I was late, but not so late as some. Breakfast was still going on. Evelyn and Ralph had been up to see their friends off, but General and Mrs. Marston and Carr, who was staying on, came in after I did. Lady Mary and Aurelia were having breakfast in their own rooms. I think nothing is more dreary than a long breakfast-table, laid for large numbers, with half a dozen picnicking at it among the debris left by earlier ravages. Evelyn, behind the great silver urn, looked pale and preoccupied, and had very little to say for herself when I journeyed up to her end of the table and sat down by her. She asked me twice if I took sugar, and was not bright and alert and ready in conversation, as I think girls should be. Carr, too, was eating his breakfast in silence beside Mrs. Marston.
It was not cheerful. And then Charles came in, listless and tired, and without an appetite. He sat down wearily on the other side of Evelyn, and watched her pour out his coffee without a word.
"The Carews and Edmonts and Lady Delmour and her daughter have just gone," said Evelyn, "and Mr. Denis."
"Yes," replied Charles, seeming to pull himself together; "Denis came to my room before he went. He looked a wreck, poor fellow; but not worse than some of us. These late hours, these friskings with energetic young creatures in the school-room, these midnight revels, are too much for me. I feel a perfect wreck this morning, too."
He certainly looked it.
"Have you had bad letters?" said Evelyn, in a low voice.
He laughed a little—a grim laugh—and shook his head. "But I had yesterday," he added presently, in a low tone. "I shall have to try a change of air again soon, I am afraid."
I was just going to ask Charles what he had been doing walking about in his socks the night before, when the door opened, and Ralph, whose absence I had not noticed, came in. He looked much perturbed. It seemed his father had been taken suddenly and alarmingly ill while dressing. In a moment all was confusion. Evelyn precipitately left the room to go to him, while Charles rushed round to the stables to send a groom on horseback for the nearest doctor. Ralph followed him, and the remainder of the party gathered in a little knot round the fire, Mrs. Marston expressing the sentiment of each of us when she said that she thought visitors were very much in the way when there was illness in the house, and that she regretted that she and her husband had arranged to stay over Sunday, to-day being Friday.
"So have I," said Carr; "but I am sure I had better have refused. A stranger in a sick-house is a positive nuisance. I think I shall go to town by an afternoon train, if there is one."
"Upon my word I think we had better do the same," said Mrs. Marston. "What do you say, Arthur?" and she turned to her husband.
"I must go to-day, anyhow—on business," said General Marston.
"I hope no one is talking of leaving," said Charles, who had returned suddenly, rather out of breath.
As he spoke his eyes were fixed on Carr.
"Yes, that is exactly what we were doing," said Mrs. Marston. "Nothing is so tiresome as having visitors on one's hands when there is illness in the house. Mr. Carr was thinking of going up to London by the afternoon train; and I have a very good mind to go away with Arthur, instead of staying on, and letting him come back here for me to-morrow, as we had intended."
"Pray do not think of such a thing!" said Charles, really with unnecessary earnestness. "Mrs. Marston, pray do not alter your plans. Carr!" in a much sterner tone, "I must beg that you will not think of leaving us to-day. Your friend Colonel Middleton is staying on, and we cannot allow you to desert us so suddenly."
It was more like a command than an invitation; but Carr, usually so quick to take a slight, did not seem to notice it, and merely said that he should be happy to go or stay, whichever was most in accordance with the wishes of others, and took up the newspaper. He and Charles did not seem to get on well. I could see that Charles had not seemed to take to him from the very first; and Carr certainly did not appear at ease in the house. Perhaps Charles felt that he had rather failed in courtesy to him, for during the remainder of the morning he hardly let him out of his sight. He took him to see the stables, though Carr openly declared that he did not understand horses; he showed him his collection of Zulu weapons in the vestibule; he even started a game of billiards with him till the arrival of the doctor. I did not think Carr took his attentions in very good part, though he was too well-mannered to show it; but he looked relieved when Charles went up-stairs with the doctor, and pitched his cue into the rack at once, and came to the hall-fire where I was sitting, and where Aurelia presently joined us, fresh and smiling, in the prettiest of morning-gowns. Every one met in the hall. It was in the centre of the house, and every one coming up or down had to pass through it. Just now it was not so tempting an abode as usual, for the flowers and part of the stage had already been removed, and the bare boards, with their wooden supports, gave an air of discomfort to the whole place.
Aurelia opened wide eyes of horror at hearing Sir George was ill. She even got out a tiny laced pocket-handkerchief; but before she had had time to weep much into it, and spoil her pretty eyes, the doctor reappeared, accompanied by Charles and Ralph, and we all learned to our great relief that Sir George, though undoubtedly ill, was not dangerously so at present, though the greatest care would be necessary. Lady Mary had undertaken the nursing of her brother-in-law, and in her the doctor expressed the same confidence which parents are wont to feel in a stern school-master. In the mean time the patient was to be kept very quiet, and on no account to be disturbed.
When the doctor had left, Ralph and Aurelia, who had actually seen nothing of each other that morning, sauntered away together towards the library. Charles challenged Carr to finish his game of billiards, and Marston and I retired up-stairs to the smoking-room, where we could talk over our Indian experiences, and perhaps doze undisturbed. We might have been so occupied for half an hour or more when a flying step came up the stairs, the door was thrown open, and Ralph rushed into the room.
"General Marston! Colonel Middleton!" he gasped out, breathing hard, "will you, both of you, come to my father's room at once? He has sent for you."
"Good gracious! Is he worse?" I exclaimed.
"No. Hush! Don't ask anything, but just come,"—and he turned and led the way to Sir George Danvers's room.
We followed in wondering silence, and, after passing along numerous passages, were ushered into a large oak-panelled room with a great carved bed in it, in the middle of which, bolt-upright, sat Sir George Danvers, pale as ivory, his light steel eyes (so like Charles's) seeming to be the only living thing about him.
As we came in he looked at each of us in turn.
"Where is Charles?" he said, speaking in a hoarse whisper.
"Dear me! Sir George," I said, sympathetically, "how you have lost your voice!"
He looked at me for a moment, and then turned to Ralph again.
"Where is Charles?" he asked a second time, in the same tone.
"Here!" said a quiet voice. And Charles came in, and shut the door.
The two pairs of steel eyes met, and looked fixedly at each other.
A tap came to the door.
Sir George winced, and made a sign to Ralph, who rushed to it and bolted it.
"I am coming in, George," said Lady Mary's voice.
"Send her away," came a whisper from the bed.
This was easier said than done. But it was done after a sufficiently long parley; and Lady Mary retired under the impression that Ralph was sitting alone with his father, who thought he might get a little sleep.
"Now," whispered Sir George, motioning to Ralph.
"The fact is," said Ralph, "the jewels are gone! They have been stolen in the night."
He bolted out with this one sentence, and then was silent. Marston and I stared at him aghast.
"Is there no mistake?" said Marston at last.
"None," replied Ralph. "I put them in a drawer in the great inlaid writing-table in the library last night, before everybody. I went for them this morning, half an hour ago, at father's request. The lock was broken, and they were gone."
There was another long silence.
"I was a fool, of course, to put them there," resumed Ralph. "Charles told me so; but I thought they were as safe there as anywhere, if no one knew—and no one did except the house party."
"Were any of the servants about?" asked Marston.
"Not one. They had all gone to bed except one of the footmen, who was putting out the lamps in the supper-room, miles away."
"That is the dreadful part of it," burst out Ralph. "They must have been taken by some one staying in the house—some one who saw me put them there. The first thing I did was to send for the house-maids, and they assured me that they had found every shutter shut, and every door locked, this morning, as usual. Any one with time and wits might have got in through one of the library windows by taking out a pane and forcing the shutter. I suppose a practised hand might have done such a thing; but I went outside and there was not a footstep in the snow anywhere near the library windows, or, for that matter, anywhere near the house at all, except at the side and front doors, which are impracticable for any one to force an entrance by."
"When did it leave off snowing?" asked Marston.
"About three o'clock," replied Ralph. "It must have snowed heavily till then, for there was not a trace of all the carriage-wheels on the drive when we went out last night, but our footprints down to the lodge are clear in the snow now. There has been no snow since three o'clock this morning."
"It all points to the same thing," said Charles, quietly, speaking for the first time. "The jewels were taken by some one staying in the house."
"One of the servants—" began Marston.
"No!" said Charles, cutting him short, "not one of the servants."
"It is impossible it should have been one of them," said Ralph, after some thought. "First of all, none of them saw the jewels put into that drawer; and, secondly, how could they suspect me of hiding them in a place where I had never thought of putting them myself till that moment? Besides, that one drawer only was broken open—the centre drawer in the left-hand set of drawers. All the others were untouched, though they were all locked. No one who had not seen the jewels put in would have found them so easily. That is the frightful part of it."
For a few minutes no one spoke. At last Marston raised his head from his hands.
"There is no way out of it," he said, very gravely. "The robbery was committed by one of the visitors staying in the house!"
"Yes!" said Charles.
"Yes!" echoed a whisper from the bed.
Charles looked up slowly and deliberately, and the eyes of father and son met again.
