relating to the "Merton Mystery," as it had then come to be called.
Warren took the strip, and glancing down it came to a paragraph which Perkes more particularly pointed out. It ran as follows:—
"We are authorised to state that authentic evidence has been obtained showing that Mr. Milborne was seen by an eye-witness to leave the wood referred to above and across the park in the direction of the road. This evidence, therefore, confirms the statement which Mr. Dering made, and has adhered to all along, viz., that he and Mr. Milborne had parted company before the report of the first shot was heard, the statement of the witness referred to being that he saw Mr. Milborne out in the park, and far away from the wood after Mr. Dering had left him and returned to his own house. We have great pleasure in giving publicity to this important fact, which serves, at all events, to clear up satisfactorily one or two important points, though its value, we regret to say, ends there, for there is nothing to show the direction in which Mr. Milborne went after he reached the road, and the mystery, therefore, of his strange disappearance remains, apparently, as insoluble as before."
Mr. Warren handed back the paper with a sniff.
"Of course, it's easy for anybody to make hole-and-corner statements of that sort," he remarked. "But where is your witness? Who is he? It's the first I've heard of it. Who's your authority? You say it is authentic."
"As to our authority, Mr. Warren," Mr. Perkes replied, with offended dignity, "we are not in the habit of stating that a thing is 'authentic' unless it is so; nor do we feel always bound to give our authority—often we are not at liberty to do so. However, in this case I do not mind telling you who our authority is. It is Mr. Ernest Weston, our curate."
"Indeed! And what does Mr. Ernest Weston, your curate, know about it? It seems that what with Mr. Hopkins's worthy pastor, and now your estimable curate—"
"It is confirmed by Mr. Clements, our vicar," Perkes put in.
"Another clergyman! Well, it's time I retired, I fancy, if the profession is going to be overrun with members of the cloth in this fashion."
"Mr. Clements has a signed statement; that much I know," Perkes replied, composedly. "I fancy the reason he doesn't show it is that it probably contains something more which he is not at liberty to tell yet. But he wishes this much to be made public, as an act of justice towards Mr. Dering, and in order to save him from further annoyance."
"Humph! And when did he say all this, and to whom? And why did not Mr. Weston—your curate—come and tell it to me?"
"To the first communication I reply that I received the communication yesterday afternoon about four o'clock, and communicated it at once to my chief. To the second question I can only say that I do not know, and that you had better inquire of Mr. Weston himself. You will find him at the vicarage."
And, with a curt salutation, Mr. Perkes went on his way, inwardly chuckling with satisfaction and delight at the detective's evident chagrin.
Mr. Warren did not go to the vicarage, but continued his walk towards the police-station, where he was soon closeted with Inspector Blake. He found that that officer had much to tell him, and, first of all, he fully confirmed all that Perkes had stated.
"Mr. Clements called on me late last evening," the inspector said. "He has in his possession a signed deposition, given to him, as he states, for safe-keeping, by Mr. Weston, his curate. Where Mr. Weston got it from, or what it contains, I do not know; and Mr. Clements refuses to show me the paper. He talks about the 'seal of confession,' and all that sort of thing, and will not tell me more than you now know. He says, however, that he will produce the paper should certain circumstances arise."
"All tommy rot, I should say," replied Warren, discontentedly. "It's some mare's nest."
"No; I know Mr. Clements too well. It's no mare's nest."
"Do you feel sure you can rely upon him, Blake?"
"Then deuce take it; that's all I have to say. Nice for me, isn't it? Here have I been working tooth and nail, day and night, never getting proper sleep, and sometimes no food all day long; slaving away, only to be outdone by that addle-brained, conceited donkey of a reporter—"
"No, it isn't the reporter; it comes from Mr. Weston, I tell you."
"Humph! That doesn't make it any better. And Perkes got the news first, and had it set up in type before I even heard anything about it."
"Well, that's because Mr. Weston, for reasons of his own, I suppose, chose to give him the information first. Perhaps it might be judicious of you, Warren, to go to the vicarage and see Mr. Weston and make friends with him. If he finds out anything else, he may tell you first next time."
Blake said this good-humoredly, and by way of a joke; but Warren was annoyed.
"That's just what that—that—that Perkes advised me to do—go to the vicarage," he broke out, wrathfully. "D'ye suppose I'm going to a milk-and-water, bun-eating young curate to beg him to teach me my trade?"
"Come, come, I didn't mean that," the inspector hastened to say. "I was but having a bit of a joke. All the same, Mr. Weston's a very good sort of young fellow—everybody likes him—and if you did go to him he'd treat you civilly, I know. If he should pick up anything more—"
"Confound it, Blake, man, what are ye thinking about? I go to the curate to beg him to honor me with the crumbs of wisdom that fall from his table? See him at—Halifax, first!"
"Well, well, never mind Mr. Weston," he rejoined. "Curiously enough I've got information from another quarter which confirms the other. It comes from a doctor this time. D'ye object to a doctor's knowing anything before you do, Warren?"
Warren gave a sort of growl.
"I don't so much mind a doctor, Blake," he said. "Doctors pick up a lot; they're in the way of it."
"So are parsons, if you'll believe it. However, Dr. Bentley was here early this morning. He came to give me a very important piece of information. He says that the poor fellow who was so badly hurt—"
"You mean Hall—yes—well?" Warren cried excitedly. "I thought he could tell something. That's what I've been waiting for. I was going to try to see him to-day, if the doctor would let me."
"Well he states that just before the shooting two men passed near him running fast. One, he thinks, was Stephen Bradley, and the other, he is quite certain, was the Squire—Mr. Jack Milborne. They were running very fast, as though the Squire were chasing the other. They ran so quickly he had no time to speak or to try to stop the poacher, and he was past almost before got a glance at him. But the other he is sure of. They went in the direction of the road."
"Why didn't he follow them?"
"It seems he'd been told not to show himself, but to remain in hiding till he heard a certain signal. And the two were gone and out of sight in a moment round the corner of the wood. And, again, he would naturally be surprised at seeing the Squire there on their ground, and I suppose he'd think 'twas no part of his duty to leave his own post to go and help the Squire catch a poacher. There's no love lost between those people—any of 'em—you know; so probably the man thought he'd let the Squire look after himself."
"Humph! Well, as you say, this seems to confirm the parson's story."
"It does. Curious, isn't it?"
"Too darned curious to please me! Just too late! If we'd only known this yesterday! As it is, the parson fellow and the reporter have got just nicely ahead of us."
"Yes; 'won by a head'—so far. But the race isn't finished yet, Warren."
"No, lad, and we'll take good care that the parson and the reporter ain't ahead of us at the finish, eh?"
Blake gave a knowing grin by way of approval. Then Warren, who appeared to have been pondering deeply, said:
"But this upsets all our theories with regard to Bradley, doesn't it? If he was running away then—that is, of course, before the scrimmage—why he couldn't have been in it?"
"Exactly. The same thing struck me."
"Botheration!" Warren scratched his head, and looked dejected. He reflected deeply; then continued:
"But, then, if the Squire went after Black Steve, why, the man must know what's become of him. So the onus of accountin' for the missing man is transferred from Mr. Dering to Bradley. That's so, ain't it?"
"Right. That's how the land lies now," assented the inspector.
"Perhaps Bradley killed him and hid him, and we may be able to hang him yet for that, if we have to hold him free of the other," Warren suggested hopefully.
"Perhaps so—if we can catch him," Blake said dubiously. "At present it doesn't look as if we were likely to."
"I'll start on the trail myself—at once. The parson shan't get ahead of me this time," Warren declared, with sudden resolution. "So long! Will see you again in the afternoon." And with that the detective went his way.
WHILE the two officials were putting their heads together, and laying their plans in hopeful vein, Ernest Weston was passing the morning at the vicarage, chafing under enforced idleness. Mr. Clements had not returned, as had been expected, and Ernest felt the situation to be too serious for him to take any step until he had had the benefit of his more experienced friend's advice. He hesitated about visiting Dr. Delmore, till he had consulted with the vicar; and he could not trust himself to risk an interview with Helen Milborne. For what could he say to that bruised heart in face of the terrible shadow that hovered over her lover? And since the vicar was expected back at any moment, he could not go out upon any other duty, so had, perforce to remain at home, idly but eagerly waiting. He sent brief notes to both those he refrained from going to see, merely stating that he was detained by the absence of Mr. Clements, and then a thought struck him, and he sent a third message to Mr. Perkes, asking him to come to the vicarage. And so the reporter called at the vicarage in the course of the morning.
The first thing Mr. Perkes did was to offer his thanks to the curate for sending him the information that Miss Kitty had communicated.
