Run to Earth, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 36

On the Track.

The next day Mr. Larkspur spent in the same manner, and returned to the castle late at night, and very much out of sorts. He had of late been spoiled by tolerably easy triumphs, and the experience of failure was very disagreeable to him.

On both evenings he was summoned to Lady Eversleigh’s apartments, and on each occasion declined going. He sent a respectful message, to the effect that he had nothing to communicate to her ladyship, and would not therefore intrude upon her.

But early on the morning after the second day’s wasted labour, the post brought Mr. Larkspur a communication which quite restored him to his accustomed good humour.

It was neither more nor less than a brief epistle from one of the officials of the police-staff at Murford Haven, informing Mr. Larkspur that an old woman had produced the silken coverlet advertised for, and claimed the offered reward.

Mr. Larkspur sent a servant to inquire if Lady Eversleigh would be pleased to favour him with a few minutes’ conversation that morning. The man came back almost immediately with a ready affirmative.

“My lady will be very happy to see Mr. Larkspur.”

“Oh, Mr. Larkspur!” exclaimed Honoria, as the police-officer entered the room, “I am certain you bring me good news; I can see it in your face.”

“Well, yes, my lady; certainly I’ve got a little bit of good news this morning.”

“You have found a clue to my child?”

“I have found out something about the coverlet,” answered Andrew; “and that’s the next best thing, to my mind. That has turned up at Murford Haven, thirty miles from here; though how the man who stole Miss Eversleigh can have got there without leaving a single trace behind him is more than I can understand.”

“At Murford Haven! — my darling has been taken to Murford Haven!” cried Honoria.

“So I conclude, my lady, by the coverlet turning up there,” replied Mr. Larkspur. “I told you the handbills would do the trick. Murford Haven is a large manufacturing town, and the sort of place a man who wanted to keep himself out of sight of the police might be likely enough to choose. Now, with your leave, my lady, I’ll be off to Murford Haven as soon as I can have a post-chaise got ready for me.”

“And I will go with you,” exclaimed Lady Eversleigh; “I shall feel as if I were nearer my child if I go to the town where you hope to find the clue to her hiding-place.”

“I, too, will accompany you,” said Captain Copplestone.

“Begging you pardon, sir,” remonstrated Mr. Larkspur, “if three of us go, and one of those three a lady, we might attract attention, even in such a busy place as Murford Haven. And if those that have got little missy should hear of it, they’d smell a rat. No, my lady, you let me go alone. I’m used to this sort of work, and you ain’t, and the captain ain’t either. I can slip about on the quiet anywhere like an eel; and I’ve got the eye to see whatever is to be seen, and the ear to pick up every syllable that’s to be heard. You trust matters to me, and depend upon it, I’ll do my duty. I’ve got a clue, and a clue is all I ever want. You keep to this spot, my lady, and you, too, captain; for there may come some kind of news in my absence, and you may have to act without me. I shan’t waste time, you may rely upon it; and all you’ve got to do, my lady, is to trust to me, and hope that I shall bring you back good news from Murford Haven.”

Very little more was said, and half an hour after this interview, the police-officer left Raynham in a post-chaise, on the first stage of the journey to Murford Haven.

Words are too weak to describe the sufferings of the mother of the lost child, and of the friends to whom she was hardly less dear. They waited very quietly, with all outward show of calmness, but the pain of suspense was not less keen. They sat silent, unoccupied, counting the hours — the minutes even — during the period which must elapse before the return of the police-officer.

He came earlier than Honoria had dared to expect him, and he brought with him so much comfort that she could almost have fallen on her knees, like Thetis at the feet of Jove, in the extremity of her gratitude for his services.

“I’ve got the coverlet,” said Mr. Larkspur, dragging the little silken covering from his carpet-bag, and displaying it before those to whom it was so familiar. “That’s about the ticket, I think, my lady. Yes, just so. I found a nice old hag waiting to claim her five pounds reward; for, you see, the men at the police-office at Murford Haven contrived to keep her dancing attendance backward and forwards — call again in an hour, and so on — till I was there to cross-question her. A precious deep one she is, too; and a regular jail-bird, I’ll wager. I soon reckoned her up; and I was pretty sure that whatever she knew she’d tell fast enough, if she was only paid her price. So, after a good deal of shilly-shally, and handing her over five-and-twenty pounds in solid cash, and telling her that she’d better beware how she trifled with a gentleman belonging to Bow Street, she consented to tell me all about the little girl. The man that stole little missy had been to her precious hovel, and old Mother Brimstone had found a change of clothes for little missy, in token of which, and on payment of another sovereign, the old harpy gave me little missy’s own clothes; and there they are.”

