The scene shifts again — to the foot of the Simplon, on the Swiss side.
In one of the dreary rooms of the dreary little inn at Brieg, Mr. Bintrey and Maitre Voigt sat together at a professional council of two. Mr. Bintrey was searching in his despatch-box. Maitre Voigt was looking towards a closed door, painted brown to imitate mahogany, and communicating with an inner room.
“Isn’t it time he was here?” asked the notary, shifting his position, and glancing at a second door at the other end of the room, painted yellow to imitate deal.
“He IS here,” answered Bintrey, after listening for a moment.
The yellow door was opened by a waiter, and Obenreizer walked in.
After greeting Maitre Voigt with a cordiality which appeared to cause the notary no little embarrassment, Obenreizer bowed with grave and distant politeness to Bintrey. “For what reason have I been brought from Neuchatel to the foot of the mountain?” he inquired, taking the seat which the English lawyer had indicated to him.
“You shall be quite satisfied on that head before our interview is over,” returned Bintrey. “For the present, permit me to suggest proceeding at once to business. There has been a correspondence, Mr. Obenreizer, between you and your niece. I am here to represent your niece.”
“In other words, you, a lawyer, are here to represent an infraction of the law.”
“Admirably put!” said Bintrey. “If all the people I have to deal with were only like you, what an easy profession mine would be! I am here to represent an infraction of the law — that is your point of view. I am here to make a compromise between you and your niece — that is my point of view.”
“There must be two parties to a compromise,” rejoined Obenreizer. “I decline, in this case, to be one of them. The law gives me authority to control my niece’s actions, until she comes of age. She is not yet of age; and I claim my authority.”
At this point Maitre attempted to speak. Bintrey silenced him with a compassionate indulgence of tone and manner, as if he was silencing a favourite child.
“No, my worthy friend, not a word. Don’t excite yourself unnecessarily; leave it to me.” He turned, and addressed himself again to Obenreizer. “I can think of nothing comparable to you, Mr. Obenreizer, but granite — and even that wears out in course of time. In the interests of peace and quietness — for the sake of your own dignity — relax a little. If you will only delegate your authority to another person whom I know of, that person may be trusted never to lose sight of your niece, night or day!”
“You are wasting your time and mine,” returned Obenreizer. “If my niece is not rendered up to my authority within one week from this day, I invoke the law. If you resist the law, I take her by force.”
He rose to his feet as he said the last word. Maitre Voigt looked round again towards the brown door which led into the inner room.
“Have some pity on the poor girl,” pleaded Bintrey. “Remember how lately she lost her lover by a dreadful death! Will nothing move you?”
Bintrey, in his turn, rose to his feet, and looked at Maitre Voigt. Maitre Voigt’s hand, resting on the table, began to tremble. Maitre Voigt’s eyes remained fixed, as if by irresistible fascination, on the brown door. Obenreizer, suspiciously observing him, looked that way too.
“There is somebody listening in there!” he exclaimed, with a sharp backward glance at Bintrey.
“There are two people listening,” answered Bintrey.
“Who are they?”
“You shall see.”
With this answer, he raised his voice and spoke the next words — the two common words which are on everybody’s lips, at every hour of the day: “Come in!”
The brown door opened. Supported on Marguerite’s arm — his sun-burnt colour gone, his right arm bandaged and clung over his breast — Vendale stood before the murderer, a man risen from the dead.
In the moment of silence that followed, the singing of a caged bird in the courtyard outside was the one sound stirring in the room. Maitre Voigt touched Bintrey, and pointed to Obenreizer. “Look at him!” said the notary, in a whisper.
The shock had paralysed every movement in the villain’s body, but the movement of the blood. His face was like the face of a corpse. The one vestige of colour left in it was a livid purple streak which marked the course of the scar where his victim had wounded him on the cheek and neck. Speechless, breathless, motionless alike in eye and limb, it seemed as if, at the sight of Vendale, the death to which he had doomed Vendale had struck him where he stood.
