Part 4 out of 5
And he was there some minutes before the hour.
"I want to know my exact balance, if it is not too much trouble to look
it up before you close."
A slip of paper was soon put into Langholm's hand, and at a glance he
flushed to the hat with pleasure and surprise, and so regained his cab.
"The Cadogan Hotel, in Sloane Street," he cried through the trap; "and
there's no hurry, you can go your own pace."
Nor was there any further anxiety in Langholm's heart. His balance was a
clear hundred more than he had expected to find it, and his whole soul
sang the praises of a country life. Unbusinesslike and unmethodical as
he was, in everything but the preparation of MS., such a discovery
could never have been made in town, where Langholm's expenditure had
marched arm-in-arm with his modest earnings.
"And it can again," he said recklessly to himself, as he decided on the
best hotel in the field of his investigations, instead of lodgings;
"thank God, I have enough to run this racket till the end of the year at
least! If I can't strike the trail by then--"
He lapsed into dear reminiscence and dearer daydreams, their common
scene some two hundred miles north; but to realize his lapse was to
recover from it promptly. Langholm glanced at himself in the little
mirror. His was an honest face, and it was an honest part that he must
play, or none at all. He leaned over the apron and interested himself in
the London life that was so familiar to him still. It was as though he
had not been absent above a day, yet his perceptions were sharpened by
his very absence of so many weeks. The wood pavement gave off a strong
but not unpleasant scent in the heavy August heat; it was positively
dear to the old Londoner's nostrils. The further he drove upon his
southwesterly course, the emptier were the well-known thoroughfares. St.
James's Street might have been closed to traffic; the clubs in Pall
Mall were mostly shut. On the footways strolled the folk whom one only
sees there in August and September, the entire families from the
country, the less affluent American, guide book in hand. Here and there
was a perennial type, the pale actor with soft hat and blue-black chin,
the ragged sloucher from park to park. Langholm could have foregathered
with one and all, such was the strange fascination of the town for one
who was twice the man among his northern roses. But that is the kind of
mistress that London is to those who have once felt her spell; you may
forget her by the year, but the spell lies lurking in the first whiff of
the wood pavement, the first flutter of the evening paper on the curb;
and even in the cab you wonder how you have borne existence elsewhere.
The hotel was very empty, and Langholm found not only the best of rooms
at his disposal, but that flattering quality of attention which awaits
the first comer when few come at all. He refreshed himself with tea and
a bath, and then set out to reconnoitre the scene of the already
half-forgotten murder. He had a vague though sanguine notion that his
imaginative intuition might at once perceive some possibility which had
never dawned upon the academic intelligence of the police.
Of course he remembered the name of the street, and it was easily
found. Nor had Langholm any difficulty in discovering the house, though
he had forgotten the number. There were very few houses in the street,
and only one of them was empty and to let. It was plastered with the
bills of various agents, and Langholm noted down the nearest of these,
whose office was in King's Road. He would get an order to view the
house, and would explore every inch of it that very night. But his bath
and his tea had made away with the greater part of an hour; it was six
o'clock before Langholm reached the house-agent's, and the office was
He dined quietly at his hotel, feeling none the less that he had made a
beginning, and spent the evening looking up Chelsea friends, who were
likely to be more conversant than himself with all the circumstances of
Mr. Minchin's murder and his wife's arrest; but who, as might have been
expected, were one and all from home.
In the morning the order of his plans were somewhat altered. It was
essential that he should have those circumstances at his fingers' ends,
at least so far as they had transpired in open court. Langholm had read
the trial at the time with the inquisitive but impersonal interest which
such a case inspires in the average man. Now he must study it in a very
different spirit, and for the nonce he repaired betimes to the newspaper
room at the British Museum.
By midday he had mastered most details of the complex case, and made a
note of every name and address which had found their way into the
newspaper reports. But there was one name which did not appear in any
account. Langholm sought it in bound volume after bound volume, until
even the long-suffering attendants, who trundle the great tomes from
their shelves on trolleys, looked askance at the wanton reader who
filled in a new form every five or ten minutes. But the reader's face
shone with a brighter light at each fresh failure. Why had the name he
wanted never come up in open court? Where was the evidence of the man
who had made all the mischief between the Minchins? Langholm intended
having first the one and then the other; already he was on the spring to
a first conclusion. With a caution, however, which did infinite credit
to one of his temperament, the amateur detective determined to look a
little further before leaping even in his own mind.
Early in the afternoon he was back in Chelsea, making fraudulent
representations to the house-agent near the Vestry Hall.
"Not more than ninety," repeated that gentleman, as he went through his
book, and read out particulars of several houses at about that rental;
but the house which Langholm burned to see over was not among the
"I want a quiet street," said the wily writer, and named the one in
which it stood. "Have you nothing there?"
"I have one," said the agent with reserve, "and it's only seventy."
"The less the better," cried Langholm, light-heartedly. "I should like
to see that one."
The house-agent hesitated, finally looking Langholm in the face.
"You may as well know first as last," said he, "for we have had enough
trouble about that house. It was let last year for ninety; we're asking
seventy because it is the house in which Mr. Minchin was shot dead.
Still want to see it?" inquired the house-agent, with a wry smile.
It was all Langholm could do to conceal his eagerness, but in the end he
escaped with several orders to view, and the keys of the house of houses
in his pocket. No caretaker could be got to live in it; the agent seemed
half-surprised at Langholm's readiness to see over it all alone.
About an hour later the novelist stood at a door whose name and number
were not inscribed upon any of the orders obtained by fraud from the
King's Road agent. It was a door that needed painting, and there was a
conspicuous card in the ground-floor window. Langholm tugged twice in
his impatience at the old-fashioned bell. If his face had been alight
before, it was now on fire, for by deliberate steps he had arrived at
the very conclusion to which he had been inclined to jump. At last came
a slut of the imperishable lodging-house type.
"Is your mistress in?"
"When do you expect her?"
"Not before night."
"Any idea what time of night?"
The untidy child had none, but at length admitted that she had orders to
keep the fire in for the landlady's supper. Langholm drew his own
deduction. It would be little use in returning before nine o'clock. Five
hours to wait! He made one more cast before he went.
"Have you been here long, my girl?"
"Going on three months."
"But your mistress has been here some years?"
"I believe so."
"Are you her only servant?"
And five hours to wait for more!
It seemed an infinity to Langholm as he turned away. But at all events
the house had not changed hands. The woman he would eventually see was
the woman who had given invaluable evidence at the Old Bailey.
Langholm returned to his hotel and wrote a few lines to Rachel. It had
been arranged that he was to report progress direct to her, and as often
as possible; but it was a very open arrangement, in which Steel had
sardonically concurred. Yet, little as there was to say, and for all his
practice with the pen, it took Langholm the best part of an hour to
write that he believed he had already obtained a most important clew,
which the police had missed in the most incredible manner, though it had
been under their noses all the time. So incredible did it appear,
however, even to himself, when written down, that Langholm decided not
to post this letter until after his interview with the Chelsea landlady.
To kill the interval, he went for his dinner to the single club to which
he still belonged. It was a Bohemian establishment off the Strand, and
its time-honored name was the best thing about it in this member's eyes.
He was soon cursing himself for coming near the place while engaged
upon his great and sacred quest. Not a "clubable" person himself, as
that epithet was understood in this its home, Langholm was not a little
surprised when half-a-dozen men (most of whom he barely knew) rose to
greet him on his appearance in the smoking-room. But even with their
greetings came the explanation, to fill the newcomer with a horror too
sudden for concealment.
It appeared that Mrs. Steel's identity with the whilom Mrs. Minchin had
not only leaked out in Delverton. Langholm gathered that it was actually
in one of that morning's half-penny papers, at which he had not found
time to glance in his hot-foot ardor for the chase. For the moment he
was shocked beyond words, and not a little disgusted, to discover the
cause of his own temporary importance.
"Talk of the devil!" cried a comparative crony. "I was just telling them
that you must be the 'well-known novelist' in the case, as your cottage
was somewhere down there. Have you really seen anything of the lady?"
"Seen anything of her?" echoed a journalist to whom Langholm had never
spoken in his life. "Why, can't you see that he bowled her out himself
and came up straight to sell the news?"
Langholm took his comparative crony by the arm.
"Come in and dine with me," he said; "I can't stand this! Yes, yes, I
know her well," he whispered, as they went round the screen which was
the only partition between pipes and plates; "but let me see what that
scurrilous rag has to say while you order. I'll do the rest, and you had
better make it a bottle of champagne."
The "scurrilous rag" had less to say than Langholm had been led to
expect. He breathed again when he had read the sequence of short but
pithy paragraphs. Mrs. Minchin's new name was not given after all, nor
that of her adopted district; while Langholm himself only slunk into
print as "a well-known novelist who, oddly enough, was among the guests,
and eye-witness of a situation after his own heart." The district might
have been any one of the many manufacturing centres in "the largest of
shires," which was the one geographical clew vouchsafed by the
half-penny paper. Langholm began to regret his readiness to admit the
impeachment with which he had been saluted; it was only in his own club
that he would have been pounced upon as the "well-known novelist"; but
it was some comfort to reflect that even in his own club his exact
address was not known, for his solicitor paid his subscription and sent
periodically for his letters. Charles Langholm had not set up as hermit
by halves; he had his own reasons for being thorough there. And it was
more inspiriting than the champagne to feel that no fresh annoyance was
likely to befall the Steels through him.
