“The rest of the evening passed quietly enough. Mr. Carter drank his strong tea, and then asked my permission to go out and smoke a couple of cigars in the High Street. He went, and I finished my letter to my mother. There was a full moon, but it was obscured every now and then by the black clouds that drifted across it. I went out myself to post the letter, and I was glad to feel the cool breeze blowing the hair away from my forehead, for the excitement of the day had given me a nervous headache.
“I posted my letter in a narrow street near the hotel. As I turned away from the post-office to go back to the High Street, I was startled by the apparition of a girlish figure upon the other side of the street — a figure so like Margaret’s that its presence in that street filled me with a vague sense of fear, as if the slender figure, with garments fluttering in the wind, had been a phantom.
“Of course I attributed this feeling to its right cause, which was doubtless neither more nor less than the over-excited state of my own brain. But I was determined to set the matter quite at rest, so I hurried across the way and went close up to the young lady, whose face was completely hidden by a thick veil.
“‘Miss Wilmot — Margaret,’ I said.
“I had thought it impossible that Margaret should be in Winchester, and I was only right, it seemed, for the young lady drew herself away from me abruptly and walked across the road, as if she mistook my error in addressing her for an intentional insult. I watched her as she walked rapidly along the narrow street, until she turned sharply away at a corner and disappeared. When I first saw her, as I stood by the post-office, the moonlight had shone full upon her. As she went away the moon was hidden by a fleecy grey cloud, and the street was wrapped in shadow. Thus it was only for a few moments that I distinctly saw the outline of her figure. Her face I did not see at all.
“I went back to the hotel and sat by the fire trying to read a newspaper, but unable to chain my thoughts to the page. Mr. Carter came in a little before eleven o’clock. He was in very high spirits, and drank a tumbler of steaming brandy-and-water with great gusto. But question him how I might, I could get nothing from him except that he meant to have a search made for the dead man’s clothes.
“I asked him why he wanted them, and what advantage would be gained by the finding of them, but he only nodded his head significantly, and told me to wait.
“To-day has been most wretched — a day of miserable discoveries; and yet not altogether miserable, for the one grand discovery of the day has justified my faith in the woman I love.
“The morning was cold and wet. There was not a ray of sunshine in the dense grey sky, and the flat landscape beyond the cathedral seemed almost blotted out by the drizzling rain; only the hills, grand and changeless, towered above the mists, and made the landmarks of the soddened country.
“We took an early and hasty breakfast. Quiet and business-like as the detective’s manner was even to-day, I could see that he was excited. He took nothing but a cup of strong tea and a few mouthfuls of dry toast, and then put on his coat and hat.
“‘I’m going down to the chief quarters of the county constabulary, he said. ‘I shall be obliged to tell the truth about my business down there, because I want every facility for what I’m going to do. If you’d like to see the water dragged, you can meet me at twelve o’clock in the grove. You’ll find me superintending the work.’
“It was about half-past eight when Mr. Carter left me. The time hung very heavily on my hands between that time and eleven o’clock. At eleven I put on my hat and overcoat and went out into the rain.
“I found my friend the detective standing in one of the smaller entrances of the cathedral, in very earnest conversation with an old man. As Mr. Carter gave me no token of recognition, I understood that he did not want me to interrupt his companion’s talk, so I walked slowly on by the same pathway along which we had gone on the previous afternoon; the same pathway by which the murdered man had gone to his death.
“I had not walked half a mile before I was joined by the detective.
“‘I gave you the office just now,’ he said, ‘because I thought if you spoke to me, that old chap would leave off talking, and I might miss something that was on the tip of his tongue.’
“‘Did he tell you much?’
“‘No; he’s the man who gave his evidence at the inquest. He gave me a minute description of Henry Dunbar’s watch and chain. The watch didn’t open quite in the usual manner, and the gentleman was rather awkward in opening it, my friend the verger tells me. He was awkward with the key of his desk. He seems to have had a fit of awkwardness that day.’
“‘You think that he was guilty, and that he was confused and agitated by the hideous business he had been concerned in?’
“Mr. Carter looked at me with a very queer smile on his face.
“‘You’re improving, Mr. Austin,’ he said; ‘you’d make a first-class detective in next to no time.’
