The journey of Lady Eversleigh and her companion, the Bow Street officer, was as rapid as the journey of Captain Copplestone. Along the same northern road as that which he had travelled a few days before flew the post-chaise containing the anguish-stricken mother and her strange ally. In this hour of agony and suspense, Honoria Eversleigh looked to the queer, wizened little police-officer, Andrew Larkspur, as the best friend she had on earth.
“You’ll find my child for me?” she cried many times during the course of that long journey, appealing to Mr. Larkspur, with clasped hands and streaming eyes. “Oh, tell me that you’ll find her for me. For pity’s sake, give me some comfort — some hope.”
“I’ll give you plenty of comfort, and plenty of hope, too, mum, if you’ll only cheer up and trust in me,” answered the luminary of Bow Street, with that stolid calmness of manner which seemed as if it would scarcely have been disturbed by an earthquake. “You keep up your spirits, and don’t give way. If the little lady is alive, I’ll bring her back to you safe and sound. If — if — so be as she’s — contrarywise,” added Mr. Larkspur, alarmed by the wild look in his companion’s eyes, as he was about to pronounce the terrible word she so much feared to hear, “why, in that case I’ll find them as have done the deed, and they shall pay for it.”
“Oh, give her back to me!” exclaimed Honoria; “give her back! Let me hold her in my arms once more. I abandon all thought of revenge upon those who have so basely wronged me. Let Providence alone deal with them and their crime. It may be this punishment has come to me, because I have sought to usurp the office of Providence. Let me have my darling once more, and I will banish from my heart every feeling which a Christian should abjure.”
Bitter remorse was mingled with the agony which rent the mother’s heart in those terrible hours. All at once her eyes were opened to the deep and dreadful guilt involved in those vengeful feelings she had so long nourished, to the exclusion of all tender emotions, all generous instincts.
Bitterly did the mother upbraid herself as she sat, with her hands clasped tightly together, her pale face turned to the window, her haggard eyes looking out at every object on the road, eager to behold any landmark that would tell her that she was so many miles nearer the end of her journey.
She had concluded that, as a matter of course, the disappearance of the child had been directly or indirectly the work of Sir Reginald Eversleigh; and she said as much to Mr. Larkspur. But, to her surprise, she found that he did not share her opinion upon this subject.
“If you ask me whether Sir Reginald is in it, I’ll tell you candidly, no, my lady, I don’t think he is. I don’t need to tell you that I’ve had a deal of experience in my time; and, if that experience is worth a brass button, Sir Reginald hasn’t any hand in this business down in Yorkshire.”
“Not directly, perhaps, but indirectly,” interrupted Honoria.
“Neither one nor the other,” answered the great man of Bow Street. “I’ve had my eye upon the baronet ever since you put me up to watching him; and there’s precious little he could do without my spotting him. I know what letters he has written, and I know more or less what has been in those letters. I know what people he has seen, and more or less what he has said to them; and I don’t see that it’s possible he could have carried on such a game as this abduction of Missy without my having an inkling of it.”
“But what of his ally — his bosom-friend and confederate — Victor Carrington? May not his treacherous hand have struck this blow?”
“I think not, my lady,” replied Mr. Larkspur. “I’ve had my eye upon that gentleman likewise, as per agreement; for when Andrew Larkspur guarantees to do a thing, he ain’t the man to do it by halves. I’ve kept a close watch upon Mr. Carrington; and with the exception of his parleyvous francais-ing with that sharp-nosed, shabby-genteel lady~companion of Madame Durski’s, there’s very few of his goings-on I haven’t been able to reckon up to a fraction. No, my lady, there’s some one else in this business; and who that some one else is, it’ll be my duty to find out. But I can’t do anything till I get on the ground. When I get on the ground, and have had time to look about me, I shall be able to form an opinion.”
Honoria was fain to be patient, to put her trust in heaven, and, beneath heaven, in this pragmatical little police-officer, who really felt as much compassion for her sorrow as it was possible for a man so steeped in the knowledge of crime and iniquity, and so hardened by contact with the worst side of the world, to feel for any human grief. She was compelled to be patient, or, at any rate, to assume that outward aspect of calmness which seems like patience, while the heart within her breast throbbed tumultuously as storm-driven waves.
At last the wearisome journey came to an end. She entered the arched gateway of Raynham Castle; and, as she looked out of the carriage window, she saw the big black letters, printed on a white broadside, offering a reward of three hundred pounds for the early restoration of the missing child.
