[By W. E. Norms.]
CHAPTER XLII.-(CONTiNOED )
So Lord and Lady Middlewood betook themselves to Arlington street together, and were, after a fashion,, reconciled, although they had not quirrelled. Such temporary reconciliations are not uncommon between estranged husbands and »vives, and, as a rule, they only serve to emphasise the mute resumption of hostilities which i 3 sure to follow. Marietta, however, was for the time being pleased with Lionel, whije he, noting an improvement in her Bpirits, did all that he could to foster it. They went to a couple of theatres together, and enjoyed themselves, and if they were not precisely affectionate, they were at least better friends than they had been for some months past. But a letter which was brought up to Marietta's room with her breakfast after a day or two reminded her somewhat peremptorily that she was not at liberty to postpone indefinitely the fulfilment of a certain pledge. ••If you will tell me nothing else," Strahan wrote, " tell me at any rate what this means. When I saw you, you were not thinking of leaving, home. Why have you left!—and how soon may I expect to hear from you ? It seems to me that I have a right to ask."
"lam only in London for a week's shopping," was her reply. "Of course I will tell you as soon as I can all that you may wish to be told ; but I don't quite understand your saying that you have a ' right' to ask questions. I am still free, and so are yon. Please burn this at once, and don't write again. I shall be back at Ludworth in a few days, I believe."
She was in no desperate hurry to return to Ludworth. It was quite true that she was busily engaged in shopping, and the ordering and trying on of new clothes waa an employmept which never failed to bring satisfaction to her soul. Several other ladies of her acquaintance were in London on a similar errand, and were glad to take tea with her and compare notes after the fatigues of the day. It was not, of course, a very exciting method of passing the time; bub it had attractions for hor which were enhanced by the thought that this was, perhaps, her last experience of them. Not without a regretful pang can the power to spend money lavishly be renounced by any human being, male or female.
Lionel dined at home every day and sometimes lunched. During the intervening hours he was claimed, it appeared, chiefly by lawyers and horse-dealers. Of course ho also had friends to look up; but they were friends of his own sex, to whom no exception eould be taken, and whom he brought back with him occasionally to share an informal meal. Amongst these, one evening, was St. Quintin, and so noticeable were that young man's silence and dejection that even tho hostile Marietta could not help feeling a little sorry for him. "Is anything the matter with you?" she asked during dinner, while Lionel was engrossed in discussing equine genealogy with a famous owner of thoroughbred stock. " You neither eat nor driuk, and you look so forbidding that one hardly dares to speak to you." " I beg your pardon," said St. Quintin, rousing himself out of a dismal reverie ; "I am afraid I am even more dull and stupid than usual. The fact is that I have been working rather hard since my holiday came to an end, and one's work isn't always satisfactory."
"Nor one's holiday?, either," Marietta femarked.
" Well, no ; very often they are not. It's an.unsatisfactory world, Lady Middlewood, for most of ua. Not for you, though." " How can you possibly tell ?" returned Marietta. " Many people would be glad to change places with mo, no doubt, and hundreds would think themselves lucky to be private secretary to a Cabinet Minister, as you are. What does that prove ? " St. Quintin was fain to admit that it did not prove much ; but pressure on his neighbor's part failed to extract from him more specific admissions. Not to her had he any intention of confessing the sources of his dissatisfaction with mundane affairs. To Lionel, however, he did subsequently venture upon a partial acknowledgment of the truth. He and his friend were smoking their postprandial cigarettes alone, the racing man having hurried away to keep au appointment elsewhere, and, in reply to'a remark of Lionel's, St. Qaintin said :
"Yes, I dare say I look worried ; Lady Middlewood has been telling me that I do. How is one to avoid being worried by—by things in general ? One thing which ought to worry you, though it doesn't seem to do so, is this affiir between your sister aud Strahan."
" My dear fellow, there is no affair that I know of. Marietta pretends that there is ; but even if she is right—which I doubt—will you tell me what I can do ? For any power or authority that I possess, Betty enay marry a crossing-sweeper to-morrow." " You know very well that you would not allow her to marry a crossing-sweeper. You exerted your authority promptly enough in the case of Lord Charles Jocelyn, who is an angel from heaven by comparison with Strahan."
" Ah, that's where you and I differ. I don't say that I am exactly eager to welcome Strahan into the family "
"Good Lord!" interjected St. Q.aintin, *' I should think cot!"
"No; but for all that I should greatly prefer him to a useless, self-indulgent beggar ]ike Charlie Jocelyn. Strahan, at all events, is .a man, and I must say that I have always found him a very honest and straightforward man." "H'm!"