“I felt rather doubtful as to the meaning of this compliment, for there was something very like irony in Mr. Carter’s tone.
“‘I’ll tell you what I think,’ he said, stopping presently, and taking me by the button-hole. ‘I think that I know why the murdered man’s coat, waistcoat, and shirt were stripped off him.’
“I begged the detective to tell me what he thought upon this subject; but he refused to do so.
“‘Wait and see,’ he said; ‘if I’m right, you’ll soon find out what I mean; if I’m wrong, I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. I’m an old hand, and I don’t want to be found out in a mistake.’
“I said no more after this. The disappearance of the murdered man’s clothes had always appeared to me the only circumstance that was irreconcilable with the idea of Henry Dunbar’s guilt. That some brutal wretch, who stained his soul with blood for the sake of his victim’s poor possessions, should strip off the clothes of the dead, and make a market even out of them, was probable enough. But that Henry Dunbar, the wealthy, hyper-refined Anglo–Indian, should linger over the body of his valet and offer needless profanation to the dead, was something incredible, and not to be accounted for by any theory whatever.
“This was the one point which, from first to last, had completely baffled me.
“We found the man with the drags waiting for us under the dripping trees. Mr. Carter had revealed himself to the constabulary as one of the chief luminaries of Scotland Yard; and if he had wanted to dig up the foundations of the cathedral, they would scarcely have ventured to interfere with his design. One of the constables was lounging by the water’s edge, watching the men as they prepared for business.
“I have no need to write a minute record of that miserable day. I know that I walked up and down, up and down, backwards and forwards, upon the soddened grass, from noon till sundown, always thinking that I would go away presently, always lingering a little longer; hindered by the fancy that Mr. Carter’s search was on the point of being successful. I know that for hour after hour the grating sound of the iron drags grinding on the gravelly bed of the stream sounded in my tired ears, and yet there was no result. I know that rusty scraps of worn-out hardware, dead bodies of cats and dogs, old shoes laden with pebbles, rank entanglements of vegetable corruption, and all manner of likely and unlikely rubbish, were dragged out of the stream, and thrown aside upon the bank.
“The detective grew dirtier and slimier and wetter as the day wore on; but still he did not lose heart.
“‘I’ll have every inch of the bed of the stream, and every hidden hole in the bottom, dragged ten times over, before I’ll give it up,’ he said to me, when he came to me at dusk with some brandy that had been brought by a boy who had been fetching beer, more or less, all the afternoon.
“When it grew dark, the men lighted a couple of flaring resinous torches, which Mr. Carter had sent for towards dusk, and worked, by the patches of fitful light which these torches threw upon the water. I still walked up and down under the dripping trees, in the darkness, as I had walked in the light; and once when I was farthest from the red glare of the torches, a strange fancy took possession of me. In amongst the dim branches of the trees I thought I saw something moving, something that reminded me of the figure I had seen opposite the post-office on the previous night.
“I ran in amongst the trees; and as I did so, the figure seemed to me to recede, and disappear; a faint rustling of a woman’s dress sounded in my ears, or seemed so to sound, as the figure melted from my sight. But again I had good reason to attribute these fancies to the state of my own brain, after that long day of anxiety and suspense.
“At last, when I was completely worn out by my weary day, Mr. Carter came to me.
“‘They’re found!’ he cried. ‘We’ve found ’em! We’ve found the murdered man’s clothes! They’ve been drifted away into one of the deepest holes there is, and the rats have been gnawing at ’em. But, please Providence, we shall find what we want. I’m not much of a church-goer, but I do believe there’s a Providence that lies in wait for wicked men, and catches the very cleverest of them when they least expect it.’
“I had never seen Mr. Carter so much excited as he seemed now. His face was flushed, and his nostrils quivered nervously.
“I followed him to the spot where the constable and two men, who had been dragging the stream, were gathered round a bundle of wet rubbish lying on the ground.
“Mr. Carter knelt down before this bundle, which was covered with trailing weeds and moss and slime, and the constable stooped over him with a flaming torch in his hand.
“‘These are somebody’s clothes, sure enough,’ the detective said; ‘and, unless I’m very much mistaken, they’re what I want. Has anybody got a basket?’
“Yes. The boy who had fetched beer had a basket. Mr. Carter stuffed the slimy bundle into this basket, and put his arm through the handle.