Mr. Larkspur gave a scornful sniff as he perceived this bill.
“That won’t bring her back,” he muttered. “Those who’ve taken her away will play a deeper game than to bring her back for the first reward that’s offered, or the second, or the third. She’ll have to be found by those that are a match for the scoundrel that stole her from her home; and perhaps he will find his match before long, clever as he is.”
The meeting between Honoria and Captain Copplestone was a very quiet one. She was far too noble, far too just to reproach the friend in whom she had trusted, even though he had failed in his trust.
He had heard the approach of the post-chaise, and he awaited her on the threshold of the door. He had gone forth to many a desperate encounter; but he had never felt so heart-piercing a pang as that which he endured this day when he went to meet Lady Eversleigh.
She held out her hand to him as she crossed the threshold. “I have done my duty,” he said, in low, earnest tones, “as I am a man of honour and a soldier, Lady Eversleigh; I have done my duty, miserable as the result has been.”
“I can believe that,” answered Honoria, gravely. “Your face tells me there are no good tidings to greet me here. She is not found?”
The captain shook his head sadly.
“And there are no tidings of any kind? — no clue, no trace?”
“None. The constable of this place, and other men from the market-town, are doing their utmost; but as yet the result has been only new mystification — new conjecture.”
“No; nor wouldn’t be, if the constables were to have twenty years to do their work in, instead of three days,” interrupted Mr. Larkspur. “Perhaps you don’t know what country police-officers are? I do; and if you expect to find the little lady by their help, you may just as well look up to the sky yonder, and wait till she drops down from it, for of the two things that’s by far the most likely. I can believe in miracles,” added Mr. Larkspur, piously; “but I can’t believe in rural police-constables.”
The captain looked at the speaker with a bewildered expression, and Lady Eversleigh hastened to explain the presence of her ally.
“This is Mr. Larkspur, a well-known Bow Street officer,” she said: “and I rely on his aid to find my precious one. Pray tell me all that has happened in connection with this event. He is very clever, and he may strike out some plan of action that will be better than anything which has yet been attempted.”
They had passed into a small sitting-room, half ante-room, half study, leading out of the great hall, and here the police-officer seated himself, as much at home as if he had spent half his life within the walls of Raynham, and listened quietly while Captain Copplestone gave a circumstantial account of the child’s disappearance, taking care not to omit the smallest detail connected with that event.
Mr. Larkspur made occasional pencil-notes in his memorandum-book; but he did not interrupt the captain’s narration by a single remark.
When all was finished, Lady Eversleigh looked at him with anxious, inquiring eyes, as if from his lips she expected to receive the sentence of fate itself.
“Well?” she muttered, breathlessly, “is there any hope? Do you see any clue?”
“Half a dozen clues,” answered the police-officer, “if they’re properly handled. The first thing we’ve got to do is to offer a reward for that silk coverlet that was taken away with the little girl.”
“Why offer a reward for the coverlet?” asked Captain Copplestone.
“Bless your innocent heart!” answered Mr. Larkspur, contemplating the soldier with a pitying smile; “don’t you see that, if we find the coverlet, we’re pretty sure to find the child? The man who took her away made a mistake when he carried off the coverlet with her, unless he was deep enough to destroy it before he had taken her far. If he didn’t do that — if he left that silk coverlet behind him anywhere, I consider his game as good as up. That is just the kind of thing that a police-officer gets his clue from. There’s been more murders and burglaries found out from an old coat, or a pair of old shoes, or a walking-stick, or such like, than you could count in a day. I shan’t make any stir about the child just yet, my lady: but before forty-eight hours are over our heads, I’ll have a handbill posted in every town in England, and an advertisement in every newspaper, offering five pounds reward for that dark blue silk coverlet you talk of, lined with crimson.”
“There seems considerable wisdom in the idea,” said the captain, thoughtfully. “It would never have occurred to me to advertise for the coverlet.”
“I don’t suppose it would,” answered the great Larkspur, with a slight touch of sarcasm in his tone. “It has took me a matter of thirty years to learn my business; and it ain’t to be supposed as my knowledge will come to other folks natural.”
“You are right, Mr. Larkspur,” replied the captain, smiling at the police-officer’s air of offended dignity; “and since you seem to be thoroughly equal to the difficulties of the situation, I think we can scarcely do better than trust ourselves entirely to your discretion.”
