Part 5 out of 5
whether there is evidence enough to convict."
"Have you communicated with the police?"
"They seem to have some absurd bee in their helmet down here, you know."
"They don't get it from me."
It was impossible any longer to doubt the import of Langholm's earnest
and rather agitated manner. He was doing his best to suppress his
agitation, but that strengthened the impression that he had indeed
discovered something which he himself honestly believed to be the truth.
There was an immediate alteration in the tone and bearing of his host.
"My dear fellow," he said, "forgive my levity. If you have really found
out anything, it is a miracle; but miracles do happen now and then.
Here's the pond, and there's the boathouse behind those rhododendrons.
Suppose you tell me the rest in the boat? We needn't keep looking over
our shoulders in the middle of the pond!"
For an instant Langholm dreamt of the readiest and the vilest resource;
in another he remembered, not only that he could swim, but the insidious
sympathy for this man which a darker scoundrel had sown in his heart. It
had grown there like Jonah's gourd; only his flippancy affected it; and
Steel was far from flippant now. Langholm signed to him to lead the way,
and in a very few minutes they were scaring the wildfowl in mid-water,
Steel sculling from the after thwart, while Langholm faced him from the
"I thought," said the latter, "that I would like to tell you what sort
of evidence I could get against him before--before going any further.
I--I thought it would be fair."
Steel raised his bushy eyebrows the fraction of an inch. "It would be
fairest to yourself, I agree. Two heads are better than one, and--well,
I'm open to conviction still, of course."
But even Langholm was not conscious of the sinister play upon words; he
had taken out his pocket-book, and was nervously turning to the leaves
that he had filled during his most sleepless night in town.
"Got it all down?" said Steel.
"Yes," replied Langholm, without raising his eyes; "at least I did make
some notes of a possible--if not a really damning--case against the man
"And what may the first point be?" inquired Steel, who was gradually
drifting back into the tone which Langholm had resented on the shore; he
took no notice of it now.
"The first point," said Langholm, slowly, "is that he was in Chelsea, or
at least within a mile of the scene of the murder, on the night that it
"So were a good many people," remarked Steel, smiling as he dipped the
sculls in and out, and let his supple wrists fall for the feather, as
though he were really rowing.
"But he left his--he was out at the time!" declared Langholm, making his
amended statement with all the meaning it had for himself.
"Well, you can't hang him for that."
"He will have to prove where he was, then."
"I am afraid it will be for you to prove a little more first."
Langholm sat very dogged with his notes. There had been a pause on
Steel's part; there was a thin new note in his voice. Langholm was too
grimly engrossed to take immediate heed of either detail, or to watch
the swift changes in the face which was watching him. And there he lost
most of all.
"The next point is that he undoubtedly knew Minchin in Australia--"
"That he was and is a rich man, whereas Minchin was then on the verge of
bankruptcy, and that Minchin only found out that he was in England
thirty-six hours before his own death, when he wrote to his old friend
"And you have really established all that!"
Steel had abandoned all pretence of rowing; his tone was one of
admiration, in both senses of the word, and his dark eyes seemed to
penetrate to the back of Langholm's brain.
"I can establish it," was the reply.
"Well! I think you have done wonders; but you will have to do something
more before they will listen to you at Scotland Yard. What about a
"I was coming to that; it is the last point with which I shall trouble
you for the present." Langholm took a final glance at his notes, then
shut the pocket-book and put it away. "The motive," he continued,
meeting Steel's eyes at last, with a new boldness in his own--"the
motive is self-defence! There can be no doubt about it; there cannot be
the slightest doubt that Minchin intended blackmailing this man, at
least to the extent of his own indebtedness in the City of London."
There was a further change of voice and manner; and this time nothing
was lost upon Charles Langholm.
"There cannot be the slightest doubt," he reiterated, "that Minchin was
in possession of a secret concerning the man in my mind, which secret he
was determined to use for his own ends."
Steel sat motionless, his eyes upon the bottom of the boat. It was
absolutely impossible to read the lowered face; even when at length he
raised it, and looked Langholm in the eyes once more, the natural
inscrutability of the man was only more complete than ever.
"So that is your case!" said he.
And even his tone might have been inspired either by awe or by contempt,
so truly rang the note between the two.
"I should be sorry to have to meet it," observed Langholm, "if I were
"I should find out a little more," was the retort, "if I were you!"
"Oh, then I should do my duty like a man--and take all the emoluments I
The sneer was intolerable. Langholm turned the color of brick.
"I shall!" said he through his mustache. "I have consulted you; there
will be no need to do so again. I shall make a point of taking you at
your word. And now do you mind putting me ashore?"