“‘You’re not going to look ’em over here, then?’ said the local constable, with an air of disappointment.
“‘No, I’ll take them straight to my hotel; I shall have plenty of light there. You can come with me, if you like,’ Mr. Carter answered.
“He paid the men, who had been at work all day, and paid them liberally, I suppose, for they seemed very well satisfied. I had given him money for any expenses such as these; for I knew that, in a case of this kind, every insignificant step entailed the expenditure of money.
“We walked homewards as rapidly as the miserable state of the path, the increasing darkness, and the falling rain would allow us to walk. The constable walked with us. Mr. Carter whistled softly to himself as he went along, with the basket on his arm. The slimy green stuff and muddy water dripped from the bottom of the basket as he carried it.
“I was still at a loss to understand the reason of his high spirits; I was still at a loss to comprehend why he attached so much importance to the finding of the dead man’s clothes.
“It was past eight o’clock when we three men — the detecting the Winchester constable, and myself — entered our sitting-room at the George Hotel. The principal table was laid for dinner; and the waiter, our friend of the previous evening, was hovering about, eager to receive us. But Mr. Carter sent the waiter about his business.
“‘I’ve got a little matter to settle with this gentleman,’ he said, indicating the Winchester constable with a backward jerk of his thumb; ‘I’ll ring when I want dinner.’
“I saw the waiter’s eyes open to an abnormal extent, as he looked at the constable, and I saw a sudden blank apprehension creep over his face, as he retired very slowly from the room.
“‘Now,’ said Mr. Carter, ‘we’ll examine the bundle.’
“He pushed away the dinner-table, and drew forward a smaller table. Then he ran out of the room, and returned in about two minutes, carrying with him all the towels he had been able to find in my room and his own, which were close at hand. He spread the towels on the table, and then took the slimy bundle from the basket.
“‘Bring me the candles — both the candles,’ he said to the constable.
“The man held the two wax-candles on the right hand of the detective, as he sat before the table. I stood on his left hand, watching him intently.
“He touched the ragged and mud-stained bundle as carefully as if it had been some living thing. Foul river-insects crept out of the weeds, which were so intermingled with the tattered fabrics that it was difficult to distinguish one substance from the other.
“Mr. Carter was right: the rats had been at work. The outer part of the bundle was a coat — a cloth coat, knawed into tatters by the sharp teeth of water-rats.
“Inside the coat there was a waistcoat, a satin scarf that was little better than a pulp, and a shirt that had once been white. Inside the white shirt there was a flannel shirt, out of which there rolled half-a-dozen heavy stones. These had been used to sink the bundle, but were not so heavy as to prevent its drifting into the hole where it had been found.
“The bundle had been rolled up very tightly, and the outer garment was the only one which had been destroyed by the rats. The inner garment — the flannel shirt — was in a very tolerable state of preservation.
“The detective swept the coat and waistcoat and the pebbles back into the basket, and then rolled both of the shirts in a towel, and did his best to dry them. The constable watched him with open eyes, but with no ray of intelligence in his stolid face.
“‘Well,’ said Mr. Carter,’ there isn’t much here, is there? I don’t think I need detain you any longer. You’ll be wanting your tea, I dare say.’
“‘I did’nt think there would be much in them,’ the constable said, pointing contemptuously to the wet rags; his reverential awe of Scotland Yard had been considerably lessened during that long tiresome day. ‘I didn’t see your game from the first, and I don’t see it now. But you wanted the things found, and you’ve had ’em found.’
“Yes; and I’ve paid for the work being done,’ Mr. Carter answered briskly; ‘not but what I’m thankful to you for giving me your help, and I shall esteem it a favour if you’ll accept a trifle, to make up for your lost day. I’ve made a mistake, that’s all; the wisest of us are liable to be mistaken once in a way.’
“The constable grinned as he took the sovereign which Mr. Carter offered him. There was something like triumph in the grin of that Winchester constable — the triumph of a country official who was pleased to see a Londoner at fault.
“I confess that I groaned aloud when the door closed upon the man, and I found myself alone with the detective, who had seated himself at the little table, and was poring over one of the shirts outspread before him.
“‘All this day’s labour and weariness has been so much wasted trouble,’ I said; ‘for it seems to have brought us no step nearer to the point we wanted to reach.”