' "Oh, I know you don't think so; hut aren't you just a little bit prejudiced ? You never did like Strahau even in the old days, and latterly " " Don't laugh !" interrupted St. Quintin ; " it isn't a laughing matter. You have guessed, I see, what a lunatic I am; but, hang it all! don't trample upon a poor devil
who would be aa sane as you are if he only could."
."My dear old man," Lionel made haste to reply, "I am not laughing. I really didn't know. Granny said something; but one never pays much attention to what she says; and if you mean that Betty has refused you, she has refused one of the best fellows in England. lam sorry for it." " She hasn't had the chance of refusing me," St. Quintin returned. " Did you imagine that I had had the impudence to offer myself to her ? " " Well, you seem to think that S ;rahan has had that impudence—or is going to have it. Considering that your blood is at least as good as ours, I confess I don't quite see where the impudence comes in." St. Quintin stretched out his big, bony hand to grip that of his friend. " Thanks," said he; "it is generous of you to speak like that; although, of course, we have come clown in the world, while you and yours have risen a long way above us. But she- wouldn't have looked at me if I had been a duke. There's no use in thinking about that; only there may be some use in trying to preserve her from Strahan's clutches."
" Well, I can tell her that in my opinion Strahan is so far from being her equal by birth that she ought to look upon him as impossible. That really is my opinion; though it is the sort of thing that one doesn't particularly like saying. But I don't for one moment believe that she will listen to me. That is, if she cares for the man."
"But you might say rather more than that, I think. You might truthfully say that he is an arrant scoundrel."
"No, old man ; I couldn't say that. In the first place, it i3n'b what I think, and in the second, I should naturally be asked to prove my accusation. Where are the proofs ? " Where, indeed ? St. Qaintin could only sigh and hark back to the old story of Maggio Field's suicide, which certainly—so far as the facts were known—did not prove Strahan to be a scoundrel. Any reference to his behaviour towards Marietta or his possible complicity in the murder of Colonel Vigne was, of course, out of the question, and soon afterward St. Quintin left Arlington street with a heavy heart. There was nothing more to be said, nor anything more to be done, he told himself.
Turning the corner into St. James's street, he ran against a Bhabby-looking loafer, to whom he made a hasty apology. But the loafer, instead of getting out of the way, stretched forth a tremulous, detaining hand, and said, hoarsely: "Air St. Quintin, I—l—don't you know m« ?" He turned down his coat collar and drew a little nearer to a gas lamp, by the light of which St. Quintin, scrutinising him, exclaimed :
" Good Heavens ! it's—surely it isn't— Brydon ?" " All that's left of him," replied the other with a short laugh—"and that's devilish little, I can tell you ! I don't suppose any poor wretch since the world began has had such luck as I have had !"
"I never believed that you were guilty in that business, you know," said St. Quintin. "You didn't? Well, it's a fact that I wasn't guilty, and only a short time ago I could have proved my innocence. Now, by the mo3t extraordinary mischance, I can prove nothing at all; for who would be likely to take my word ?" " I should," answered St. Quintin quickly. "I would take your word rather than Strathan's any day." Brydon's trembling fingers were raised irresolutely to his mouth. "Look here," he whispered ; "if I tell you something, will you swear not to get me into trouble 1 I'm as innocent as a baby, and I'm sure I don't hold much to life; still I don't want to be hung, you know. Damn it all! a man don't want to be hung." "There isn't the faintest possibility of that," St. Quintin declared, thinking only of Maggie Field's death. " Don't talk Buch nonsense. Well, what have you to tell me?"
"Oh, I can't tell you here; it's so infernally cold, and I must have a drink first. Do you think we could got a room to ourselves at soma public ?" " Come home with me," said St. Quintin, "and I'll give you some hoi whisky and water, if that will do."
Brydon's eyes glistened. "Thank you," he answered; "that will do first-rate!" He added, iu forlorn, whimpering accents, as if the idea had just occurred to him : "I believe I'm hungry, too."
CHAPTER XLIII DUTCH COURAGE.