A few raindrops were falling when they reached the landing-stage; they
hurried to the house, to find that Langholm's bicycle had been removed
from the place where he had left it by the front entrance.
"Don't let anybody trouble," he said, ungraciously enough, for he was
still smarting from the other's sneer. "I can soon find it for myself."
Steel stood on the steps, his midnight eyes upon Langholm, the glint of
a smile in those eyes, but not the vestige of one upon his lips.
"Oh, very well," said he. "You know the side-door near the
billiard-room? They have probably put it in the first room on the left;
that is where we keep ours--for we have gone in for them at last.
Good-by, Langholm; remember my advice."
And, that no ceremony should be lost between them, the host turned on
his heel and disappeared through his own front door, leaving Langholm
very angry in the rain.
But anger was the last emotion for such an hour; the judge might as well
feel exasperated with the prisoner at the bar, the common hangman with
the felon on the drop. Langholm only wished that, on even one moment's
reflection, he could rest content in so primitive and so single a state
of mind. He knew well that he could not, and that every subtle sort of
contest lay before him, his own soul the arena. In the meantime let him
find his bicycle and get away from this dear and accursed spot; for dear
it had been to him, all that too memorable summer; but now of a surety
the curse of Cain brooded over its cold, white walls and deep-set
windows like sunken eyes in a dead face.
Langholm found the room to which he had been directed; in fact, he knew
it of old. And there were the two new Beeston Humbers; but their
lustrous plating and immaculate enamel did not shame his own old
disreputable roadster, for the missing machine certainly was not there.
Langholm was turning away when the glazed gun-rack caught his eye. Yes,
this was the room in which the guns were kept. He had often seen them
there. They had never interested him before. Langholm was no shot. Yet
now he peered through the glass--gasped--and opened one of the sliding
panels with trembling hand.
There on a nail hung an old revolver, out of place, rusty, most
conspicuous; and at a glance as like the relic in the Black Museum as
one pea to another. But Langholm took it down to make sure. And the
maker's name upon the barrel was the name that he had noted down at the
Black Museum; the point gained, the last of the cardinal points
postulated by the official who had shown him round.
The fortuitous discoverer of them all was leaving like a thief--more and
more did Langholm feel himself the criminal--when the inner door opened
and Steel himself stood beaming sardonically upon him.
"Sorry, Langholm, but I find I misled you about the bicycle. They had
taken it to the stables. I have told them to bring it round to the
"Sure you won't wait till the rain is over?"
"No, thank you."
"Well, won't you come through this way?"
"No, thank you."
"Oh, all right! Good-by, Langholm; remember my advice."
It was an inglorious exit that Langholm made; but he was thinking to
himself, was there ever so inglorious a triumph? He knew not what he had
said; there was only one thing that he did know. But was the law itself
capable of coping with such a man?
THE WHOLE TRUTH
"Have the ladies gone?"
Langholm had ridden a long way round, through the rain, in order to
avoid them; nor was there any sign of the phaeton in the lane; yet these
were his first whispered words across the wicket, and he would not
venture to set foot upon the noisy wet gravel without Mrs. Brunton's
assurance that the ladies had been gone some time.
"And they've left him a different man," she added. "But what have you
been doing to get wet like that? Dear, dear, dear! I do call it foolish
of yer! Well, sir, get out o' them nasty wet things, or I shall have you
to nurse an' all!"
The kind, blunt soul bustled to bring him a large can of scalding water,
and Langholm bathed and changed before going near the invalid. He also
felt another man. The thorough wetting had cooled his spirit and calmed
his nerves. His head still ached for sleep, but now it was clear enough.
If only his duty were half as plain as the mystery that was one no
more! Yet it was something to have solved the prime problem; nay,
everything, since it freed his mind for concentration upon his own
immediate course. But Langholm reckoned without his stricken guest next
door; and went up presently, intending to stay five or ten minutes at
Severino lay smiling, like a happy and excited child. Langholm was sorry
to detect the excitement, but determined to cut his own visit shorter
than ever. It was more pleasing to him to note how neat and comfortable
the room was now, for that was his own handiwork, and the ladies had
been there to see it. The good Bruntons had moved most of their things
into the room to which they had themselves migrated. In their stead were
other things which Langholm had unearthed from the lumber in his upper
story, dusted, and carried down and up with his own hands. Thus at the
bedside stood a real Chippendale table, with a real Delft vase upon it,
filled with such roses as had survived the rain. A drop of water had
been spilt upon the table from the vase, and there was something almost
fussy in the way that Langholm removed it with his handkerchief.
