Life seemed very blank to Clement Austin when he returned to London a day or two after Margaret Wilmot’s departure from the Reindeer. He told his mother that he and his betrothed had parted; but he would tell no more.
“I have been cruelly disappointed, mother, and the subject is very bitter to me,” he said; and Mrs. Austin had not the courage to ask any further questions.
“I suppose I must be satisfied, Clement,” she said. “It seems to me as if we had been living lately in an atmosphere of enigmas. But I can afford to be contented, Clement, so long as I have you with me.”
Clement went back to London. His life seemed to have altogether slipped away from him, and he felt like an old man who has lost all the bright chances of existence; the hope of domestic happiness and a pleasant home; the opportunity of a useful career and an honoured name; and who has nothing more to do but to wait patiently till the slow current of his empty life drops into the sea of death.
“I feel so old, mother,” he said, sometimes; “I feel so old.”
To a man who has been accustomed to be busy there is no affliction so intolerable as idleness.
Clement Austin felt this, and yet he had no heart to begin life again, though tempting offers came to him from great commercial houses, whose chiefs were eager to secure the well-known cashier of Messrs. Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby’s establishment.
Poor Clement could not go into the world yet. His disappointment had been too bitter, and he had no heart to go out amongst hard men of business, and begin life again. He wasted hour after hour, and day after day, in gloomy thoughts about the past. What a dupe he had been! what a shallow, miserable fool! for he had believed as firmly in Margaret Wilmot’s truth, as he had believed in the blue sky above his head.
One day a new idea flashed into Clement Austin’s mind; an idea which placed Margaret Wilmot’s character even in a worse light than that in which she had revealed herself in her own confession.
There could be only one reason for the sudden change in her sentiments about Henry Dunbar: the millionaire had bribed her to silence! This girl, who seemed the very incarnation of purity and candour, had her price, perhaps, as well as other people, and Henry Dunbar had bought the silence of his victim’s daughter.
“It was the knowledge of this business that made her shrink away from me that night when she told me that she was a contaminated creature, unfit to be the associate of an honest man Oh, Margaret, Margaret! poverty must indeed be a bitter school if it has prepared you for such degradation as this!”
The longer Clement thought of the subject, the more certainly he arrived at the conclusion that Margaret Wilmot had been, either bribed or frightened into silence by Henry Dunbar. It might be that the banker had terrified this unhappy girl by some awful threat that had preyed upon her mind, and driven her from the man who loved her, whom she loved perhaps, in spite of those heartless words which she had spoken in the bitter hour of their parting.
Clement could not thoroughly believe in the baseness of the woman he had trusted. Again and again he went over the same ground, trying to find some lurking circumstance, no matter how unlikely in its nature, which should explain and justify Margaret’s conduct.
Sometimes in his dreams he saw the familiar face looking at him with pensive, half-reproachful glances; and then a dark figure that was strange to him came between him and that gentle shadow, and thrust the vision away with a ruthless hand. At last, by dint of going over the ground again and again, always pleading Margaret’s cause against the stern witness of cruel facts, Clement came to look upon the girl’s innocence as a settled thing.
There was falsehood and treachery in the business, but Margaret Wilmot was neither false nor treacherous. There was a mystery, and Henry Dunbar was at the bottom of it.
“It seems as if the spirit of the murdered man troubled our lives, and cried to us for vengeance,” Clement thought. “There will be no peace for us until the secret of the deed done in the grove near Winchester has been brought to light.”
This thought, working night and day in Clement Austin’s brain, gave rise to a fixed resolve. Before he went back to the quiet routine of life, he set himself a task to accomplish, and that task was the solution of the Winchester mystery.
On the very day after this resolution took a definite form, Clement received a letter from Margaret Wilmot. The sight of the well-known writing gave him a shock of mingled surprise and hope, and his fingers were faintly tremulous as they tore open the envelope. The letter was carefully worded, and very brief.
“You are a good man, Mr. Austin,” Margaret wrote; “and though you have reason to despise me, I do not think you will refuse to receive my testimony in favour of another who has been falsely suspected of a terrible crime, and who has need of justification. Henry Dunbar was not the murderer of my father. As Heaven is my witness, this is the truth, and I know it to be the truth. Let this knowledge content you, and allow the secret of the murder to remain for ever a mystery upon earth, God knows the truth, and has doubtless punished the wretched sinner who was guilty of that crime, as He punishes every other sinner, sooner or later, in the course of His ineffable wisdom. Leave the sinner, wherever he may be hidden, to the judgment of God, which penetrates every hiding-place; and forget that you have ever known me, or my miserable story.
Even this letter did not shake Clement Austin’s resolution.
“No, Margaret,” he thought; “even your pleading shall not turn me from my purpose. Besides, how can I tell in what manner this letter may have been written? It may have been written at Henry Dunbar’s dictation, and under coercion. Be it as it may, the mystery of the Winchester murder shall be set at rest, if patience or intelligence can solve the enigma. No mystery shall separate me from the woman I love.”
Clement put Margaret’s letter in his pocket, and went straight to Scotland Yard, where he obtained an introduction to a businesslike-looking man, short and stoutly built, with close-cropped hair, very little shirt-collar, a shabby black satin stock, and a coat buttoned tightly across the chest. He was a man whose appearance was something between the aspect of a shabby-genteel half-pay captain and an unlucky stockbroker: but Clement liked the steady light of his small grey eyes, and the decided expression of his thin lips and prominent chin.
The detective business happened to be rather dull just now. There was nothing stirring but a Bank-of-England forgery case; and Mr. Carter informed Clement that there were more cats in Scotland Yard than could find mice to kill. Under these circumstances, Mr. Carter was able to enter into Clement’s views, and sequestrate himself for a short period for the more deliberate investigation of the Winchester business.
“I’ll look up a file of newspapers, and run my eye over the details of the case,” said the detective. “I was away in Glasgow, hunting up the particulars of the great Scotch-plaid robberies, all last summer, and I can’t say I remember much of what was done in the Wilmot business. Mr. Dunbar himself offered a reward for the apprehension of the guilty party, didn’t he?”
“Yes; but that might be a blind.”
“Oh, of course it might; but then, on the other hand, it mightn’t. You must always look at these sort of things from every point of view. Start with a conviction of the man’s guilt, and you’ll go hunting up evidence to bolster that conviction. My plan is to begin at the beginning; learn the alphabet of the case, and work up into the syntax and prosody.”
“I should like to help you in this business,” Clement Austin said, “for I have a vital interest in the issue of the case.”
“You’re rather more likely to hinder than help, sir,” Mr. Carter answered, with a smile; “but you’re welcome to have a finger in the pie if you like, as long as you’ll engage to hold your tongue when I tell you.”
Clement promised to be the very spirit of discretion. The detective called upon him two days after the interview at Scotland Yard.
“I’ve read-up the Wilmot case, sir,” Mr. Carter said; “and I think the next best thing I can do is to see the scene of the murder. I shall start for Winchester to-morrow morning.”
“Then I’ll go with you,” Clement said, promptly.
“So be it, Mr. Austin. You may as well bring your cheque-book while you’re about it, for this sort of thing is apt to come rather expensive.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05