A cold pigeon pic was discovered in St. Quintin'B rooms, upon which hia out-of-elbows visitor fell wolflshly. Unstinted grog completed the restorative process, and at the end of a quarter of an hour Brydon, after fetching a long sigh of contentment, declared himself ready to proceed to business. " Mr St. Quintin," he began, "has it ever occurred to you to wonder who killed Colonel Vigne?" "Ever occurred to me to wonder!" exclaimed St. Quintin impatiently. " Why, God bless my soul! we have been moving heaven and earth for months past to discover the murderer, and so far we have discovered nothing at all. Are you going to tell me that you know him?" Brydon nodded solemnly and " I was present on the occasion, and I saw the fatal blow struck," he replied. " The devil you did ! Then why, in the name of wonder, have you held your tongue all this time ? " " That I will explain presently. What I wish to say first, and what I dare say you will not be sorry to hear, is that Strahan was the assassin. I was concealed in the brushwood hard by when he met Colonel Yigne and when an altercation took place between them. It was the poor old gentleman's own fault, one may say ; he should never have attacked a man so much younger and stronger than himself. Besides, thanks to my imprudence, he had letters of whic'i it was simply essential that Strahan should get possession, and he was foolish enough to produce them. I assure you it was all I
could do to keep still when he acted in that insane way—because the letters were my property ; they hadn't been paid for, worse luck ! I foresaw that they would be Bnatohed away from him, and of course they were. Then he must needß fly at Strahan'a throat, and he dropped his stick, which was immediately made use of to break his head. In all my life I have never felt more miserable or more disgusted ! It waa the stupidest " '•You saw all this?" interrupted St. Quintin ; " you are prepared to swear that you saw it." " To you I am ; I don't know about facing cross-examination in a court of law. That fellow has the devil's own ingenuity; it wouldn't be difficult for him to throw suspicion upon me." "Well," observed St. Quintin, "I can understand that twelve average Englishmen might find it hard to believe that any man could look on at a cold-blooded murder and never raise a finger to help the victim." Brydon began to whimper. " Oh, if you're going to take up that tone I" St. Quintin realised that he had better not take up that tone, and repressed a strong desire to kick hiß informant. "No doubt," said he, "you have some explanation lb give of what at present looks inexplicable. What were these letters of which you speak ? So far, you haven't cleared up the mystery at all."
" You haven't given me time," returned the other, in injured accents. "I'll tell you all about it if you will kindly have a little patience ; but please don't jump down my throat like that again—my health won't stand it."
He received a? civil an apology as St. Quintin could bring himself to utter, and proceeded to narrate the tale with which he had onco gladdened Colonel Vigne's ears, adding an account of the circumstances under which he had placed valuable and irreplaceable documents in the hands of that too impetuous warrior. "I ought not to have parted with them before getting the money," he confessed ruefully ; " I shall never cease to regret having done so. But the Colonel represented to me that it was of great importance to him to have them at once, and naturally he hadn't £350 in his pocket. He gave me an lOU for the amount, and promised to pay within a week. How could I foresee that he would go and get himself killed and robbed by the man whom he had it in his power to crush ?"
"lb must have been very disappointing for you," said St. Quintin grimly. "It was heartbreaking, Bir! I don't believe such a thing could have happened to any living baing but me ! And I was utterly helpless." "So it appears. May I ask what you did after you had quietly looked on at a cowardly crime ?"
" Oh, I stole away as noiselessly as I could, and as soon as I was out of the copse I ran for my life. I don't know what you call looking on quietly, Mr St. Quintin ; you must remember that there wouldn't have been an atom of use in my attempting to interfere. Just look at me !" he added, holding out his shaking hands ; "ami the sort of man to take part in a fray ?" St. Quintin grunted. " Not with much effect, I suppose ; still I wonder at your not having tried, and I wonder even more that you didn't at once give information to the police. Why on earth didn't you ?" " Because I was afraid. You don't understand that; but then you don't know whal it is to be totally demoralised. Suppose I had rushed out and tried to back up the Colonel—what would have happened ? Why, simply that Strahan would have killed me into the bargain." "I think not," said St. Quintin; "he certaiuly would not have wished to have two corpses to aceounb for. However, we'li assume, if you like, that your aDxiety to keep a whole skin justified you in taking to your heels. All the same, I don't see your motive for flying the neighborhood. Probably you were tho mysterious Brown for whom we sought high and low without succea3 ?"