Hereupon Mr. Larkspur dragged from his capacious carpet-bag the delicate little garments of lawn and lace which had been worn by the cherished heiress of Raynham. Ah! who can describe the anguish of the mother’s heart as she gazed upon those familiar garments, so associated with the form of the lost one?

“Well,” gasped Honoria, “go on, I entreat! She told you the child had been there. But with whom? Did she tell you that?”

“She did,” returned Andrew Larkspur. “She told me that the scoundrel who holds little missy in his keeping is no other than the man suspected of a foul murder — a man I have long been looking for — a man who is well known amongst the criminal classes of London by the name of Black Milsom.”

Black Milsom! the face of Lady Eversleigh, pale before, grew almost ghastly in its pallor, as that hated name sounded in her ears, ominous as a death-knell.

“Black Milsom!” she exclaimed at last. “If my child is in the power of that man, she is, indeed, lost.”

“You know him, my lady?” cried Andrew Larkspur, with surprise. “Ah, I remember, you seemed familiar with the details of the Jernam murder. You know this man, Milsom?”

“I do know him,” answered Honoria, in a tone of utter despair. “Do not ask me where or when that man and I have met. It is enough that I know him. My darling could not be in worse hands.”

“He can have but one motive, and that to extort money,” said Captain Copplestone. “No harm will come to our darling’s precious life. You have reason to rejoice that your child has not fallen into the hands of Sir Reginald Eversleigh.”

“Tell me more,” said Honoria to Mr. Larkspur. “Tell me all you have discovered.”

“All I could discover was that the man Milsom had taken the child to London by a certain coach. I went to the inn from which that particular coach always starts; and here, after much trouble and delay, I was lucky enough to see the guard. From him I derived some valuable information; or perhaps, I ought to say some information that I think may turn up trumps. He perfectly remembered the man Milsom by my description of him, I having got the description from old Mother Brimstone; and he remembered the child, because of her crying a deal, and the passengers pitying her, and being pleased with her pretty looks, and trying to comfort her, and so on. The guard himself took a deal of notice of the child, and thought the man was not much good; and when they got to London, he felt curious like, he said, to know where the two would go, and what would become of them.”

“And did he find out?” gasped Lady Eversleigh.

“As good luck would have it, he did. The man got into a hackney-coach, and the guard heard the driver tell him to go to Ratcliff Highway — that was all.”

“Then I will find him,” exclaimed Honoria, with feverish excitement. “I know the place well — too well! I will go with you to London, Mr. Larkspur, and I myself will help you to find my treasure.”

In the extremity of her excitement she was reckless what secrets she betrayed. She had but one thought, one consideration, and that to her was life or death.

“Don’t question me,” she said to Captain Copplestone, who stared at her in amazement; “my girlhood was spent in a den of thieves — my womanhood has been one long struggle against pitiless enemies. I will fight bravely to the last. And now, in this most bitter trial of my life, the experience of my miserable youth shall serve in the contest with that villain.”

She would brook no delay; she would explain nothing.

“Do not question me,” she repeated. “You have counselled me to trust in the experience of Mr. Larkspur, and I will confide myself to his wisdom; but I must and will accompany him in his search for my child. Let a post-chaise be ordered immediately. Can you dispense with rest, and take a hurried dinner before you start, Mr. Larkspur?” she added, turning to her ally.

“Dispense with rest? Bless your innocent heart, my lady, I don’t know the meaning of rest when I’m in business; and as for dinner, a ham sandwich and a glass of brandy out of a pocket-pistol is as much as I ask for when my blood’s up.” “You shall be richly rewarded for your exertions.”

“Thank you kindly, ma’am. The promise of a reward is very encouraging, of course; but, upon my word, my heart’s more in this business than it ever was before in anything under a murder; and I feel as if it was in me to do wonders.”