"It's not so bad as I thought," said Langholm, throwing the newspaper
aside as his companion, whose professional name was Valentine Venn,
finished with the wine-card.
"Dear boy," said Venn, "it took a pal to spot you. Alone I did it! But I
wish you weren't so dark about that confounded cottage of yours; the
humble mummer would fain gather the crumbs that fall from the rich
scribe's table, especially when he's out of a shop, which is the present
condition of affairs. Besides, we might collaborate in a play, and make
more money apiece in three weeks than either of us earns in a fat year.
That little story of yours--"
"Never mind my little stories," said Langholm, hastily; "I've just
finished a long one, and the very thought of fiction makes me sick."
"Well, you've got facts to turn to for a change, and for once they
really do seem as strange as the other thing. Lucky bargee! Have you had
her under the microscope all the summer? Ye gods, what a part of
"Drink up," said Langholm, grimly, as the champagne made an opportune
appearance; "and now tell me who that fellow is who's opening the piano,
and since when you've started a musical dinner."
The big room that the screen divided had a grand piano in the dining
half, for use upon those Saturday evenings for which the old club was
still famous, but rarely touched during the working days of the week.
Yet even now a dark and cadaverous young man was raising the top of the
piano, slowly and laboriously, as though it were too heavy for him.
Valentine Venn looked over his shoulder.
"Good God!" said he. "Another fact worth most folks' fiction--another
coincidence you wouldn't dare to use!"
"Why--who is it?"
Venn's answer was to hail the dark, thin youth with rude geniality. The
young fellow hesitated, almost shrank, but came shyly forward in the
end. Langholm noted that he looked very ill, that his face was as
sensitive as it was thin and pale, but his expression singularly sweet
"Severino," said Venn, with a play-actor's pomp, "let me introduce you
to Charles Langholm, the celebrated novelist--'whom not to know is to
argue yourself unknown.'"
"Which is the champion _non sequitur_ of literature," added Langholm,
with literary arrogance, as he took the lad's hand cordially in his own,
only to release it hurriedly before he crushed such slender fingers to
"Mr. Langholm," pursued Venn, "is the hero of that paragraph"--Langholm
kicked him under the table--"that--that paragraph about his last book,
you know. Severino, Langholm, is the best pianist we have had in the
club since I have been a member, and you will say the same yourself in
another minute. He always plays to us when he drops in to dine, and you
may think yourself lucky that he has dropped in to-night."
"But where does the coincidence come in?" asked Langholm, as the young
fellow returned to the piano with a rather sad shake of the head.
"What!" cried Venn, below his breath; "do you mean to say you are a
friend of Mrs. Minchin's, or whatever her name is now, and that you
never heard of Severino?"
"No," replied Langholm, his heart in an instantaneous flutter. "Who is
"The man she wanted to nurse the night her husband was murdered--the
cause of the final row between them! His name was kept out of the
papers, but that's the man."
Langholm sat back in his chair. To have spent a summer's day in stolid
search for traces of this man, only to be introduced to the man himself
by purest chance in the evening! It was, indeed, difficult to believe;
nor was persuasion on the point followed by the proper degree of
gratitude in Langholm for a transcendent stroke of fortune. In fact, he
almost resented his luck; he would so much rather have stood indebted to
his skill. And there were other causes for disappointment, as in an
instant there were things more incredible to Langholm than the everyday
coincidence of a chance meeting with the one person whom one desires to
"So that's the man!" he echoed, in a tone that might have told his
companion something, only the fingers which Langholm had feared to crush
had already fallen upon the keys, with the strong, tender, unerring
touch of a master, and the impressionable player was swaying with
enthusiasm on his stool.
"And can't he play?" whispered Valentine Venn, as though it were the
man's playing alone that they were discussing.
Yet even the preoccupied novelist had to listen and nod, and then
listen again, before replying.
"He can," said Langholm at length. "But why was it that they took such
pains to keep his name out of the case?"
"They didn't. It would have done no good to drag him in. The poor devil
was at death's door at the time of the murder."
"But is that a fact?"
Venn opened his eyes.
"Supposing," continued Langholm, speaking the thing that was not in his
mind with the deplorable facility of the professional
story-teller--"supposing that illness had been a sham, and they had
really meant to elope under cover of it!"
"Well, it wasn't."
"I dare say not. But how do you know? They ought to have put him in the
box and had his evidence."
"He was still too ill to be called," rejoined Venn. "But I'll take you
at your word, dear boy, and tell you exactly how I do know all about his
illness. You see that dark chap with the cigar, who's just come in to
listen? That's Severino's doctor; it was he who put him up here; and
I'll introduce you to him, if you like, after dinner."
"Thank you," said Langholm, after some little hesitation; "as a matter
of fact, I should like it very much. Venn," he added, leaning right
across the little table, "I know the woman well! I believe in her
absolutely, on every point, and I mean to make her neighbors and mine do
the same. That is my object--don't give it away!"
"Dear boy, these lips are sealed," said Valentine Venn.
But a very little conversation with the doctor sufficed to satisfy
Langholm's curiosity, and to remove from his mind the wild prepossession
which he had allowed to grow upon it with every hour of that wasted day.
The doctor was also one of the Bohemian colony in Chelsea, and by no
means loath to talk about a tragedy of which he had exceptional
knowledge, since he himself had been one of the medical witnesses at
each successive stage of the investigations. He had also heard on the
other side of the screen, that Langholm was the novelist referred to in
a paragraph which had of course had a special interest for him; and, as
was only fair, Langholm was interrogated in his turn. What was less
fair, and indeed ungrateful in a marked degree, was the way in which the
original questioner parried all questions put to himself; and he very
soon left the club. On his way out, he went into the writing-room, and,
tearing into little pieces a letter which he had written that
afternoon, left the fragments behind him in the waste-paper basket.
His exit from the room was meanwhile producing its sequel in a little
incident which would have astonished Langholm considerably. Severino had
been playing for nearly an hour on end, had seemed thoroughly engrossed
in his own fascinating performance, and quite oblivious of the dining
and smoking going on around him according to the accepted ease and
freedom of the club. Yet no sooner was Langholm gone than the pianist
broke off abruptly and joined the group which the other had deserted.
"Who is that fellow?" said Severino, in English so perfect that the
slight Italian accent only added a charm to his gentle voice. "I did not
catch the name."
It was repeated, with such additions as may be fairly made behind a
"A dashed good fellow, who writes dashed bad novels," was one of these.
"You forget!" said another. "He is the 'well-known novelist' who is
going the rounds as a neighbor and friend of Mrs.--"
Looks from Venn and the doctor cut short the speech, but not before its
import had come home to the young Italian, whose hollow cheeks flushed
a dusky brown, while his sunken eyes caught fire. In an instant he was
on his feet, with no attempt to hide his excitement, and still less to
mask the emotion that was its real name.
"He knows her, do you tell me? He knows Mrs. Minchin--"
"Or whatever her name is now; yes; so he says."
"And what is her name?"
"He won't say."
"Nor where she lives?"
"Then where does he live?"
"None of us know that either; he's the darkest horse in the club."
Venn agreed with this speaker, some little bitterness in his tone.
Another stood up for Langholm.
"We should be as dark," said he, "if we had married Gayety choristers,
and they had left us, and we went in dread of their return!"
They sum up the life tragedies pretty pithily, in these clubs.
"He was always a silly ass about women," rejoined Langholm's critic,
summing up the man. "So it's Mrs. Minchin now!"
The name acted like magic upon young Severino. His attention had
wandered. In an instant it was more eager than before.
"If you don't know where he lives in the country," he burst out, "where
is he staying in town?"
"We don't know that either."
"Then I mean to find out!"
And the pale musician rushed from the room, in pursuit of the man who
had been all day pursuing him.
THE DARKEST HOUR
The amateur detective walked slowly up to Piccadilly, and climbed on top
of a Chelsea omnibus, a dejected figure even to the casual eye. He was
more than disappointed at the upshot of his wild speculations, and in
himself for the false start that he had made. His feeling was one of
positive shame. It was so easy now to see the glaring improbability of
the conclusion to which he had jumped in his haste, at the first
promptings of a too facile fancy. And what an obvious idea it had been
at last! As if his were the only brain to which it could have occurred!
Langholm could have laughed at his late theory if it had only entailed
the loss of one day, but it had also cost him that self-confidence which
was the more valuable in his case through not being a common
characteristic of the man. He now realized the difficulties of his
quest, and the absolutely wrong way in which he had set about it. His
imagination had run away with him. It was no case for the imagination.
It was a case for patient investigation, close reasoning, logical
deduction, all arts in which the imaginative man is almost inevitably
Langholm, however, had enough lightness of temperament to abandon an
idea as readily as he formed one, and his late suspicion was already
driven to the four winds. He only hoped he had not shown what was in his
mind at the club. Langholm was a just man, and he honestly regretted the
injustice that he had done, even in his own heart, and for ever so few
hours, to a thoroughly innocent man.