"We do not often agree, father," he said, in a measured voice. "I mark this exception to the rule with pleasure."
"When I had made out as much as this," continued Ralph, "father told me to call both of you and Charles, to consider what ought to be done before we make any move."
"Have you an inventory of the jewels?" asked Marston at length.
"None," said Sir George, "unless Middleton had one from Sir John."
I thereupon recapitulated in full all the circumstances of the bequest, finally adding that Sir John had never so much as mentioned an inventory.
"So much the better for the thief," said Marston, his chin in his hands. "It is not a case for a detective," he added.
"I think not," said Charles.
A kind of hoarse ghostly laugh came from the bed. "Charles is always right," whispered the sick man. "Quite unnecessary, I am sure."
"Oh, I don't know," I said, feeling I had not yet been of as much assistance as I could have wished. "Now, I think detectives are of use—really useful, you know, in finding out things. There was a detective, I remember, trying to trace the people who murdered that poor lady at Jane's old house since my return."
"But who could it have been? who could it have been?" burst out Ralph, unheeding. "They were all friends. It is frightful to suspect one of them. One could as easily suspect one's self. Which of them all could have done a thing like that? Out of them all, which was it?"
"Carr!" replied Charles, quietly, looking full at his father.
If a bomb-shell had fallen among us at that moment it could not have produced a greater effect than that one word, uttered so deliberately. Sir George started in his bed, and clutched at the bedclothes with both hands. My brain positively reeled. Carr! my friend Carr! introduced into the family by myself, was being accused by Charles. I was speechless with indignation.
"I am sorry, Middleton," continued Charles; "I know he is your friend, but I can't help that. Carr took the jewels. I distrusted him from the moment he set foot in the house."
"Where is he at this instant?" said Marston, getting up. "Is no one with him?"
"There is no need to be anxious on his account," replied Charles. "I took him up to the smoking-room before I came here, and I turned the key in the door. The key is here." And he laid it on the table.
Marston sat down again.
"What are your grounds for suspecting Carr?" he asked. "Remember, this is a very serious thing, Charles, that you have done in locking him up, if you have not adequate reason for it."
"You had better leave Carr alone, Charles," said Ralph, significantly.
"Let him go on," said Sir George.
"I have no proof," continued Charles; "I did not see him take them, but I am as certain of it as if I had seen it with my own eyes. The jewels could only have been stolen by some one staying in the house. That is certain. Who, excepting Carr, was a stranger among us? Who, excepting Carr—"
"Stop, Charles," said Ralph again. "Don't you know that Carr slept with me down at the lodge?"
Charles turned on his brother and gripped his shoulder.
"Do you mean to say," he said, sharply, "that Carr did not sleep in the house last night?"
"Dear me, Charles, that was an oversight on your part," came Sir George's whisper.
"No," replied Ralph, "he did not. The house was full, and we had to put him in that second small room through mine in the lodge. If Carr had been dying to take them he had not the opportunity. He could not have left his room without passing through mine, and I never went to sleep at all. I had a sharp touch of neuralgia from the cold, which kept me awake all night."
"He got out through the window," said Charles.
"Nonsense!" said Ralph, getting visibly angry; "you are only making matters worse by trying to put it on him. Remember the size of the window. Besides, you know how the lodge stands, built against the garden wall. When I came out this morning there was not a single footstep in the snow, except those we had made as we went there the night before. I noticed our footmarks particularly, because I had been afraid there would be more snow. No one could by any possibility have left the house during the night. Even Jones himself had not been out, for there was a little eddy of snow before the back door, and I remember calling to him that he would want his broom."
"The snow clinches the matter, Charles," said Marston, gravely. "You have made a mistake."
"Quite unintentional, I'm sure," whispered Sir George.
There was something I did not like about that whisper. It seemed to imply more than met the ear.
Charles did not appear to hear him. He was looking fixedly before him, his hand had dropped from Ralph's shoulder, his face was quite gray.
"Then," he said, slowly, as if waking out of a dream, "it was not Carr."
"No," said Sir George; "I never thought it was."
"Good God!" ejaculated Charles, sinking into a low chair by the fire, and shading his face with his hand. "Not Carr, after all!"
But my indignation could not be restrained a moment longer. I had only been kept silent by repeated signs from Marston, and now I broke out.
"And so, sir, you suspect my friend," I said, "and insult him in your father's house by turning the key on him. You endeavor to throw suspicion on a man who never injured you in the slightest degree. You insult me in insulting my friend, sir. Suspicion is not always such an easy thing to shake off as it has been in this instance. I, on my side, might ask what you were doing walking about the passages in your socks at four o'clock this morning? In your socks, sir, still in your evening clothes—"
I had spoken it anger, not thinking much what I was saying, and I stopped short, alarmed at the effect of my own words.
"I knew it! I knew it!" gasped Sir George, in his hoarse, suffocated voice, and he fell back panting among his pillows.
Charles took his hand from his face, and looked hard at me with a strange kind of smile.
"At any rate we are quits, Middleton," he said. "You have done it now, and no mistake."
I did not quite see what I had done, but it soon became apparent.
"I knew it!" gasped out the sick man again; "I knew it from the first moment that he tried to throw suspicion on Carr."
"Sir George," said Marston, gravely, "Charles made a mistake just now. Do not you, on your side, make another. Come, Charles," turning to the latter, who was now sitting erect, with flashing eyes, "tell us about it. What were you doing when Middleton saw you?"
"I was coming up-stairs," said Charles, haughtily.
"From the library?" asked Sir George.
Charles bit his lip and remained silent.
I would not have spoken to him for a good deal at that moment. He looked positively dangerous.
"From the library, of course," he said at last, controlling himself, and speaking with something of his old careless manner, "laden with the spoils of my midnight depredations. Parental fondness will supply all minor details, no doubt; so, as the subject is a delicate one for me, I will withdraw, that it may be discussed more fully in my absence."
"Stop, Charles," said Marston; "the case is too serious for banter of this kind. My dear boy," he added, kindly, "I am glad to see you angry, but nevertheless, you must condescend to explain. The longer you allow suspicion to rest on yourself the longer it will be before it falls on the right person. Come, what were you doing in the passage at that time of night?"
Charles was touched, I could see. A very little kindness was too much for him.
"It is no good, Marston," he said, in quite a different voice—"I am not believed in this house."
He turned away and leaned against the mantle-piece, looking into the fire. Ralph cleared his throat once or twice, and then suddenly went up to him, and laid his hand affectionately on his shoulder.
"Fire away, old boy!" he said, in a constrained tone, and he choked again.
Charles turned round and faced his brother, with the saddest smile I ever saw.
"Well, Ralph!" he said, "I will tell you everything, and then you can believe me or not, as you like. I have never told you a lie, have I?"
"Not often," replied Ralph, unwillingly.
"You at least are truth itself," said Charles, reddening; "and if you are biassed in your opinion of me, perhaps it is more the fault of that exemplary Christian, Aunt Mary, than your own. According to her, I have told lies enough to float a company or carry an election, and I never like to disappoint her expectations of me in that respect; but you I have never to my knowledge deceived, and I am not going to begin now."
"You will be a clergyman yet," whispered the sick parent. "There is a good living in the family. Charles, I shall live to see the Reverend Charles Danvers in a surplice, preaching his first sermon on the ninth commandment."
"At any rate, he is practising the fifth under difficulties at this moment," said Marston, as Charles winced and turned his back on the parental sick-bed. "Come, my boy, we are losing time."
"Will somebody have the goodness to restrain Middleton if he gets excited?" said Charles. "I am afraid he won't like part of what I have got to say."
"Nonsense, sir!" I replied, with warmth. "I hope I can restrain myself as well as any man, even under such provocation as I have lately received. You may depend on me, sir, that—"
"We lose time," said Marston, seating himself by me, and cutting short what I was saying in an exceedingly brusque manner. "Come, Charles, you should not be interrupted."
But he was. I interrupted him the whole time, in spite of continual efforts on the part of Marston to make me keep silence. I am not the man calmly to let pass black insinuations against the character of a friend. No, I stood up for him. I am glad to think how I stood up for him, not only metaphorically, but in the most literal sense of the term; for I found myself continually getting up, and Marston as often pulling me down again into my chair.
"Am I to speak, or is Middleton?" said Charles at last, in despair. "I will do a solo, or I will keep silence; but really I am unequal to a duet."
"Sir George," said Marston, "will you have the goodness to desire Colonel Middleton to be silent, or to leave the room till Charles has finished his story?"
I was justly annoyed at Marston's manner of speaking of me, but as I had no intention to leave the room and miss what was going on, I merely bowed in answer to a civil request from Sir George, and took up an attitude of dignified silence. I felt that I had done my part in vindicating my friend; and after all, no one, evidently, was accustomed to believe what Charles said.
"As I was saying," he continued, "I suspected Carr from the first. I did not like the look of him, and I purposely pumped Middleton about him last night at supper."