“I don’t think you’ll have any occasion to repent your confidence,” said Mr. Larkspur. “And now, if I may make so bold as to mention it, I should be glad to get a morsel of dinner, and a glass of brandy-and~water, cold without; after which I’ll take a turn in the village and look about me. There may be something to be picked up in that direction by a man who keeps his eyes and ears open.”
Mr. Larkspur was consigned to the care of the butler, who conducted him at once to the housekeeper’s room, where that very important person, Mrs. Smithson, received him with almost regal condescension.
Mrs. Smithson and the butler both would have been very glad to converse with Mr. Larkspur, and to find out from that gentleman’s conversation who he was, and all about him; but Mr. Larkspur himself had no inclination to be communicative. He responded courteously, but briefly, to all Mrs. Smithson’s civilities; and after eating the best part of a cold roast chicken, and a pound or so of ham, and drinking about half a pint of cognac, he left the housekeeper’s room, and retired to an apartment to which the butler ushered him — a very comfortable little sitting-room, leading into a small bedchamber, which two rooms were to be occupied by Mr. Larkspur during his residence at the castle.
Here he employed himself until dark in writing short notes to the chief police-officers of all the principal towns in England, ordering the printing and posting of the handbills of which he had spoken to Lady Eversleigh and the captain. When this was done he put on his hat, and went out at the great arched gateway of the castle, whence he made his way to the village street. Here he spent the rest of the evening, and he made very excellent use of his time, though he passed the greater part of it in the parlour of the “Hen and Chickens,” drinking very weak brandy-and-water, and listening to the conversation of the gentry who patronized that house of entertainment.
Among those gentry was the good-tempered, but somewhat weak-minded, Matthew Brook, the coachman.
“I’ll tell you what it is, Mat Brook,” said a stout, red-faced individual, who was butler at one of the mansions in the neighbourhood of Raynham, “you’ve not been yourself for the last week; not since little Missy was stolen from the castle yonder. You must have been uncommonly fond of that child.”
“I was fond of her, bless her dear little heart,” replied Matthew.
But though this assertion, so far as it went, was perfectly true, there was some slight hesitation in the coachman’s manner of uttering it — a hesitation which Andrew Larkspur was not slow to perceive.
“And you’ve lost your new friend down at the ‘Cat and Fiddle,’ where you was beginning to spend more of your evenings than you spent here. What’s become of that man Maunders — eh, Brook?” asked the butler. “That was a rather queer thing — his leaving Raynham so suddenly, leaving his house to take care of itself, or to be taken care of by a stupid country wench, who doesn’t know her business any more than a cow. Do you know why he went, or where he’s gone, Mat?”
“Not I,” Mr. Brook answered, rather nervously, and reddening as he spoke.
The police-officer watched and listened even more intently than before. The conversation was becoming every moment more interesting for him.
“How should I know where Mr. Maunders has gone?” asked Matthew Brook, rather peevishly, as he paused from smoking to refill his honest clay pipe. “How should I know where he’s gone, or how long he means to stay away? I know nothing of him, except that he seems a jolly, good-hearted sort of a chap in his own rough-and-ready way. James Harwood brought him up to the castle one night for a hand at whist and a bit of supper, and he seemed to take a regular fancy to some of us, and asked us to take a glass now and then down at his place, which we did; and that’s all about it; and I don’t mean to stand any more cross-questioning.”
“Why, Brook,” cried his friend, the butler, “what’s come to you? It isn’t like you to answer any man in that way, least of all such on old friend as me.”
Mr. Brook took no notice of this reproach. He went on smoking silently.
“I say, Harris,” said the butler, presently, when the landlord of the “Hen and Chickens” came into the room to attend upon his customers, “do you know whether the landlord of the ‘Cat and Fiddle’ has come back yet?”
“No, he ain’t,” answered Mr. Harris; “and folks complain sadly of being served by that awkward lass he’s left in charge of the house. I’ve had a many of his old customers come up here for what they want.”
“Does anybody know where he’s gone?”
“That’s as may be,” answered Mr. Harris. “Anyhow, I don’t. Some say he’s gone to London for a fortnight’s pleasure; but if he has, he’s a very queer man of business; and it strikes me, when he comes back he will find his customers all left him.”
“Do you think he’s cut and run?”
“Well, you see, he might be in debt, and want to give his creditors the slip.”
“But folks down the village say he didn’t owe a five-pound note,” returned the landlord, who was a great authority with regard to all local gossip. “It’s rather a queer business altogether, that chap taking himself off without why or wherefore, and just about the time as the little girl disappeared from the castle.”