“‘Hasn’t it, Mr. Austin?” cried the detective, eagerly. ‘Do you think I am such a fool as to speak out before the man who has just left this room? Do you think I’m going to tell him my secret, or let him share my gains? The business of to-day has brought us to the very end we want to reach. It has brought about the discovery to which Margaret Wilmot’s letter was the first indication — the discovery pointed to by every word that man told us last night. Why did I want to find the clothes worn by the murdered man? Because I knew that those garments must contain a secret, or they never would have been stripped from the corpse. It ain’t often that a murderer cares to stop longer than he’s obliged by the side of his victim; and I knew all along that whoever stripped off those clothes must have had a very strong reason for doing it. I have worked this business out by my own lights, and I’ve been right. Look there, Mr. Austin.’
“He handed me the wet discoloured shirt, and pointed with his finger to one particular spot.
“There, amidst the stains of mud and moss, I saw something which was distinct and different from them. A name, neatly worked in dark crimson thread — a Christian and surname, in full.
“‘How do you make that out?’ Mr. Carter asked, looking We full in the face.
“Neither I nor any rational creature upon this earth able to read English characters could have well made out that name otherwise than I made it out.
“It was the name of Henry Dunbar.
“‘You see it all now, don’t you?’ said Mr. Carter; ‘that’s why the clothes were stripped off the body, and hidden at the bottom of the stream, where the water seemed deepest; that’s why the watch and chain changed hands; that’s why the man who came back to this house after the murder was slow to select the key of the desk. You understand now why it was so difficult for Margaret Wilmot to obtain access to the man at Maudesley Abbey; and why, when she had once seen that man, she tried to shield him from inquiry and pursuit. When she told you that Henry Dunbar was innocent of her father’s murder, she only told you the truth. The man who was murdered was Henry Dunbar; the man who murdered him was ——’
“I could hear no more. The blood surged up to my head, and I staggered back and dropped into a chair.
“When I came to myself, I found the detective splashing cold water in my face. When I came to myself, and was able to think steadily of what had happened, I had but one feeling in my mind; and that was pity, unutterable pity, for the woman I loved.
“Mr. Carter carried the bundle of clothes to his own room, and returned by-and-by, bringing his portmanteau with him. He put the portmanteau in a corner near the fireplace.
“‘I’ve locked the clothes safely in that,’ he said; ‘and I don’t mean to let it out of my sight till it’s lodged in very safe hands. That mark upon Henry Dunbar’s shirt will hang his murderer.’
“‘There may have been some mistake,’ I said; ‘the clothes marked with the name of Henry Dunbar may not have really belonged to Henry Dunbar. He may have given those clothes to his old valet.’
“‘That’s not likely, sir; for the old valet only met him at Southampton two or three hours before the murder was committed. No; I can see it all now. It’s the strangest case that ever came to my knowledge, but it’s simple enough when you’ve got the right clue to it. There was no probable motive which could induce Henry Dunbar, the very pink of respectability, and sole owner of a million of money, to run the risk of the gallows; there were very strong reasons why Joseph Wilmot, a vagabond and a returned criminal, should murder his late master, if by so doing he could take the dead man’s place, and slip from the position of an outcast and a penniless reprobate into that of chief partner in the house of Dunbar and Company. It was a bold game to hazard, and it must have been a fearfully perilous and difficult game to play, and the man has played it well, to have escaped suspicion so long. His daughter’s conscientious scruples have betrayed him.”
“Yes, Mr. Carter spoke the truth. Margaret’s refusal to fulfil her engagement had set in motion the machinery by means of which the secret of this foul murder had been discovered.
“I thought of the strange revelation, still so new to me, until my brain grew dazed. How had it been done? How had it been managed? The man whom I had seen and spoken with was not Henry Dunbar, then, but Joseph Wilmot, the murderer of his master — the treacherous and deliberate assassin of the man he had gone to meet and welcome after his five-and-thirty years’ absence from England!
“‘But surely such a conspiracy must be impossible,’ I said, by-and-by; ‘I have seen letters in St. Gundolph Lane, letters in Henry Dunbar’s hand, since last August.’