"Oh," said Severino, "she quite fell in love with the table you found
for me, and Mrs. Woodgate wanted the vase. They were wondering if Mrs.
Brunton would accept a price."
"They don't belong to Mrs. Brunton," said Langholm, shortly.
"No? Mrs. Woodgate said she had never noticed them in your room. Where
did you pick them up?"
Langholm looked at the things, lamps of remembrance alight beneath his
lowered eyelids. "The table came from a little shop on Bushey Heath, in
Hertfordshire, you know. We--I was spending the day there once ... you
had to stoop to get in at the door, I remember. The vase is only from
Great Portland Street." The prices were upon his lips; both had been
bargains, a passing happiness and pride.
"I must remember to tell them when they come to-morrow," said Severino.
"They are the sort of thing a woman likes."
"They are," agreed Langholm, his lowered eyes still lingering on the
table and the vase "the sort of thing a woman likes ... So these women
are coming again to-morrow, are they?"
The question was quite brisk, when it came.
"Yes, they promised."
"Both of them, eh?"
"Yes, I hope so!" The sick man broke into eager explanations. "I only
want to see her, Langholm! That's all I want. I don't want her to
myself. What is the good? To see her and be with her is all I
want--ever. It has made me so happy. It is really better than if she
came alone. You see, as it is, I can't say anything--that matters. Do
"Perfectly," said Langholm, gently.
The lad lay gazing up at him with great eyes. Langholm fancied their
expression was one of incredulity. Twilight was falling early with the
rain; the casement was small, and further contracted by an overgrowth of
creeper; those two great eyes seemed to shine the brighter through the
dusk. Langholm could not make his visit a very short one, after all. He
felt it would be cruel.
"What did you talk about, then?" he asked.
A small smile came with the answer, "You!"
"Me! What on earth had you to say about me?"
"I heard all you had been doing."
"You know you didn't tell me, that evening in town."
"No, I was only beginning, then."
It seemed some months ago--more months since that very afternoon.
"Have you found out anything?"
Why should he lie?
"Do you mean to say that you have any suspicion who it is?" Severino was
on his elbow.
"More than a suspicion. I am certain. There can be no doubt about it. A
pure fluke gave me the clew, but every mortal thing fits it."
Severino dropped back upon his pillow. Langholm seemed glad to talk to
him, to loosen his tongue, to unburden his heart ever so little. And,
indeed, he was glad.
"And what are you going to do about it?"
"That's my difficulty. She must be cleared before the world. That is the
first duty--if it could be done without--making bad almost worse!"
"Bad--worse? How could it, Langholm?"
"Who do you say it is?"
No answer again. Langholm had not bargained to say anything to anybody
Severino raised himself once more upon an elbow.
"I must know!" he said.
Langholm rose, laughing.
"I'll tell you who I thought it was at first," said he, heartily. "I
don't mind telling you that, because it was so absurd; and I think
you'll be the first to laugh at it. I was idiot enough to think it might
be you, my poor, dear chap!"
"And you don't think so still?" asked Severino, harshly. He had not been
the first to laugh.
"Of course I don't, my dear fellow."
"I wish you would sit down again. That's better. So you know it is some
"So far as one can know anything."
"And you are going to try to bring it home to this man?"
"I don't know. The police may save me the trouble. I believe they are on
the same scent at last. Meanwhile, I have given him as fair a warning as
a man could wish."
Severino lay back yet again in silence and deep twilight. His breath
came quickly. A shiver seemed to pass through the bed.
"You needn't have done that," he whispered at last.
"I thought it was the fair thing to do."
"Yet you needn't have done it--because--your first idea was right!"
[Illustration: "I'll tell you who I thought it was at first," said he,
"Right?" echoed Langholm, densely. "My first idea was--right?"
"You said you first thought it was I who killed--her husband."
"It couldn't have been!"
"But it was."
Langholm got back to his feet. He could conceive but one explanation of
this preposterous statement. Severino's sickness had extended to his
brain. He was delirious. This was the first sign.
"Where are you going?" asked the invalid, querulously, as his companion
moved towards the door.
"When was the doctor here last?" demanded Langholm in return.
There was silence for a few moments, and then a faint laugh, that
threatened to break into a sob, from the bed.
"I see what you think. How can I convince you that I have all my wits
about me? I'd rather not have a light just yet--but in my bag you'll
find a writing-case. It is locked, but the keys are in my trouser's
pocket. In my writing-case you will find a sealed envelope, and in that
a fuller confession than I shall have breath to make to you. Take it
downstairs and glance at it--then come back."