"Miss Milborne told her that it was at your suggestion, sir," he said. "And it was very thoughtful and kind of you. It's done me a lot of good."
"Has it? How so?"
"Oh, in several ways. In the first place the chief had written a lot of stuff attacking Mr. Dering, that would have got him into trouble if it had gone in. Your tip was just in time. He knocked the other out, and put this in instead." He showed Ernest a copy of the paper. "Mr. Dering came down to get an early copy and find out what we'd said. When he saw what we'd put in he was very pleased, and shook hands with the chief, and then with me—for the governor was good enough to say that it was my smartness that had got the information. Of course I told him it was your doing—I couldn't mention Miss Kitty in the matter, you see, sir—but he seemed to think that I'd done well in the matter."
Weston smiled. "I'm very glad it happened so, Mr. Perkes. I was in hopes something of the kind might come out of it. Now it has occurred to me that, since you are interested, like myself, in getting to the bottom of this matter—you might be willing to help me a little farther. Will you?"
The reporter felt both pleased and proud, and showed it.
"I shall only be too delighted, sir. But what can I do?"
"I may trust you? You will treat everything I tell you—or that you find out through me—as secret and confidential, till I give you leave to use it?"
"I will, sir, truly and absolutely."
"Very well; I will accept your promise. Now, I have reason to believe that Mr. Warren, the detective who is down here, is employing that fellow Pratt—whom Dr. Delmore discharged—to spy for him."
"You think that, sir? You have reason to think so?"
"Yes; I have what I consider very good ground for believing it."
Perkes slapped his hand upon his thigh.
"Oh! but you're sharp, sir. Why, if that's so, it explains it all."
"Where Pratt gets his money from, and how it comes that he is able to loaf about, and drink and smoke, and treat people right and left, while he's pretending to be looking for a job."
"Just so. I don't think there is much doubt about it, after what I have heard and seen. That is the inference I have drawn."
"What a fool I've been—we've all been—not to have seen it. It explains everything."
"Well, now, I have further reason to believe that Mr. Warren has set him on to watch, in particular, his former master, Dr. Delmore."
"Dr. Delmore?" repeated Perkes, opening his eyes very wide. "What in the world for?"
Weston hesitated. He did not like to entrust the reporter with all he knew; yet he saw no ground for misleading him, even if he thought it right or fair to do so.
"That's what we have to find out," he finally said. "And I want you to try to do it. In fact, I want you to watch the watcher."
"I see! And I can do it, too, Mr. Weston. He won't suspect me of anything more than poking about in my usual way for scraps of news. If I work it right, I can manage it so as to rather flatter him—make him believe he knows more than he'll tell, and all that."
"Yes, do it your own way, only—watch him. And directly you find out anything worth reporting let me know at once. You'll find me here until Mr. Clements returns. After that I will leave word if I go out. Very likely I shall be at Dr. Delmore's."
"At Dr. Delmore's?"
"Yes; so I shan't be far off, if you find out anything worth reporting to me."
"Very good, Mr. Weston. I'll bet I'll be as sharp as Pratt, and sharper. If there's anything going on, I'll get to the bottom of it."
"Good. How is Miss Kitty?"
Mr. Perkes blushed, but smiled pleasantly.
"She's very well, thank you; and as pleased as Punch—or Judy—over this business. Her father's in good humor, you see, sir—and she's like me—so pleased we got ahead of the detective. You should have seen Mr. Warren's face this morning when I pulled a proof out of my pocket and showed him what they were printing on our machines! He felt that he was all behind—out of the fun of the fair. He looked at me as though he'd have liked to swallow me; and Mr. Hopkins stood there laughing at him, and roasting him about coming in second best after our paper."
"That will put them on their mettle now," Ernest said, reflectively. "Keep your eyes open; and let me know the moment you hear or see anything worth reporting. Come to me wherever I may be."
Mr. Perkes departed upon his mission, and Ernest Weston was left alone to fulfil his part, which consisted, then and for many long weary hours after, in doing nothing at all, so far as regarded the matter in hand. For Mr. Clements came not, and there were no tidings of him until the afternoon. It was beginning to get dark when a waggoner jogging into town brought a brief note from the reverend gentleman.
It stated that on his way home that morning from his first call he had been met by a messenger bringing another, summoning him to the bedside of a sick parishioner at a farm a few miles from the town, and that he now hoped to get home early in the evening.
Having already waited all day, Ernest saw no alternative to waiting still longer, although the inaction, under such circumstances, went sadly against his inclinations.
Just, however, as he was sitting down to tea, a visitor was announced, who proved to be Mr. Perkes. He came in hurriedly, evidently laboring under considerable excitement. He said he had come to report the events of the day, and had some rather strange news to communicate.
It seemed early in the afternoon Warren had come back accompanied by a man named Holt, a quarryman who lived at the cottage a little way from the south end of the town, but who had been away for some days seeking work in another district. It would, appear that this man must have had something to communicate which Warren deemed of special importance, since he took him to see Inspector Blake, and the three were closeted together for nearly half-an-hour, after which the two officers remained in consultation for fully another hour. There had been much calling in and going to and fro of their subordinates, and two or three messengers had been despatched in various directions, it was believed, to the houses of some of the magistrates living near the town.
Just as it was getting dark a messenger had been sent out with an urgent summons to Dr. Delmore. He was wanted—so it was understood—to attend a case of sudden illness at a cottage near the police-station. At first he had sent word that he was unwell and could not come, but on being pressed, and hearing that other doctors who had been first appealed to were all away, he consented to attend. What the case was, Perkes had not been able to ascertain; he only knew that the patient was at the cottage where two of the police constables lodged, and opined that it might refer to one of them. The doctor had been detained there about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, and had then gone back to his house.
"I saw him as he passed me, and I spoke to him," said Perkes; "but he took no notice and appeared not to see me. He seemed like one walking in his sleep. I was shocked to see how ill he looked. I scarcely knew him."
Of Pratt's movements he had little to tell beyond the fact that he had loafed about near the doctor's residence more or less all day.
"But;" continued Perkes, "there is evidently, as you suspected, some connection between the fellow and Warren. I saw some loafers come up and speak to him, and take him on to a bar; and when they went away I followed them, and found that his friends went back to the police-station, reaching it by a back lane, so as to avoid observation."
Weston was surprised to hear that Dr. Delmore had been induced to go out, and said so.
"They must have sent a very urgent message, and have been very anxious to secure him," he observed.
Perkes nodded. "I should judge that he wants a doctor himself quite as badly as the one he went to see could have done. He looked as if he ought to be in bed. I wondered that he went when he was evidently so ill."
"The professional instinct is strong in him, as in every right-minded medical man," Weston returned, musingly. "I can understand his reluctance to refuse an urgent summons on what might be a matter of life and death. Still, it seems strange. And it is an unusual thing, too, that all the other medical men in the town should have been away. How did they know? Did they send round to them first to inquire?"
The reporter, however, could give no information upon that point.
"I can only give you the gossip I picked up, and that was very meagre," he told the curate. "There was a curious air of mystery and secrecy about the whole of the business that I am unable to understand. I cannot say I saw or heard much to give me that impression; it was in instinct rather than from anything that came actually to my knowledge."
Weston pondered awhile. Presently he asked:
"What do you think about it all? Tell me frankly."
"I can't help fancying, Mr. Weston, that Warren has picked up some new and important information, some fresh clue, and that he is now hot upon the scent, as it were. I gathered this from his air and manner. He is now again jaunty and self-satisfied. I am afraid he is ahead of us this time, and that we shall be out of it altogether at the finish."
This statement gave Ernest a painful feeling, and filled him with a vague sickening alarm—of what he could not say. He could not—he would not—shape it even to himself.
"It may be so," he said; "but there is not much to go upon at present"
Perkes shook his head. "I haven't seen Warren look so smiling and pleased since he's been here," he declared. "And Blake was much the same. I have known him for many years, and understand his moods; and I never saw him look so perfectly satisfied and confident as he did when I last caught sight of him, a few minutes ago."
Weston could not repress a sigh. The time when anything could be done—or attempted—was passing, and they were doing nothing. Mr. Clements came not; and in the meantime events seemed to be marching fast.
"You see, sir," Perkes returned, "there must be some reason for their sending round to find what magistrates are at home and available—for that's how I read what they are doing. Evidently some new move—some fresh action—is contemplated, and it must be of an important character, if they cannot take it without the sanction of a magistrate."
"Ah! That is how you read it, is it, Mr. Perkes?"
"Yes, Mr. Weston. I have turned it over in my mind, and thought it out, and that is the conclusion I am driven to. Even that worthless fellow Pratt seems to have the idea, too! I can see that."