And all up Piccadilly this man was sitting within a few inches of him,
watching his face with a passionate envy, and plucking up courage to
speak; he only did so at Hyde Park Corner, where an intervening
passenger got down.
Langholm was sufficiently startled at the sound of his own name,
breaking in upon the reflections indicated, but to find at his elbow the
very face which was in his mind was to lose all power of immediate
"My name is Severino," explained the other. "I was introduced to you an
hour or two ago at the club."
"Ah, to be sure!" cried Langholm, recovering. "Odd thing, though, for we
must have left about the same time, and I never saw you till this
Severino took the vacant place by Langholm's side. "Mr. Langholm," said
he, a tremor in his soft voice, "I have a confession to make to you. I
followed you from the club!"
"_You_ followed _me_?"
Langholm could not help the double emphasis; to him it seemed a
grotesque turning of the tables, a too poetically just ending to that
misspent day. It was all he could do to repress a smile.
"Yes, I followed you," the young Italian repeated, with his taking
accent, in his touching voice; "and I beg your pardon for doing
so--though I would do the same again--I will tell you why. I thought
that you were talking about me while I was strumming to them at the
club. It is possible, of course, that I was quite mistaken; but when you
went out I stopped at once and asked questions. And they told me you
were a friend of--a great friend of mine--of Mrs. Minchin!"
"It is true enough," said Langholm, after a pause. "Well?"
"She was a very great friend of mine," repeated Severino. "That was
And he sighed.
"So I have heard," said Langholm, with sympathy. "I can well believe
it, for I might almost say the same of her myself."
The 'bus toiled on beside the park. The two long lines of lights rose
gently ahead until they almost met, and the two men watched them as they
"Until to-day," continued Severino, "I did not know whether she was dead
"She is both alive and well."
"And married again?"
"And married again."
There was a long pause. The park ended first.
"I want you to do me a great favor," said Severino in Knightsbridge.
"She was so good to me! I shall never forget it, and yet I have never
been able to thank her. I nearly died--it was at that time--and when I
remembered, she had disappeared. I beg and beseech you, Mr. Langholm, to
tell me her name, and where she is living now!"
Langholm looked at his companion in the confluence of lights at the
Sloane Street corner. The pale face was alight with passion, the sunken
eyes ablaze. "I cannot tell you," he answered, shortly.
"Is it your own name?"
"Good God, no!"
And Langholm laughed harshly.
"Will you not even tell me where she lives?"
"I cannot, without her leave; but if you like I will tell her about
There was no answer as they drove on. Then of a sudden Langholm's arm
was seized and crushed by bony fingers.
"I am dying," the low voice whispered hoarsely in his ear. "Can't you
see it for yourself? I shall never get better; it might be a year or
two, it may be weeks. But I want to see her again and make sure. Yes, I
love her! There is no sense in denying it. But it is all on my side, and
I am dying, and she has married again! What harm can it do anybody if I
see her once more?"
The sunken eyes were filled with tears. There were more tears in the
hollow voice. Langholm was deeply touched.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I will let her know. No, no, not that, of
course! But I will write to her at once--to-night! Will that not do?"
Severino thanked him, with a heavy sigh. "Oh, don't get down," he added,
as Langholm rose. "I won't talk about her any more."
"I am staying in this street," explained Langholm, guardedly.
"And these are my lodgings," rejoined the other, pulling a letter from
his pocket, and handing the envelope to Langholm. "Let me hear from
you, for pity's sake, as soon as you hear from her!"
Langholm sauntered on the pavement until the omnibus which he had left
was no longer distinguishable from the general traffic of the
thoroughfare. The address on the envelope was that of the lodging-house
at which he was to have called that night. He was glad now that his luck
had not left him to find Severino for himself; the sense of fatuity
would have been even keener than it was. In a way he now felt drawn to
the poor, frank boy who had so lately been the object of his unjust and
unfounded suspicions. There was a new light in which to think of him, a
new bond between them, a new spring of sympathy or jealousy, if not of
both. But Langholm was not in London to show sympathy or friendship for
any man. He was in London simply and solely upon his own great quest, in
which no man must interrupt him. That was why he had been so guarded
about his whereabouts--though not guarded enough--and why he watched the
omnibus out of sight before entering his hotel. The old Londoner had
forgotten how few places there are at which one can stay in Sloane
A bad twenty-four hours was in store for him.
They began well enough with the unexpected discovery that an eminent
authority on crime and criminals, who had been a good friend to Langholm
in his London days, was still in town. The novelist went round to his
house that night, chiefly because it was not ten minutes' walk from the
Cadogan Hotel, and with little hope of finding anybody at home. Yet
there was his friend, with the midnight lamp just lighted, and so kind a
welcome that Langholm confided in him on the spot. And the man who knew
all the detectives in London did not laugh at the latest recruit to
their ranks; but smile he did.
"I'll tell you what I might do," he said at length. "I might give you a
card that should get you into the Black Museum at New Scotland Yard,
where they would show you any relics they may have kept of the Minchin
murder; only don't say why you want to see them. Every man you see there
will be a detective; you may come across the very fellows who got up the
case; if so, they may tell you what they think of it, and you should be
able to find out whether they're trying again. Here you are, Langholm,
and I wish you luck. Doing anything to-morrow night?"
Langholm could safely say that he was not.
"Then dine with me at the Rag at seven, and tell me how you get on. It
must be seven, because I'm off to Scotland by the night mail. And I
don't want to be discouraging, my dear fellow, but it is only honest to
say that I think more of your chivalry than of your chances of success!"
At the Black Museum they had all the trophies which had been produced in
court; but the officer who acted as showman to Langholm admitted that
they had no right to retain any of them. They were Mrs. Minchin's
property, and if they knew where she was they would of course restore
"But the papers say she isn't Mrs. Minchin any longer," the officer
added. "Well, well! There's no accounting for taste."
"But Mrs. Minchin was acquitted," remarked Langholm, in tone as
impersonal as he could make it.
"Ye-es," drawled his guide, dryly. "Well, it's not for us to say
anything about that."
"But you think all the more, I suppose?"
"There's only one opinion about it in the Yard."
"But surely you haven't given up trying to find out who really did
murder Mr. Minchin?"
"We think we did find out, sir," was the reply to that.
So they had given it up! For a single second the thought was
stimulating; if the humble author could succeed where the police had
failed! But the odds against such success were probably a million to
one, and Langholm sighed as he handled the weapon with which the crime
had been committed, in the opinion of the police.
"What makes you so certain that this was the revolver?" he inquired,
more to satisfy his conscience by leaving no question unasked than to
voice any doubt upon the point.
The other smiled as he explained the peculiarity of the pistol; it had
been made in Melbourne, and it carried the bullet of peculiar size which
had been extracted from Alexander Minchin's body.
"But London is full of old Australians," objected Langholm, for
"Well, sir," laughed the officer, "you find one who carries a revolver
like this, and prove that he was in Chelsea on the night of the murder,
with a motive for committing it, and we shall be glad of his name and
address. Only don't forget the motive; it wasn't robbery, you know,
though her ladyship was so sure it was robbers! There's the maker's name
on the barrel. I should take a note of it, sir, if I was you!"
That name and that note were all that Langholm had to show when he dined
with the criminologist at his service club the same evening. The
amateur detective looked a beaten man already, but he talked through
his teeth of inspecting the revolvers in every pawnbroker's shop in
"It will take you a year," said the old soldier, cheerfully.
"It seems the only chance," replied the despondent novelist. "It is a
case of doing that or nothing."
"Then take the advice of an older fogey than yourself, and do nothing!
You are quite right to believe in the lady's innocence; there is no
excuse for entertaining any other belief, still less for expressing it.
But when you come to putting salt on the real culprit, that's another
matter. My dear fellow, it's not the sort of thing that you or I could
hope to do on our own, even were the case far simpler than it is. It was
very sporting of you to offer for a moment to try your hand; but if I
were you I should confess without delay that the task is far beyond you,
for that's the honest truth."
Langholm walked back to his hotel, revolving this advice. Its soundness
was undeniable, while the source from which it came gave it exceptional
weight and value. It was an expert opinion which no man in his senses
could afford to ignore, and Langholm felt that Mrs. Steel also ought at
least to hear it before building on his efforts. The letter would
prepare her for his ultimate failure, as it was only fair that she
should be prepared, and yet would leave him free to strain every nerve
in any fresh direction in which a chance ray lit the path. But it would
be a difficult letter to write, and Langholm was still battling with the
first sentence when he reached the Cadogan.
"A gentleman to see me?" he cried in surprise. "What gentleman?"
"Wouldn't leave his name, sir; said he'd call again; a foreign
gentleman, he seemed to me."
"A delicate-looking man?"
"Very, sir. You seem to know him better than he knows you," added the
hall-porter, with whom Langholm had made friends. "He wasn't certain
whether it was the Mr. Langholm he wanted who was staying here, and he
asked to look at the register."
"Did you let him see it?" cried Langholm, quickly.
"I did, sir."
"Then let me have another look at it, please!"