I nearly burst out at the bare idea of Charles daring to say he had pumped me; but, as will be seen, he could twist anything that was said to such an extent that it was perfectly useless to contradict him any longer. I said not a single word, and he went on:
"All Middleton told me confirmed me in my suspicions. Sir John had been murdered the night before Middleton sailed for England, a whisper of the jewels having no doubt gone abroad. Carr came on board next day, and made friends with Middleton. Whether he had anything to do with the murder or not, God knows! but he found out—nay, Middleton openly told him—that he had jewels of great value in his possession, which he carried about on his person. Carr was the only person aware of that fact. What follows? Carr has Middleton's address in London. Middleton goes to the house, and finds that his sister has moved to the next street. That house to which he first went is broken into, and the poor woman in it is murdered, or dies of fright that same night. I mention this as coincidence number one. The following evening Middleton, having by chance left the jewels at home, dines, and goes to the theatre by appointment with Carr. Unique cab accident occurs, in which Middleton is knocked on the head and rendered unconscious. Coincidence number two. Miss Middleton's house is broken into that same night on Middleton's return to it. Coincidence number three. When I put all this together last night, remembering that Carr, by Middleton's own account, was the only person aware that he had jewels of great value in his keeping, I felt absolutely certain (as I feel still) that he had accepted the invitation, and come down from London solely for the purpose of stealing them. It was pure conjecture on my part, and I dared say nothing beyond begging Ralph not to leave the jewels in the library—which, however, he did. I went straight off to my room when the others went to smoke, but I did not go to bed. The more I thought it over the more certain I felt that Carr would not let slip such an opportunity, the more convinced that an attempt would be made that very night. I did not know that he was not sleeping in the house, but I knew Ralph was at the lodge, so I could not go and consult with him, as I should otherwise have done. I thought of going to Middleton, whose room was close to mine, but on second thoughts I gave up the idea. I am glad I did. At last I determined I would wait till the house was quiet, and that then I would go down alone, and watch in the library in the dark. I lay down on my bed in my clothes to wait, and then—I had been up most of the night before with Denis; I was dead beat with acting and dancing—by ill luck I fell asleep. When I woke up I found to my horror that it was close on four o'clock. I instantly slipped off my shoes, and crept out of my room and down the stairs. I could not get to the library from the hall, as the stage blocked the way, and I had to go all the way round by the drawing-room and morning-room. As I went I thought how easy it would be for Carr to force the lock of the drawer; and so, it flashed across me, could I. Oh, Ralph!" said Charles, "I went down solely to look after your property for you, but I did think of it. I hope I should not have done it, but I suddenly remembered how hard pressed I was for money, and I did think of the crescent, and how you would hardly miss it, and how—but what does it matter now? When I got to the library I found I was too late. The lock of the drawer had been forced, and it was empty. There was nothing for it but to go back to my room. I felt as certain that Carr had done it as that I am standing here; but I dared say nothing next morning, for fear of drawing an ever-ready parental suspicion on myself—which, however, Middleton did for me. All I could do was to keep Carr well in sight until the theft was found out, to prevent any possibility of his escaping, and then to accuse him. There!" said Charles, "that is the whole truth. Carr did not take the jewels; that is absolutely proved, and the sooner he is let out the better. Who took them Heaven only knows! I don't. But I know who meant to, and that was Carr."
"Charles," said Ralph, with glistening eyes, "if ever I get them back you shall have the crescent."
"A very neat little story altogether," said Sir George, "and the episode of temptation very effectively thrown in. It does you credit, my son, and is a great relief to your old father's mind."
"Thank you, Charles," said Marston, getting up. "Sir George, it is close on luncheon-time, and Carr must be let out at once. Now that Charles has so completely cleared himself I don't see that anything more can be done for the moment; and of one thing I am certain, namely, that you are making yourself much worse, and must keep absolutely quiet for the rest of the day. If I may advise, I would suggest that Carr should be allowed to leave, as he wishes to do, by the afternoon train, and should not be pressed to stay. There is nothing more to be got out of him; and, considering the circumstances, I should say the sooner he is out of the house the better. As he has been wrongly suspected, I think the robbery had better not be mentioned to any one, even the ladies in the house, until after he has left."
"Aurelia knows," said Ralph. "She was with me in the library. I left her crying bitterly about them."
"Let her cry, if she will only hold her tongue," said Sir George, making a last effort to speak, but evidently at the extreme point of exhaustion. "And you, Marston, you are right about Carr. See that he goes this afternoon. There is nothing more to be done at present. Charles, you will remain here, though I have no doubt you have an engagement in London. I cannot spare you just yet."
Charles bowed, and he and Marston went out. I remained a second behind with Ralph.
"I see it quite clearly," said Sir George. "I know Charles. He is sharp enough. He saw Carr meant mischief, and he was beforehand with him; and he took what Carr meant to take. It was not badly imagined, but he should have made certain Carr was sleeping in the house. It all turned on that. He never reckoned on the possibility of Carr's being cleared."
"Middleton is still here," said Ralph, significantly, who was pouring out something for his father.
"Is he? I thought he was gone!" said Sir George, so sharply, that I considered it advisable to retire at once.
Charles and Marston were talking together earnestly in the passage.
"He does not believe a word I say," said Charles, as I joined them; "and, what is more, I could see he had told Ralph he suspected me before we came in. Did not you see how Ralph tried to stop me when he thought I was committing myself by accusing Carr, who, it seems, was quite out of the question? I am glad you cut it short, Marston. He was making himself worse every moment."
"Come on with that key of yours, and let us go and let out Carr," replied Marston, patting Charles kindly on the back, "or he will be kicking all the paint off the door."
"Not he!" said Charles. "An honest man would have rung up the whole household and nearly battered the door down by this time, thinking it had been locked by mistake. Carr knows better."
We had reached the smoking-room by this time, just as the gong was beginning to sound for luncheon, and under cover of the noise Charles fitted the key into the key-hole and unlocked the door. He and Marston went slowly in, talking on some indifferent subject, and I followed.
The room seemed strangely quiet after the stormy interview in the sick-chamber which we had just left. The pale winter sunlight was stealing in aslant through the low windows. The fire had sunk to a deep red glow, and in an arm-chair drawn up in front of it, newspaper in hand, was Carr, evidently fast asleep.
"'Oh, my prophetic soul!'" whispered Charles, nudging Marston; and then he went forward and shouted "Luncheon!" in a voice that would have waked the dead.
Carr started up and rubbed his eyes.
"Why, I believe you have been here ever since I left you here, hours ago," said Charles, in a surprised tone, though really, under the circumstances, it did not require a great stretch of the imagination to suppose any such thing.
"Yes," said Carr, still rubbing his eyes. "Have you been gone long? I expect I fell asleep."
"I rather thought you were inclined for a nap when I left you," replied Charles, airily; "and now let us go to luncheon."
It was a very dismal meal. Lady Mary did not come down to it, and Aurelia sat with red eyes, tearful and silent. Ralph was evidently out of favor, for she hardly spoke to him, and snubbed him decidedly when he humbly tendered a peace-offering in the form of a potato. Evelyn, too, was silent, or made spasmodic attempts at conversation with Mrs. Marston, the only unconstrained person of the party. Evelyn and Aurelia had appeared together, and it was evident from Evelyn's expression that Aurelia had told her. What conversation there was turned upon Sir George's illness.
"We must go by the afternoon train, my dear," said Marston down the table to his wife. "In Sir George's present state all visitors are an incubus."
Carr looked up. "I think I ought to go, too," he said. "I wished to arrange to do so this morning, but Mr. Danvers," glancing at Charles, "would not hear of it. I am sure, when there is illness in a house, strangers are always in the way."
"I have seen my father since then," replied Charles, "and I fear his illness is much more serious than I had any idea of. That being the case, I feel it would be wrong to press any one, even Middleton, to stay and share the tedium of a sick-house."
After a few more civil speeches it was arranged that Carr should, after all, leave by the train which he had proposed in the morning. It was found that there was still time for him to do so, but that was all. He was evidently as anxious to be off as the Danverses were that he should go. The dog-cart was ordered, a servant despatched to the lodge in hot haste to pack his portmanteau, and in half an hour he was bidding us good-bye, evidently glad to say it. Poor fellow! He little guessed, as he shook hands with us, how shamefully he had been suspected, how villanously he had been traduced behind his back. Somehow or other I had not had a moment of conversation with him since the morning, or a single chance of telling him how I had stood up for him in his absence. Either Charles or Marston were always at hand, and when he took leave of me I could only shake his hand warmly, and tell him to come and see me again in town. I watched him spinning down the drive in the dog-cart, little thinking how soon I should see him again, and in what circumstances.
"We shall have more snow," said Ralph, coming in-doors. "I feel it in the air."
General and Mrs. Marston were the next to leave, starting an hour later, and going in the opposite direction. I saw Marston turn aside, when his wife was taking leave of the others, and go up to Charles. The young hand and the old one met, and were locked tight.
"Good-bye, my dear boy," said Marston.
"Don't go," said Charles, without looking up.
"I must!" said Marston. "I am due at Kemberley to-night, on business; but," in a lower tone, "I shall come back to-morrow, in case I can be of any use."