"Why do you think so? The police may employ him—make use of him—but he is scarcely the sort of man they would be likely to make a confidante of, I should say."
"No; but he may pick up a general idea that something is in the wind from hints and half-sentences he may hear amongst their assistants and hangers-on. He has paid an unusual number of visits to the 'George' and the 'Bell' to-day, and is rather the worse for drink, and that, you know, sir, has also been unusual for him lately."
At this moment a peal was heard upon the door-bell, and Weston rose and went to the window.
"I hope this is Mr. Clements," he said.
But it proved to be a note for him which had been brought by a servant, who was waiting for an answer. Weston opened it, and found that it was from Dr. Delmore. It ran:
"If you wish to see me come at once. If you delay, it may be too late.—Arthur Delmore."
Weston folded up the note and put it in his pocket. "Mr. Perkes," he said, "this is from Dr. Delmore, and he wishes me to go and see him at once. Pray go and find out all you can of what is going forward, and when you want me come to the doctor's house."
FROM the servant who had brought the note Weston learned that the doctor was, as usual, in the little house in the lane, and he accordingly went direct there. The place was lighted up, and Delmore himself was, despite the cold, leaning out of the laboratory window which overlooked the lane, evidently waiting for him. As the curate approached, the doctor descried him, descended and opened the doors; then, after closing, he carefully locked and bolted them—a precaution which Weston remarked with some surprise—led his visitor upstairs into the laboratory.
As had been the case downstairs on the occasion of his last visit, the place was warmed by an asbestos gas fire; overhead was a hanging gas lamp with a pink shade which threw a ruddy light upon everything within a limited circle below, but left the rest of the apartment both below and above in comparative darkness. The doctor carefully shut the door of the room and then placed a seat for his visitor on one side of the fire, seating himself upon the other side, further away, and just within the shadow.
Weston began the conversation by explaining that the vicar's unexpected absence had prevented him from coming round earlier in the day; to which Delmore made some reply that was scarcely audible, but a wave of the hand which accompanied it indicated that he understood.
As Weston glanced at him he saw, spite of the shadow—within which Delmore had, no doubt, placed himself by design—that he was looking even more thin and ill than when he had last seen him. But his general bearing appeared quieter, calmer, and his eyes seemed, he thought, less wild- looking. Indeed, they had in their expression, as the doctor bent his glance thoughtfully upon the fire, something indescribably sad and wistful. It conveyed to Ernest an impression that the feverish fire had somehow burned itself out, and had given place to a calmer mood—one that savored rather of a deep, chastened resignation.
Presently Delmore spoke. His voice was subdued and trembled a little at first, but the words were uttered slowly and with deliberation, giving the idea that the speaker had well thought out beforehand every word he intended to say.
"I thanked you yesterday, Weston," he began, "for coming to see me; and I wish, first of all, to thank you once more, now, for so promptly again coming to me in my extremity; for extremity it is. As I told you yesterday, I have not long to live; I have less time before me now than yesterday, for I—I feel assured, I have, a conviction upon me—that I shall not live to see to-morrow. I beg you, therefore, to listen to me—to bear with me, if need be—as you would with a man you know to be dying."
Weston found this address difficult to reply to. There was something in the other's quiet resignation that disarmed remonstrance, as it were, and seemed to brush aside, in advance, all argument and expostulations. There was a pathos in it, too—in Delmore's whole manner, in his very attitude—which seemed to appeal to him and warn him not to worry the man at that time with conventional comfortings. So he replied in a tone as subdued and deliberate as that in which the doctor had spoken:
"I will not at this moment argue with you or combat your assertions. Let us assume, for the time, that it is as you say. In that case, what is it you wish me to do?"
Delmore rose and, going to a table, unlocked a box which stood upon it and took out two or three large bulky-looking envelopes with red seals upon them. But soon he paused as though dissatisfied, and examined the interior of the box, evidently searching for something he missed.
"Strange!" he muttered "I must have left it downstairs." Then, turning to Weston, he said quietly, "I must have left a paper in the other room;" and with that he went out and was heard, a moment later, descending the stairs.
Then Ernest Weston behaved in a somewhat singular fashion. He rose and turned this way and that, seeming to sniff the air suspiciously, as does a terrier who scents a rat or a concealed foe. A moment later he stole softly across the floor and opened the door of a small cabinet of polished blackwood which was fixed at a height of a few feet from the ground, in the angle formed by two of the walls of the room.
Glancing quickly inside, he noted two things in particular amongst its contents; one was a medicine glass containing a small quantity of liquid—this he looked at with a nod as though it was exactly what he had been expecting to find—the other he regarded with some surprise; it was a wristband fastened by a gold solitare with a single diamond in the centre.
After a very brief moment of hesitation, he put the wristband into his pocket; then, taking up the glass, he first smelt the contents, and stepping to a sink which was close at hand, he poured the fluid carefully down the drain, rinsed the glass in some water that lay in an open bowl under the tap, replaced the glass in the cabinet, closed the door, and returned to his seat. All this he accomplished successfully without making a sound.
Dr. Delmore was away but a short time. When he returned, however, he, curiously enough, went through very much the same motions as had Ernest a minute or two previously. He seemed to sniff the air suspiciously, and turned this way and that, as though seeking for some hidden enemy; finally, too, he looked at the black cabinet and seemed about to go across to it, when he suddenly altered his mind and went towards the table instead. In his hand he carried another sealed envelope, and this he added to those on the table. He counted them over carefully twice, then, taking them up, turned to Weston.
"Here," he said, "are the papers I spoke of, Weston. You will see which is for you, and the others are all duly addressed. They are to be opened and read—after my death."
Weston took them, looked them over, and put them into his pocket.
"Very well," he made answer, "so be it. And now that that matter is settled—for the present—pray tell me, Delmore, what it is that is the matter with you? What is the name of this fatal sickness that is to kill you so surely? And how do you know so exactly that the end you expect will come precisely this particular night?"
But Delmore gave no reply. He sat as though he heard not.
Weston paused and watched him in silence; and for some time put no further question nor made any attempt to induce him to speak.
The young curate was praying mentally for light and guidance. He was acutely conscious that this was the most trying, the most solemn, the most critical situation in which he had ever been placed; he felt oppressed by the weight of the responsibility that lay upon him. He shuddered to think what awful consequences for evil or for good, what unfathomable depth of suffering, on the one hand, or beneficial possibilities for good in the great unknown future, on the other, might depend upon the words that he should speak, upon the appeal he should make, upon the arguments he should employ during the next few minutes. It was not only that he believed a fellow-creature's life hung in the balance; it was not even that the life-long misery of another fellow-creature whose happiness was very dear to him, might depend upon the result. Over and above all such earthly considerations hovered the impenetrable shadow that lay upon the other side of the grave, the inscrutable mystery that brooded over the Gates of Eternity. What if through some little shortcomings on his own part—some apparent want of earnestness, or excess of zeal, some error of judgment or failure to convey his exact meaning a soul that might be saved were to go out from his ken into the great beyond burdened with a sin which has ever been regarded with horror and denounced as accursed?
The fire flared and flickered, sending out now and again beams that travelled up past the circle of light thrown by the hanging bracket, and dimly illuminated, here and there, the strange shapes that suspended from the cross-beams or hung against the walls, causing them to assume vague, weird forms full of fantastic suggestions. In one place a mouth with lips drawn back into a horrible grin, and showing rows of cruel-looking teeth, would be dimly revealed for an instant, and then slowly fade again into the shadow; in another, two staring eyes, glaring with a leer as of hellish, ghoulish ferocity and hate, would loom out of the shadow for a space, and then sink back as silently as they had stolen forth, vanishing as completely as though they has been no more than the passing phantasy of an overtaxed brain.
These shadowy shapes came and went, some of them so hideously distorted as almost at times to startle the watcher, who had never been in the laboratory before; while others, in their vague, formless monstrosity, might have claimed an affinity with the dark forebodings with which his mind was oppressed.
Presently Weston spoke again. And now his voice had in it a new and solemn impressiveness. It was low, but very clear and distinct, and as he proceeded it vibrated and trembled more and more with the intensity of the emotion that controlled him. In his earnestness, in his unselfish, chivalrous determination to carry out to the best of his ability the mission with which Helen Milborne had entrusted him, and—above all—his exalted sense of responsibility as the human instrument for reminding a sorely-tried fellow-creature of the duties he owed to his own soul and to his Maker, Weston forgot all his usual nervousness, even his recent mistrust of himself, and spoke almost as one inspired. Every word he uttered came from his heart, and his simple earnestness imparted to his tone an eloquence that had upon Delmore an effect that the most impassioned pleading of a more accomplished orator might have failed to produce.