It was as Langholm feared. Thoughtlessly, but naturally enough, when
requested to put his own name in the book, he had also filled in that
full address which he took such pains to conceal in places where he was
better known. And that miserable young Italian, that fellow Severino,
had discovered not only where he was staying in town, but where he lived
in the country, and his next discovery would be Normanthorpe House and
its new mistress! Langholm felt enraged; after his own promise to write
to Rachel, a promise already fulfilled, the unhappy youth might have had
the decency to refrain from underhand tricks like this. Langholm felt
inclined to take a cab at once to Severino's lodgings, there to relieve
his mind by a very plain expression of his opinion. But it was late; and
perhaps allowances should be made for a sick man with a passion as
hopeless as his bodily state; in any case he would sleep upon it first.
But there was no sleep for Charles Langholm that night, nor did the
thought of Severino enter his head again; it was suddenly swept aside
and as suddenly replaced by that of the man who was to fill the
novelist's mind for many a day.
Idly glancing up and down the autographed pages of the hotel register,
as his fingers half-mechanically turned leaf after leaf backward,
Langholm's eye had suddenly caught a name of late as familiar to him as
It was the name of John Buchanan Steel.
And the date was the date of the Minchin murder.
The hall-porter was only too ready for further chat. It was the dull
season, and this visitor was one of a variety always popular in the
quieter hotels; he was never above a pleasant word with the servants.
Yet the porter stared at Langholm as he approached. His face was
flushed, and his eyes so bright that there would have been but one
diagnosis by the average observer. But the porter knew that Langholm had
come in sober, and that for the last twenty minutes he had sat absorbed
in the hotel register.
"I see," said Langholm--and even his voice was altered, which made the
other stare the harder--"I see that a friend of mine stayed here just
upon a year ago. I wonder if you remember him?"
"If it was the off-season, sir, I dare say I shall."
"It was in September, and his name was Steel."
"How long did he stay?"
"Only one night, I gather--an elderly gentleman with very white hair."
The porter's face lighted up.
"I remember him, sir! I should think I did! A very rich gentleman, I
should say; yes, he only stayed the one night, but he gave me a
sovereign when he went away next day."
"He is very rich," said Langholm, repressing by main force a desire to
ask a string of questions. He fancied that the porter was not one who
needed questioning, and his patience had its immediate reward.
"I remember when he arrived," the man went on. "It was late at night,
and he hadn't ordered his room. He came in first to see whether we could
give him one. I paid the cab myself and brought in his bag."
"He had just arrived from the country, I presume?"
The porter nodded.
"At King's Cross, by the 10.45, I believe; but it must have been a good
bit late, for I was just coming off duty, and the night-porter was just
"Then you didn't see any more of Mr. Steel that night?"
"I saw him go out again," said the porter, dryly, "after he had
something to eat, for we are short-handed in the off-season, and I
stopped up myself to see he got it. I didn't see him come in the second
Langholm could hardly believe his ears. To cover his excitement he burst
"The old dog!" he cried. "Do you know if he ever came in at all?"
"Between two and three, I believe," said the porter in the same tone.
Langholm laughed again, but asked no more questions, and in a little he
was pacing his bedroom floor, with fevered face and tremulous stride, as
he was to continue pacing it for the greater part of that August night.
Yet it was not a night spent in thought, but rather in intercepting and
in casting out the kind of thoughts that chased each other through the
novelist's brain. His imagination had him by the forelock once more, but
this time he was resisting with all his might. It meant resistance to
the strongest attribute that he possessed. The man's mind was now a
picture-gallery and now a stage. He thought in pictures and he saw in
scenes. It was no fault of Langholm's, any more than it was a merit.
Imagination was the predominant force of his intellect, as in others is
the power of reasoning, or the gift of languages, or the mastery of
figures. Langholm could no more help it than he could change the color
of his eyes, but to-night he did his best. He had mistaken invention for
discovery once already. He was grimly determined not to let it happen
To suspect Steel because he chanced to have been in the neighborhood of
Chelsea on the night of the murder, and absent from his hotel about the
hour of its committal, was not less absurd than his first suspicion of
the man who could be proved to have been lying between life and death at
the time. There had been something to connect the dead man with
Severino. There was nothing within Langholm's knowledge to connect him
with Steel. Yet Steel was the most mysterious person that he had ever
met with outside the pages of his own novels. No one knew where he had
made his money. He might well have made it in Australia; they might have
known each other out there. Langholm suddenly remembered the Australian
swagman whom he had seen "knocking down his check" at a wayside inn
within a few miles of Normanthorpe, and Steel's gratuitously explicit
statement that neither he nor his wife had ever been in Australia in
their lives. There was one lie at least, then why not two? Yet, the
proven lie might have been told by Steel simply to anticipate and allay
any possible suspicion of his wife's identity. That was at least
conceivable. And this time Langholm sought the conceivable explanation
more sedulously than the suspicious circumstance.
He had been far too precipitate in all that he had done hitherto, from
the Monday morning up to this Wednesday night. His departure on the
Monday had been in itself premature. He had come away without seeing the
Steels again, whereas he should have had an exhaustive interview with
one or both of them before embarking upon his task. But Steel's
half-hostile and half-scornful attitude was more than Langholm could
trust his temper to endure, and he had despaired of seeing Mrs. Steel
alone. There were innumerable points upon which she could have supplied
him with valuable information. He had hoped to obtain what he wanted
from the fuller reports of the trial; but that investigation had been
conducted upon the supposition that his wife, and no other, had caused
the death of Alexander Minchin. No business friend of the deceased had
been included among the witnesses, and the very least had been made of
his financial difficulties, which had formed no part of the case for the
Langholm, however, his wits immensely quickened by the tonic of his new
discovery, began to see possibilities in this aspect of the matter, and,
as soon as the telegraph offices were open, he despatched a rather long
message to Mrs. Steel, reply paid. It was simply to request the business
address of her late husband, with the name and address of any partner or
other business man who had seen much of him in the City. If the telegram
were not intercepted, Langholm calculated that he should have his reply
in a couple of hours, and one came early in the forenoon:--
"Shared office 2 Adam's Court Old Broad Street with a Mr. Crofts
his friend but not mine Rachel Steel."
Langholm looked first at the end, and was thankful to see that the reply
was from Rachel herself. But the penultimate clause introduced a
complication. It must have some meaning. It would scarcely be a wholly
irrelevant expression of dislike. Langholm, at all events, read a
warning in the words--a warning to himself not to call on Mr. Crofts as
a friend of the dead man's wife. And this increased the complication,
ultimately suggesting a bolder step than the man of letters quite
relished, yet one which he took without hesitation in Rachel's cause. He
had in his pocket the card of the detective officer who had shown him
over the Black Museum; luckily it was still quite clean; and Langholm
only wished he looked the part a little more as he finally sallied
Mr. Crofts was in, his small clerk said, and the sham detective followed
the real one's card into the inner chamber of the poky offices upon the
third floor. Mr. Crofts sat aghast in his office chair, the puzzled
picture of a man who feels his hour has come, but who wonders which of
his many delinquencies has come to light. He was large and florid, with
a bald head and a dyed mustache, but his coloring was an unwholesome
purple as the false pretender was ushered in.
"I am sorry to intrude upon you, Mr. Crofts," began Langholm, "but I
have come to make a few inquiries about the late Alexander Minchin, who,
I believe, once--"
"Quite right! Quite right!" cried Crofts, as the purple turned a normal
red in his sanguine countenance. "Alexander Minchin--poor fellow--to be
sure! Take a seat, Inspector, take a seat. Happy to afford you any
information in my power."
If Mr. Crofts looked relieved, however, as many a decent citizen might
under similar visitation, it was a very real relief to Langholm not to
have been found out at a glance. He took the proffered seat with the
greater readiness on noting how near it was to the door.
"The death of Mr. Minchin is, as you know, still a mystery--"
"I didn't know it," interrupted Crofts, who had quite recovered his
spirits. "I thought the only mystery was how twelve sane men could have
acquitted his wife."
"That," said Langholm, "was the opinion of many at the time; but it is
one which we are obliged to disregard, whether we agree with it or not.
The case still engages our attention, and must do so until we have
explored every possible channel of investigation. What I want from you,
Mr. Crofts, is any information that you can give me concerning Mr.
Minchin's financial position at the time of his death."
"It was bad," said Mr. Crofts, promptly; "about as bad as it could be.
He had one lucky flutter, and it would have been the ruin of him if he
had lived. He backed his luck for more than it was worth, and his luck
deserted him on the spot. Yes, poor old devil!" sighed the sympathetic
Crofts: "he thought he was going to make his pile out of hand, but in
another week he would have been a bankrupt."
"Had you known him long, Mr. Crofts?"
"Not six months; it was down at Brighton we met, quite by chance, and
got on talking about Westralians. It was I put him on to his one good
spec. His wife was with him at the time--couldn't stand the woman! She
was much too good for me and my missus, to say nothing of her own
husband. I remember one night on the pier--"
"I won't trouble you about Brighton, Mr. Crofts," Langholm interrupted,
as politely as he could. "Mr. Minchin was not afterwards a partner of
yours, was he?"
"Never; though I won't say he mightn't have been if things had panned
out differently, and he had gone back to Westralia with some capital.
Meanwhile he had the run of my office, and that was all."
"And not even the benefit of your advice?"
"He wouldn't take it, once he was bitten with the game."
Thus far Langholm had simply satisfied his own curiosity upon one or two
points concerning a dead man who had been little more than a name to him
hitherto. His one discovery of the least potential value was that
Minchin had evidently died in difficulties. He now consulted some notes
jotted down on an envelope upon his way to the City.