“‘That’s very likely, sir,’ the detective answered, coolly. ‘I turned up Joseph Wilmot’s own history while I was making myself acquainted with the details of this murder. He was transported thirty years ago for forgery: he made a bold attempt at escape, but he was caught in the act, and removed to Norfolk Island. He was one of the cleverest chaps at counterfeiting any man’s handwriting that was ever tried at the Old Bailey. He was known as one of the most daring scoundrels that ever stepped on board a convict-ship; a clever villain, and a bold one, but not without some touches of good in him, I’m told. At Norfolk Island he worked so hard and behaved so well that he got set free before he had served half his time. He came back to England, and was seen about London, and was suspected of being concerned in all manner of criminal offences, from card-sharping to coining, but nothing was ever brought home to him. I believe he tried to make an honest living, but couldn’t: the brand of the gaol-bird was upon him; and if he ever did get a chance, it was taken away from him before the sincerity of any apparent reformation had been tested. This is his history, and the history of many other men like him.’
“And Margaret was the daughter of this man. An inexpressible feeling of melancholy took possession of me as I thought of this. I understood everything now. This noble girl had heroically put away from her the one chance of bright and happy life, rather than bring upon her husband the foul taint of her father’s crime. I could understand all now. I looked back at the white face, rigid in its speechless agony; the fixed, dilated eyes; and I pictured to myself the horror of that scene at Maudesley Abbey, when the father and daughter stood opposite to each other, and Margaret Wilmot discovered why the murderer had persistently hidden himself from her.
“The mystery of my betrothed wife’s renunciation of my love had been solved; but the discovery was so hideous that I looked back now and regretted the time of my ignorance and uncertainty. Would it not have been better for me if I had let Margaret Wilmot go her own way, and carry out her sublime scheme of self-sacrifice? Would it not have been better to leave the dark secret of the murder for ever hidden from all but that one dread Avenger whose judgments reach the sinner in his remotest hiding-place, and follow him to the grave? Would it not have been better to do this?
“No! my own heart told me the argument was false and cowardly. So long as man deals with his fellow-man, so long as laws endure for the protection of the helpless and the punishment of the wicked, the course of justice must know no hindrance from any personal consideration.
“If Margaret Wilmot’s father had done this hateful deed, he must pay the penalty of his crime, though the broken heart of his innocent daughter was a sacrifice to his iniquity. If, by a strange fatality, I, who so dearly loved this girl, had urged on the coming of this fatal day, I had only been a blind instrument in the mighty hand of Providence, and I had no cause to regret the revelation of the truth.
“There was only one thing left me. The world would shrink away, perhaps, from the murderer’s daughter; but I, who had seen her nature proved in the fiery furnace of affliction, knew what a priceless pearl Heaven had given me in this woman, whose name must henceforward sound vile in the ears of honest men, and I did not recoil from the horror of my poor girl’s history.
“‘If it has been my destiny to bring this great sorrow upon her,’ I thought, ‘it shall be my duty to make her future safe and happy.”
“But would Margaret ever consent to be my wife, if she discovered that I had been the means of bringing about the discovery of her father’s crime?
“This was not a pleasant thought, and it was uppermost in my mind while I sat opposite to the detective, who ate a very hearty dinner, and whose air of suppressed high spirits was intolerable to me.
“Success is the very wine of life, and it was scarcely strange that Mr. Carter should feel pleased at having succeeded in finding a clue to the mystery that had so completely baffled his colleagues. So long as I had believed in Henry Dunbar’s guilt, I had felt no compunction as to the task I was engaged in. I had even caught something of the detective’s excitement in the chase. But now, now that I knew the shame and anguish which our discovery must inevitably entail upon the woman I loved, my heart sank within me, and I hated Mr. Carter for his ardent enjoyment of his triumph.
“‘You don’t mind travelling by the mail-train, do you, Mr. Austin?’ the detective said, presently.
“‘Not particularly; but why do you ask me?’
“‘Because I shall leave Winchester by the mail to-night.’
“‘To get as fast as I can to Maudesley Abbey, where I shall have the honour of arresting Mr. Joseph Wilmot.’
“So soon! I shuddered at the rapid course of justice when once a criminal mystery is revealed.
“‘But what if you should be mistaken! What if Joseph Wilmot was the victim and not the murderer?”