"No, no," said Langholm, hoarsely; "no, I believe you! Yes--it was my
"I hardly knew what I was doing," Severino whispered. "I was delirious
then, if you like! Yet I remember it better than anything else in all my
life. I have never forgotten it for an hour--since it first came back!"
"You really were unconscious for days afterwards?"
"I believe it was weeks. Otherwise, you must know--she will be the first
to believe--I never could have let her--"
"My poor, dear fellow--of course--of course."
Langholm felt for the emaciated hand, and stroked it as though it had
been a child's. Yet that was the hand that had slain Alexander Minchin!
And Langholm thought of it; and still his own was almost womanly in the
tender pity of its touch.
"I want to tell you," the sick lad murmured. "I wanted to tell her--God
knows it--and that alone was why I came to her the moment I could find
out where she was. No--no--not that alone! I am too ill to pretend any
more. It was not all pretence when I let you think it was only passion
that drove me down here. I believe I should have come, even if I had had
nothing at all to tell her--only to be near her--as I was this
afternoon! But the other made it a duty. Yet, when she came this
afternoon, I could not do my duty. I had not the courage. It was too big
a thing just to be with her again! And then the other lady--I thanked
God for her too--for she made it impossible for me to speak. But to you
I must ... especially after what you say."
The man came out in Langholm's ministrations. "One minute," he said; and
returned in two or three with a pint of tolerable champagne. "I keep a
few for angel's visits," he explained; "but I am afraid I must light the
candle. I will put it at the other side of the room. Do you mind the
tumbler? Now drink, and tell me only what you feel inclined, neither
more nor less."
"It is all written down," began Severino, in better voice for the first
few drams: "how I first heard her singing through the open windows in
the summer--only last summer!--how she heard me playing, and how
afterwards we came to meet. She was unhappy; he was a bad husband; but I
only saw it for myself. He was nice enough to me in his way--liked to
send round for me to play when they had anybody there--but there was
only one reason why I went. Oh, yes ... the ground she trod on ... the
air she breathed! I make no secret of it now; if I made any then, it
was because I knew her too well, and feared to lose what I had got. And
yet--that brute, that bully, that coarse--"
He checked himself by an effort that stained his face a sickly brown in
the light of the distant candle. Langholm handed him the tumbler, and a
few more drams went down to do the only good--the temporary good--that
human aid could do for Severino now. His eyes brightened. He lay still
and silent, collecting strength and self-control.
"I was ill; she brought me flowers. I never had any constitution--trust
a Latin race for that--and I became very ill indeed. With a man like
you, a chill at worst; with me, pneumonia in a day. Then she came to see
me herself, saw the doctor, got in all sorts of things, and was coming
to nurse me through the night herself. God bless her for the thought
alone! I was supposed not to know; they thought I was unconscious
already. But I kept conscious on purpose, I could have lived through
anything for that alone. And she never came!
"My landlady sat up instead. She is another of the kindest women on
earth; she thought far more of me than I was ever worth, and it was she
who screened me through thick and thin during the delirium that
followed, and after that. She did not tell the whole truth at the trial;
may there be no mercy for me hereafter if the law is not merciful to
that staunch soul! She has saved my life--for this! But that night--it
was her second in succession--and she had been with me the whole long
day--that night she fell asleep beside me in the chair. I can hear her
"Dear soul, how it angered me at the time! It made me fret all the more
for--her. Why had she broken faith? I knew that she had not. Something
had kept her; had he? I had hoped he was out of the way; he left her so
much. He was really on the watch, as you may know. At last I got up and
went to the window. And all the windows opposite were in darkness except
Langholm sprang to his feet, but sat down again as suddenly.
"What is it that you thought, Langholm?"
"I believe I know what you did. That's all."
"What? Tell me, please, and then I will tell you."
"All those garden walls--they connect."
"You got through your window, climbed upon your wall, and ran along to
the lights. It occurred to you suddenly; it did to me when I went over
the house the other day."
Severino lay looking at the imaginative man.
"And yet you could suspect another after that!"
"Ah, there is some mystery there also. But it is strange, indeed, to
think that I was right in the beginning!"
"I did not know what I was doing," resumed the young Italian, who, like
many a clever foreigner, spoke more precise English than any Englishman;
that, with an accent too delicate for written reproduction, alone would
have betrayed him. "I still have very little recollection of what
happened between my climbing out of our garden and dropping into theirs.
I remember that my feet were rather cold, but that is about all.
"It was near midnight, as you know, and the room it happened in--the
study--had the brightest light of all. An electric lamp was blazing on
the writing-table at the window, and another from a bracket among the
books. The window was as wide open as it would go, the lower sash thrown
right up; it was just above the scullery window, which is half
underground, and has an outside grating. The sill was only the height
of one's chin. I can tell you all that now, but at the time I knew very
little until I was in the room itself. Thank you, I will take another
sip. It does me more good than harm to tell you. But you will find it
all written down."