"Mr. Minchin, as you are aware," resumed Langholm, "was, like his wife,
an Australian by birth. Had he many Australian friends here in London?"
"None at all," replied Mr. Crofts, "that I am aware of."
"Nor anywhere else in the country, think you?"
"Not that I remember."
"Not in the north of England, for example?"
Thus led, Mr. Crofts frowned at his desk until an enlightened look broke
over his florid face.
"By Jove, yes!" said he. "Now you speak of it, there _was_ somebody up
north--a rich man, too--but he only heard of him by chance a day or so
before his death."
"A rich man, you say, and an Australian?"
"I don't know about that, but it was out there they had known each
other, and Minchin had no idea he was in England till he saw it in the
paper a day or two before his death."
"Do you remember the name?"
"No, I don't, for he never told it to me; fact is, we were not on the
best of terms just at the last," explained Mr. Crofts. "Money
matters--money matters--they divide the best of friends--and to tell you
the truth he owed me more than I could afford to lose. But the day
before the last day of his life he came in and said it was all right,
he'd square up before the week was out, and if that wasn't good enough
for me I could go to the devil. Of course I asked him where the money
was coming from, and he said from a man he'd not heard of for years
until that morning, but he didn't say how he'd heard of him then, only
that he must be a millionaire. So then I asked why a man he hadn't seen
for so long should pay his debts, but Minchin only laughed and swore
that he'd make him. And that was the last I ever heard of it; he sat
down at that desk over yonder and wrote to his millionaire there and
then, and took it out himself to post. It was the last time I saw him
alive, for he said he wasn't coming back till he got his answer, and it
was the last letter he ever wrote in the place."
"On that desk, eh?" Langholm glanced at the spare piece of office
furniture in the corner. "Didn't he keep any papers here?" he added.
"He did, but you fellows impounded them."
"Of course we did," said Langholm, hastily. "Then you have nothing of
"Only his pen, and a diary in which he hadn't written a word. I slipped
them into a drawer with his papers, and there they are still."
Langholm felt disappointed. He had learnt so much, it was tantalizing
not to learn a little more. If he could only make sure of that
millionaire friend of Minchin! In his own mind he was all but sure, but
his own mind was too elastic by half.
Crofts was drumming on the blotting-pad in front of him; all of a sudden
Langholm noticed that it had a diary attached.
"Minchin's diary wasn't one like yours, was it?" he exclaimed.
"The same thing," said Mr. Crofts.
"Then I should like to see it."
"There's not a word written in it; one of you chaps overhauled it at the
"Well, then, it's in the top long drawer of the desk he used to use--if
my clerk has not appropriated it to his own use."
Langholm held his breath as he went to the drawer in question. In
another instant his breath escaped him in a sigh of thankfulness. The
"Universal Diary" (for the year before) was there, sure enough. And it
was attached to a pink blotter precisely similar to that upon which Mr.
Crofts still drummed with idle fingers.
"Anything more I can show you?" inquired that worthy, humorously.
Langholm was gazing intently, not at the diary, but at the pink
blotting-paper. Suddenly he looked up.
"You say that was the last letter he ever wrote in your office?"
"The very last."
"Then--yes--you can show me a looking-glass if you have one!"
Crofts had a small one on his chimney-piece.
"By the Lord Harry," said he, handing it, "but you tip-top 'tecs are a
ONE WHO WAS NOT BIDDEN
Langholm went north next morning by the ten o'clock express from King's
Cross. He had been but four nights in town, and not four days, yet to
Langholm they might have been weeks, for he had never felt so much and
slept so little in all his life. He had also done a good deal; but it is
the moments of keen sensation that make up the really crowded hours, and
Langholm was to run the gamut of his emotions before this memorable week
was out. In psychological experience it was to be, for him, a little
lifetime in itself; indeed, the week seemed that already, while it was
still young, and comparatively poor in incident and surprise.
He had bought magazines and the literary papers for his journey, but he
could concentrate his mind on nothing, and only the exigencies of
railway travelling kept him off his legs. Luckily for Langholm, however,
sleep came to him when least expected, in his cool corner of the
corridor train, and he only awoke in time for luncheon before the
change at York. His tired brain was vastly refreshed, but so far he
could not concentrate it, even on the events of these eventful days. He
was still in the thick of them. A sense of proportion was as yet
impossible, and a consecutive review the most difficult of intellectual
feats. Langholm was too excited, and the situation too identical with
suspense, for a clear sight of all its bearings and potentialities; and
then there was the stern self-discipline, the determined bridling of the
imagination, in which he had not yet relaxed. Once in the night,
however, in the hopeless hours between darkness and broad day, he had
seen clearly for a while, and there and then pinned his vision down to
paper. It concerned only one aspect of the case, but this was how
Langholm found that he had stated it, on taking out his pocket-book
during the final stages of his journey--
PROVISIONAL CASE AGAINST ---- ---- ----
1. Was in Sloane Street on the night of the murder, at an hotel
about a mile from the house in which the murder was committed.
This can be proved.
2. Left hotel shortly after arrival towards midnight, believed to
have returned between two and three, and would thus have been
absent at very time at which crime was committed according to
medical evidence adduced at trial. But exact duration of absence
from hotel can he proved.
3. Knew M. in Australia, but was in England unknown to M. till two
mornings before murder, when M. wrote letter on receipt of which
---- ---- ---- came up to town (arriving near scene of murder as
above stated, about time of commission). All this morally certain
and probably capable of legal proof.
4. "So then I asked why a man he hadn't seen for so long should pay
his debts; but M. only laughed and swore, and said he'd make him."
C. could be subpoenaed to confirm if not to amplify this statement
to me, with others to effect that it was for money M. admitted
having written to "a millionaire."
5. Attended Mrs. M.'s trial throughout, thereafter making her
acquaintance and offering marriage without any previous private
knowledge whatsoever of her character or antecedents.
---- ---- ---- is a human mystery, his past life a greater one.
He elaborately pretends that no part of that past was spent in
M. said he knew him there; also that "he'd make him"--pay up!
Blackmail not inconsistent with M.'s character.
Men have died as they deserved before to-day for threatening
_Possible Motive for Marriage_
Atonement of the Guilty to the Innocent.
As Langholm read and re-read these precise pronouncements, with
something of the detachment and the mild surprise with which he
occasionally dipped into his own earlier volumes, he congratulated
himself upon the evidently lucid interval which had produced so much
order from the chaos that had been his mind. Chaotic as its condition
still was, that orderly array of impression, discovery, and surmise,
bore the test of conscientious reconsideration. And there was nothing
that Langholm felt moved to strike out in the train; but, on the other
hand, he saw the weakness of his case as it stood at present, and was
helped to see it by the detective officer's remark to him at Scotland
Yard: "You find one [old Australian] who carries a revolver like this,
and prove that he was in Chelsea on the night of the murder, with a
motive for committing it, and we shall be glad of his name and address."
Langholm had found the old Australian who could be proved to have been
in Chelsea, or thereabouts, on the night in question; but the pistol he
could not hope to find, and the motive was mere surmise.
And yet, to the walls of the mind that he was trying so hard to cleanse
from prejudice and prepossession--to school indeed to an inhuman
fairness--there clung small circumstances and smaller details which
could influence no one else, which would not constitute evidence before
any tribunal, but which weighed more with Langholm himself than all the
points arrayed in his note-book with so much primness and precision.
There was Rachel's vain appeal to her husband, "Find out who _is_ guilty
if you want people to believe that I am not." Why should so natural a
petition have been made in vain, to a husband who after all had shown
some solicitude for his wife's honor, and who had the means to employ
the best detective talent in the world? Langholm could only conceive
one reason: there was nothing for the husband to find out, but
everything for him to hide.
Langholm remembered the wide-eyed way in which Steel had looked at his
wife before replying, and the man's embarrassment grew automatically in
his mind. His lips had indeed shut very tight, but unconscious
exaggeration made them tremble first.
And then the fellow's manner to himself, his defiant taunts, his final
challenge! Langholm was not sorry to remember the last; it relieved him
from the moral incubus of the clandestine and the underhand; it bid him
go on and do his worst; it set his eyes upon the issue as between
himself and Steel, and it shut them to the final possibilities as
touching the woman in the case.
So Langholm came back from sultry London to a world of smoke and rain,
with furnaces flaring through the blurred windows, and the soot laid
with the dust in one of the grimiest towns in the island; but he soon
shook both from his feet, and doubled back upon the local line to a
rural station within a mile and a half of his cottage. This distance he
walked by muddy ways, through the peculiarly humid atmosphere created by
a sky that has rained itself out and an earth that can hold no more,
and came finally to his dripping garden by the wicket at the back of the
cottage. There he stood to inhale the fine earthy fragrance which atoned
somewhat for a rather desolate scene. The roses were all washed away.
William Allen Richardson clung here and there, in the shelter of the
southern eaves, but he was far past his prime, and had better have
perished with the exposed beauties on the tiny trees. The soaking
foliage had a bluish tinge; the glimpse of wooded upland, across the
valley through the gap in the hedge of Penzance briers, lay colorless
and indistinct as a faded print from an imperfect negative. A footstep
crunched the wet gravel at Langholm's back.