“‘In that case I shall soon discover my mistake. If the man at Maudesley Abbey is Henry Dunbar, there must be plenty of people able to identify him.’
“‘But Henry Dunbar has been away five-and-thirty years.’
“‘He has; but people don’t think much of the distance between England and Calcutta nowadays. There must be people in England now who knew the banker in India. I’m going down to the resident magistrate, Mr. Austin; the man who had Henry Dunbar, or the supposed Henry Dunbar, arrested last August. I shall leave the clothes in his care, for Joseph Wilmot will be tried at the Winchester assizes. The mail leaves Winchester at a quarter before eleven,’ added Mr. Carter, looking at his watch as he spoke; ‘so I haven’t much time to lose.’
“He took the bundle from the portmanteau, wrapped it in a sheet of brown paper which the waiter had brought him a few minutes before, and hurried away. I sat alone brooding over the fire, and trying to reason upon the events of the day.
“The waiter was moving softly about the room; but though I saw him look at me wistfully once or twice, he did not speak to me until he was about to leave the room, when he told me that there was a letter on the mantelpiece; a letter which had come by the evening post.
“The letter had been staring me in the face all the evening, but in my abstraction I had never noticed it.
“It was from my mother. I opened it when the waiter had left me, and read the following lines:
“‘MY DEAREST CLEM— I was very glad to get your letter this morning, announcing your safe arrival at Winchester. I dare say I am a foolish old woman, but I always begin to think of railway collisions, and all manner of possible and impossible calamities, directly you leave me on ever so short a journey.
“‘I was very much surprised yesterday morning by a visit from Margaret Wilmot. I was very cool to her at first; for though you never told me why your engagement to her was so abruptly broken off, I could not but think she was in some manner to blame, since I knew you too well, my darling boy, to believe you capable of inconstancy or unkindness. I thought, therefore, that her visit was very ill-timed, and I let her see that my feelings towards her were entirely changed.
“‘But, oh, Clement, when I saw the alteration in that unhappy girl, my heart melted all at once, and I could not speak to her coldly or unkindly. I never saw such a change in any one before. She is altered from a pretty girl into a pale haggard woman. Her manners are as much changed as her personal appearance. She had a feverish restlessness that fidgeted me out of my life; and her limbs trembled every now and then while she was speaking, and her words seemed to die away as she tried to utter them. She wanted to see you, she said; and when I told her that you were out of town, she seemed terribly distressed. But afterwards, when she had questioned me a good deal, and I told her that you had gone to Winchester, she started suddenly to her feet, and began to tremble from head to foot.
“‘I rang for wine, and made her take some. She did not refuse to take it; on the contrary, she drank the wine quite eagerly, and said, ‘I hope it will give me strength. I am so feeble, so miserably weak and feeble, and I want to be strong. I persuaded her to stop and rest; but she wouldn’t listen to me. She wanted to go back to London, she said; she wanted to be in London by a particular time. Do what I would, I could not detain her. She took my hands, and pressed them to her poor pale lips, and then hurried away, so changed from the bright Margaret of the past, that a dreadful thought took possession of my mind, and I began to fear that she was mad.‘
“The letter went on to speak of other things; but I could not think of anything but my mother’s description of Margaret’s visit. I understood her agitation at hearing of my journey to Winchester. She knew that only one motive could lead me to that place. I knew now that the familiar figure I had seen in the moonlit street and in the dusky grove was no phantasm of my over-excited brain. I knew now that it was the figure of the noble-hearted woman I loved — the figure of the heroic daughter, who had followed me to Winchester, and dogged my footsteps, in the vain effort to stand between her father and the penalty of his crime.
“As I had been watched in the street on the previous night, I had been watched to-night in the grove. The rustling dress, the shadowy figure melting in the obscurity of the rain-blotted landscape had belonged to Margaret Wilmot!
“Mr. Carter came in while I was still pondering over my mother’s letter.
“‘I’m off,’ he said, briskly. ‘Will you settle the bill, Mr. Austin? I suppose you’d like to be with me to the end of this business. You’ll go down to Maudesley Abbey with me, won’t you?’
“‘No,’ I said; ‘I will have no farther hand in this matter. Do your duty, Mr. Carter; and the reward I promised shall be faithfully paid to you. If Joseph Wilmot was the treacherous murderer of his old master, he must pay the penalty of his crime; I have neither the power nor the wish to shield him. But he is the father of the woman I love. It is not for me to help in hunting him to the gallows.’