Langholm set down the glass and replenished it. The night had fallen
without. The single candle in the farthest corner supplied the only
light; in it the one man sat, and the other lay, their eyes locked.
"I spilt the ink as I was creeping over the desk. That is an odd thing
to remember, but I was looking for something to wipe it up with when I
heard their voices upstairs."
"You heard them both?"
"Yes--quarrelling--and about me! The first thing I heard was my own
name. Then the man came running down. But I never tried to get away. The
doors were all open. I had heard something else, and I waited to tell
him what a liar he was! But I turned out the lights, so that she should
not hear the outcry, and sure enough he shut both doors behind him (you
would notice there were two) before he turned them on again. So there we
"'Don't let her hear us,' were my first words; and we stood and cursed
each other under our breath. I don't know why he didn't knock me down,
or rather I do know; it was because I put my hands behind my back and
invited him to do it. I was as furious as he was. I forgot that there
was anything the matter with me, but when I began telling him that there
had been, he looked as though he could have spat in my face. It was no
use going on. I could not expect him to believe a word.
"At last he told me to sit down in the chair opposite his chair, and I
said, 'With pleasure.' Then he said, 'We'd better have a drink, because
only one of us is coming out of this room alive,' and I said the same
thing again. He was full of drink already, but not drunk, and my own
head was as light as air. I was ready for anything. He unlocked a drawer
and took a brace of old revolvers from the case in which I put them away
again. I locked up the drawer afterwards, and put his keys back in his
pocket, before losing my head and doing all the rest that the police saw
through at a glance. Sit still, Langholm! I am getting the cart before
the horse. I was not so guilty as you think. They may hang me if they
like, but it was as much his act as mine.
"He stood with his back to me, fiddling with the revolvers for a good
five minutes, during which time I heard him tear his handkerchief in
two, and wondered what in the world he was going to do next. What he did
was to turn round and go on fiddling with the pistols behind his back.
Then he held out one in each hand by the barrel, telling me to take my
choice, that he didn't know which was which himself, but only one of
them was loaded. And he had lapped the two halves of his handkerchief
round the chambers of each in such a way that neither of us could tell
when we were going to fire.
"Then he tossed for first shot, and made me call, and I won. So he sat
down in his chair and finished his drink, and told me to blaze across at
him from where I sat in the other chair. I tried to get out of it,
partly because I seemed to have seen more good in Minchin in those last
ten minutes than in all the months that I had known him; he might be a
brute, but he was a British brute, and all right about fair play.
Besides, for the moment, it was difficult to believe he was serious, or
even very angry. But I, on my side, was more in a dream than not, or he
would not have managed me as he did. He broke out again, cursed me and
his wife, and swore that he would shoot her too if I didn't go through
with it. You can't think of the things he was saying when--but I
believe he said them on purpose to make me. Anyhow I pulled at last, but
there was only a click, and he answered with another like lightning.
That showed me how he meant it, plainer than anything else. It was too
late to get out. I set my teeth and pulled again ..."
"Like the clash of swords," whispered Langholm, in the pause.
Severino moved his head from side to side upon the pillow.
"No, not that time, Langholm. There was such a report as might have
roused the neighborhood--you would have thought--but I forgot to tell
you he had shut the window and run up some shutters, and even drawn the
curtains, to do for the other houses what the double doors did for his
own. When the smoke lifted, he was lying back in his chair as though he
had fallen asleep ...
"I think the worst was waiting for her to come down. I opened both
doors, but she never came. Then I shut them very quietly--and utterly
lost my head. You know what I did. I don't remember doing half. It was
the stupid cunning of a real madman, the broken window, and the things
up the chimney. I got back as I had come, in the way that struck you as
possible when you were there, and I woke my landlady getting in. I
believe I told her everything on the spot, and that it was the last
sense I spoke for weeks; she nursed me day and night that I might never
tell anybody else."
So the story ended, and with it, as might have been expected, the
unnatural strength which had sustained the teller till the last; he had
used up every ounce of it, and he lay exhausted and collapsed. Langholm
Severino could not swallow the champagne which Langholm poured into his
Langholm fetched the candle in high alarm--higher yet at what it
Severino was struggling to raise himself, a deadly leaden light upon his
"Raise me up--raise me up."
Langholm raised him in his arms.
"Another--hemorrhage!" said Severino, in a gasping whisper.
And his blood dripped with the words.
Langholm propped him up and rushed out shouting for Brunton--for Mrs.