Brydon siguified assent. "I have told you," he said, "that I was, and am, a demoralised being. You, of course, wouldn't have run away, and most people wouldn't have run away. But I did, because, for one thing, I am a coward, and because, for another, I knew that that man's infernal ingenuity was quite equal to putting a halter round my neck. I should have told my story and he would have told his—which of us, do you think, would have been believed ? The letters were in his hands—he lost no time in burning them, you may be sure—and I hadu'c another particle of evidence. So I considered it best to make myself scarce, and as I had a little money left out of the trifle which Colonel Vigne had paid me on account I "
"Spent it on drink?" suggested St. Quintin. " Just so. I spent every blessed penny of it in that way, except what my bill at the inn and a third class ticket to Manchester cost me. I was so sickened and disheartened thatTwanted to drink myself to death ; but the benevolence of the public won't allow useless members of the community to snuff themselves out nowadays... I was picked up I don't know where and taken to the hospital, where I hv3 a bad bout of the terrors. By the time that I was discharged, nominally cured, the police were off my track, I believe; but it wouldn't have been safe to linger in that part of the world. I made my way up to London, and here I have been ever since, thinking things over."
" And wishing, no doubt, that you hadn't been such a fool ? "
" Well, I have been wishing very much to be even with Strahan. But for that I shouldn't have been lying in wait for you or Lord Middlewood so long, and I certainly shouldn't have made the statement which you have just heard. It has no support beyond my bare assertion, you see." " You haven't a scrap o'f documentary evidence ?"
" Absolutely none ; that's the cruel part of it ! Those'letters would have been worth anything; but we may take it as certain that they have been destroyed. I'll tell you what I have got, though it isn't exactly documentary evidence, and that is Colonel
Vjgne's lOU for the balance of the sum whichhe agreed to pay me. Here it is for you to look at. I have complete confidence in your honor, Mr St. Quintin, you see; I don'c mind letting this bit of paper out of my hands, in spite of my atrocious experiences. ..
_ Brydon had been replenishing his glass at intervals during lha above conversation ; it was evident that he was' now in a condition to beßtow the honor cf his confidence upon aDjbj.dy. St. Qujntin, with a side-glance at the man's flushed cheeks, pushed away the whisky decanter and examined the disty fragment of paper held out to him. TJpon it was inscribed in pencil a promise, signed by Colonel Vigno, to pay to George Brydon the sum of £344 16s 6i, being the amount due, in exces3 of that already paid, for certain letters addressed by Mr Roland Strahan to the late Maggie Field and delivered by-the aforesaid George Brydon to the subscriber.
"This," observed Si. Qaintin, "is undoubtedly documentary evidence, and I should Eay that it might prove to be of great importance. It supplies a motive for the murder, and it also, I presume, explains your presence at the time when the murder was' committed.' "You went to the copse, I take it, to claim your money." " Well, no ; the time wasn't up yet, you see. But that's neither here nor there. If you want to know what took me to the copse, I don't mind telling you. I went there because I rather expected Strahan and Lady Middlewood to meet by chance in that place. They had met by chance near there on the previous day, and I had overheard something of what passed between them. So I thought there would be no harm in my hearing or seeing a little more."
Brydon accompanied this information with a grin and a vinous wink, which won him no additional favor in the eyes of his interlocutor.
"You mean, perhaps," said the latter, " that you were in hopes of being able to levy blackmeil upon Lady Middlewood as well as Colonel Vigne ?" "Come now, Mr St. Quintin, you can't say that the very trifling sum which was all that Colonel IVigne would agree to pay me came under the head of blackmail. Strahan, I make no doubt, would have paid me twice or three times as much for those letters ; but I was willing to sacrifice my own interests for the sake of seeing justice done. As for Lady Middlewood, she wouldn't have found me extortionate. I would have been as silent as the grave for • " "Oh, th t will do!" interrupted St. Quintin, whose patience was exhausted. "It makes no difference to me or to the matter In hand what your dirty schemes may have been; but please understand this: if you breathe one word before the magistrates cr elsewhere against Lady Middlewood's character I shall be under the necessity of giving you such a hiding as you won't forget in a hurry. You neither saw nor heard anything that could possibly compromise her, and that you are prepared to swear. Do vou see?" *
" Now, you're beginning to bully again," exclaimed Brydon plaintively. " It's rather bad form of you, I must say, considering that my last illness has left me as weak as an infant, and that I never at any time was a fighting man. I'm sure I don't want to cast *ny reflection upon Lady Middlewood's character ; as you say, her charaoter hasn't much to do with the matter in hand. But when you talk about going before the magistrates you advance a little bit too quickly—you do really. I haven't promised yet to go before any magistrates." "I imagine that you would, if it were nade worth your while," eaid St. Quintin. " Well, really, when you come to think of it—haven't I a right to expect that it should ie made worth my while ? I put it to you is a gentleman and a man of the. world—isn't it. only fair that some compensation should be made to me for the losses that I have sustained and the risk that I am expected to run ? "
" 1 dare say it is," answered St. Quintin curtly. " Anyhow, I believe I may undertake to promise that you shall be compensated."