They were gone, and I was the only one remaining. It has occurred to me since that perhaps they expected me to go too, but I never thought of it at the time. I had been asked for a week, and to go before the end of it never so much as entered my head.
There was no chance of going out. The early winter afternoon was already closing in, and a few flakes of snow were drifting like feathers in the heavy air, promising more to come. Every one seemed to have dispersed, Ralph up-stairs to his father, Charles out-of-doors somewhere in spite of the weather. I remembered that I had not written to Jane since I left London, and went into the library to do so. As I came in I saw Evelyn sitting in a low chair by the fire, gazing abstractedly into it. She started when she saw me, and on my saying I wished to write some letters, showed me a writing-table near the fire, with pens, ink, and paper.
"You will find it very cold at the big table in the window," she said, looking at it with its broken drawer, a chink open, with a visible shudder.
I installed myself near the fire, talking cheerfully the while, for it struck me she was a little low in her spirits. She did not make much response, and I was settling down to my letters when she suddenly said:
"Yes, Miss Derrick."
"I am afraid I am interrupting your writing, but—"
I looked round. She was standing up, nervously playing with her rings. "But—I know I am not supposed to—but I know what happened last night; Aurelia told me."
"It is very sad, isn't it?" I said. "But cheer up. I dare say we may get them back yet." And I nodded confidentially at her. "In the mean time, you know, you must not talk of it to any one."
"Do you suspect any one in particular?" she asked, very earnestly, coming a step nearer.
I hardly knew what to say. Carr, I need hardly mention, I had never suspected for a moment; but Charles—Marston had evidently believed what Charles had said, but I am by nature more cautious and less credulous than Marston. Besides, I had not forgiven Charles yet for trying to incriminate Carr. Not knowing what to say, I shrugged my shoulders and smiled.
"You do suspect some one, then?"
"My dear young lady," I replied, "when jewels are stolen, one naturally suspects some one has taken them."
"So I should imagine. Whom do you naturally suspect?"
I could not tell her that I more than suspected Charles.
"I know nothing for certain," I said.
"But you have a suspicion?"
"I have a suspicion."
She went to the door to see if it were shut, and then came back and said, in a whisper:
"So have I."
"Perhaps we suspect the same person?" I said.
She did not answer, but fixed her dark eyes keenly on mine. I had never noticed before how dark they were.
I saw then that she knew, and that she suspected Charles, just as Sir George had done.
"Nothing is proved," I said.
"I dared not say even as much as this before," she continued, hurriedly. "It is only the wildest, vaguest suspicion. I have nothing to take hold of. It is so horrible to suspect any one; but—"
She stopped suddenly. Her quick ear had caught the sound of a distant step coming across the hall. In another moment Aurelia came in.
"Are you there, Evelyn?" she said. "I was looking for you, to ask where the time-table lives. I want to look out my journey for to-morrow. Ralph ought to do it, but he is up-stairs," with a little pout.
"You ought not to have quarrelled with him until he had made it out for you," said Evelyn, smiling. "It is a very cross journey, isn't it? Let me see. You are going to your uncle in Dublin, are not you? You had better go to London, and start from there. It will be the shortest way in the end."
The two girls laid their heads together over the Bradshaw, Evelyn's dark-soft hair making a charming contrast to Aurelia's yellow curls. At last the journey was made out and duly written down, and a post-card despatched to the uncle in Dublin.
"Have you seen Ralph anywhere?" asked Aurelia, when she had finished it. "I am afraid I was a little tiny wee bit cross to him this morning, and I am so sorry."
Evelyn always seemed to stiffen when Aurelia talked about Ralph, and, under the pretext of putting her post-card in the letter-bag for her, she presently left the room, and did not return.
Aurelia sat down on the hearth-rug, and held two plump little hands to the fire. It was quite impossible to go on writing to Jane while she was there, and I gave it up accordingly.
"I am glad Evelyn is gone," she said, confidentially. "Do you know why I am glad?"
I said I could not imagine.
"Because," continued Aurelia, nodding gravely at me, "I want to have a very, very, very serious conversation with you, Colonel Middleton."
I said I should be charmed, inwardly wondering what that little curly head would consider to be serious conversation.
"Really serious, you know," continued Aurelia, "not pretence. About that!" pointing with a pink finger at the inlaid writing-table. "You know I was with Ralph when he found it out, and I am afraid I was a little cross to him, only really it was so hard, and they were so lovely, and it was partly his fault, now, wasn't it, for leaving them there? He ought to have been more careful."
"Of course he ought," I said. I would not have contradicted her for worlds.
"And you know I am to be married next month; and Aunt Alice in Dublin, who is getting my things, says as it is to be a winter wedding I am to be married in a white frise velvet, and I did think the diamonds would have looked so lovely with it. Wouldn't they?"
I agreed, of course.
"But I shall never be married in them now," she said, with a deep sigh. "And I was looking forward to the wedding so much, though I dare say I did tell a naughty little story when I said I was not to Ralph the other night. Of course Ralph is still left," she added, as an after-thought; "but it won't be so perfect, will it?"
I was morally certain Charles would have to give them up, so I said, reassuringly:
"Perhaps you may be married in them, after all."
"Oh!" she said, clasping her hands together, "do you really think so? Do you know anything? I have not seen Ralph since to ask him about it. Do you think we shall really get them back?"
"I should not wonder."
"Oh, Colonel Middleton, I see you know. You are a clever, wise man, and you have found out something. Who is it? Do tell me!"
"Will you promise not to tell any one?"
"Mayn't I tell Ralph? I tell him everything."
"Well, you may tell Ralph, because he knows already; but no one else, remember. The truth is, we are afraid it is Charles."
There was a long pause.
"I know Evelyn thinks so," said Aurelia, in a whisper, "though she tries not to show it, because—because—"
"Well, of course, you can't have helped seeing, can you, that she and Charles—"
I had not seen it; indeed, I had fancied at times that Evelyn had a leaning towards Ralph; but I never care to seem slower than others in noticing these things, so I nodded.
"And then, you know, people can't be married that haven't any money; and Charles and Evelyn have none," said Aurelia. "Oh, I am glad Ralph is well off."
A light was breaking in on me. Perhaps it was not Charles after all. Perhaps—
"I am afraid Evelyn is very unhappy," continued Aurelia. "Her room is next to mine, and she walks up and down, and up and down, in the night. I hear her when I am in bed. Last night I heard her so late, so late that I had been to sleep and had waked up again. Do you know," and she crept close up to me with wide, awe-struck eyes, "I am going away to-morrow, and I don't like to say anything to any one but you; but I think Evelyn knows something."
"Miss Derrick!" I said, beginning to suspect that she possibly knew a good deal more than any of us, and then suddenly remembering that she had been on the point of telling me something and had been interrupted. I was getting quite confused. She certainly would not have wished to confide in me if my new suspicion were correct. Considering there was a mystery, it was curious how every one seemed to know something very particular about it.
"Yes," replied Aurelia, nodding once or twice. "I am sure she knows something. I went into her room before luncheon, and she was sitting with her head down on the dressing-table, and when she looked up I saw she had been crying. I don't know what to say about it to Ralph; but you know,"—with a shake of the curls—"though people may think me only a silly little thing, yet I do notice things, Colonel Middleton. Aunt Alice in Dublin often says how quickly I notice things. And I thought, as you were staying on, and seemed to be a friend, I would tell you this before I went away, as you would know best what to do about it."
Aurelia had more insight into character than I had given her credit for. She had hit upon the most likely person to follow out a clew, however slight, in a case that seemed becoming more and more complicated. I inwardly resolved that I would have it out with Miss Derrick that very evening. Lady Mary now came in, and servants followed shortly afterwards with lamps. The dreary twilight, with its dim whirlwinds of driving snow, was shut out, the curtains were drawn, and tea made its appearance. Evelyn presently returned, and Charles also, who civilly wished Lady Mary good-morning, not having seen her till then. She handed him his tea without a word in reply. It was evident that she, also, was aware of the robbery, and it is hardly necessary to add that she suspected Charles.
"How is my father?" he asked, taking no notice of the frigidity of her manner.
"He is asleep at this moment," she replied. "Ralph is remaining with him."
"He is better, then, I hope?"
"He is in a very critical state, and is likely to remain in it. His illness was quite serious enough, without having it increased by one of his own household."
"Ah, I was afraid that had been the case," returned Charles. "I knew you had been doctoring him when he was out of sorts yesterday. But you must not reproach yourself, Aunt Mary. We are none of us infallible. No doubt you acted for the best at the time, and I dare say what you gave him may not do him any permanent injury."
"If that is intended to be amusing," said Lady Mary, her teacup trembling in her hand, "I can only say that, in my opinion, wilfully misunderstanding a simple statement is a very cheap form of wit."
"I am so glad to hear you say so," said Charles, rising, "as it was at your expense." With which Parthian shot he withdrew.
I endeavored in vain to waylay Evelyn after tea, but she slipped away almost before it was over, and did not appear again till dinner-time. In the mean while my brain, fertile in expedients on most occasions, could devise no means by which I could speak to her alone, and without Charles's knowledge. I felt I must trust to chance.