Brunton--for anybody in the house. Both were in, and the woman came up
bravely without a word.
"I'll go for the doctor myself," said Langholm. "I shall be quickest."
And he went on his bicycle, hatless, with an unlit lamp.
But the doctor came too late.
IN THE MATTER OF A MOTIVE
That was between eight and nine o'clock at night; before ten an
outrageous thought occurred to the man with the undisciplined
imagination. It closed his mind to the tragedy of an hour ago, to the
dead man lying upstairs, whose low and eager voice still went on and on
in his ears. It was a thought that possessed Langholm like an unclean
spirit from the moment in which he raised his eyes from the last words
of the manuscript to which the dead man had referred.
In the long, low room that Langholm lived in a fire was necessary in
damp weather, irrespective of the season. It was on the fire that his
eyes fell, straight from the paper in his hand ...
No one else had read it. There was an explicit assurance on the point.
The Chelsea landlady had no idea that such a statement was in existence;
she would certainly have destroyed it if she had known; and further
written details convinced Langholm that the woman would never speak of
her own accord. There were strange sidelights on the feelings which the
young Italian had inspired in an unlikely breast; a mother could have
done no more to shield him. On the night of the acquittal, for example,
when he was slowly recovering in her house, it had since come to the
writer's knowledge that this woman had turned Mrs. Minchin from her door
with a lying statement as to his whereabouts. This he mentioned to
confirm his declaration that he always meant to tell the truth to
Rachel, that it was his first resolve in the early stages of his
recovery, long before he knew of her arrest and trial, and that this
woman was aware of that resolve as of all else. But he doubted whether
she could be made to speak, though he hoped that for his sake she would.
And Langholm grinned with set teeth as he turned back to this passage:
he would be diabolically safe.
It was only an evil thought. He did not admit it as a temptation. Yet
how it stuck, and how it grew!
There was the fire, as though lit on purpose; in a minute the written
evidence could be destroyed for ever; and there was no other kind. Dead
men tell no tales, and live men only those that suit them!
It all fitted in so marvellously. To a villain it would have been less a
temptation than a veritable gift of his ends. Langholm almost wished he
were a villain.
There was Steel. Something remained for explanation there, but there
really was a case against him. The villain would let that case come on;
the would-be villain did so in his own ready fancy, and the end of it
was a world without Steel but not without his wife; only, she would be
Steel's wife no more.
And this brought Langholm to his senses. "Idiot!" he said, and went out
to his wet paths and ruined roses. But the ugly impossible idea dogged
him even there.
"If Steel had been guilty--but he isn't, I tell you--no, but if he had
been, just for argument, would she ever have looked--hush!--idiot and
egotist!--No, but _would_ she? And could you have made her happy if she
had?--Ah, that's another thing ... I wonder!--It is worth wondering
about; you know you have failed before. Yes, yes, yes; do you think I
forget it? No, but I must remind you. Are you the type to make women
happy, women with anything in them, women with nerves? Are you not
moody, morbid, uneven, full of yourself?--No, of my work. It comes to
the same thing for the woman. Could you have made her happy?--yes or no!
If no, then pull yourself together and never think of it. Isn't it
always better to be the good friend than the tiresome husband, and, if
you care for her, to show her your best side instead of all your sides?
I thought so! Then thank your stars, and--never again!"
So the two voices, that are only one voice, within Langholm that night,
in the heavy fragrance of his soaking garden, under the half-shut eye of
a waning moon; and, having conquered him, the voice of sense and sanity
reminded him of his reward: "Remember, too, how you promised to serve
her; and how, if less by management than good luck, you have, after all,
performed the very prodigy you undertook. Go and tell her. I should go
to-night. No, it is never too late to bring good news. I should jump on
my bicycle and go now!"
The old moon's eye drooped also over Normanthorpe House, out of the
clearest sky that there had been for days. The Steels were strolling on
the sweep of the drive before the house, out for outing's sake for the
first time that day, and together for the sake of being together for the
first time that month. There was something untoward in the air. In fact,
there was suspicion, and Rachel was beginning to suspect what that
suspicion was. She could not say absolutely that she did not entertain
it herself for a single instant. She had entertained and had dismissed
the thought a good many times. Why had he never told her his real motive
in marrying her? Some subtle motive there had been; why could he never
tell her what it was? Then there was his intimacy with her first
husband, which she had only discovered by chance, after the most
sedulous concealment on his part. And, finally, there was the defiant
character of his challenge to Langholm, as it were to do his worst (not
his best) as a detective.