“Somebody ought to speak to him,” said Maitre Voigt. “Shall I?”
Even at that moment Bintrey persisted in silencing the notary, and in keeping the lead in the proceedings to himself. Checking Maitre Voigt by a gesture, he dismissed Marguerite and Vendale in these words:—“The object of your appearance here is answered,” he said. “If you will withdraw for the present, it may help Mr. Obenreizer to recover himself.”
It did help him. As the two passed through the door and closed it behind them, he drew a deep breath of relief. He looked round him for the chair from which he had risen, and dropped into it.
“Give him time!” pleaded Maitre Voigt.
“No,” said Bintrey. “I don’t know what use he may make of it if I do.” He turned once more to Obenreizer, and went on. “I owe it to myself,” he said —“I don’t admit, mind, that I owe it to you — to account for my appearance in these proceedings, and to state what has been done under my advice, and on my sole responsibility. Can you listen to me?”
“I can listen to you.”
“Recall the time when you started for Switzerland with Mr. Vendale,” Bintrey begin. “You had not left England four-and-twenty hours before your niece committed an act of imprudence which not even your penetration could foresee. She followed her promised husband on his journey, without asking anybody’s advice or permission, and without any better companion to protect her than a Cellarman in Mr. Vendale’s employment.”
“Why did she follow me on the journey? and how came the Cellarman to be the person who accompanied her?”
“She followed you on the journey,” answered Bintrey, “because she suspected there had been some serious collision between you and Mr. Vendale, which had been kept secret from her; and because she rightly believed you to be capable of serving your interests, or of satisfying your enmity, at the price of a crime. As for the Cellarman, he was one, among the other people in Mr. Vendale’s establishment, to whom she had applied (the moment your back was turned) to know if anything had happened between their master and you. The Cellarman alone had something to tell her. A senseless superstition, and a common accident which had happened to his master, in his master’s cellar, had connected Mr. Vendale in this man’s mind with the idea of danger by murder. Your niece surprised him into a confession, which aggravated tenfold the terrors that possessed her. Aroused to a sense of the mischief he had done, the man, of his own accord, made the one atonement in his power. ‘If my master is in danger, miss,’ he said, ‘it’s my duty to follow him, too; and it’s more than my duty to take care of YOU.’ The two set forth together — and, for once, a superstition has had its use. It decided your niece on taking the journey; and it led the way to saving a man’s life. Do you understand me, so far?”
“I understand you, so far.”
“My first knowledge of the crime that you had committed,” pursued Bintrey, “came to me in the form of a letter from your niece. All you need know is that her love and her courage recovered the body of your victim, and aided the after-efforts which brought him back to life. While he lay helpless at Brieg, under her care, she wrote to me to come out to him. Before starting, I informed Madame Dor that I knew Miss Obenreizer to be safe, and knew where she was. Madame Dor informed me, in return, that a letter had come for your niece, which she knew to be in your handwriting. I took possession of it, and arranged for the forwarding of any other letters which might follow. Arrived at Brieg, I found Mr. Vendale out of danger, and at once devoted myself to hastening the day of reckoning with you. Defresnier and Company turned you off on suspicion; acting on information privately supplied by me. Having stripped you of your false character, the next thing to do was to strip you of your authority over your niece. To reach this end, I not only had no scruple in digging the pitfall under your feet in the dark — I felt a certain professional pleasure in fighting you with your own weapons. By my advice the truth has been carefully concealed from you up to this day. By my advice the trap into which you have walked was set for you (you know why, now, as well as I do) in this place. There was but one certain way of shaking the devilish self-control which has hitherto made you a formidable man. That way has been tried, and (look at me as you may) that way has succeeded. The last thing that remains to be done,” concluded Bintrey, producing two little slips of manuscript from his despatch-box, “is to set your niece free. You have attempted murder, and you have committed forgery and theft. We have the evidence ready against you in both cases. If you are convicted as a felon, you know as well as I do what becomes of your authority over your niece. Personally, I should have preferred taking that way out of it. But considerations are pressed on me which I am not able to resist, and this interview must end, as I have told you already, in a compromise. Sign those lines, resigning all authority over Miss Obenreizer, and pledging yourself never to be seen in England or in Switzerland again; and I will sign an indemnity which secures you against further proceedings on our part.”