"Dr. Delmore," he said, "I am a younger man than yourself, and have far less knowledge of the world, from that point of view, therefore you may think I have no right to speak as I am about to speak, and may even regard the appeal I am about to make to you as an impertinence. But I pray—I implore—you to put away all such thoughts. Whatever the result of my appeal to you, everything connected with it, all that is said between us upon either side will hereafter be locked in my own breast. No other human being will ever know from me anything whatsoever of what has taken place; in my own remembrance, even, it will be utterly, and for ever buried. Therefore, let no thought of false shame or of what others may hereafter think affect you at this time; for others will know nothing whatever that may be said or that may happen. I am here only as the humble instrument of the God we all serve; I strive but to do His bidding, and when I have accomplished that to the very best of my ability—whatever the result may prove to be, and that I leave humbly to his gracious guidance—I shall think of it no more. I shall feel I have no more right to recall it than I have to open these letters with which you have entrusted me, and pry into their contents before the time arrives which you have indicated.
"Delmore—my dear friend, whom I pity from the bottom of my heart—you say you are about to die. It may be so; it may be that you stand now, at this moment, face, to face with death. You, at least, believe it to be the case, and in one sense I cannot but admire the calm courage with which, as I perceive, you look death in the face. But in other respects I can give you no admiration, no meed of praise or acknowledgment of courage, for—what you contemplate is the act of a coward, of a murderer—"
Delmore, who had remained thus far unmoved, and had sat gazing at the fire like a statue, here suddenly gave a great start, and held out his hands with a feeble protesting action, as a blind man might essay to ward off a blow which he expected and feared. But he uttered no sound.
"Ah! Do not try to deceive yourself, do not think you are deceiving me, dear friend," Weston went on, his voice now very gentle and sympathetic. "As a minister of God's Word, I ought, perhaps you think, be talking to you of repentance, of making your peace with God, of seeking forgiveness for your past sins. But I do not—and why? Because I know that you contemplate—are resolved upon—one last sin greater than any you have yet committed in your whole life, the one sin that—as we are taught—is most hateful in the sight of God, the most cowardly and despicable in the eyes of every right- minded man. Of what use, therefore, for me to talk to you of seeking peace with God, or forgiveness for past sins, while you have in your heart the intention to commit yet one sin more, a sin more heinous, more unpardonable, than all the rest put together?
"And why, Delmore, oh! why do you contemplate this great and terrible crime? Simply because you will not bow to the will of God and bend your neck to the yoke that He in His wisdom would lay upon you; you refuse to travel through the valley of humiliation that He, for His own inscrutable purposes, has indicated as the path he requires you to follow out; you shrink from enduring the affliction He, doubtless for some great purpose, has brought upon you. In other words, because having, by an accident—innocent yourself of any blame—became involved in the sudden death of your friend—who is also the brother of the girl you had hoped to make your wife—you had not the courage to look in the face and endure the consequences which you conceived must fall upon you!"
Delmore moved at last. He started up, evidently laboring under uncontrollable excitement.
"Weston!" he exclaimed. "What—what nonsense—what foolish idea—?" And then he stopped and gazed at the curate with a look of pitiable appeal.
"Hush!" said Weston. "You are in great—terrible—trouble, Delmore. You are in great danger—I know it. But do not make things worse by attempting denial—do not add falsehood to other weakness and folly—for such—as I truly believe—is probably all you have been guilty of. Here," he continued, drawing the wristband from his pocket, and pointing to the solitaire, "here is the proof that Mr. John Milborne has been here—is probably lying here now. The fellow to it was torn from his wrist in a struggle with the man Steen, who gave it to me before his death, for he died yesterday of a gunshot wound received on that fatal night—less than a week ago! God only knows," he added, in a broken voice, "how much awful misery has been crowded into these few days!"
Delmore buried his face in his hands, but presently looked up, and held them out imploringly towards Weston.
"For God's sake, Weston, advise me! Tell me what I ought to do! It is true—what you say. Jack Milborne lies in the next room, dead! But I am innocent of any part in his death. It was an accident—a horrible, ghastly, appalling fatality—that fell so suddenly and unexpectedly that it took away my senses, and caused me to act as though I had been guilty."
"I quite believe you—and fully understand and sympathise with you," Weston answered kindly. "But would you indeed be advised by me? Tell me first all about it—how it happened. Then will I gladly do my best to advise you; and God grant," he finished reverently, "that his Merciful counsel may guide my judgment."
Then seeing that Delmore was struggling with his emotions and seemed unable to speak, he added gently:
"Take your time, dear friend. Sit down and do not speak till you feel able. Take your own time."
"But there is not time!" Delmore exclaimed hurriedly, "for Warren and Blake know, and I expect them here every moment to arrest me."
"How do you know that, Delmore?"
"They sent for me this afternoon, begging me to come to a man who, it was said, had been seized with a fit and was supposed to be dying. When I got there I very soon saw that the man was shamming, and I then guessed that the whole affair was simply a ruse to draw me away from this place while they entered to make a search. Under one pretext or another they contrived to keep me there for the best part of half-an-hour. They did not impose on me, however; I knew perfectly well what they wanted, but I was aware that I was helpless, and I had to pretend that I didn't know the man was malingering. And when I returned I found, sure enough, that they had been here."
"How could you tell?"
"I have taken the precaution each time I have left the house—even if it were only to go up to the house—to fasten fine silk threads about in such a way that during my absence no one could enter either by door or window without breaking them. On every previous occasion I have found the threads intact on my return. But this evening when I returned—I found that one had been broken. So my suspicions were confirmed; I knew that they had been here during my absence and that they had discovered—what is lying in the next room! Then I also knew that my time was short, and I, despatched my note to you."
DR. DELMORE then proceeded to comply with Weston's request to tell him his story. It did not occupy any great time in telling, for though it was necessary, in order to make everything quite clear that the narrator should go back to "the man in. the snow," yet—Ernest having already heard some of the particulars—he was able to condense the crucial facts within a comparatively small compass.
He next gave a brief account of the Squire's visit to him on the Thursday afternoon, and of the conversation which then took place concerning the previous disappearance of the stranger, the virtues, possible and impossible, of the "Elixir," and Milborne's rash wish to take a dose of the mixture and test the effects upon himself.
"Upon that occasion," Delmore said, "I was fortunate enough to be able to interfere in time, and snatched the draught from him before he could swallow the stuff. I want to draw your particular attention to that, because—"
"Because—what?" Ernest asked, seeing that he paused.
"Because, my friend," the doctor answered, speaking very slowly and with grave emphasis, "on the next occasion I was less fortunate; he drank off a dose suddenly, while my back was turned, and—hence all this misery!"
"It killed him!" Weston exclaimed. Delmore only nodded, but his head drooped dejectedly.
"And that is the whole explanation? All there is to tell? Why—Delmore—'twas but an accident then—a most lamentable, shocking thing, certainly—especially for you—happening, as it did, in your house. But why then conceal it? Why did you not at once send for assistance, call in other doctors to your help? In such a case no real blame could possibly attach to—"
Delmore held up a hand.
"That's just it; I know that my failure to do so seems unaccountable—at first sight. It is that that has driven me to the verge of madness, and which prevented me from declaring the facts afterwards—when the horrible truth stared me in the face. I knew how gravely my omission to send for help in the first place would tell against me. But you have to remember that the old man took a dose of precisely the same strength, and it did him no harm. It only threw him into a very deep sleep, into a sort of comatose state, which lasted for nearly two days—through two whole nights. During that time the man appeared all but dead; some—some doctors even, if they had not been forewarned, as I had been by the man himself—might have mistaken his condition for death!
"Therefore, you perceive, when Jack gradually sank into that condition, I was not at all surprised, at first, or alarmed. Do you follow me?"
"Yes; but still when you found—"
"Wait one moment. After he had taken this accursed concoction—this devil's drink, as it now seems to me to be—I naturally expostulated with him and even upbraided him, pointing out the risks he ran, and the blame that would fall upon me if harm came of it. I entreated, implored him to let me give him an emetic, or take some other means to neutralise the possible effects, but he would have none of it. It was in vain I tried to get him to understand that if anything happened to him I should never be able to look at his sister in the face again; he merely laughed at me, and pooh-poohed all my apprehensions. And finally, when I reminded him of the lengthened lethargy into which the stranger had sunk, he begged of me—and prevailed upon me—to say nothing to anyone about his being here. He said he did not choose to be laughed at, and made me give a solemn promise that no one should know that he had been so vain (for vanity, of course, was at the bottom of it, as he himself laughingly admitted) as to take the stuff. I was weak enough to promise that I would even keep the fact of his being with me a secret until he woke up again. It was that promise that undid me!"