On the other hand, there was that woman's instinct which no wise woman
disregards; and Rachel's instinct had never confirmed her fancies in
this matter. But within the last few hours her point of view had totally
changed. Her husband was suspected. He said so laughingly himself. He
was in a certain danger. Her place was by his side. And let it be
remembered that, before his absolute refusal to answer her crucial
question about his prime motive for the marriage, Rachel had grown
rather to like that place.
They had been strolling quite apart, though chatting amiably. Rachel had
not dreamt of putting her hand within his arm, as she had sometimes done
towards the end before their quarrel. Yet she did it again now, the
very moment his quicker vision descried the cyclist in the drive.
"I hope they are not going to run me in to-night," he said. "If they do,
I shall run _them_ in for riding without a light. So it's Langholm!
Well, Langholm, put salt on him yet?"
"Your murderer, of course."
"I have his confession in my pocket."
It was the first time that Rachel had known her husband taken visibly
"Good God!" he cried. "Then you don't think it's me any longer?"
"I know it is not. Nevertheless, Mrs. Steel must prepare for a shock."
Rachel was shocked. But her grief and horror, though both were real and
poignant, were swept away for that hour at least by the full tide of her
It was a double joy. Not only would Rachel be cleared for ever before
the world, but her husband would stand exonerated at her side. The day
of unfounded suspicions, of either one of them, by the other or by the
world, that day at least was over once for all.
Her heart was too full for many explanations; she lingered while
Langholm told of his interview with Abel, and then left him to one with
her husband alone.
Langholm thereupon spoke more openly of his whole case against Steel,
who instantly admitted its strength.
"But I owe you an apology," the latter added, "not only for something I
said to you this afternoon, more in mischief than in malice, which I
would nevertheless unsay if I could, but for deliberately manufacturing
the last link in your chain. I happened to buy both my revolvers and
Minchin's from a hawker up the country; his were a present from me; and,
as they say out there, one pair was the dead spit of the other. This
morning when I found I was being shadowed by these local heroes, it
occurred to me for my own amusement to put one of my pair in a
thoroughly conspicuous place, and this afternoon I could not resist
sending you to the room to add it to your grand discoveries. You see, I
could have proved an alibi for the weapon, at all events, during my trip
to town a year ago. Yes, poor Minchin wrote to me, and I went up to town
by the next train to take him by surprise. How you got to know of his
letter I can't conceive. But it carried no hint of blackmail. I think
you did wonders, and I hope you will forgive me for that little trap;
it really wasn't set for you. It is also perfectly true that I stayed at
the Cadogan and was out at that particular time. I went there because it
was the one decent hotel I knew of in those parts, which was probably
your own reason, and I was out reconnoitring my old friend's house
because I knew him for an inveterate late-bird, and he did not write as
though marriage had improved his habits. In fact, as you know, he had
gone to the dogs altogether."
This reminded Langholm of the hour.
"It is late now," said he, "and I must be off. Poor Severino had not a
relation in this country that I know of. There will be a great deal to
Steel at once insisted on bearing all expenses; that would be the
lightest part, he said. "You have done so much!" he added. "By the way,
you can't go without saying good-night to my wife. She has still to
"I don't want to be thanked."
"But for you the truth might never have come out."
"Still I shall be much happier if she never speaks of it again."
"Very well, she shall not--on one condition."
"What is that?"
"Langholm, I thought last summer we were to be rather friends? I don't
think that of many people. May I still think it of you?"
"If you will," said Langholm. "I--I don't believe I ever should have
brought myself to give you away!"
"You behaved most fairly, my dear fellow. I shall not forget it, nor the
way you scored off the blackmailer Abel. If it is any satisfaction to
you, I will tell you what his secret was. Nay, I may as well; and my
wife, I must tell her too, though all these months I have hidden it from
her; but I have no doubt he took it to the police when you failed him.
It is bound to get about, but I can live it down as I did the thing
itself. Langholm, like many a better man, I left my country for my
country's good. Never mind the offence; the curious can hunt up the
case, and will perhaps admit there have been worse. But that man and I
were transported to Western Australia on the same vessel in '69."
"And yet," said Langholm--they were not quite his next words--"and yet
you challenged me to discover the truth! I still can't understand your
attitude that night!"
Steel stood silent.
"Some day I may explain it to you," he said. "I am only now going to
explain it to my wife."
The men shook hands.
And Langholm rode on his bicycle off the scene of the one real melodrama
of a life spent in inventing fictitious ones; and if you ask what he had
to show for his part in it, you may get your answer one day from his
work. Not from the masterpiece which he used to talk over with Mrs.