Obenreizer took the pen in silence, and signed his niece’s release. On receiving the indemnity in return, he rose, but made no movement to leave the room. He stood looking at Maitre Voigt with a strange smile gathering at his lips, and a strange light flashing in his filmy eyes.
“What are you waiting for?” asked Bintrey.
Obenreizer pointed to the brown door. “Call them back,” he answered. “I have something to say in their presence before I go.”
“Say it in my presence,” retorted Bintrey. “I decline to call them back.”
Obenreizer turned to Maitre Voigt. “Do you remember telling me that you once had an English client named Vendale?” he asked.
“Well,” answered the notary. “And what of that?”
“Maitre Voigt, your clock-lock has betrayed you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have read the letters and certificates in your client’s box. I have taken copies of them. I have got the copies here. Is there, or is there not, a reason for calling them back?”
For a moment the notary looked to and fro, between Obenreizer and Bintrey, in helpless astonishment. Recovering himself, he drew his brother-lawyer aside, and hurriedly spoke a few words close at his ear. The face of Bintrey — after first faithfully reflecting the astonishment on the face of Maitre Voigt — suddenly altered its expression. He sprang, with the activity of a young man, to the door of the inner room, entered it, remained inside for a minute, and returned followed by Marguerite and Vendale. “Now, Mr. Obenreizer,” said Bintrey, “the last move in the game is yours. Play it.”
“Before I resign my position as that young lady’s guardian,” said Obenreizer, “I have a secret to reveal in which she is interested. In making my disclosure, I am not claiming her attention for a narrative which she, or any other person present, is expected to take on trust. I am possessed of written proofs, copies of originals, the authenticity of which Maitre Voigt himself can attest. Bear that in mind, and permit me to refer you, at starting, to a date long past — the month of February, in the year one thousand eight hundred and thirty-six.”
“Mark the date, Mr. Vendale,” said Bintrey.
“My first proof,” said Obenreizer, taking a paper from his pocket- book. “Copy of a letter, written by an English lady (married) to her sister, a widow. The name of the person writing the letter I shall keep suppressed until I have done. The name of the person to whom the letter is written I am willing to reveal. It is addressed to ‘Mrs. Jane Anne Miller, of Groombridge Wells, England.’”
Vendale started, and opened his lips to speak. Bintrey instantly stopped him, as he had stopped Maitre Voigt. “No,” said the pertinacious lawyer. “Leave it to me.”
Obenreizer went on:
“It is needless to trouble you with the first half of the letter,” he said. “I can give the substance of it in two words. The writer’s position at the time is this. She has been long living in Switzerland with her husband — obliged to live there for the sake of her husband’s health. They are about to move to a new residence on the Lake of Neuchatel in a week, and they will be ready to receive Mrs. Miller as visitor in a fortnight from that time. This said, the writer next enters into an important domestic detail. She has been childless for years — she and her husband have now no hope of children; they are lonely; they want an interest in life; they have decided on adopting a child. Here the important part of the letter begins; and here, therefore, I read it to you word for word.”
He folded back the first page of the letter and read as follows.
“* * * Will you help us, my dear sister, to realise our new project? As English people, we wish to adopt an English child. This may be done, I believe, at the Foundling: my husband’s lawyers in London will tell you how. I leave the choice to you, with only these conditions attached to it — that the child is to be an infant under a year old, and is to be a boy. Will you pardon the trouble I am giving you, for my sake; and will you bring our adopted child to us, with your own children, when you come to Neuchatel?