"Thank God you've got back, sir!" cried a Yorkshire voice in devout
accents; and Langholm, turning, met the troubled face and tired eyes of
the woman next door, who kept house for him while living in her own.
"My dear Mrs. Brunton," he exclaimed, "what on earth has happened? You
didn't expect me earlier, did you? I wired you my train first thing this
"Oh, no, it isn't that, sir. It's--it's the poor young gentleman--"
And her apron went to her eyes.
"What young gentleman, Mrs. Brunton?"
"Him 'at you saw i' London an' sent all this way for change of air! He
wasn't fit to travel half the distance. I've been nursing of him all
night and all day too."
"A young gentleman, and sent by me?" Langholm's face was blank until a
harsh light broke over it. "What's his name, Mrs. Brunton?"
"I can't tell you, sir. He said he was a friend of yours, and that was
all before he took ill. He's been too bad to answer questions all day.
And then we knew you'd soon be here to tell us."
"A foreigner, I suppose?"
"I should say he was, sir."
"And did he really tell you I had sent him?"
"Well, I can't say he did, not in so many words, but that was what I
thought he meant. It was like this, sir," continued Mrs. Brunton, as
they stood face to face on the wet gravel: "just about this time
yesterday I was busy ironing, when my nephew, the lad you used to send
with letters, who's here again for his summer holidays, comes to me an'
says, 'You're wanted.' So I went, and there was a young gentleman
looking fit to drop. He'd a bag with him, and he'd walked all the way
from Upthorpe station, same as I suppose you have now; but yesterday was
the hottest day we've had, and I never did see living face so like the
dead. He had hardly life enough to ask if this was where you lived; and
when I said it was, but you were away, he nodded and said he'd just seen
you in London; and he was sure he might come in and rest a bit. Well,
sir, I not only let him do that, but you never will lock up anything, so
I gave him a good sup o' your whiskey too!"
"Quite right," said Langholm--"and then?"
"It seemed to pull him together a bit, and he began to talk. He wanted
to know about all the grand folks round about, where they lived and how
long they'd lived there. At last he made me tell him the way to
Normanthorpe House, after asking any amount of questions about Mr. and
Mrs. Steel; it was hard work not to tell him what had just come out, but
I remembered what you said before you went away, sir, and I left that to
"Good!" said Langholm. "But did he go to Normanthorpe?"
"He started, though I begged him to sit still while we tried to get him
a trap from the village; and his self-will nearly cost him his life, if
it doesn't yet. He was hardly out of sight when we see him come
staggering back with his handkerchief up to his mouth, and the blood
dripping through his fingers into the road."
"Yes, sir, yon was the very word the doctor used, and he says if he has
another it'll be all up. So you may think what a time I've had! If he's
a friend of yours, sir, I'm sure I don't mind. In any case, poor
"He is a friend of mine," interrupted Langholm, "and we must do all we
can for him. I will help you, Mrs. Brunton. You shall have your sleep
to-night. Did you put him into my room?"
"No, sir, your bed wasn't ready, so we popped him straight into our own;
and now he has everything nice and clean and comfortable as I could make
it. If only we can pull him through, poor young gentleman, between us!"
"God bless you for a good woman," said Langholm, from his heart; "it
will be His will and not your fault if we fail. Yes, I should like to
see the poor fellow, if I may."
"He is expecting you, sir. He told Dr. Sedley he must see you the moment
you arrived, and the doctor said he might. No, he won't know you're here
yet, and he can't have heard a word, for our room is at t'front o'
"Then I'll go up alone, Mrs. Brunton, if you won't mind."
Severino was lying in a high, square bed, his black locks tossed upon a
spotless pillow no whiter than his face; a transparent hand came from
under the bedclothes to meet Langholm's outstretched one, but it fell
back upon the sick man's breast instead.
"Do you forgive me?" he whispered, in a voice both hoarse and hollow.
"What for?" smiled Langholm. "You had a right to come where you liked;
it is a free country, Severino."
"But I went to your hotel--behind your back!"
"That was quite fair, my good fellow. Come, I mean to shake hands,
whether you like it or not."
And the sound man took the sick one's hand with womanly tenderness; and
so sat on the bed, looking far into the great dark sinks of fever that
were human eyes; but the fever was of the brain, for the poor fellow's
hand was cool.
"You do not ask me why I did it," came from the tremulous lips at last.
"Perhaps I know."
"I will tell you if you are right."
"It was to see her again--your kindest friend--and mine," said
"Yes! It was to see her again--before I die!"
And the black eyes blazed again.
"You are not going to die," said Langholm, with the usual reassuring
"I am. Quite soon. On your hands, I only fear. And I have not seen her
"You shall see her," said Langholm, tenderly, gravely. He was rewarded
with a slight pressure of the emaciated hand; but for the first time he
suspected that all the scrutiny was not upon one side--that the sick
youth was trying to read him in his turn.
"I love her!" at last cried Severino, in rapt whispers. "Do you hear me?
I love her! I love her! What does it matter now?"
"It would matter to her if you told her," rejoined Langholm. "It would
make her very unhappy."
"Then I need not tell her."
"You must not, indeed."
"Very well, I will not. It is a promise, and I keep my promises; it is
only when I make none--"
"That's all right," said Langholm, smiling.
"Then you will bring her to me?"
"I shall have to see her first, and the doctor."
"But you will do your best? That is why I am here, remember! I shall
tell the doctor so myself."
"I will do my best," said Langholm, as he rose.
A last whisper followed him to the door.
"Because I worship her!" were the words.
A POINT TO LANGHOLM
"I am glad you have come back," said Dr. Sedley with relief. "Of course
eventually he will require trained nursing, either here or somewhere
else; there is only one end to such a case, but it needn't come yet,
unless he has another hemorrhage. I understand you offered him your
cottage while you were away, but there was some muddle, and he came
before they were ready for him? It was like your kindness, my dear
fellow, only never you send another consumptive to the northeast coast
or anywhere near it! As to his seeing any ladies who like to look him
up, by all means, only one at a time, and they mustn't excite him. Your
return, for example, has been quite enough excitement for to-day, and I
should keep him quiet for the next twenty-four hours."
The doctor had called within an hour of the return of Langholm, who
repeated these stipulations upstairs, with his own undertaking in regard
to Rachel. He would write that night and beg her to call the following
day. No, he preferred writing to going to see her, and it took up far
less time. But he would write at once. And, as he went downstairs to do
so then and there, Langholm asked himself whether an honorable man could
meet the Steels again without reading to their faces the notes that he
had made in London and conned in the train.
This letter written, there was a small pile of them awaiting attention
on top of the old bureau; and Langholm sat glancing at proofs and
crumpling up press-cuttings until he needed a lamp. The letter that he
kept to the last looked like one of the rare applications for his
autograph which he was not too successful to welcome as straws showing
the wind of popular approval. In opening the envelope, however, he
noticed that it bore the Northborough postmark, also that the
handwriting was that of an illiterate person, and his very surname
misspelt. The contents were as follows:
"Northborough, August 18, 189--.
"MR. LANGHAM, Sir,
"I here as you are on the tracks of them that murdered Alexander
Minchin, if you want to know of them that had a Reason for doing it
I can give you the straight Tip.
"I have been out to your place to-night, but you are only due home
to-morrow night, therefore I will be your way again to-morrow
night, but will only come to the cross-roads as your old girl look
suspichious last night and this is on the strickt Q.T.
"Till to-morrow night then at the cross-roads near your place, from
nine to ten to-morrow night, when you will here of something to
"Believe your's faithly,
"JOHN WILLIAM ABEL."
Langholm could not guess who this man Abel might be, but idly imagined
him one of the innumerable drinking drones who stood about the street
corners of Northborough from morning till night throughout the year.
This one had more information than the common run, with perhaps more
cunning and ingenuity to boot. Langholm deemed it discreet not to
mention the matter to his dear "old girl" of disrespectful reference,
who served him an excellent supper at eight o'clock. And little better
than an hour later, having seen the invalid once more, and left him calm
and comfortable for the night, the novelist sallied forth to meet his
It was a dark night, for the rain was by no means over, though not
actually falling at the moment; and the cross-roads, which lay low, with
trees in all four angles, was a dark spot at full moon. As he approached
with caution, rapping the road with his stick in order to steer clear
of the ditch, Langholm wished he had come on his bicycle, for the sake
of the light he might have had from its lamp; but a light there was,
ready waiting for him, though a very small and feeble one; for his
illiterate correspondent was on the ground before him, with a cutty-pipe
in full blast.
"Name of Langholm?" said a rather rollicking voice, with a rank puff and
a shower of sparks, as the cautious steps followed the rapping stick.
"That's it," said Langholm; "if yours is Abel, I have got your letter."
"You have, have you?" cried the other, with the same jovial familiarity.
"And what do you think of it?"
The glowing pipe lit a wild brown beard and mustache, thickly streaked
with gray, a bronzed nose, and nothing more. Indeed, it was only at each
inhalation that so much stood out upon the surrounding screen of
impenetrable blackness. Langholm kept his distance, stick in hand, his
gaunt figure as invisible as the overhanging trees; but his voice might
have belonged to the most formidable of men.