"I think I begin to understand," was Weston's comment.
"Yes; you can now begin to see how it came about that I should have done what to you—what, indeed, even to myself, now I come to look back upon it in cold blood—seems to be altogether unaccountable—the conduct of a madman. But, then, remember also that I was almost demented at the time."
"I do not wonder, Delmore!"
"Well, to go back. He went to bed in the room he had slept in often enough before, and I went to bed in the room adjoining; but hardly to rest. I was tormented for hours by most frightful dreams, horrible nightmares, and four or five times I woke up in a profuse perspiration, my mind overshadowed by a terrible dread, and each time I went into his room to assure myself that all was right with him. And up to five o'clock the drink seemed to have had only as much the same effect upon him as upon the old man. But the last time I returned to bed my sleep was sound and deep, and I did not wake until quite late in the morning. I had been overwrought and worn out with my anxiety and fear and outraged nature took revenge by causing me to sleep hours after my usual time. I was at last roused by a knocking at the door. I put my head out of the window and found it was 'George,' the groom from the Hall. He was on horseback, and inquired if I had seen anything of the Squire. Then, remembering my promise to Jack, I shook my head!"
"A moment later I would have given all I possessed to have undone that weak action; but the man had been quite satisfied and had turned and galloped off at once. I began to be oppressed by a vague fear that all was not right, and that I had done something very wrong, or at least very weak and foolish, and I went at once to Jack's room and took a good look at him. The first glance did not reveal any great change; he seemed to be in a state very much resembling that which the stranger had fallen into; but as I examined him further I soon began to feel more and more doubtful. Then I became seriously alarmed, and, regardless of my promise to him, or of his possible disapproval. I took every means I could think of to restore animation; but in vain. He sank deeper and deeper into the trance-like state, until at last he grew quite cold and, by every test known to medical science—in my horror and maddened fright I frantically essayed everything, I could think of or had ever heard of—by every test, I say, known to science I saw that Jack was dead."
Delmore paused and wiped the perspiration from his face. It was evident that it was a severe trial to him even to recall and recapitulate the events of that terrible time.
"Now just previous to that—while I was still wavering between a sickening fear and the dread certainty—Mrs. Joyce spoke to me through the speaking tube, and said someone—I forget now who it was—wanted to see me. I replied that I was very deeply engaged, and could see no one. I further informed her that I did not require any breakfast, and that I wished to be quite undisturbed. Then she informed me that there had been bad work in the night on Mr. Dering's estate, that three men had been killed or wounded, that Mr. Milborne was missing, and that people were saying that Mr. Dering had murdered him. The Squire had gone to see him the night before, she said, and they had had a dreadful quarrel, and no one had seen Mr. Milborne since or knew what had become of him. The whole town, Mrs. Joyce declared, was ringing with the news, and the people were hinting that the best thing Mr. Dering could do to save himself would be to clear out and leave the country before the police found the body of the missing man.
"Later on, when I gave up all hope, and was compelled to admit to myself the fact that poor Jack's vanity had brought about his death, this gossip came back to me, and I weakly grasped at it as something that would give me a little time to think, to plan—even to try further remedies. Now, can you not understand how I was led on deeper and deeper into the mire, until at last I had delayed so long to declare the truth that I no longer dared to do it?"
"I do see; and from my heart, Delmore, I pity you. I can trace it all, as it were, before me, and perceive how this awful fatality led you on to that point where—where—"
"When I appear to the world to be a murderer?"
"No, no! Not so bad as that, if you only have the courage to face it out and declare the truth"
"Who will believe the truth?" Delmore burst out, in sudden excitement. "Who will listen to this wild tale, as they will call it, of a mysterious old man?. They will ask where he is, and I cannot produce him! He had gone! Vanished absolutely! There is no trace of him! And all the time this fatal legacy that he has left behind, like a relentless fiend, has laid its iron grasp upon my heart, tightening its devilish grip from day to day, slowly—oh, so slowly—till at last—I am mad, mad, mad! As for that lying old monster who is the cause of it, may all the curses of—"
While speaking thus, Delmore's agitation and excitement had gradually increased, and he had raised his voice more and more, enforcing what he said by gestures which every moment become wilder and more vehement, until, at last, he had worked himself into a state evidently bordering on frenzy. Weston interrupted the conclusion of his speech by laying his hand gently and beseechingly upon his arm. But the infuriated man threw himself roughly off, and, rushing to the black cabinet, threw open the door and, seizing the glass which stood just inside, raised it to his lips. But it was empty!
Then the frenzied man turned and met Weston's appealing eyes bent upon him, and with a gesture of despair he threw himself upon a couch that stood against the wall in the shadow and, burying his face in his hands, burst into convulsive sobs.
Weston waited until the fiery outburst had subsided, then went and took his seat beside him. And there, in the semi-darkness, for nearly two hours, he talked with the despairing man, alternately soothing and entreating him, comforting and imploring him, wrestling with the rebellious spirit which had taken possession of him, until he prevailed. The devil was cast out, and Delmore meekly bowed his head and said, "Thy will be done." Then they moved back into the light and near the fire, and the doctor proceeded to enlighten the curate upon those parts as to which he was still in ignorance.
"For," said Weston, "if I am to advise you I must know all details. You have not yet told me about Mr. Milborne's visit here that night. I learned from Stephen Bradley's statement to Mrs. Steen that the Squire had followed him past your place, and had afterwards turned back and come in to see you. What happened then? What did he say?"
"He came here breathing fire and fury, and all sorts of threatenings against Dering, and also against some fellow who, he said, had fired at him in a wood and then run off like a cowardly cur. He told me how he had pursued this man across Dering's park into the road, and even (as you say) past this house, until finally he had given up the chase and come into see me. From what he said I was able to make out, in a confused sort of way, that he had had a row with Dering, had quarrelled with him, and then left him in a huff, just inside the wood, near the house; that, owing partly, no doubt, to his excitement and partly to the darkness he had taken the wrong path, and so stumbled upon this man—probably a poacher—who had first assaulted him, and then fired at him, but missed."
"Did he seem to know anything about the other poachers? Had he heard the sound of the guns?"
"Apparently not. He said nothing about it. He would be pretty sure to have made some reference to it if he had heard the shooting; and would have spoken of there being a gang about, or something like that. Well, he came in, as I have explained, fretting and fuming, and presently said, 'Can't you give me a drop of anything to drink? I'm dying with thirst.' Now, I had just been applying some further tests to the accursed concoction the old man had made and left with me, and the bottle containing it was standing on the bench yonder, with a medicine glass beside it. I went away to fetch a decanter, and when I returned he told me, full of laughter at what he thought a great joke, that he had just taken a draught of the wonderful Elixir."
"Did he take too much, do you suppose?"
"I do not think so. At least I asked the question, and he assured me he had only taken the proper dose. I had told him exactly, when he was here a few hours before, how much of the mixture the stranger had taken. He had questioned me particularly upon that point, and I had explained to him very fully everything I knew. Little did I think at that time what his real object was in asking so many questions."
"Can I see him, Delmore?" Weston now asked, speaking in low, hushed tones.
Delmore hesitated, but only for a moment; then said quietly:
"Certainly, Weston; I will get a light."
But before he could do so, a knock was heard at the door which opened into the lane.
Delmore paused and looked at the curate, but immediately after went to the window and threw it up. He leaned out and spoke to someone below. Then he pulled down the sash again.
"It is Perkes," he said to Weston. "He wants to see you very urgently, he says. You had better go down and see him in the lower room. The gas is alight."
Weston took a step or two, but stopped and looked inquiringly at his friend.
"Can I—?" he began, and then he paused, evidently reluctant to speak out the thought that was in his mind. But even as he glanced at the doctor the doubt vanished. His looks, his whole being, had altered, and in his eyes—now calm and steady—there was the light of a high courage, of a noble resolution.
"Yes, Weston," he said, in a quiet, humble tone; "yes, you can trust me alone."
And Weston, quite satisfied, went down the stairs, wondering what the information could be which the reporter had brought, and about which he desired to see him so urgently.
"But, alas!" he said to himself, "it matters little now what information he may have picked up. Nothing, so far as human judgment can see, can now avail to help poor Delmore. He has a terrible ordeal before him. May God in His mercy help him, and give him strength and courage to go manfully through with it"
MR. PERKES was evidently the bearer of serious tidings. Weston could see that much at the first glance when he had conducted him into the lighted room. There, as before, the asbestos fire was burning cheerily, and the atmosphere struck upon the visitor as pleasantly warm, coming in as he did from the cold, keen wind that was blowing outside.