When I came down before dinner I found Ralph and Charles talking earnestly by the hall-fire, Ralph's hand on his brother's shoulder.
"You see we are no farther forward than we were," he was saying.
"We shall have Marston back to-morrow," said Charles, as the gong began to sound. "We cannot take any step till then, especially if we don't want to put our foot in it. I have been racking my brains all the afternoon without the vestige of a result. We must just hold our hands for the moment."
Dinner was announced, and we waited patiently for a few minutes, and impatiently for a good many more, until Evelyn hurried down, apologizing for being late, and with a message from Lady Mary that we were not to wait for her, as she was dining up-stairs in her own room—a practice to which she seemed rather addicted.
"And where is Aurelia?" asked Ralph.
"She is not coming down to dinner either," said Evelyn. "She has a bad headache again, and is lying down. She asked me to tell you that she wishes particularly to see you this evening, as she is going away to-morrow, and if she is well enough she will come down to the morning-room at nine; indeed, she said she would come down anyhow."
After Ralph's natural anxiety respecting his ladylove had been relieved, and he had been repeatedly assured that nothing much was amiss, we went in to dinner, and a more lugubrious repast I never remember being present at. The meals of the day might have been classified thus: breakfast dismal; luncheon, dismaller (or more dismal); dinner, dismallest (or most dismal). There really was no conversation. Even I, who without going very deep (which I consider is not in good taste) have something to say on almost every subject—even I felt myself nonplussed for the time being. Each of us in turn got out a few constrained words, and then relapsed into silence.
Evelyn ate nothing, and her hand trembled so much when she poured out a glass of water that she spilled some on the cloth. I saw Charles was watching her furtively, and I became more and more certain that Aurelia was right, and that Evelyn knew something about the mystery of the night before. I must and would speak to her that very evening.
"Bitterly cold," said Ralph, when at last we had reached the dessert stage. "It is snowing still, and the wind is getting up."
In truth, the wind was moaning round the house like an uneasy spirit.
"That sound in the wind always means snow," said Charles, evidently for the sake of saying something. "It is easterly, I should think. Yes," after a pause, when another silence seemed imminent, "there goes the eight o'clock train. It must be quite a quarter of an hour late, though, for it has struck eight some time. I can hear it distinctly. The station is three miles away, and you never hear the train unless the wind is in the east."
"Come, Charles, not three miles—two miles and a half," put in Ralph.
"Well, two and a half from here down to the station, but certainly three from the station up here," replied Charles; and so silence was laboriously avoided by diligent small-talk until we returned to the drawing-room, thankful that there at least we could take up a book, and be silent if we wished. We all did wish it, apparently. Evelyn was sitting by a lamp when we came in, with a book before her, her elbow on the table, shading her face with a slender delicate hand. She remained motionless, her eyes fixed upon the page, but I noticed after some time that she had never turned it over. Charles may have read his newspaper, but if he did it was with one eye upon Evelyn all the time. Between watching them both I did not, as may be imagined, make much progress myself. How was I to manage to speak to Evelyn alone, and without Charles's knowledge?
At last Ralph, who had gone into the morning-room, opened the drawing-room door and put his head in.
"Aurelia has not come down yet, and it is a quarter past nine. I wish you would run up, Evelyn, and see if she is coming."
"She is sure to come!" replied Evelyn, without raising her eyes. "She said she must see you."
Ralph disappeared again, and the books and papers were studied anew with unswerving devotion. At the end of another ten minutes, however, the impatient lover reappeared.
"It is half-past nine," he said, in an injured tone. "Do pray run up, Evelyn. I don't think she can be coming at all. I am afraid she is worse."
Evelyn laid down her book and left the room. Ralph sauntered back into the morning-room, where we heard him beguiling his solitude with a few chords on the piano.
Presently Evelyn returned. She was pale even to the lips, and her voice faltered as she said:
"She has not gone to bed, for there is a light in her room; but she would not answer when I knocked, and the door is locked."
"All of which circumstances are not sufficient to make you as white as a ghost," said Charles. "I think even if Aurelia has a headache, you would bear the occurrence with fortitude. My dear child, you do not act so well off the stage as on it. There is something on your mind. People don't upset water at dinner, and refuse all food except pellets of pinched bread, for nothing. What is it?"
Evelyn sank into a chair, and covered her face with her trembling hands.
"Yes, I thought so," said Charles, kneeling down by her, and gently withdrawing her hands. "Come, Evelyn, what is it?"
"I dare not say." And she turned away her face, and tried to disengage her hands, but Charles held them firmly.
"Is it about what happened last night?" he asked, in a tone that was kind, but that evidently intended to have an answer.
"And do you know that I am suspected?"
"You, Charles? Never!" she cried, starting up.
"Yes, I. Suspected by my own father. So, if you know anything, Evelyn—which I see you do—it is your duty to tell us, and to help us in every way you can."
He had let go her hands now, and had risen.
"I don't know anything for certain," she said, "but—but we soon shall. Aurelia knows, and she is going to tell Ralph."
"Miss Grant!" I exclaimed. "She knew nothing at tea-time. She was asking me about it."
"It is since then," continued Evelyn. "I went up to her room before dinner to ask her for a fan that I had lent her. She was packing some of her things, and the floor was strewn with packing-paper and parcels. She gave me my fan, and was going on putting her things together, talking all the time, when she asked me to hand her a glove-box on the dressing-table. As I did so my eye fell on a piece of paper lying together with others, and I instantly recognized it as the same that had been wrapped round the diamond crescent when Colonel Middleton first showed us the jewels. I should never have noticed it—for though it was rice paper, it looked just like the other pieces strewn about—if I had not seen two little angular tears, which I suddenly remembered making in it myself when General Marston asked me not to pull it to pieces, which I suppose I had been absently doing. I made some sort of exclamation of surprise, and Aurelia turned round sharply, and asked me what was the matter. As I did not answer, she left her packing and came to the table. She saw in a moment what I was looking at. I had turned as red as fire, and she was quite white. 'I did not mean you to see that,' she said, at last, quietly taking up the paper. 'I meant no one to know until I had shown it to Ralph. Do you know where I found it?' and she looked hard at me. I could only shake my head. I was too much ashamed of a suspicion I had had to be able to get out a word. 'I am very sorry,' continued Aurelia, 'but I am afraid it will be my duty to tell Ralph, whatever the consequences may be. I have been thinking it over, and I think he ought to know. I am going to show it him to-night after dinner,' and she put it in her pocket, and then began to cry. I did not know what to say or do, I was so frightened at the thought of what was coming; and, as the dressing-bell rang at that moment, I was just leaving the room when she called me back.
"'I can't come down to dinner,' she said. 'I hate Ralph to see me with red eyes. Tell him I shall come down afterwards, at nine o'clock, and that I want to see him particularly; only don't tell him what it is about, or mention it to any one else. I did not mean any one to know till he did.'
"She began to cry afresh, and I made her lie down and put a shawl over her, and then left her, as I had still to dress, and I knew that Aunt Mary was not coming down. I was late as it was."
"Is that all?" said Charles, who had been listening intently.
"All," replied Evelyn. "We shall soon know the worst now."
"Very soon," said Charles. "Ralph may come in here at any moment. Evelyn and Middleton, will you have the goodness to come with me?" And he led the way into the hall.
We could hear Ralph in the next room, humming over an old Irish melody, with an improvised accompaniment.
"Now show me her room," said Charles, "and please be quick about it."
Evelyn looked at him astonished, and then led the way up-stairs, along the picture-gallery to another wing of the house. She stopped at last before a door at the end of a passage, dimly lighted by a lamp at the farther end. There was a light under the door, and a bright chink in the key-hole, but though we listened intently we could hear nothing stirring within.
"Knock again," said Charles to Evelyn. "Louder!" as her hand failed her.
There was no answer. As we listened the light within disappeared.
"Bring that lamp from the end of the passage," said Charles to Evelyn, and she brought it.
"Hold it there," he said; "and you, Middleton, stand aside."
He took a few steps backward, and then flung himself against the door with his whole force. It cracked and groaned, but resisted.
"The lock is old. It is bound to go," he said, panting a little.
"Really, Charles," I remonstrated—"a lady's private apartment! Miss Derrick, I wonder you allow this."
Charles retreated again, and then made a fresh and even fiercer onslaught on the door. There was a sound of splintering wood and of bursting screws, and in another moment the door flew open inward, and Charles was precipitated head-foremost into the room, his evening-pumps flourishing wildly in the air. In an instant he was on his feet again, gasping hard, and had seized the lamp out of Evelyn's hand. Before I had time to remonstrate on the liberty that he was taking, we were all three in the room.
It was empty!
In one corner stood a box, half packed, with various articles of clothing lying by it. On the dressing-table was a whole medley of little feminine knick-knacks, with a candlestick in the midst, the dead wick still smoking in the socket, and accounting for the disappearance of the light a few minutes before. The fire had gone out, but on a chair by it was laid a little black lace evening-gown, evidently put out to be worn; while over the fender a dainty pair of silk stockings had been hung, and two diminutive black satin shoes were waiting on the hearth-rug. The whole aspect of the room spoke of a sudden and precipitate flight.