"As yet," said he, sternly, "I think very little of either you or your
letter. Who are you, and what do you mean by writing to me like that?"
"Steady, mister, you do know my name!" remonstrated the man, in rather
more respectful tones. "It's Abel--John William--and as much at your
service as you like if you take him proper; but he comes from a country
where Jack isn't the dirt under his master's feet, and you're no master
"I don't want to be, my good fellow," rejoined Langholm, modifying his
own manner in turn. "Then you're not a Northborough man?"
"I seem to have heard your voice before," said Langholm, to whom the
wild hair on the invisible face was also not altogether unfamiliar.
"Where do you come from?"
"A little place called Australia."
"The devil you do!"
And Langholm stood very still in the dark, for now he knew who this man
was, and what manner of evidence he might furnish, and against whom. The
missing links in his own secret chain, what if these were about to be
given to him by a miracle, who had discovered so much already by sheer
chance! It seemed impossible; yet his instinct convinced Langholm of the
nature of that which was to come. Without another word he stood until
he could trust himself to speak carelessly, while the colonist made
traditional comparisons between the old country as he found it and the
one which he wished he had never left.
"I know you," said Langholm, when he paused. "You're the man I saw
'knocking down your check,' as you called it, at an inn near here called
"I am so!" cried the fellow, with sudden savagery. "And do you know
where I got the check to knock down? I believe he's a friend of yours;
it's him I've come to talk to you about to-night, and he calls himself
"Isn't it his real name?" asked Langholm, quickly.
"Well, for all I know, it is. If it isn't, it ought to be!" added Abel,
"You knew him in Australia, then?"
"Knew him? I should think I did know him! But who told you he was ever
out there? Not him, I'll warrant!"
"I happen to know it," said Langholm, "that's all. But do you mean to
tell me that it was Mr. Steel to whom you referred in your letter?"
"I do so!" cried Abel, and clinched it with an oath.
"You said 'they.'"
"But I didn't mean anybody else."
Langholm lowered his voice. Neither foot nor hoof had passed or even
sounded in the distance. There was scarcely a whisper of the trees; an
ordinary approach could have been heard for hundreds of yards, a
stealthy one for tens. Langholm had heard nothing, though his ears were
pricked. And yet he lowered his voice.
"Do you actually hint that Mr. Steel has or could have been a gainer by
Mr. Minchin's death?"
Abel pondered his reply.
"What I will say," he declared at length, "is that he might have been a
loser by his life!"
"You mean if Mr. Minchin had gone on living?"
"Yes--amounts to the same thing, doesn't it?"
"You are not thinking of--of Mrs. Steel?" queried Langholm, after
pausing in his turn.
"Bless you, no! She wasn't born or thought of, so far as we was
concerned, when we were all three mates up the bush."
"Ah, all three!"
"Steel, Minchin, and me," nodded Abel, as his cutty glowed.
"And you were mates!"
"Well, we were and we weren't: that's just it," said Abel, resentfully.
"It would be better for some coves now, if we'd all been on the same
footin' then. But that we never were. I was overseer at the principal
out-station--a good enough billet in its way--and Minchin was overseer
in at the homestead. But Steel was the boss, damn him, trust Steel to be
"But if the station was his?" queried Langholm. "I suppose it was a
station?" he added, as a furious shower of sparks came from the cutty.
"Was it a station?" the ex-overseer echoed. "Only about the biggest and
the best in the blessed back-blocks--that's all! Only about half the
size of your blessed little old country cut out square! Oh, yes, it was
his all right; bought it for a song after the bad seasons fifteen year
ago, and sold it in the end for a quarter of a million, after making a
fortune off of his clips alone. And what did I get out of it?" demanded
Abel, furiously. "What was my share? A beggarly check same as he give me
the other day, and not a penny more!"
"I don't know how much that was," remarked Langholm; "but if you weren't
a partner, what claim had you on the profits?"
"Aha! that's tellings," said Abel, with a sudden change both of tone
and humor; "that's what I'm here to tell you, if you really want to
know! Rum thing, wasn't it? One night I turn up, like any other swaggy,
humping bluey, and next week I'm overseer on a good screw (I will say
that) and my own boss out at the out-station. Same way, one morning I
turn up at his grand homestead here--and you know what! It was a check
for three figures. I don't mind telling you. It ought to have been four.
But why do you suppose he made it even three? Not for charity, you bet
your boots! I leave it to you to guess what for."
The riddle was perhaps more easily solvable by an inveterate novelist
than by the average member of the community. It was of a kind which
Langholm had been concocting for many years.
"I suppose there is some secret," said he, taking a fresh grip of his
stick, in sudden loathing of the living type which he had only imagined
"Ah! You've hit it," purred the wretch.
"It is evident enough, and always has been, for that matter," said
Langholm, coldly. "And so you know what his secret is!"
"I do, mister."
"And did Mr. Minchin?"
"You would tell him, of course?"
The sort of scorn was too delicate for John William Abel, yet even he
seemed to realize that an admission must be accompanied by some form of
"I did tell him," he said, "for I felt I owed it to him. He was a good
friend to me, was Mr. Minchin; and neither of us was getting enough for
all we did. That was what I felt; to have his own way, the boss'd ride
roughshod over us both, and he himself only--but that's tellings again.
You must wait a bit, mister! Mr. Minchin hadn't to wait so very long,
because I thought we could make him listen to two of us, so one night I
told him what I knew. You could ha' knocked him down with a feather.
Nobody dreamt of it in New South Wales. No, there wasn't a hand on the
place who would have thought it o' the boss! Well, he was fond of
Minchin, treated him like a son, and perhaps he wasn't such a good son
as he might have been. But when he told the boss what I told him, and
made the suggestion that I thought would come best from a gent like
"That you should both be taken into partnership on the spot, I suppose?"
"Well, yes, it came to something like that."
"Go on, Abel. I won't interrupt again. What happened then?"
"Well, he'd got to go, had Mr. Minchin! The boss told him he could tell
who he liked, but go he'd have to; and go he did, with his tail between
his legs, and not another word to anybody. I believe it was the boss who
started him in Western Australia."
"Not such a bad boss," remarked Langholm, dryly; and the words set him
thinking a moment on his own account. "And what happened to you?" he
added, abandoning reflection by an effort.
"I stayed on."
"If you like to put it that way."
"And you both filed the secret for future use!"
"Don't talk through your neck, mister," said Abel, huffily. "What are
you drivin' at?"
"You kept this secret up your sleeve to play it for all it was worth in
a country where it would be worth more than it was in the back-blocks?
That's all I mean."
"Well, if I did, that's my own affair."
"Oh, certainly. Only you came here at your own proposal in order, I
suppose, to sell this secret to me?"
"Yes, to sell it."
"Then, you see, it is more or less my affair as well."
"It may be," said Abel, doggedly. And his face was very evil as he
struck a match to relight his pipe; but before the flame Langholm had
stepped backward, with his stick, that no superfluous light might fall
upon his thin wrists and half-filled sleeves.
"You are sure," he pursued, "that Mr. Minchin was in possession of this
precious secret at the time of his death?"
"I told it him myself. It isn't one you would forget."
"Was it one that he could prove?"
"Well, and what's your price?"
"Nonsense! I'm not a rich man like Mr. Steel."
"I don't take less from anybody--not much less, anyhow!"
"Not twenty in hard cash?"
"Not me; but look here, mister, you show me thirty and we'll see."
The voice drew uncomfortably close. And there were steps upon the
cross-roads at last; they were those of one advancing with lumbering
gait and of another stepping nimbly backward. The latter laughed aloud.
"Did you really think I would come to meet the writer of a letter like
yours, at night, in a spot like this, with a single penny-piece in my
pocket? Come to my cottage, and we'll settle there."
"I'm not coming in!"
"To the gate, then. It isn't three hundred yards from this. I'll lead
Langholm set off at a brisk walk, his heart in his mouth. But the
lumbering steps did not gain upon him; a muttered grumbling was their
only accompaniment; and in minute they saw the lights. In another minute
they were at the wicket.
"You really prefer not to come in?"
There was a sly restrained humor in Langholm's tone.
"I do--and don't be long."
"Oh, no, I shan't be a minute."
There were other lights in the other cottage. It was not at all late. A
warm parallelogram appeared and disappeared as Langholm opened his door
and went in. Was it a sound of bolts and bars that followed? Abel was
still wondering when his prospective paymaster threw up the window and
reappeared across the sill.
"It was a three-figured check you had from Mr. Steel, was it?"
"Yes--yes--but not so loud!"
"And then he sent you to the devil to do your worst?"
"That's your way of putting it."
"I do the same--without the check."
And the window shut with a slam, the hasp was fastened, and the blind
A CARDINAL POINT
The irresistible discomfiture of this ruffian did not affect the value
of the evidence which he had volunteered. Langholm was glad to remember
that he had volunteered it; the creature was well served for his spite
and his cupidity; and the man of peace and letters, whose temperament
shrank from contention of any kind, could not but congratulate himself
upon an incidental triumph for which it was impossible to feel the
smallest compunction. Moreover, he had gained his point. It was enough
for him to know that there was a certain secret in Steel's life, upon
which the wretch Abel had admittedly traded, even as his superior
Minchin had apparently intended to do before him. Only those two seemed
to have been in this secret, and one of them still lived to reveal it
when called upon with authority. The nature of the secret mattered
nothing in the meanwhile. Here was the motive, without which the case
against John Buchanan Steel must have remained incomplete. Langholm
added it to his notes--and trembled!