The reporter had much to tell, but, grave and unwelcome as were the tidings, they only confirmed, in the main, what Delmore had already warned Ernest to expect. To Perkes, however, the news he brought had been all utterly unexpected—so much so that the poor little man was evidently not only astounded, but completely dejected. He wondered afresh, now, at the absence of surprise in Weston's manner and at the calmness with which he received all he had to tell.
It seemed that James Pratt, who had been drinking more than usual all day, had, within the last hour, become thoroughly intoxicated, and had let out to his friend, Mr. Hopkins, the knowledge he had somehow gained of what the detectives had learned, and what they had done and were about to do. Doubtless, Perkes said, he or some crony of his, must have managed to play the eavesdropper upon Warren and Blake; anyhow, Pratt seemed to know everything, and, being drunk, was bursting with the great news.
Briefly, it amounted to this:
Warren had fallen across the man Holt, who had been away from the district for some days, and, had only learned that morning all that had happened. He had now stated to Warren, that on the Thursday night he had been passing through the Moor lane when two men passed him running swiftly, the one behind evidently chasing the other. It was so dark that he could not then identify either of them, but he turned and looked after them and listened, and almost immediately he heard one of them stop and turn and walk back towards him. Wondering what the chase was about, and who the pursuer might be and who the pursued, he stepped into some bushes and, remained in concealment until the chaser came along, when he was able to recognise Mr. Jack Milborne. He waited till he had passed, and was then about to go on his way, when another man—no doubt the one who had been running away—came creeping softly up, and Holt then saw that it was Black Steve. He was evidently following and watching the Squire. Then Holt, knowing the man's character, and aware that there was always bad blood between him and the Squire, and fearing, moreover, from his stealthy movements, that he was up to some mischief, determined to follow and see what game was afoot. The snow softened all footfalls, and that and the fact that the road was bordered at this part by dark fir trees and some thick bushes, rendered it comparatively easy for one person to spy upon another without being himself heard or seen. Thus he was able to declare that the Squire had knocked at Dr. Delmore's door and that the doctor himself had admitted him. Asked if he were quite sure upon both these last points, Holt had replied that the little house had been—as was quite usual—all lighted up, so that the Squire could be very plainly seen, and that Dr. Delmore had opened the window above and looked out to see who his visitor was before going down to open the door.
When Perkes had got thus far, he paused and looked inquiringly at Weston. The fact that he showed no surprise struck him as somewhat strange.
Weston interpreted the look and explained, "I know that that is all true," he said, quietly. "I heard the same account last night—from Black Steve himself."
"What!" exclaimed Perkes, "you knew that last night, to- day—all the time you were talking to me?" Weston could not repress a slight smile; so evident was the other's astonishment.
"Yes, I knew it; but I did not feel at liberty to mention it at that time," he quietly answered.
Perkes gave a whistle, and then indulged in a chuckle.
"I'm jolly glad to hear that," he declared. "Then you were ahead of Warren, after all! Scott! Wouldn't he be savage if he knew it! But," he went on, dropping his voice while the smile vanished and his face clouded over. "You don't know what they did next."
"I think I do. They enticed the doctor away upon some bogus affair, and then entered this place in his absence."
Perkes stared. He reflected a moment, and then exclaimed: "I suppose the doctor twigged it when he came back?"
"Yes," Ernest replied, calmly. "And he believes that they have now gone to a magistrate to obtain a warrant to arrest him. He wonders that they have not arrived with it before this."
"They couldn't find a magistrate at home," the reporter explained. "That is what I've heard. There are only two, you know—Mr. Crosfield and Mr. Netfold—near the town, and both of them have gone over to some county meeting that is on at Eastbury. So they've now started out to Mr. Bathurst's house; but it is a long way, and most likely they will find, when they get there, that he has gone to the meeting, in which case they'll have to wait till one of them returns. But that may not be till late to-night, for they mostly stay on to the dinner which always follows the meeting."
"I see; that accounts for the delay."
"Then it's all true, sir? Mr. Milborne is—really—that is—"
"Yes, Mr. Perkes; it is so; Mr. Milborne is—here."
"I'm sorry to hear it; very sorry," said Perkes, with a sigh. "Well, well, how Hopkins will crow over the poor doctor, to be sure. He's doing it now, and has put the news all over the town, already—the cad! I did hope sir, that you would have somehow circumvented that stuck-up conceited Warren in spite of all."
To this Weston made no reply, and for some minutes they both remained gazing at the fire with countenances that were downcast and gloomy. Suddenly Perkes put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a letter.
"By the way, Mr. Weston, I've something else to tell you, though I don't suppose it's of any great importance as things now stand. But I've bowled that Warren out in one thing, anyhow. It seems that he's had the cheek to set Pratt to intercept the doctor's letters—"
"Intercept Dr. Delmore's letters? Why, that's illegal!"
"So I thought; so I've made matters even by intercepting this one in turn, before Pratt could hand it over to Warren." And be gave a letter into Weston's hands.
"I'll take it up to him," said Ernest. "How did you come to know about it?"
"Oh! Pratt pulled it out of his pocket by mistake, and I happened to see the address and pounced upon it. 'Hulloa!' I said, 'what business have you with a letter addressed to Dr. Delmore? That's stealing, my friend.' Then he whined out that Warren had put him up to it, and that he had already handed to the detective two or three others which he had bribed the postman King (who is, it would seem, some relation of his) to let him have them. Then, it appears, after Warren had opened and read them, they were closed and given back to King to deliver. But this particular one Pratt forgot to give to Warren, and he has been carrying it about in his pocket, if you please, for days!"
"Then Warren has not seen it?"
"No. And he won't now. I've outwitted him there, anyway."
"How is it, do you suppose, that Pratt is so far gone to-night and is letting all this out, Mr. Perkes?"
"Partly, I think, because he's been running about more than usual today for Warren, and has, in consequence had an extra number of drinks with his cronies, and partly because he probably guesses that now the chief part of the mystery has been solved, his special employment with Warren is coming to an end. So he has no longer the fear of Warren before his eyes."
Asking his visitor to await his return, Weston mounted the stairs, and going into the laboratory and carefully closing the door, related briefly to Delmore all that Perkes had reported, and finally gave him the letter, explaining its detention. Delmore took it listlessly, and after glancing at the address, shook his head and proceeded to open it.
"I can't think," he remarked, with indifference, "what they could have hoped to find by perusing my correspondence. No doubt it is, as you have pointed out, entirely illegal. Still, all my letters have been so utterly unimportant—even to myself—that—Hulloa!" Here he started up and cried out in great agitation: "Great Heavens! Is it possible? Can it be true? Oh, God above, just and merciful God; do not let me be played with by false hopes, only to be cast back again! Here! take it and read it—read it out, Weston. I can scarcely see the words. Oh, Heaven! Can it—can it be possible?"
Utterly overcome by his emotion, Delmore sank back into the chair from which he had sprung up in such excitement, and again buried his face in his hands. The letter fluttered to the floor, for he had dropped it ere the other could take it from his hand.
Greatly astonished, Weston picked up the missive and began to read it; and as he read he exhibited nearly as much agitation as Delmore had shown. After one perusal he began again, going through it slowly, and reading aloud.
It proved to be a letter from the stranger he had heard referred to as "the man in the snow," and was dated the day after that mysterious individual's sudden departure. It first apologised for having quitted his host so abruptly, pleading very urgent and pressing business as the cause; and then it went on to give various directions and instructions as to the compounding and use of the wonderful Elixir, ending with a warning against its misuse. The dose which the doctor had seen him take, the writer said, would be far too strong to be taken with safety by anyone whose system had not been previously prepared to receive it by a special course of treatment. Even a small dose might act—at first—very injuriously, and prove extremely dangerous with some constitutions. In such cases it might produce a death-like stupor or trance, catelepsy, or, in extreme instances, even death. Sometimes the trance was of such unusual character as to resemble death so far as all the usual scientific tests were concerned; yet, even then, life sometimes still remained in the apparently dead body, and the patient might be restored—even after the expiration of as much as a week—by carefully following the directions appended to the letter. The epistle concluded with many expressions of goodwill, and a hope that the doctor would use with wisdom and discretion, and reap great and hitherto unheard-of fame and honor from the great secret that had been confided to him. "I am returning to the Far East," said the writer in conclusion, "and we may never meet again. Yet, even there, I hope to hear of the fame that this great secret will bring you—if you choose to make use of it—and in any case I rejoice that it lies in my power to confer so great a boon upon the grandson of my former friend, from whom, in his lifetime, I received more kindness than I can give you any idea of; more, far more, than I was ever able to repay while he lived."
