Captain Copplestone did not waste half an hour on the road between London and Raynham.
No words can paint his agony of terror, the torture of mind which he endured, as he sat in the post-chaise, watching every landmark of the journey, counting every minute of the tedious hours, and continually putting his head out of the front window, and urging the postillions to greater speed.
He hated himself for having been duped by that forged letter.
“I had no business to leave the child,” he kept repeating to himself; “not even to obey her mother. My place was by little Gertrude, and I have been a fool to desert my post. If any harm has come to her in my absence, by the heaven above me, I think I shall be tempted to blow out my brains.”
Once having decided that the letter, purporting to be written by Lady Eversleigh, was a forgery, he could not doubt that it formed part of some plot against the household of Raynham Castle.
To Captain Copplestone, who knew that the life of his friend had been sacrificed to the dark plottings of a traitor, this idea was terrible.
“I knew the wretches I had to deal with; I was forewarned that treachery and cunning would be on the watch to do that child wrong,” he said to himself, during those hours of self-reproach; “and yet I allowed myself to be duped by the first trick of those hidden foes. Oh, great heaven! grant that I may reach Raynham before they can have taken any fatal advantage of my absence.”
It was daybreak when the captain’s post-chaise dashed into the village street of Raynham. He murmured a thanksgiving and a prayer, almost in the same breath, as he saw the castle-turrets dark against the chill gray sky.
The vehicle ascended the hill, and stopped before the arched entrance to the castle. An old woman, who acted as portress, opened the carved iron gates. He glanced at her, but did not stop to question her. One word from her would have put an end to all suspense; but in this last moment the soldier had not courage to utter the question which he so dreaded to have answered — Was Gertrude safe?
In another moment that question was answered for Captain Copplestone — answered completely, without the utterance of a word.
The principal door of the castle was open, and in the doorway stood two men.
One was Mr. Ashburne, the magistrate; the other was Christopher Dimond, the constable of Raynham.
The sight of these two men told Captain Copplestone that his fears were but too surely realized. Something had happened amiss — something of importance — or Gilbert Ashburne, the magistrate, would not be there.
“The child!” gasped the captain; “is she dead — murdered?”
“No, no, not dead,” answered Mr. Ashburne.
“Not dead! Thank God!” exclaimed the soldier, in a devout whisper. “What then? What has happened?” he asked, scarcely able to command himself so far as to utter these few words with distinctness. “For pity’s sake speak plainly. Can’t you see that you are keeping me in torture? What has happened to the child?”
“She has disappeared.”
“She has disappeared!” echoed the captain. “I left strict orders that she should not be permitted to stir beyond the castle walls. Who dared to disobey those orders?”
“No one,” answered Mr. Ashburne. “Miss Eversleigh was not allowed to quit her own apartments. She disappeared in the night from her own cot, while that cot was in its usual place, beside Mrs. Morden’s bed.”
“But who could penetrate into that room in the night, when the castle doors are secured against every one? Where is Mrs. Morden? Let me see her; and let every servant of the house be assembled in the great dining-room.”
Captain Copplestone gave this order to the butler, who had come out to the hall on hearing the arrival of the post-chaise. The man bowed, and departed on his errand.
“I fear you will gain nothing by questioning the household,” said Mr. Ashburne. “I have already made all possible inquiries, assisted by Christopher Dimond here, but can obtain no information that throws the smallest ray of light upon this most mysterious business.”
“I thank you,” replied the captain; “I am sure you have done all that friendship could suggest; but I should like to question those people myself. This business is a matter of life and death for me.”
He went into the great dining-room — the room in which the inquiry had been held respecting the cause of Sir Oswald’s death. Mr. Ashburne and Christopher Dimond accompanied him, and the servants of the household came in quietly, two and three at a time, until the lower end of the room was full. Mrs. Morden was the last to come. She made no protestations of her grief — her self-reproach — for she never for a moment imagined that any one could doubt the intensity of her feelings. She stood before the captain, calm, collected, ready to answer his questions promptly and conscientiously.
He questioned the servants one by one, beginning with Mrs. Smithson, the housekeeper, who was ready to declare that no living creature, except the members of the household, could have been within the castle walls on the night of Gertrude Eversleigh’s disappearance.
“That anybody could have come into this house and gone out of it in a night, unknown to me, is a moral impossibility,” said the housekeeper; “the doors were locked at half-past ten, and the keys were brought in a basket to my room. So, you see it’s quite impossible that any one could have come in or gone out before the doors were open in the morning.”
“What time was the child’s disappearance discovered?”
“At a quarter to five in the morning,” answered Mrs. Morden; “before any one in the house was a-stir. My darling has always been in the habit of waking at that hour, to take a little milk, which is left in a glass by her bedside. I woke at the usual time, and rose, in order to give her the milk, and when I looked at her cot, I saw that it was empty. The child was gone. The silk coverlet and one blanket had disappeared with her. I gave the alarm immediately, and in a quarter of an hour the whole household was a-stir.”