"Bolted!" said Charles, when he had recovered his breath. "And so the mystery is out at last! I might have known there was a woman at the bottom of it. Unpremeditated, though," he continued, looking round. "She meant to have gone to-morrow; but your recognition of that paper frightened her, though she turned it off well to gain time. No fool that! She had only an hour, and she made the most of it, and got off, no doubt, while we were at dinner, by the 8.2 London train, which is the last to-night; and after the telegraph office was closed, too! She knew nothing could be done till to-morrow. She has more wit than I gave her credit for."
"I distrusted her before, though I had no reason for it, but I never thought she was gone," said Evelyn, trembling violently, and still looking round the room.
"I knew it," said Charles, "from the moment I saw the light through the key-hole. A key-hole with a key in it would not have shown half the amount of light through it; and a locked door without a key in it is safe to have been locked from the outside. Had she a maid with her?"
"No," replied Evelyn, "she used to come to me next door when she wanted help—but not often—because I think she knew I did not like her, though I tried not to show it."
"Well, we have seen the last of her, or I am much mistaken," said Charles. "And now," he added, compressing his lips, "I suppose I must go and tell Ralph."
"Oh, Ralph! Ralph!" gasped Evelyn, with a sudden sob; "and he was so fond of her!"
"And so you distrusted her before, Evelyn? And why did you not mention that fact a little sooner?"
"Without any reason for it? And when Ralph—Oh, I couldn't! I couldn't!" said the girl, crimsoning.
Charles gazed intently at her as she turned away, pressing her hands tightly together, and evidently struggling with some sudden emotion for which there really was no apparent reason. She was overwrought, I suppose; and indeed the exertion of breaking in the door had been rather too much for Charles too; for, now that the excitement was over, his hand shook so much that he had to put down the lamp, and even his voice trembled a little as he said:
"I don't think Ralph is very much to be pitied. He has had a narrow escape."
"Don't come down again, either of you," he continued a moment later, in his usual voice. "I had better go and get it over at once. He will be wondering what has become of us if I wait much longer. Evelyn, good-night. Good-night, Middleton. If it is too early for you to go to bed, you will find a fire in the smoking-room."
I bade Evelyn good-night, and followed Charles down the corridor. He replaced the lamp with a hand that was steady enough now, and went slowly across the picture-gallery. The way to my room led me through it also. Involuntarily I stopped at the head of the great carved staircase which led into the hall, and watched him going down, step by step, with lagging tread. From the morning-room came the distant sound of a piano, and a man's voice singing to it; singing softly, as though no Nemesis were approaching; singing slowly, as if there were time enough and to spare. But Nemesis had reached the bottom of the staircase; Nemesis, with a heavy step, was going across the silent hall—was even now opening the door of the morning-room. The door was gently closed again, and then, in the middle of a bar, the music stopped.
I passed an uneasy night. The wind moaned wearily round the house, at one moment seeming to die away altogether, at another returning with redoubled fury, roaring down the wide chimney, shaking the whole building. It dropped completely towards dawn, and after hours of fitful slumber I slept heavily.
In the gray of the early morning I was awakened by some one coming into my room, and started up to find Charles standing by my bedside, dressed, and with a candle in his hand. His face was worn and haggard from want of sleep.
"I have come to speak to you before I go, Middleton," he said, when I was thoroughly awake. "Ralph and I are off by the early train. Will you tell my father that we may not be able to return till to-morrow, if then; and may I count upon you to keep all you saw and heard secret till after our return?"
"Where are you going?"
"To London. We start in twenty minutes. I don't think it is the least use, but Ralph insists on going, and I cannot let him go alone."
"My dear Charles," I said (all my anger had vanished at the sight of his worn face), "I will accompany you."
"Not for worlds!" he replied, hastily. "It would be no good. Indeed, I should not wish it."
But I knew better.
"An old head is often of use," I replied, rapidly getting into my clothes. "You may count on me, Charles. I shall be ready in ten minutes."
Charles made some pretence at annoyance, but I was not to be dissuaded. I knew very well how invaluable the judgment of an elder man of experience could be on critical occasions; and besides, I always make a point of seeing everything I can, on all occasions. In ten minutes I was down in the dining-room, where, beside a spluttering fire, the brothers, both heavily booted and ulstered, were drinking coffee by candle-light. A hastily laid breakfast was on the table, but it had not been touched. The gray morning light was turning the flame of the candles to a rusty yellow, and outside, upon the wide stone sills, the snow lay high against the panes.
Ralph was sitting with bent head by the fire, stick and cap in hand, his heavy boot beating the floor impatiently. He looked up as I came in, but did not speak. The ruddy color in his cheeks was faded, his face was drawn and set. He looked ten years older.
"We ought to be off," he said at last, in a low voice.
"No hurry," replied Charles; "finish your coffee."
I hastily drank some also, and told Charles that I was coming with them.
"No!" said Charles.
"Yes!" I replied. "You are going to London, and so am I. I have decided to curtail my visit by a few days, under the circumstances. I shall travel up with you. My luggage can follow."
As soon as Charles grasped the idea that I was not going to return to Stoke Moreton his opposition melted away; he even seemed to hail my departure with a certain sense of relief.
"As you like," he said. "You can leave at this unearthly hour if you wish, and travel with us as far as Paddington."
I nodded, and went after my great-coat. Of course I had not the slightest intention of leaving them at Paddington; but I felt that the time had not arrived to say so.
"Here comes the dog-cart," said Charles, as I returned.
Ralph was already on his feet. But the dog-cart, with its great bay horse, could not be brought up to the door. The snow had drifted heavily before the steps, and right up into the archway, and the cart had to go round to the back again before we could get in and start. Charles took the reins, and his brother got up beside him. The groom and I squeezed ourselves into the back seat. I could see that I was only allowed to come on sufferance, and that at the last moment they would have been willing to dispense with my presence. However, I felt that I should never have forgiven myself if I had let them go alone. Charles was not thirty, and Ralph several years younger. An experienced man of fifty to consult in case of need might be of the greatest assistance in an emergency.
"Quicker!" said Ralph; "we shall miss the train."
"No quicker, if we mean to catch it," said Charles. "I allowed ten minutes extra for the snow. We shall do it if we go quietly, but not if I let him go. An upset would clinch the matter."
We drove noiselessly through the great gates with their stone lions on either side, rampant in wreaths of snow, and up the village street, where life was hardly stirring yet. The sun was rising large and red, a ball of dull fire in the heavy sky. It seemed to be rising on a dead world. Before us (only to be seen on my part by craning round) stretched the long white road. At intervals, here and there among the shrouded fields, lay cottages half hidden by a white network of trees. Groups of yellow sheep stood clustered together under hedge-rows, motionless in the low mist, and making no sound. A lonely colt, with tail erect, ran beside us on the other side of the hedge as far as his field would allow him, his heavy hoofs falling noiseless in the snow. The cold was intense.
"There will be a drift at the bottom of Farrow hill," said Ralph; "we shall be late for the train."
And in truth, as we came cautiously down the hill, on turning a corner we beheld a smooth sheet of snow lapping over the top of the hedge on one side, like iced sugar on a cake, and sloping downward to the ditch on the other side of the road.
"Hold on!" cried Charles, as I stood up to look; and in another moment we were pushing our way through the snow, keeping as near the ditch as possible—too near, as it turned out. But it was not to be. A few yards in front of us lay the road—snowy, but practicable; but we could not reach it. We swayed backward and forward; we tilted up and down; Charles whistled, and made divers consolatory and encouraging sounds to the bay horse; but the bay horse began to plunge—he made a side movement—one wheel crunched down through the ice in the ditch, and all was over—at least, all in the cart were. We fell soft—I most providentially alighting on the groom, who was young, and inclined to be plump, and thus breaking a fall which to a heavy man of my age might have been serious. Charles and Ralph were up in a moment.
"I thought I could not do it; but it was worth a trial," said Charles, shaking himself. "George, look after the horse and cart, and take them straight back. Now, Ralph, we must run for it if we mean to catch the train. Middleton, you had better go back in the cart." And off they set, plunging through the snow without further ceremony. I watched the two dark figures disappearing, aghast with astonishment. They were positively leaving me behind! In a moment my mind was made up; and, leaving the gasping young groom to look after the horse and cart, I set off to run too. It was only a chance, of course; but in this weather the train might be late. It was all the way downhill. I thought I could do it, and I did. My feet were balled with snow; I was hotter than I had been for years; I was completely out of breath; but when I puffed into the little road-side station, five minutes after the train was due, I could see that it was not yet in, and that Ralph and Charles were waiting on the platform.
"My word, Middleton!" said Charles, coming to meet me. "I thought I had seen the last of you when I left you reclining on George in the drift. I do believe you have got yourself into this state of fever-heat purely to be of use to us two; and I treated you very cavalierly, I am sure. Let by-gones be by-gones, and let us shake hands while you are in this melting mood."
I could not speak, but we shook hands cordially; and I hurried off to get my ticket.
"You can only book to Tarborough!" he called after me, "where we change, and catch the London express."