There was no address, and the only signature was "Marenza."
Weston then read the instructions which had been alluded to, and which were carefully copied out upon a separate sheet in much clearer handwriting than the body of the strange communication.
Delmore asked the date of the letter, and Weston read it out.
"Great Heavens!" he exclaimed, "I ought to have had it last Saturday!
Think what a load of horror and suffering I—all of us—might have been saved had it been delivered at once! And now it may be too late! But—if—so—it will be the fault of Warren, and that wretched tool of his. What rascality!"
"Let us set to work at once," said Weston; and he began to read the instructions.
" 'The patient should be given a warm bath'—have you a warm bath at hand, Delmore?"
"Yes, a bath, but not hot water. But we can get some from the house. I fear Mrs. Joyce has gone to bed; but we can call her up."
"All right. 'Open a vein in the arm, wait to see if the blood flows—a single drop—then inject hypodermically an infusion of the drug marked Mettene A 26.' Have you that, Delmore?"
The doctor went to the black cabinet and searched for a few seconds in feverish haste.
"I have it; I nearly threw it on the fire, as I did some others, but I thought better of it. Here it is."
Weston read on: " 'Treatment generally—the same as for the apparently drowned—artificial respiration—must be continued—for hours if necessary. The battery may be used.' "
Then followed much more of an abstruse character, and couched in technical phraseology.
Then after a short consultation they tried to communicate with the house, but received no response.
"THEY have gone to bed," Delmore said impatiently. "I must go and call them up."
"Stay, Delmore. You had better remain here—I will go, or—still better—suppose I send Perkes? We can trust him; I will answer for him. Then I can stay and assist you."
And so, urged by the new hope that was in them, the three-men set to work. Mrs. Joyce was awakened, the kitchen fire was lighted, and kettles were brought down and placed upon the gas fires and then upon the furnace in the laboratory.
Willing Mr. Perkes toiled to and fro carrying cans of hot water, blankets, dressing-gowns, warming pans, brandy—whatever in the opinion of the doctor and his assistant, or his own zealous brain might possibly be wanted. They worked on hour after hour, carrying out, with untiring perseverance, all that the instructions commanded. And at last, but not until the night was far advanced, success rewarded their efforts. Mr. Milborne first sighed, then opened his eyes, and finally sat up and feebly wanted to know where he was and what all the fuss was about. An hour later he was lying in bed, fast asleep, in a healthy slumber that had nothing in it resembling the death-trance from which he had been so opportunely aroused.
Presently, after a rest, the three workers set to work to restore everything to its place, and to efface all signs of their operations, after which they brought down between them a very substantial cold collation which Dr. Delmore, at least, was very much in need of, and which came as refreshment scarcely less welcome, after their exertions, to the other two. But before they sat down to it, Ernest Weston held a short but solemn service of thanksgiving, in which Mr. Perkes, as well as the now humbly grateful doctor, reverently joined.
About half-past seven o'clock in the morning, just as it had begun to get light outside, there was a loud knocking at the door that opened into the lane, and the three looked at each other and smiled. They had been expecting this summons all through the night, and so had had no thought of going to bed. Indeed, they were all too excited to have slept even had they attempted to do so, and Delmore could not refrain from frequent visits to his patient to assure himself that it was all true, and that he was going on well. Fully an hour elapsed before he awakened and expressed a wish to get up; and the doctor finding, after a careful examination, that he appeared well enough and strong enough to do so, had consented.
The three downstairs were sitting over some fresh coffee they had just brewed, and the doctor and Mr. Perkes were placidly smoking cigars, in which occupation the former especially exhibited every sign of serene enjoyment. At a nod from him Weston got up and opened the door, when there marched in in solemn procession, first Mr. Warren and Mr. Blake, and then two stolid-looking police constables. Behind them appeared a motley crew, amongst which the faces of Mr. Hopkins and Mr. James Pratt were conspicuous; the latter looking as if he had been roused from a drunken sleep, as indeed he had.
Ernest allowed the first four to come into the room, and was about to close the door in the faces of the others, when the doctor smilingly intervened:
"Let them stand there and see the fun, Weston," he said. "They don't get much amusement every day in sleepy old Merton. Now, Mr. Warren, pray what is your business here at this early hour? Be kind enough to state it at once and as briefly as you can. As you can see, I have some friends at breakfast with me this morning."
Warren looked sourly, first at the smiling, good-humored doctor, next at his two companions, and finally—with increasing surprise—at the remains of the feast spread upon the table.
"One moment, Warren," put in Mr. Perkes, also smiling and speaking in a tone which jarred upon the detective's susceptibilities, as being somewhat too affably familiar. "One moment, my friend—till I have my notebook ready. There! Now proceed, my dear sir."
Apparently this address, or the sight of the cold collation, or of the smiling faces where he had expected to see weeping and wailing—or even perhaps to see the note-book which Mr. Perkes held ready, and his expectant attitude—upset Mr. Warren's self-satisfied equanimity. At any rate, he quite forgot the neat little speech with which he had intended to inaugurate the proceedings and, instead of answering, stood silent, with a very uninviting scowl upon his face.
Then the doctor, seeing that Warren hesitated, addressed the inspector.
"What's it all about, Blake? Is your patient—the one who was so very ill yesterday afternoon—dying, I think you said—is he—ah—dead yet? Have you come to me to give a certificate? Can't do it, Blake. Very sorry, but I can't do it; for I found nothing whatever the matter with him."
"Dr. Delmore—" Blake began, but Warren interrupted him.
"Leave this to me, Blake," he said, pompously. "We hold a warrant, Dr. Delmore, for your apprehension upon a charge of murder."
Dr. Delmore opened his eyes.
"Dear me!" he exclaimed, innocently. "This is very unpleasant, deucedly unpleasant! Pray, sir, whom have I murdered?"
"John Esmond Milborne, Esquire, of Fairdale—"
But his further speech was cut short by what he deemed a most unseemly burst of laughter on the part of the doctor, in which he was joined very heartily by the reporter. Even Ernest Weston could not help smiling at the expression of indignant and scandalised astonishment upon the detective's face.
"Excuse me, Mr. Detective," said Delmore, "your ridiculous charge was made with such gravity that I really could not help feeling amuse. You are joking, of course? This is a make-believe affair—like your sick man, yesterday, eh?"
Warren did not like this allusion. He answered with much dignity:
"You won't find it much of a joke, sir, I can tell you; and as I am getting tired of this buffoonery I'll trouble you to put on your hat and coat and come—"
"One moment, Mr. Detective," returned Delmore, holding up his hand and speaking now with some sternness, "your manner, sir, is becoming offensive; I do not desire your company here any longer than is absolutely necessary Just allow me to go as far as the bottom of the stairs."
Warren, evidently somewhat awed, made a half-hearted attempt to stay him, but the doctor brushed him aside with a haughty wave of the hand, and going to the bottom of the stairs called out:
"Hulloa!" answered a cheery voice from above, "I'm coming down."
Footsteps were heard descending the stairs, and a moment later Mr. Jack Milborne, with smiling face and jaunty air, marched into the room.
There was a cry of astonishment from those of the audience near enough to the door to recognise the squire, which ended in a general howl of disappointment as the news flew from mouth to mouth and the crowd outside understood that by some surprising means—by some trick that seemed to them decidedly mean and unfair—they had been baulked of their expected entertainment.
Mr. Blake and his men stood in open-mouthed astonishment. Mr. Warren alone appeared not to understand; he had never seen the Squire, and therefore had no idea that that individual stood before him.
"Who is this gentleman?" he demanded, fiercely, "and what right has he to intrude himself here now, in the midst of these proceedings?"
At this naive inquiry there was a roar of laughter, in which even the disappointed sightseers outside joined. Mr. Warren looked round and saw that Blake and the two policemen were laughing at him as heartily as the rest. In high indignation he advanced towards the doctor to arrest him, when Mr. Perkes stepped between them.
"This, my dear sir," he said, indicating the Squire, "is Mr. John Esmond Milborne, the one you termed (and justly) Esquire. He is the gentleman you have been foolish enough to imagine had been murdered!"
Warren stared in astonishment from one to another.
"Why—what in the world does it all mean?" he burst out.
"It means, my dear sir," said the irrepressible Mr. Perkes, "that our worthy friend Mr. Weston, the curate, has got here before you."
And, to add to Warren's disgust, his friend Blake added, "That's so, Warren. The young parson's won—won by a neck! Didn't I advise you to go to the vicarage and ask his advice?"
Warren turned in anger, and marched towards the door; but was stopped by a stern command from Delmore.