“And did you hear nothing during that night?” asked the captain, turning suddenly to address Solomon Grundy, who had entered amongst the rest of the servants.
“Humph,” muttered the old soldier, “a sorry watch-dog.”
“There is only one entrance to the castle which is at all weakly guarded,” said the magistrate, presently; “and that is a small door belonging to the bed-room occupied by one of the footmen. But this man tells me that he was in his room that night at his usual hour, and that the door was locked and bolted in the usual way.”
As he said this, the magistrate looked towards the end of the apartment, where Stephen Plumpton stood amongst his fellow servants. The young man had been weak enough, or guilty enough, to commit himself to a false statement; first, because he did not want to betray the misdoings of Matthew Brook, and secondly, because he feared to admit his own culpable carelessness.
“My telling the truth won’t bring the child back,” he argued with himself. “If it would, I’d speak out fast enough.”
“You say that it is impossible that any one can have entered this house, and left it, during that night,” said Captain Copplestone to the housekeeper; “and yet some one must have left the house, even if no one entered it, or Gertrude Eversleigh must be hidden within these walls. Has the castle been thoroughly searched? There are stories of children who have hidden themselves in sport, to find the sport end in terrible earnest.”
“The castle has been searched from garret to cellar,” answered Mrs. Morden. “Mrs. Smithson and I have gone together into every room, and opened every cupboard.”
The captain dismissed the assembly, after having asked many questions without result. When this was done, he went alone to the library, where he shut himself in, and seated himself at the writing-table, with pen and ink before him, to meditate upon, the steps which should be first taken in the work that lay before him.
That work was no less painful a task than the writing of a letter to Lady Eversleigh, to inform her of the calamity which had taken place — of the terrible realization of her worst fears. Captain Copplestone’s varied and adventurous life had never brought him a severer or more painful duty, but he was not the man to shirk or defer it, because it involved suffering to himself.
The letter was written, and despatched by the evening post, and then the captain shut himself up in his own room, and gave way to the bitterest grief he had ever experienced.
Who shall describe the agony which Lady Eversleigh suffered when Captain Copplestone’s letter reached her? For the first half-hour after she read it, a blight seemed to fall upon her senses, and she sat still in her chair, stupefied; but when she rallied, her first impulse was to send for Andrew Larkspur, who was now nearly restored to his usual state of sound health.
She rang the bell, and summoned Jane Payland.
“There is a lawyer’s clerk living in this house,” she said; “Mr. Andrews. Go to him immediately, and ask him to favour me with an interview. I wish to consult him on a matter of business.”
“Yes, ma’am,” answered Miss Payland, looking inquisitively at the ashen face of her mistress. “There’s something fresh this morning,” she muttered to herself, as she tripped lightly up the stairs to do her bidding.
Mr. Larkspur — or Mr. Andrews — presented himself before Lady Eversleigh a few minutes after he received her message. He found her pacing the room in a fever of excitement.
“Good gracious me, ma’am!” he exclaimed; “is there anything amiss?”
“Yes,” she answered, handing him the letter.
Mr. Larkspur read the letter to the end, and then read it again.
“This is a bad job,” he said, calmly; “what’s to be done now?”
“You must accompany me to Raynham Castle — you must help me to find my child!” cried Honoria, in wild excitement. “You are better now, Mr. Larkspur, you can bear the journey? For Heaven’s sake, do not say you cannot aid me. You must come with me, Andrew Larkspur. I do not offer to bribe you — I say you must come! Bring me my darling safe to my arms, and you may name your own reward for that priceless service.”
“No, no,” said Mr. Larkspur; “I don’t say that. I am well enough, so far as that goes, but how about our little schemes in London?”
“Never mind them — never think of them! What are they to me now?”
“Very well, my lady,” answered Mr. Larkspur; “if it must be so, it must be. I must turn my back upon the neatest business that ever a Bow Street officer handled, just as it’s getting most interesting to a well-regulated mind.”
“And you’ll come with me at once?”
“Give me one hour to make my plans, ma’am, and I’m your man,” replied Mr. Larkspur. “I’ll pack a carpet-bag, leave it down stairs, take a hackney coach to Bow Street, see my deputy, and arrange some matters for him, and be ready one hour from this time, when you’ll be so kind as to call for me in a post-chaise — not forgetting to bring my carpet~bag with you in the boot, if you please. And now you be so good as to keep up your spirits, ma’am, like a Trojan — which I’ve heard the Trojans had an uncommon hard time of it in their day. If the child is to be found, Andrew Larkspur is the man to find her; and as to reward, we won’t talk about that, if you please, my lady. I may be a hard~fisted one, but I’m not the individual to trade upon the feelings of a mother that has lost her only child.”
Having said this, Mr. Larkspur departed, and in less than two hours he and Lady Eversleigh were seated in a post-chaise, behind four horses, tearing along the road between London and Barnet.
And thus additional security attended the schemes of Victor Carrington.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50