No more was said. Andrew Larkspur hurried away to eat as good a dinner as he could get through in ten minutes, and Honoria went to her dressing-room to prepare herself for her journey.

“Pray for me, kind and faithful friend,” she said, earnestly, as she bade adieu to the captain.

In a few minutes more she was once again speeding along the familiar road which she had travelled under such different circumstances, and with such different feelings. She remembered the first time she had driven through those rustic villages, past those swelling uplands, those woods and hills.

Then she had come as a bride, beloved, honoured, seated by the side of an adoring husband — a happy future shining before her, a bright horizon without one cloud.

Only one shadow to come between her and the sunshine, and that the shadow of a cruel memory — the haunting recollection of that foul deed which had been done beneath the shelter of the darkness, by the side of the ever-flowing river. Even to-day, when her heart was full of her child’s sweet image, that dark memory still haunted her. It seemed to her as if some mystic influence obliged her to recall the horrors of that night.

“The curse of innocent blood has been upon me,” she thought to herself. “I shall never know rest or peace till the murder of Valentine Jernam has been avenged.”

Lady Eversleigh went at once to her rooms in Percy Street, and Mr. Andrew Larkspur betook himself to certain haunts, in which he expected to glean some information. That he was not entirely unsuccessful will appear from his subsequent conversation with Lady Eversleigh. After an absence, in reality short, but which, to her suspense and impatience appeared of endless duration, Mr. Larkspur presented himself before her.

“Well, Mr. Larkspur, what news?” she cried, eagerly, as he entered the room.

“Not much, my lady; but there’s something done, at any rate. I’ve found out one fact.”

“And what is that?”

“That the little lady has not been taken out of the country. Now, you seem to know something of the man Milsom, my lady. Have you any idea whether there is any particular place where he’d be likely to take little missy?”

For some minutes Lady Eversleigh remained silent, evidently lost in thought.

“Yes,” she said, at last, “I do know something of that man’s past career; so much, that the very mention of his name sends a thrill of horror through my heart. Yes, Mr. Larkspur, it is my misfortune to have known Black Milsom only too well in the bitter past.”

“If your ladyship wouldn’t consider it a liberty,” said the police~officer, with some hesitation, “I should very much like to put a question.”

“You are free to ask me what questions you please.”

“What I should like to ask is this,” replied Mr. Larkspur, “when and where did your ladyship happen to meet Black Milsom? If you would only be so kind as to speak freely, it might be a great help to me in the work I’ve got in hand.”

Honoria did not answer him for some moments. She had risen from her chair, and was walking up and down the room in deep thought.

“Will it help you in your search for my child,” she said, at length, “if I tell you all I know?”

“It may help me. I cannot venture to say more than that, my lady.”

“If there is even a chance, I must speak,” replied Honoria. “I will tell you, then,” she said, throwing herself into a chair, and fixing her grave, earnest eyes upon the face of her companion. “In order to tell you what I know of Black Milsom, I must go back to the days of my childhood. My first memories are bright ones; but they are so vague, so shadowy, that it is with difficulty I can distinguish realities from dreams; and yet I believe the things which I remember must have been real. I have a faint recollection of a darkly beautiful face, that bent over me as I lay in some bed or cradle, softer and more luxurious than any bed I ever slept in for many years after that time. I remember a soft, sweet voice, that sang me to sleep. I remember that in the place I called home everything was beautiful.”

“And do you not even know where this home was?”

“I know nothing of its locality. I was too young to remember the names of persons or places. But I have often fancied it was in Italy.”

“In Italy!”

“Yes; for the first home which I really remember was a fisherman’s hut, in a little village within a few miles of Naples. I was the only child in that miserable hovel — lonely, desolate, miserable, in the power of two wretches, whose presence filled me with loathing.”

“And they were —?”

“An old woman, called Andrinetta — I know that, though I called her ‘nurse’ when she was with me in the beautiful home I so dimly remember — and the man whom you have heard of under the name of Black Milsom.”

“Is he an Italian?” asked Andrew, astonished.