“Why, you don’t think he had anything to do with that, Joe Harris?” exclaimed the butler.
Andrew Larkspur took occasion to look at Matthew Brook at this moment; and he saw the coachman’s honest face grow pallid, as if under the influence of some sudden terror.
“You don’t believe as Maunders had a hand in stealing the child, eh, Joe Harris?” repeated the butler.
Joe Harris shook his head solemnly.
“I don’t think nothing, and I don’t believe nothing,” he answered, with a mysterious air. “It ain’t my place to give an opinion upon this here subjick. It might be said as I was jealous of the landlord of the ‘Cat and Fiddle,’ and owed him a grudge. All I says is this: it’s a very queer circumstance as the landlord of the ‘Cat and Fiddle’ should disappear from the village directly after little Miss Eversleigh disappeared from the castle. You may put two and two together, and you may make ’em into four, if you like,” added Mr. Harris, with profound solemnity; “or you may leave it alone. That’s your business.”
“I’ll tell you what it is,” said the butler; “I’ve had a chat with old Mother Smithson since the disappearance of the young lady; and from what I’ve heard, it’s pretty clear to my mind that business wasn’t managed by any one outside the castle. It couldn’t be. There was some one inside had a hand in it. I wouldn’t mind staking a twelvemonth’s wages on that, Matthew and you musn’t be offended if I seem to go against your fellow-servants.”
“I ain’t offended, and I ain’t pleased,” answered Matthew, testily; “all I can say is, as I don’t like so much cross-questioning. There’s a sort of a lawyer chap has come down to-day with my lady, I hear, though I ain’t set eyes on him yet; and I suppose he’ll find out all about it.”
No more was said upon the subject of the lost heiress, or the landlord of the “Cat and Fiddle.”
The subject was evidently, for some reason or other, unpleasant to Mr. Brook, the coachman; and as Matthew Brook was a general favourite, the subject was dropped. Mr. Larkspur devoted the next morning to a careful examination of all possible entrances to the castle. When he saw the half-glass door opening from the quadrangle into the little bedchamber occupied by Stephen Plumpton, the footman, he gave a long, low whistle, and smiled to himself, with the triumphant smile of a man who has found a clue to the mystery he wishes to solve.
Mrs. Smithson, the housekeeper, conducted Andrew Larkspur from room to room during this careful investigation of the premises; and she and Stephen Plumpton alone were present when he examined this half-glass door.
“Do you always bolt your door of a night?” Mr. Larkspur asked of the footman.
“A ways, sir.”
The tone of the man’s voice and the man’s face combined to betray him to the skilled police-officer.
Andrew Larkspur knew that the man had told him a deliberate falsehood.
“Are you certain you bolted this door on that particular night?”
“Oh, quite certain, sir.”
The police-officer examined the bolt. It was a very strong one; but it moved so stiffly as to betray the fact that it was very rarely used.
Mrs. Smithson did not notice this fact; but Mr. Larkspur did. It was his business to take note of small facts.
“Can you remember what you were doing on that particular night?” he asked, presently, turning again to the embarrassed Stephen.
“No, sir; I can’t say I do remember exactly,” faltered the footman.
“Were you at home that night?”
“Well, yes, sir, I think I was.”
“You are not certain?”
“Well, yes, sir; perhaps I might venture to say as I’m certain,” answered the miserable young man, who in his desire to screen his fellow-servant, found himself led on from one falsehood to another.
He knew that he could rely on the honourable silence of the servants; and that none among them would betray the secret of the party at the “Cat and Fiddle.”
After completing the examination of the premises, Mr. Larkspur dined comfortably in the housekeeper’s room, and then once more sallied forth to the village to finish his afternoon. But on this occasion it was to the “Cat and Fiddle,” and not the “Hen and Chickens,” that the police~officer betook himself. Here he found only a few bargemen and villagers, carousing upon the wooden benches of a tap-room, drinking their beer out of yellow earthenware mugs, and enjoying themselves in an atmosphere that was almost suffocating from the fumes of strong tobacco.
Mr. Larkspur did not trouble himself to listen to the conversation of these men; he looked into the room for a few minutes and then returned to the bar, where he ordered a glass of brandy-and-water from the girl who served Mr. Maunders’s customers in the absence of that gentleman.
“So your master is away from home, my lass,” he said, in his most insinuating tone, as he slowly stirred his brandy-and-water.
“Yes, he be, sir.”
“Do you know when he’s coming back?” inquired Larkspur.