“Mr. Carter looked very grave.
“‘To be sure, sir,’ he said; ‘I recollect now. I’ve been so wrapt up in this business that I forgot the difference it would make to you; but many a good girl has had a bad father, you know, sir, and ——’
“I put up my hand to stop him.
“‘Nothing that can possibly happen will lessen my esteem for Miss Wilmot,’ I said. ‘That point admits of no discussion.’
“I took out my pocket-book, gave the detective money for his expenses, and wished him good night.
“When he had left me, I went out into the High Street. The rain was over, and the moon was shining in a cloudless sky. Heaven knows how I should have met Margaret Wilmot had chance thrown her in my way to-night. But my mind was filled with her image; and I walked about the quiet town, expecting at every turn in the street, at every approaching footstep sounding on the pavement, to see the figure I had seen last night. But go where I would I saw no sign of her; so I came back to the hotel at last, to sit alone by the dull fire, and write this record of my day’s work.”
While Clement Austin sat in the lonely sitting-room at the George Inn, with his rapid pen scratching along the paper before him, a woman walked up and down the lamp-lit platform at Rugby, waiting for the branch train which was to take her on to Shorncliffe.
This woman was Margaret Wilmot — the haggard, trembling girl whose altered manner had so terrified simple-hearted Mrs. Austin.
But she did not tremble now. She had pushed her thick black veil away from her face, and though no vestige of healthy colour had come back to her cheeks or lips, her features had a set look of steadfast resolution, and her eyes looked straight before her, like the eyes of a person who has one special purpose in view, and will not swerve or falter until that purpose has been carried out.
There was only one elderly gentleman in the first-class carriage in which Margaret Wilmot took her seat when the branch train for Shorncliffe was ready; and as this one fellow-passenger slept throughout the journey, with his face covered by an expansive silk handkerchief, Margaret was left free to think her own thoughts.
The girl was scarcely less quiet than her slumbering companion; she sat in one changeless attitude, with her hands clasped together in her lap, and her eyes always looking straight forward, as they had looked when she walked upon the platform. Once she put her hand mechanically to the belt of her dress, and then shook her head with a sigh as she drew it away.
“How long the time seems!” she said; “how long! and I have no watch now, and I can’t tell how late it is. If they should be there before me. If they should be travelling by this train. No, that’s impossible. I know that neither Clement, nor the man that was with him, left Winchester by the train that took me to London. But if they should telegraph to London or Shorncliffe?”
She began to tremble at the thought of this possibility. If that grand wonder of science, the electric telegraph, should be made use of by the men she dreaded, she would be too late upon the errand she was going on.
The mail train stopped at Shorncliffe while she was thinking of this fatal possibility. She got out and asked one of the porters to get her a fly; but the man shook his head.
“There’s no flies to be had at this time of night, miss,” he said, civilly enough. “Where do you want to go?”
She dared not tell him her destination; secresy was essential to the fulfilment of her purpose.
“I can walk,” she said; “I am not going very far.” She left the station before the man could ask her any further questions, and went out into the moonlit country road on which the station abutted. She went through the town of Shorncliffe, where the diamond casements were all darkened for the night, and under the gloomy archway, past the dark shadows which the ponderous castle-towers flung across the rippling water. She left the town, and went out upon the lonely country road, through patches of moonlight and shadow, fearless in her self-abnegation, with only one thought in her mind: “Would she be in time?”
She was very tired when she came at last to the iron gates at the principal entrance of Maudesley Park. She had heard Clement Austin speak of a bridle-path through the park to Lisford, and he had told her that this bridle-path was approached by a gate in the park-fence upwards of a mile from the principal lodge.
She walked along by this fence, looking for the gate.
She found it at last; a little low wooden gate, painted white, and only fastened by a latch. Beyond the gate there was a pathway winding in and out among the trunks of the great elms, across the dry grass.
Margaret Wilmot followed this winding path, slowly and doubtfully, till she came to the margin of a vast open lawn. Upon the other side of this lawn she saw the dark frontage of Maudesley Abbey, and three tall lighted windows gleaming through the night.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50