“I don’t know,” replied Honoria. “In England he calls himself an Englishman — in Italy he is supposed to be an Italian. What his real calling was in those days I do not know; but I feel assured that it must been dark and unlawful as all his actions have been since that time. He pretended to get his living like the other fishermen in the neighbourhood; but he was often idle for a week at a time, and still more often, absent. I have seen him count over gold and jewels with old Andrinetta on his return from some expedition. To me he was harsh and cruel. I hated him, and he knew that I hated him. He ordered me to call him father, and I was more than once savagely beaten by him because I refused to do so. Under such treatment, in such a wretched home, deprived of all natural companionship, I grew wild and strange. My will was indomitable as the will of my tyrant; and on many occasions I resisted him boldly. Sometimes I ran away, and wandered for days together among the neighbouring hills and woods; but I returned always sooner or later to my miserable shelter, for I knew not where else to go. My lonely life had made me shrink from all human creatures, except the two wretches with whom I lived; and when the few neighbours would have shown me some kindness, I ran from them in wild, unreasoning terror.”

“Strange!” muttered the police-officer.

“Yes; a strange history, is it not?” returned Lady Eversleigh. “And you wonder, no doubt, to hear of such a childhood from the lips of Sir Oswald Eversleigh’s widow. One day I heard a neighbour reproaching the man with his cruel treatment of me. ‘It is bad enough to have stolen the child,’ he said; ‘you shouldn’t beat her as well.’ From that hour I knew that I was a stolen child. I told him as much one night, and the next morning he took me to Naples, where, in the most obscure and yet most crowded part of the city, I lived for some years. ‘Nobody will trouble himself about you here, my young princess,’ my tyrant said to me. ‘Children swarm by hundreds in all the alleys; you will only be one more drop of water in the ocean.’”

There was a pause, during which Honoria sat in a meditative attitude, with her eyes fixed upon vacancy. It seemed as if she was looking back into the shadowy past.

“I cannot tell you how wretched my life was for some time. Andrinetta had accompanied us to Naples; and soon I saw she was very ill, and she had fits of violence that approached insanity. Within doors she was my sole companion. The man only slept in the house, and at times was absent for months. How he earned his livelihood I knew no more than I had known in the little sea-side village. I now rarely saw jewels or gold in his possession; but at night, after he had gone to his chamber, I often heard the chink of golden coin through the thin partition which divided my room from his. I think in these days I must have perished body and soul if Providence had not sent me a friend in the person of a good Catholic priest — a noble and saintly old man — who visited the wretched dens of poverty and crime, and who discovered my desolate state. I need not dwell on that man’s goodness to me; it is, doubtless, remembered in heaven, whither he may have gone before this time. He taught me, he comforted me, he rescued me from the abyss of wretchedness into which I had fallen. I took care to conceal his visits from my tyrant, for I knew how that wicked heart would revolt against my redemption from ignorance and misery. When I was fifteen years of age, Andrinetta died. One day, soon after her death — for me a most sorrowful day — Tomaso (as they called him there) told me that he was going to bring me to England, I came with him, and for two years I remained his companion. I will not speak of that time. I have told you now all that I can tell.”

“But the murder of Valentine Jernam!” exclaimed Andrew. “Suspicion pointed to this man; and you — you know something of that?”

“I will not speak of that now,” replied Honoria. “I have said enough. The day may come when I may speak more freely; but it has not yet arrived. Trust me that I will not impede the course of justice where this man is concerned. And now tell me, does my revelation afford one ray of light which may help to dispel the darkness that surrounds my Gertrude’s fate?”

“No, I cannot say it does. I cannot find out anything to indicate that she has been taken far away. I am sure she is in England, and that one of Milsom’s pals, a man named Wayman —”

Lady Eversleigh started, and exclaimed, “I know him! I know him! Go on! go on!”

Larkspur directed a glance of keen and eager curiosity towards Lady Eversleigh. “You know Wayman?” he said.

“Well, well,” she repeated. “I know him to be an unscrupulous ruffian. If he knows where my child is, he will sell the secret for money, and we will give him money — any sum; do you think I shall count the cost of her safety?”

“No, no,” said Andrew Larkspur, “but you must not get so excited; keep quiet — tell me all you know of Wayman, and then we shall see our way.”

At this point of the conversation Jane Payland knocked at the door of her mistress’s sitting-room, and the interview between Honoria and the police-officer was interrupted.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31