The station-master gave me my ticket, and then approached Charles, and touched his cap.
"Might any of you gentlemen be going to London, sir?" he inquired.
"All three of us."
"I don't think you will get on, sir. The news came down this morning that the evening express from Tarborough last night was thrown off the rails by a drift, and got knocked about, and I don't expect the line is clear yet. There will be no trains running till later in the day, I am afraid."
"The night express?" said Ralph, suddenly.
"Do you mean the 9 train, which you can catch by the 8.2 from here?"
"She was in it!" said Ralph, in a hoarse voice, as the man walked away.
"How late the train is!" said Charles; "quarter of an hour already. I say, Jervis," calling after him, "any particulars about the accident? Serious?"
"Oh dear no, sir, not to my knowledge. Never heard of anything but that the train had been upset, and had stopped the traffic."
"Not many people travelling in such weather, at any rate. I dare say there was not a creature who went from here by the last train last night?"
"Only two, sir. One of the young gentlemen from the rectory, and a young lady, who was very near late, poor thing, and all wet with snow. Ah, there she is, at last!" as the train came in sight; and he went through the ceremony of ringing the bell, although we were the only travellers on the platform.
It was only an hour's run to Tarborough, where we were to join the main line.
"What are we to do now?" said Charles, as the chimneys of Tarborough hove in sight, and the train slackened. "Ten to one we shall not be able to get on to London!"
"Nor she either," said Ralph. "I shall see her! I shall see her here!"
There was an air of excitement about the whole station as we drew up before the platform. Groups of railway officials were clustered together, talking eagerly; the bar-maids were all looking out of the refreshment-room door; policemen were stationed here and there; and outside the iron gates of the station a little crowd of people were waiting in the trodden yellow snow, peering through the bars.
We got out, and Charles went up to a respectable-looking man in black, evidently an official of some consequence, and asked what was the matter. The man informed him that a special had been sent down the line with workmen to clear the rails, and that its return, with the passengers in the ill-fated express, was expected at any moment.
"You don't mean to say the wretched passengers have been there all night?" exclaimed Charles. From the man's account it appeared that the travellers had taken refuge in a farm near the scene of the accident, and, the snow-storm continuing very heavily, it had not been thought expedient to send a train down the line to bring them away till after daybreak. "It has been gone an hour," he said, looking at the clock; "and it is hardly nine yet. Considering how late we received notice of the accident—for the news had to travel by night, and on foot for a considerable distance—I don't think there has been much delay."
"Will all the passengers come back by this train?" asked Ralph.
"We will wait," said Ralph; and he went and paced up and down the most deserted part of the platform. The man followed him with his eyes.
"Anxious about friends, sir?" he asked Charles.
"Yes," I heard Charles say, as I went off to warm myself by the waiting-room fire, keeping a sharp lookout for the arrival of the train. When I came out some time later, wondering if it were ever going to arrive at all, I found Charles and the man in black walking up and down together, evidently in earnest conversation. When I joined them they ceased talking (I never can imagine why people generally do when I come up), and the latter said that he would make inquiry at the booking-office, and left us.
"Who is that man?" I asked.
"How should I know?" said Charles, absently. "He says he has been a London detective till just lately, but he is an inspector of police now. Well?" as the man returned.
"Booking-clerk can't remember, sir; but the clerk at the telegraph office remembers a young lady leaving a telegram last night, to be sent on first thing this morning."
"Has it been sent yet?"
"Yes, sir; some time."
"Where was it sent to?"
"That is against rules, sir. The clerk has no right to give information. Anyhow, it is as good as certain, from what you say, that the party was in the train, and at all events you will not be kept in doubt much longer;" and he pointed to the long-expected puff of white smoke in the direction in which all eyes had been so anxiously turned. The train came slowly round a broad curve and crawled into the station. Ralph had come up, and his eyes were fixed intently upon it. The hand he laid on Charles's arm shook a little as he whispered, in a hoarse voice, "I must speak to her alone before anything is said."
"You shall," replied Charles; and he moved forward a little, and waited for the passengers to alight. I felt that any chance of escape which lay in eluding those keen light eyes would be small indeed.
Then ensued a scene of confusion, a Babel of tongues, as the passengers poured out upon the platform. "What was the meaning of it all?" hotly demanded an infuriated little man before he was well out of the carriage. "Why had a train been allowed to start if it was to be overturned by a snow-drift? What had the company been about not to make itself aware of the state of the line? What did the railway officials mean by—" etc. But he was not going to put up with such scandalous treatment. He should cause an inquiry to be made; he should write to the Times, he should—in short, he behaved like a true Englishman in adverse circumstances, and poured forth abuse like water. Others followed—some angry, some silent, all cold and miserable. A stout woman in black, who had been sent for to a dying child, was weeping aloud; a dazed man with bound-up head and a terrified wife were pounced upon immediately by expectant friends, and borne off with voluble sympathy. One or two people slightly hurt were helped out after the others. The train was emptied at last. Aurelia was not there. Charles went down the length of the train looking into each carriage, and then came back, answering Ralph's glance with a shake of the head. The man in black, who seemed to have been watching him, came up.
"Have all come back by this train?" Charles asked.
"All, sir, except,"—and he hesitated—"except a few. The doctor who went has not returned; and the guard says there were some of the passengers, badly hurt, that he would not allow to be moved from the farm when the train came for them. The engine-driver and one or two others were—"
Charles made a sign to him to be silent.
"How far is it?" he asked.
"Twenty miles, sir."
"Are the roads practicable?"
"No, sir. At least they would be very uncertain once you got into the lanes."
"We can walk along the line," said Ralph. "That must be clear. Let us start at once."
"Could not the station-master send us down on an engine?" asked Charles. "We would pay well for it."
The police-inspector shook his head, but Charles went off to inquire, nevertheless, and he followed him. I thought him a very pushing, inquisitive kind of person. I have always had a great dislike to the idle curiosity which is continually prying into the concerns of others. Ralph and I walked up and down, up and down, the now deserted platform. I spoke to him once or twice, but he hardly answered; and after a time I gave it up, and we paced in silence.
At last Charles returned. His request for an engine had been refused, but a further relay of workmen was being sent down the line in a couple of hours' time, and he had obtained leave for himself and us to go with them. After two long interminable hours of that everlasting pacing we found ourselves in an open truck, full of workmen, steaming slowly out of the station. At the last moment the man in black jumped in, and accompanied us.
The pace may have been great, but to us it seemed exasperatingly slow, and in the open truck the cold was piercing. The workmen, who laughed and talked among themselves, appeared to take no notice of it; but I saw that Charles was shivering, and presently he made his brother light his pipe, and began to smoke hard himself.
Ralph's pipe, however, went out unheeded in his fingers. He sat quite still with his back against the side of the truck, his eyes fixed upon the gray horizon. Once he turned suddenly to his brother, and said, as if unable to keep silence on what was in his mind, "What was her object?"
Charles shook his head.
"They were hers already!" he went on. "She would have had them all. If she had had debts, I would have paid them. What could her object have been?" And seemingly, without expecting a reply, he relapsed into silence.
We had left the suburbs now, and were passing through a lonely country. Here and there a village of straggling cottages met the eye, clustering round their little church. In places the hedge-rows alone marked the lie of the hidden lanes; in others men were digging out the roads through drifts of snow, and carts and horses were struggling painfully along. In one place a little walking funeral was laboring across the fields from a lonely cottage, in the direction of the church, high on the hill, the bell of which was tolling through the quiet air. The sound reached us as we passed, and seemed to accompany us on our way. I heard the men talking among themselves that there had been no snow-storm like to this for thirty years; and as they spoke some of them began shading their eyes, and trying to look in the direction in which we were going.
We had now reached a low waste of unenclosed land, with sedge and gorse pricking up everywhere through the snow, and with long lines of pollards marking the bed of a frozen stream. Near the line was a deserted brick-kiln, surrounded by long uneven mounds and ridges of ice, with three poplars mounting guard over it. Flights of rooks hung over the barren ground, and wheeled in the air with discordant clamor as we passed—the only living moving things in the utter desolation of the scene. As I looked there was an exclamation from one of the workmen, and the engine began to slacken. We were there at last.
The engine and trucks stopped, the men shouldered their tools and tumbled out, and we followed them. A few hundred paces in front of us was a railway bridge, over which a road passed, and under which the rail went at a sharp curve. The snow had drifted heavily against the bridge, with its high earth embankment, making manifest at a glance the cause of the disaster.
The bridge was crowded with human figures, and on the line below men were working in the drift, amid piles of debris and splintered wood. The wrecked train had all been slightly draped in snow; the engine alone, barely cold, lying black and grim, like some mighty giant, formidable in death. A sheet of glass ice near it showed how the boiler had burst. Some of the hindermost carriages were still standing, or had fallen comparatively uninjured; but others seemed to have leaped upon their fellows, and ploughed right through them into the drift. It was well that it began to snow as we reached the spot. There were traces of dismal smears on the white ground which it would be seemly to hide.
Our friend in black went forward and asked a few questions of the man in charge, and presently returned.