Steel, for it will never be written; not from any particular novel or
story, much less in the reproduction of any of these incidents, wherein
he himself played so dubious a part; but perhaps you will find your
answer in a deeper knowledge of the human heart, a stronger grasp of the
realities of life, a keener sympathy with men and (particularly) with
women, than formerly distinguished this writer's books. These, at all
events, are some of the things which Charles Langholm has to show, if he
will only show them. And in the meantime you are requested not to pity
Steel went straight to his wife. Tears were still in her eyes, but such
tears, and such eyes! It cost him an effort to say what he had to say,
and that was unusual in his case.
"Rachel," he said at length, in a tone as new as his reluctance, "I am
going to answer the question which you have so often asked me. I am
going to answer it with perfect honesty, and very possibly you will
never speak to me again. I shall be sorry for both our sakes if you do
anything precipitate, but in any case you shall act as you think best.
You know that I was exceedingly fond of Alec Minchin as a young man;
now, I am not often exceedingly fond of anybody, as you may also know by
this time. Before your trial I was convinced that you had killed my old
friend, whom I was so keen to see again that I came up to town by the
very first train after getting his letter. You had robbed me of the only
friend I had in England at the very moment when he needed me and I was
on my way to him. I could have saved his ship, and you had sent both him
and it to the bottom! That, I say candidly, was what I thought."
"I don't blame you for thinking it before the trial," said Rachel. "It
seems to have been the universal opinion."
"I formed mine for myself, and I had a particular reason for forming
it," continued Steel, with a marked vibration in his usually unemotional
voice. "I don't know which to tell you first.... Well, it shall be that
reason. On the night of the murder do you remember coming downstairs
and going or rather looking into the study--at one o'clock in the
Rachel recoiled in her chair.
"Heavens!" she cried. "How can you know that?"
"Did you hear nothing as you went upstairs again?"
"I don't remember."
"Not a rattle at the letter-box?"
"Yes! Yes! Now I do remember. And it was actually you!"
"It was, indeed," said Steel, gravely. "I saw you come down, I saw you
peep in--all dread and reluctance! I saw you recoil, I saw the face with
which you shut those doors and put out the lights. And afterwards I
learned from the medical evidence that your husband must have been dead
at that time; one thing I knew, and that was that he was not shot during
the next hour and more, for I waited about until half-past two in the
hope that he would come out. I was not going to ring and bring you down
again, for I had seen your face, and I still saw your light upstairs."
"So you thought I had come down to see my handiwork!"
"To see if he was really dead. Yes, I thought that afterwards. I could
not help thinking it, Rachel."
"Did it never occur to you that I might have thought he was asleep?"
"Yes, that has struck me since."
"You have not thought me guilty all along, then?"
"Not all along."
"Did you right through my trial?"
"God forgive me--yes, I did! And there was one thing that convinced me
more than anything else; that was when you told the jury that the
occasion of your final parting upstairs was the last time you saw poor
"But it was," said Rachel. "I remember the question. I did not know how
to answer it. I could not tell them I had seen him dead but fancied him
only asleep; that they would never have believed. So I told the simple
truth. But it upset me dreadfully."
"That I saw. You expected cross-examination."
"Yes; and I did not know whether to stick to the truth or to lie!"
"I can read people sometimes," Steel continued after a pause. "I guessed
your difficulty. Surely you must see the only conceivable inference?"
"I did see it."
"And, seeing, do you not forgive?"
"Yes, that. But you married me while you still thought me guilty. I
forgive you for denying it at the time. I suppose that was necessary.
But you have not yet told me why you did it."
"Honestly, Rachel, it was largely fascination--"
"But not primarily."
"Then let me hear the prime motive at last, for I am tired of trying to
Steel stood before his wife as he had never stood before her yet, his
white head bowed, his dark eyes lowered, hands clasped, shoulders bent,
the suppliant and the penitent in one.
"I did it to punish you," he said. "I thought some one must--I felt I
could have hanged you if I had spoken out what I had seen--and
I--married you instead!"
His eyes were on the ground. When he raised them she was smiling through
unshed tears. But she had spoken first.
"It was not a very terrible motive, after all," she had said; "at least,
it has not been such a very terrible--punishment!"
"No; but that was because I did the very last thing I ever thought of
"And that was?"
"To fall in love with you at the beginning!"
Rachel gave a little start.
"Although you thought me guilty?"
"That made no difference at all. But I have thought it less and less,
until, on the night you appealed first to me and then to Langholm--on
thinking over that night--it was impossible to suppose it any more."
Rachel rose, her cheeks divinely red, her lip trembling, her hand
"And you fell in love with me!" she murmured.
"God knows I did, Rachel, in my own way," said Steel.
"I am so glad!" whispered his wife.