He had compunction enough about the major triumph which now seemed in
certain store for him; the larger it loomed, the less triumphant and the
more tragic was its promise. And, with all human perversity, an
unforeseen and quite involuntary sympathy with Steel was the last
complication in Langholm's mind.
He had to think of Rachel in order to harden his heart against her
husband; and that ground was the most dangerous of all. It was strange
to Langholm to battle against _that_ by the bedside of a weaker brother
fallen in the same fight. Yet it was there he spent the night. He had
scarcely slept all the week. It was a comfort to think that this vigil
was a useful one.
Severino slept fitfully, and Langholm had never a long stretch of
But before morning he had decided to give Steel a chance. It was a vague
decision, dependent on the chance that Steel gave him when they met, as
meet they must. Meanwhile Langholm had some cause for satisfaction with
the mere resolve; it defined the line that he took with a somewhat
absurd but equally startling visitor, who waited upon him early in the
forenoon, in the person of the Chief Constable of Northborough.
This worthy had heard of Langholm's quest, and desired to be informed of
what success, if any, he had met with up to the present. Langholm opened
"It's my own show," he protested.
"Would you say that if you had got the man? I doubt it would be our show
then!" wheezed the Chief Constable, who was enormously fat.
"It would be Scotland Yard's," admitted Langholm, "perhaps."
"Unless you got him up here," suggested the fat official. "In that case
you would naturally come to me."
Langholm met his eyes. They were very small and bright, as the eyes of
the obese often are, or as they seem by contrast with a large crass
face. Langholm fancied he perceived a glimmer of his own enlightenment,
and instinctively he lied.
"We are not likely to get him up here," he said. "This is about the last
place where I should look!"
The Chief Constable took his departure with a curious smile. Langholm
began to feel uneasy; his unforeseen sympathy with Steel assumed the
form of an actual fear on his behalf. Severino was another thorn in his
side. He knew that Rachel had been written to, and fell into a fever of
impatience and despair because the morning did not bring her to his
bedside. She was not coming at all. She had refused to come--or her
husband would not allow it. So he must die without seeing her again! The
man was as unreasonable as sick men will be; nothing would console him
but Langholm's undertaking to go to Normanthorpe himself after lunch and
plead in person with the stony-hearted lady or her tyrannical lord. This
plan suited Langholm well enough. It would pave the way to the "chance"
which he had resolved to give to Rachel's husband.
That resolve was not weakened by successive encounters, first with a
policeman near the entrance gates, next with a trespasser whom Langholm
rightly took for another policeman in plain clothes, and finally with
the Woodgates on their way from the house. The good couple welcomed him
with a warmth beyond his merits.
"Oh, what a blessing you have come!" cried Morna, whose kind eyes
discovered a tell-tale moisture. "Do please go up and convince Mrs.
Steel that you can't be rearrested on a charge on which you have already
been tried and acquitted!"
"But of course you can't," said Langholm. "Who has put that into her
head, Mrs. Woodgate?"
"The place is hemmed in by police."
"Since when?" asked Langholm, quickly.
"Only this morning."
Langholm held his tongue. So the extortioner Abel, outwitted by the
amateur policeman, had gone straight to the professional force! The
amateur had not suspected him of such resource.
"I don't think this has anything to do with Mrs. Steel," he said at
last; "in fact, I think I know what it means, and I shall be only too
glad to reassure her, if I can."
But his own face was not reassuring, as Hugh Woodgate plainly told him
in the first words which the vicar contributed to the discussion.
"I have been finding out things--I have not been altogether
unsuccessful--but the things are rather on my mind," the author
explained. "How does Steel take the development, by the way?"
"As a joke!" cried Morna, with indignation; her husband was her echo
both as to words and tone; but Langholm could only stare.
"I must see him," he exclaimed, decisively. "By the way, once more, do
you happen to know whether Mrs. Steel got a letter from me this morning,
"Yes, she did," answered Morna at once. Her manner declared her to be
not unacquainted with the contents of the letter, and Langholm treated
the declaration as though spoken.
"And is she not going to see that poor fellow?" he asked.
"At once," said Morna, "and I am going with her. She is to call for me
with the phaeton at three."
"Do you know anything about him, Mrs. Woodgate?"
"Then I can only commend him to the sympathy which I know he has
already. And I will talk to Mr. Steel while you are gone."
The first sentence was almost mechanical. That matter was off Langholm's
mind, and in a flash it was fully occupied with the prospect before
himself. He lifted the peak of his cap, but, instead of remounting his
bicycle, he wheeled it very slowly up the drive. The phaeton was at the
door when Langholm also arrived, and Rachel herself ran out to greet him
on the steps--tall and lissome, in a light-colored driving cloak down to
her heels, and a charming hat--yet under it a face still years older
than the one he wore in his heart, though no less beautiful in its
"I hardly dare ask you!" she gasped, her hand trembling in his. "Have
you found out--anything at all?"
And he opened his hand so that hers must drop.
"Oh, but anything is better than nothing! Come in and tell me--quick!"
"Bravo!" added an amused voice from the porch.
It was Steel, spruce and serene as ever, a pink glow upon his mobile
face, a pink flower in his reefer jacket, a jaunty Panama straw covering
his white hairs, and buckskin shoes of kindred purity upon his small and
well-shaped feet. Langholm greeted him in turn, only trusting that the
tremors which had been instantly communicated to his own right hand
might not be detected by the one it was now compelled to meet.
"I came to tell Mr. Steel," said Langholm, a little lamely.
"Excellent!" murmured that gentleman, with his self-complacent smile.
"But am I not to hear also?" demanded Rachel.
"My dear Mrs. Steel, there is very little to tell you as yet. I only
wish there were more. But one or two little points there are--if you
would not mind my first mentioning them to your husband?"
"Oh, of course."
There was no pique in the tone. There was only disappointment--and
"You manage a woman very prettily," remarked Steel, as they watched the
phaeton diminish down the drive like a narrow Roman road.
"You are the first who ever said so," rejoined the novelist, with a
rather heavy sigh.
"Well, let us have a cigar and your news. I confess I am interested. A
stroll, too, would be pleasanter than sitting indoors, don't you think?
The thickest walls have long ears, Langholm, when every servant in the
place is under notice. The whole lot? Oh, dear, yes--every mother's son
and daughter of them. It is most amusing; every one of them wants to
stay and be forgiven. The neighbors are little better. The excuses they
have stooped to make, some of them! I suppose they thought that we
should either flee the country or give them the sanguinary satisfaction
of a double suicide. Well, we are not going to do either one or the
other; we are agreed about that, if about nothing else. And my wife has
behaved like a trump, though she wouldn't like to hear me say so; it is
her wish that we should sit tighter than if nothing had happened, and
not even go to Switzerland as we intended. So we are advertising for a
fresh domestic crew, and we dine at Ireby the week after next. It is
true that we got the invitation before the fat fell into the fire, but I
fancy we may trust the Invernesses not to do anything startling. I am
interested, however, to see what they will do. It is pretty safe to be
an object-lesson to the countryside, one way or the other."
During this monologue the pair had strolled far afield with their
cigars, and Langholm was beginning to puff his furiously. At first he
had merely marvelled at the other's coolness; now every feeling in his
breast was outraged by the callousness, the flippancy, the cynicism of
his companion. There came a moment when Langholm could endure the
combination no longer. Steel seemed disposed to discuss every aspect of
the subject except that of the investigations upon which his very life
might depend. Langholm glanced at him in horror as they walked. The
broad brim of his Panama hat threw his face in shadow to the neck; but
to Langholm's heated imagination, it was the shadow of the black cap and
of the rope itself that he saw out of the corners of his eyes. It was
the shadow that had lit upon the wife the year before, happily to lift
forever; now it was settling upon the husband; and it rested with
Langholm--if it did rest with him--and how could he be sure? His mind
was off at a tangent. He was not listening to Steel; without ceremony he
interrupted at last.
"I thought you came out to listen to me?"
"My dear fellow," cried Steel, "and so, to be sure, I did! Why on earth
did you let me rattle on? Let me see--the point was--ah, yes! Of course,
my dear Langholm, you haven't really anything of any account to tell? I
considered you a Quixote when you undertook your quest; but I shall
begin to suspect a dash of Munchausen if you tell me you have found out
anything in the inside of a week!"
"Nevertheless," said Langholm, grimly, "I have."
"Anything worth finding out?"
"I think so."
"You don't mean to tell me you have struck a clew?"
"I believe I can lay hands upon the criminal," said Langholm, as quietly
as he could. But he was the more nervous man of the two.
The other simply stood still and stared his incredulity. The stare
melted into a smile. "My dear fellow!" he murmured, in a mild blend of
horror and reproof, as though it were the fourth dimension that Langholm
claimed to have discovered. It cost the discoverer no small effort not
to cry out that he could lay hands on him then and there. The unspoken
words were gulped down, and a simple repetition substituted at the last.
"I could swear to him myself," added Langholm. "It remains to be seen