"The remainder of the passengers are at the farm," he said, pointing to a house at a little distance; and without further delay we began to scramble up the steep embankment, and clamber over the stone-wall of the bridge into the road. My mind was full of other things, but I remember still the number of people assembled on the bridge, and how a man was standing up in his donkey-cart to view the scene. It was Saturday, and there were quantities of village school-boys sitting astride on the low wall, or perched on adjacent hurdles, evidently enjoying the spectacle, jostling, bawling, eating oranges, and throwing the peel at the engine. Some older people touched their hats sympathetically, and one went and opened a gate for us into a field, through which many feet seemed to have come and gone; but for the greater number the event was evidently regarded as an interesting variation in the dull routine of every-day life; and to the school-boys it was an undoubted treat.
Ralph and Charles walked on in front, following the track across the field. It was not particularly heavy walking after what we had had earlier in the day, but Ralph stumbled perpetually, and presently Charles drew his arm through his own, and the two went on together, the police-inspector following with me.
In a few minutes we reached the farm, and entered the farm-yard, which was the nearest way to the house. A little knot of calves, intrenched on a mound of straw in the centre of the yard, lowered their heads and looked askance at us as we came in, and a party of ducks retreated hastily from our path with a chorus of exclamations, while a thin collie dog burst out of a barrel at the back door, and made a series of gymnastics at the end of a chain, barking hoarsely, as if he had not spared himself of late.
An elderly woman with red arms met us at the door, and, on a whisper from the police-inspector, first shook her head, and then, in answer to a further whisper, nodded at another door, and, a voice calling her from within, hastily disappeared.
The inspector opened the door she had indicated and went in, I with him. Charles, who had grown very grave, hung back with Ralph, who seemed too much dazed to notice anything in heaven above or the earth beneath. The door opened into an out-house, roughly paved with round stones, where barrels, staves, and divers lumber had been put away. There was straw in the farther end of it, out of which a yellow cat raised two gleaming eyes, and then flew up a ladder against the wall, and disappeared among the rafters. In the middle of the floor, lying a little apart, were three figures with sheets over them. Instinctively we felt that we were in the presence of death. I looked back at Charles and Ralph, who were still standing outside in the falling snow. Charles was bareheaded, but Ralph was looking absently in front of him, seeming conscious of nothing. The inspector made me a sign. He had raised one of the sheets, and now withdrew it altogether. My heart seemed to stand still. It was Aurelia! Aurelia changed in the last great change of all, but still Aurelia. The fixed artificial color in the cheek consorted ill with the bloodless pallor of the rest of the face, which was set in a look of surprise and terror. She was altered beyond what should have been. She looked several years older. But it was still Aurelia. Those little gloved hands, tightly clinched, were the same which she had held to the library fire as we talked the day before; even the dress was the same. Alas! she had been in too great a hurry to change it before she left, or her thin shoes. Poor little Aurelia! And then—I don't know how it was, but in another moment Ralph was kneeling by her, bending over her, taking the stiffened hands in his trembling clasp, imploring the deaf ears to hear him, calling wildly to the pale lips to speak to him, which had done with human speech. I could not bear it, and I turned away and looked out through the open door at the snow falling. The inspector came and stood beside me. In the silence which followed we could hear Charles speaking gently from time to time; and when at last we both turned towards them again, Ralph had flung himself down on an old bench at the farther end of the out-house, with his back turned towards us, his arms resting on a barrel, and his head bowed down upon them. He neither spoke nor moved.
Charles left him, and came towards us, and he and the inspector spoke apart for a moment, and then the latter dropped on his knees beside the dead woman, and, after looking carefully at a dark stain on one of the wrists, turned back the sleeve. Crushed deep into the round white arm gleamed something bright. It was an emerald bracelet which we both knew. Charles cast a hasty glance at Ralph, but he had not moved, and he drew me beside him, so as to interpose our two figures between him and the inspector. The latter quietly turned down the sleeve and recomposed the arm.
"I knew she would have them on her, if she had them at all," he said, in a low voice. "We need look no farther at present. Not one will be missing. They are all there."
He gazed long and earnestly at the dead face, and then to my horror he suddenly unfastened the little hat. I made an involuntary movement as if to stop him, but Charles laid an iron grip upon me, and motioned to me to be still. The stealthy hand quietly pushed back the fair curls upon the forehead, and in another moment they fell still farther back, showing a few short locks of dark hair beneath them, which so completely altered the dead face that I could hardly recognize it as belonging to the same person. The inspector raised his head, and looked significantly at Charles. Then he quietly drew forward the yellow hair over the forehead again, replaced the hat, and rose to his feet. Charles and I glanced apprehensively at Ralph, but he had not stirred. As we looked, a hurried step came across the yard, a hand raised the latch of the door, and some one entered abruptly. It was Carr. For one moment he stood in the door-way, for one moment his eyes rested horror-struck on the dead woman, then darted at us, from us to the inspector, who was coolly watching him, and—he was gone! gone as suddenly as he had come; gone swiftly out again into the falling snow, followed by the wild barking of the dog.
Charles, who had had his back to the door, turned in time to see him, and he made a rush for the door, but the inspector flung himself in his way, and held him forcibly.
"Let me go! Let me get at him!" panted Charles, struggling furiously.
"I shall do no such thing, sir. It can do no good, and might do harm. He is armed, and you are not; and he would not be over-scrupulous if he were pushed. Besides, what can you accuse him of? Intent to rob? For he did not do it. If you have lost anything, remember, you have found it again. If you caught him a hundred times, you have no hold on him. I know him of old."
"Yes; I have known him by sight long enough. He is not a new hand by any means—nor she either, as to that, poor thing."
"But what on earth brought him here?"
"He was waiting for news of her in London, most likely, and he knew she would have the jewels on her, and came down when he got wind of the accident."
"Knew she would have the jewels! Then do you mean to say there was collusion between the two?"
The inspector glanced furtively at Ralph, but he had never stirred, or raised his head since he had laid it down on his clinched hands.
"They are both well known to the police," he said at last, "and I think it probable there was collusion between them, considering they were man and wife."
I am told that I ought to write something in the way of a conclusion to this account of the Danvers jewels, as if the end of the last chapter were not conclusion enough. Charles, who has just read it, says especially that his character requires what he calls "an elegant finish," and suggests that a slight indication of a young and lovely heiress in connection with himself would give pleasure to the thoughtful reader. But I do not mean at the last moment to depart from the exact truth, and dabble in fiction just to make a suitable conclusion. If I must write something more, I must beg that it will be kept in mind that if further details concerning the robbery are now added against my own judgment, they will rest on Charles's authority—not mine—as anything I afterwards heard was only through Charles, whose information I never consider reliable in the least degree.
* * * * *
It was not till three months later that I saw him again, on a wet April afternoon. I was still living in London with Jane when he came to see me, having just returned from a long tour abroad with Ralph.
Sir George, he said, was quite well again, but the coolness between himself and his father had dropped almost to freezing-point since it had come to light that he had been innocent after all. His father could not forgive his son for putting him in the wrong.
"I seldom disappoint him in matters of this kind," he said. "Indeed, I may say I have, as a rule, surpassed his expectations, and I must be careful never to fall short of them in this way again. But ah! Miss Middleton, I am sure you will agree with me how difficult it is to preserve an even course without relaxing a little at times."
"My dear Mr. Charles," said Jane, beaming at him over her knitting, but not quite taking him in the manner he intended, "you are young yet, but don't be downhearted. I am sure by your face that as you grow older these deviations, which you so properly regret, will grow fewer and fewer, until, as life goes on, they will gradually cease altogether."
"I consider it not improbable myself," said Charles, with a faint smile, and he changed the conversation. I really cannot put down here all that he proceeded to say in the most cold-blooded manner concerning Carr and Aurelia, or as he would call them, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, alias Sinclair, alias Tibbits. I for one don't believe a word of it; and I don't see how he could have found it all out, as he said he had, through the police, and people of that kind. I don't consider it is at all respectable consorting with the police in that way; but then Charles never was respectable, as I told Jane after he left, arousing excited feelings on her part which made me regret having mentioned it.
According to him, Carr, who had never been seen or heard of since the day after the accident, was a professional thief, who had probably gone to —— in India with the express design of obtaining possession of Sir John's jewels, which had, till near the time of his death, been safely stowed away in a bank in Calcutta. He and his wife usually worked together; but on this occasion she had, by means of her engaging manners and youthful appearance, struck up an acquaintance abroad with Lady Mary Cunningham, who, it will be remembered, had jewels of considerable value, with a view to those jewels. Ralph she had used as her tool, and engaged herself to him in the expectation that on her return to England she might, by means of her intimacy with the family, have an opportunity of taking them—Lady Mary having left them, while abroad, with her banker in London. The opportunity came while she was at Stoke Moreton; but in the mean while Sir John's priceless legacy had arrived, having eluded her husband's vigilance. (That certainly was true. The jewels were safe enough as long as I had anything to do with them.) Her husband, who followed them, saw that he was suspected, and threw the game into her hands, devoting himself entirely to putting his own innocence beyond a doubt; in which, with Ralph's assistance, he succeeded.