"Before you leave here, Mr. Warren," he said, "I want to know by whose authority you have interfered with my correspondence, and instigated my discharged coachman to steal my letters? Here, sir, is one which Mr. Perkes took from that rascal last evening, when he declared that you had set him on to steal it, only he had forgotten to give it to you. So he had been carrying it about in his pocket since last Saturday, with very serious consequences to myself. I shall take care, sir, that the consequences are serious to you also, for I shall report the whole affair to your superiors."
Only the good-natured doctor never did. But the threat gave Warren a wholesome fright, and he went out of the house, and shortly after out of the town and back to Manchester, a disappointed and sadly-chastened man.
He did not enjoy even the minor triumph of clearing up what little mystery still attached to the matter of the poaching affray, for "Black Steve" and his confederates contrived to make good their escape from the country, and were never heard of afterwards.
A few hours later, Dr. Delmore and Helen Milborne were once more seated together in the morning-room at Fairdale Hall—that same room in which they had last met in such sorrow and suffering. But very different were their feelings now. Outside the snow still lay thick upon the ground, the sun was bright overhead, its rays came gaily glancing in through the windows; within, the fire was blazing merrily, the wood logs upon it crackling and spitting; upon the table the breakfast things were yet uncleared, for Ernest Weston—the messenger who came in advance to prepare the inmates at the Hall for the good news—had arrived while they yet lingered on at the meal which had come to be scarcely more than a morning formality in that grief-stricken dwelling.
Weston had been there, gently broken his gladsome tidings and gone his way. Cheery, good-natured Jack Milborne had arrived, looking, they declared, the very picture of health, and—this especially delighted him—"full ten years younger," had kissed his mother and sister boisterously, chatted, laughed, ate another breakfast, and finally trotted off to see how his dogs and horses had been getting on during his absence. Mr. Clements had called and shared in the general congratulations and thanksgiving, and had departed on his round rejoicing and marvelling withal. Every detail, every minute particular of the wondrous story, had been told, twice told, and once more repeated, discussed, cried over, thought over, laughed over with sober, thankful joyousness, wondered at or admired. Mrs. Milborne, now smiling and well content, had gone bustling forth to superintend the household duties she had for many days so sadly neglected. The doctor—still sad-eyed and thoughtful; yet gravely smiling, too, as became one who had emerged but so recently from a cruel and soul-crushing ordeal—and the gentle-minded girl who had borne her share in the past sorrow so bravely and so patiently; these two were left to enjoy together their recovered happiness and peace of mind, and to console each other for the suffering that was now past and gone.
"We must not forget, Helen," said Delmore—"we must never forget how much we owe to Ernest Weston for the part he took in clearing up this mystery and extricating me from the toils in which I was struggling. To take only one—but certainly the most important and surprising development of all—but for his astuteness in setting Perkes on to watch that rascal Pratt, I should not have had the stolen letter in time."
Helen shuddered once more at the thoughts this reminder recalled of the narrow escape her brother and lover had both had.
"He has been most kind—more than kind," she murmured. "I can never repay the thoughtful, chivalrous goodness he displayed towards myself and my mother while we were in such distress. I am sure, however, that he himself would be the first to repudiate the suggestion that he has shown any special cleverness. His idea is that he has been guided by a merciful providence; and he bids us give thanks not to him, but where, he insists, thanks are truly due—to the One who rules and controls all earthly troubles, and who directed his judgment at the critical moment."
"Amen to that," Delmore solemnly answered, and gazed silently at the fire, his mind filled with reverent gratitude.
"But why, Arthur," Helen presently asked, "did that Warren set Pratt on to watch you? At that time he had no ground for connecting you with Jack's disappearance?"
"No; it seems to me to have been a mere gratuitous piece of impertinent intermeddling on his part. Moreover, in doing what he did, he was distinctly neglecting what he was sent here to do, in order to pry into something that had nothing whatever to do with it. His curiosity had been aroused by Pratt's gossip about the 'old man in the snow,' and his unexpected disappearance, and whetted by that sanctimonious grocer Hopkins' mischief-making hints and suggestions about my being engaged in trafficking with the devil, or some such nonsense!"
Helen's hand stole softly into his.
"You've given up all those dreams now, Arthur?" she asked, a little nervously.
He returned the pressure as he answered, slowly and deliberately:
"Absolutely; I have done with them for ever. While I sat there, hour after hour, face to face with this misery, I made a vow that, come what might, I would never engage in any such dreams again. I looked at things then with new eyes, and I seemed to see that we were placed here to live our lives and play our part, and finally depart hence in due season, as others have done before us; and that it would be against our very nature, contrary to the very conditions of our existence, to live for ever upon this earth. No good could come of it, or even of a greatly extended life, so far as I can now see—only extended suffering, longer drawn-out misery—a heavier burden of disappointment, of sin, and of bitterness and sorrow. No; I then made up my mind. And in order to place even the temptation of such a thing out of the reach of all others, as well as of myself, I threw away the remainder of the mixture that the old man had compounded with so much triumph and glee, and destroyed all the drugs relating to it that were left over."
"That was well and bravely done, Arthur" Helen whispered, smiling contentedly, and softly stroking his hand. "Now, you can apply yourself with as much zeal as you please to legitimate scientific research. You—we have all had enough of the other."
There was one other good result which followed, and which deserves to be recorded. Mr. Dering called to see Mr. Milborne, and congratulated him so heartily upon his reappearance that the good-natured Squire at once forgot all his grievances, and the two thereafter became good neighbors and firm friends.
"When I heard the rumors that were flying about, and I knew that people would actually suspect me of having murdered you because of a dispute arising out of such a trumpery matter," Mr. Dering declared, "I felt—well, honestly ashamed of myself; and that's a fact. And I made up my mind that I would never carry a dispute to such an undignified point again, either with you or with anyone else."
Mr. Perkes had good reason to be satisfied with the part he had played, for Mr. Milborne and the doctor both exerted their influence with some friends in town, with the result that the reporter was offered a good berth on a big London daily newspaper. Once there, he made such good use of his opportunity that he is to-day one of our most successful editors; and the pretty Kitty Briddon has, for some time past, been his well- beloved better half.
With the good townsfolk of Merton-on-the-Moor, the mystery of Mr. Jack Milborne's disappearance, and sudden re-appearance remained still a mystery, and so continues even unto the present day. Mr. Perkes, it is true, acting on behalf of the people at the hall, industriously spread about the simple explanation that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. Mr. Milborne had gone away for a week's yachting, and a telegram had miscarried, and—that was all. Naturally such a very tame conclusion to what they had feared (or hoped) might prove a sensational tragedy; was extremely unsatisfying to the disappointed onlookers. It was considered a little "thin," too, considering that the Squire had already given out a somewhat similar explanation to account for his having suddenly absented himself for a week or two on a previous occasion. Besides, who—except a lunatic—would be likely to go yachting at that time of the year?
But there was one thing which. assisted in no small degree to commend this simple explanation to the world of Merton-on-the- Moor, and that was the circumstance that the Squire looked so much the better for the "change" it supposed him to have had.
"I should like uncommonly to know where he has been," said Mr. Dawson, the draper. "I'd draw upon my savings and go there for a week myself if I could be sure of coming back looking as much the better for it as he do. He looks, ah! all ten years younger."
This was indeed, the general opinion, and even Mr. Hopkins acknowledged the fact; only he accompanied the admission with a terribly dark innuendo—something about the devil's caring well for his own, and paying good wages—which, however, involved a proposition a little beyond the comprehension of the level-headed among his neighbours.
On the other hand, it was as generally agreed that Dr. Delmore looked fully ten years older; and when, a few weeks later, his hair showed decided signs of turning grey, it was even declared that he looked nearer twenty years older. Then folk once more wondered, and heads wagged sagely, and all sorts of suggestions and theories were invented to account for the phenomenon, while the pious grocer created a scandal and shocked even his own "worthy pastor" by getting up in his chapel one Sunday morning and publicly reciting a prayer for the conversion to the true faith of "all wizards and sorcerers and dealers in magic, and especially those doctors living near at hand who have unholy contracts with the Father of Evil."
But Dr. Delmore troubled himself about none of these things; and in this he was supported by the one whose opinion on the matter he most valued—that of Helen Milborne herself. She married him, in spite of his grey hairs and prematurely old appearance. And the result justified her faith in him, and her confidence in his abilities, for "the old-young professor," as he came to be called, is today famous as the author of one of the greatest discoveries of our time. Only his discovery is of a very sober, dry-as-dust, scientific character; it appertains to matters connected with what may be termed strictly orthodox science, and has not even the most remote connection with those dreams of the occult which constituted "The Mystery at Merton-on- the-Moor."