“Lawks, no, sir.”
“Or where he’s gone?”
“No, sir, I don’t know that neither. My master’s a good one to hold his tongue, he is. He never tells nobody nothing, in a manner of speaking.”
“When did he go away?”
The girl named the morning on which had been discovered the disappearance of Sir Oswald’s daughter.
“He went away pretty early, I suppose?” said Mr. Larkspur, with assumed indifference.
“I should rather think he did,” answered the girl. “I was up at six that morning, but my master had gone clean off when I came down stairs. There weren’t a sign of him.”
“He must have gone very early.”
“That he must; and the strangest part of it is that he was up very late the night before,” added the girl, who was one of those people who ask nothing better than the privilege of telling all they know about anything or anybody.
“Oh,” said Mr. Larkspur; “he was up late the night before, was he?”
“Yes. It was eleven when he sent me to bed, ordering me off as sharp as you please, which is just his way. And he couldn’t have gone to bed for above an hour after that, for I lay awake, on the listen, as you may say, wondering what he was up to downstairs. But though I lay awake above an hour, I didn’t hear him come up stairs at all; so goodness knows what time he went to bed. You see he had a party that night.”
“Oh, he had a party, had he?” remarked the police-officer, who saw that he had no occasion to question this young lady, so well-inclined was she to tell him all she knew.
“Yes, sir. His friends came to have a hand at cards and a hot supper; and didn’t it give me plenty of trouble to get it all ready, that’s all. You see, master’s friends are some of the gentlemen up at the castle; and they live so uncommon well up there, that they’re very particular what they eat. It must be all of the best, and done to a turn, master says to me; and so it was. I’m sure the steak was a perfect picture when I laid it on the dish, and the onions were fried a beautiful golden brown, as would have done credit to the Queen of England’s head-cook, though I says it as shouldn’t perhaps,” added the damsel, modestly.
“And which of the gentlemen from the castle came to supper with your master that night?” Mr. Larkspur asked, presently.
“Well, sir, you see there was three of them. Mr. Brook, the coachman, a good-natured, civil-spoken man as you’d wish to meet, but a little given to drink, folks say; and there was James Harwood, the under~groom; and Stephen Plumpton, the footman, a good-looking, fresh~coloured young man, which is, perhaps, beknown to you.”
“Oh, yes,” answered Mr. Larkspur, “I know Stephen, the footman.”
Mr. Larkspur and the damsel conversed a good deal after this; but nothing of particular interest transpired in this conversation. The gentleman departed from the “Cat and Fiddle” very well satisfied with his evening’s work, and returned to the castle in time to take a comfortable cup of tea in the housekeeper’s room.
He was quite satisfied in his own mind as to the identity of the delinquent who had stolen the child.
The next thing to be discovered was the manner in which the landlord of the “Cat and Fiddle” had left Raynham. It must have been almost impossible for him to leave in any public vehicle, carrying the stolen child with him, as he must have done, without attracting the attention of his fellow-passengers. Andrew Larkspur had taken care to ascertain all possible details of the man’s habits from the communicative barmaid, and knew that he had no vehicle or horse of his own. He must, therefore, have either gone in a public vehicle, or on foot.
If he had left the village on foot, under cover of darkness, he might have left unseen; but he must have entered some other village at daybreak; he must sooner or later have procured some kind of conveyance; and wherever he went, carrying with him that stolen child, it was more than probable his appearance would attract attention.
After a little trouble, the astute Andrew ascertained that Mr. Maunders had certainly not left the village by any public conveyance.
It was late when Mr. Larkspur returned to the castle, after having mastered this fact. He found that Lady Eversleigh had been inquiring for him; and he was told that she had requested he might be sent to her apartments at whatever time he returned.
In obedience to this summons, he followed a servant to the room occupied by the mistress of Raynham Castle.
“Well, Mr. Larkspur,” Honoria asked, eagerly, “do you bring many hope?”
“I don’t exactly know about that, my lady,” answered the ever-cautious Andrew; “but I think I may venture to say that things are going on pretty smoothly. I ain’t wasting time, depend upon it; and I hope in a day or two I may have something encouraging to tell you.”
“But you will tell me nothing yet?” murmured Honoria, with a despairing sigh.
“Not yet, my lady.”
No more was said. Lady Eversleigh was obliged to be content with this small comfort.
Early the next morning Mr. Larkspur set out on his voyage of discovery to the villages within two, three, four, and five hours’ walk of Raynham.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05