“I must add a word as to my husband’s wishes in this matter. He is resolved to spare the child whom we make our own any future mortification and loss of self-respect which might be caused by a discovery of his true origin. He will bear my husband’s name, and he will be brought up in the belief that he is really our son. His inheritance of what we have to leave will be secured to him — not only according to the laws of England in such cases, but according to the laws of Switzerland also; for we have lived so long in this country, that there is a doubt whether we may not be considered as I domiciled, in Switzerland. The one precaution left to take is to prevent any after-discovery at the Foundling. Now, our name is a very uncommon one; and if we appear on the Register of the Institution as the persons adopting the child, there is just a chance that something might result from it. Your name, my dear, is the name of thousands of other people; and if you will consent to appear on the Register, there need be no fear of any discoveries in that quarter. We are moving, by the doctor’s orders, to a part of Switzerland in which our circumstances are quite unknown; and you, as I understand, are about to engage a new nurse for the journey when you come to see us. Under these circumstances, the child may appear as my child, brought back to me under my sister’s care. The only servant we take with us from our old home is my own maid, who can be safely trusted. As for the lawyers in England and in Switzerland, it is their profession to keep secrets — and we may feel quite easy in that direction. So there you have our harmless little conspiracy! Write by return of post, my love, and tell me you will join it.” * * *
“Do you still conceal the name of the writer of that letter?” asked Vendale.
“I keep the name of the writer till the last,” answered Obenreizer, “and I proceed to my second proof — a mere slip of paper this time, as you see. Memorandum given to the Swiss lawyer, who drew the documents referred to in the letter I have just read, expressed as follows:— “Adopted from the Foundling Hospital of England, 3d March, 1836, a male infant, called, in the Institution, Walter Wilding. Person appearing on the register, as adopting the child, Mrs. Jane Anne Miller, widow, acting in this matter for her married sister, domiciled in Switzerland.’ Patience!” resumed Obenreizer, as Vendale, breaking loose from Bintrey, started to his feet. “I shall not keep the name concealed much longer. Two more little slips of paper, and I have done. Third proof! Certificate of Doctor Ganz, still living in practice at Neuchatel, dated July, 1838. The doctor certifies (you shall read it for yourselves directly), first, that he attended the adopted child in its infant maladies; second, that, three months before the date of the certificate, the gentleman adopting the child as his son died; third, that on the date of the certificate, his widow and her maid, taking the adopted child with them, left Neuchatel on their return to England. One more link now added to this, and my chain of evidence is complete. The maid remained with her mistress till her mistress’s death, only a few years since. The maid can swear to the identity of the adopted infant, from his childhood to his youth — from his youth to his manhood, as he is now. There is her address in England — and there, Mr. Vendale, is the fourth, and final proof!”
“Why do you address yourself to ME?” said Vendale, as Obenreizer threw the written address on the table.
Obenreizer turned on him, in a sudden frenzy of triumph.
“BECAUSE YOU ARE THE MAN! If my niece marries you, she marries a bastard, brought up by public charity. If my niece marries you, she marries an impostor, without name or lineage, disguised in the character of a gentleman of rank and family.”
“Bravo!” cried Bintrey. “Admirably put, Mr. Obenreizer! It only wants one word more to complete it. She marries — thanks entirely to your exertions — a man who inherits a handsome fortune, and a man whose origin will make him prouder than ever of his peasant-wife. George Vendale, as brother-executors, let us congratulate each other! Our dear dead friend’s last wish on earth is accomplished. We have found the lost Walter Wilding. As Mr. Obenreizer said just now — you are the man!”
The words passed by Vendale unheeded. For the moment he was conscious of but one sensation; he heard but one voice. Marguerite’s hand was clasping his. Marguerite’s voice was whispering to him:
“I never loved you, George, as I love you now!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07