" Thank you. To what extent, I wonder 1 —just in round numbers."
" How can I possibly tell you ? Perhap3 you had better name a sum. I myself am not a rich man, but I'll do what I can, and Middlewood, who is rich, has already offered a reward of. £I,OOO, I believe, to anybody who will give information leading to a conviction of the murderer. Would double that amount satisfy you ?" Brydon's eyes glittered, but he thought it due to himself to point out that £2,000 was very far from covering the loss that he had incurred through Strahan's perfidious conduct. " That man has ruined me, body and soul!" he cried. " But for him, I might at this moment be the prosperous and respected incumbent of a good living." "Oh, excuse me," said Sb. Quintin; "I can't think that under any: circumstances you would have been respected. Prosperous of course you might have been, if you had taken the pledge ; only that doesn't happen to be any. business of ours. We don't propose to take over Strahan's liabilities; we merely offer—at least, I suppose I.may say that Middlewood and I offer—to pay you for giving the evidence you can give." "And to protect me from the possible consequences of. giving evideuce ?" . "Well, I hardly know what you mean by that." . -"'
" Prosecution for perjury, my dear sir, or even being placed upon my trial for murder. You must bear in mind that thi3 will be simply a case of hard swearing, one aide against the other, and that scoundrel is quite capable of turning the tables against me. There is that lOU of Colonel Yigne's, to be sure; but it won't prove that lam speaking the truth, and it will certainly tell against me that I ran away, whereas Strahan stood his ground. All theße things have to be considered."
St. Quintin shrugged his shoulders. He did not see how he, or Lionel, or anybody else could protect the informer against the danger alluded to; but he" expressed his personal conviction that it was an imaginary one. "Anyhow," he added, "it can't be shirked now. The best plan will be for you to go round to Scotland Yard with me to-
morrow morning and make your statement. Theh we shall be told what step to take next. " Bnt the mere mention of Scotland Yard caused Brydon (who had made several ineffectual grabs at the whisky decanter, which was'boyond his reach) to shiver from head to foot: He was not going to. put himself in the power of the police, ho declared. He ought not to be asked or expected to do such a thing. " Why, you yourself said that it would be difficult to convince an average joryjaf the truth of my story." ~. ,l Well, I hadn't heard the whole story . wheif I Baid that. I think now that your .motives may be made comprehensible, and I certatnly don't think that you have anything to fear from ,the police. Besides, I can't conceive what alternative course you would suggest." " Tjo begin with, I would suggest consulting Lord Middlewood," said Brydon. Fori a moment St. Quintin was Inclined to agree;; but he reflected that Lionel, vrho liked ;Straha"n and hated a coward, would probably prove sceptical, and also that he might' inform his wife, who could not be relied upon to abstain from conveying information" to the accused. Sj he shook his head sjjnd said: "Better not! You don't want Strahan to escape, I suppose, and what you said just now about him and Lady Middlewood though there ' isn't the slightest foundation for your suspicions—shows that you ,are aware of their being upon terms of intimacy." " You think the lady would give him the tip to bolt, eh?" , " I'm sure I don't know ; but what everybody knows is that the fewer people who' are admitted 'into a secret the better chance' there is of its being kept. Come, Brydon, you we;e a—a decent enough sort of fellow once upon a time, I dare say ; pluok up your courage, and I'll see you through !" " I haven't got any courage," answered the miserable man.
"Then find some !" returned St. Quintin impatiently, and pushed, the decanter towards him.
If courage was not discoverable there, something which answered the purposs almost as well was, and half an hour later the rather unpleasant privilege of putting his disreputable visitor to bed devolved upon St, Quintin. "It wouldn't have done to let the fellow go away," he mused ; "the chances are that I should never have set eyes upon him again; And a pretty sort of witness he will be, at the best! All the same, I don't see how they can get past his evidence. The only question is whether I shall be able to drag him to Scotland Yard in the morning." This turned out to be an easier matter than might have been anticipated. Brydon awoke, frightened and partially stnpified, yet resigned (as he hadbeen all his life long) to the dictates of a will stronger than his own. ' He said little, signified his willingness to do as he was told, and shortly after breakfast was marched off towards his appointed destination, arm in arm with the triumphant St. Quintin. (To be continued.)
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MARIETTA'S MARRIAGE, Evening Star, Issue 10464, 6 November 1897, Supplement
MARIETTA'S MARRIAGE Evening Star, Issue 10464, 6 November 1897, Supplement
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