Chapter XIV.

Edward Preston is Puzzled.

“Good morning, Mr. Preston, good morning, sir.”

“Ah, good morning, Mr. Rabbits.”

Mr. Rabbits, of the firm of Pocock and Rabbits, solicitors, was a neatly-dressed, brisk, dapper little man, cleanly shaved, and always in a preternatural state of sharpness. He was about fifty, with iron-grey whiskers, and crisp curly hair, once black, but now beginning to be silvered. He spoke in a quick, jerky utterance, as if he had not a moment to lose in unnecessary conversation.

“Glad I’ve found you in, Mr. Preston. Rather a big case on, and wants to be dealt with delicately.”

“Indeed. Criminal business, of course?”

Mr. Rabbits nodded.

“Daresay you’ve seen something of the affair in the papers. Everybody’s talking about it, and I tell you what, sir, it’s one of the most extraordinary affairs that I’ve met with in the whole course of my experience,” and the little man took a pinch of snuff with an air of immense satisfaction.

“Ah,” returned Mr. Preston, eagerly. “Forgery, I suppose?”

“No; murder.”

The young barrister dropped his pen.

“You don’t mean the Rennett affair, do you?”

“You’ve hit it, sir.”

“How extraordinary! Why, I know something of the horrible business already,” ejaculated Mr. Preston.

“So much the better. The case comes on this afternoon, at two o’clock; so, if you please, we’ll at once go into it.”

And for half-an-hour the two professional gentlemen were closeted, Mr. Rabbits giving the barrister all the information he at present possessed necessary for the prosecution.

“It’s fairly complete,” remarked Mr. Preston at the conclusion of the interview, “but, depending as it does entirely upon circumstantial evidence, we shall be obliged to proceed very slowly and cautiously.”

“My opinion entirely. Just enough evidence to-day to justify a remand, you know.”

“Precisely. Well, Rabbits, I shall be at the court as near as possible at two.”

“Good morning, then, for the present.”

“Good morning,” returned Mr. Preston.

And the solicitor, gathering up his papers and his black leather bag, bustled out of the room.

For the next hour or so the barrister carefully studied the facts which Mr. Rabbits had left for his information. They fully bore out what had been told him by Kraker, and the more he studied them the more he became convinced that the Viscount and no other had been the assassin of Mrs. Rennett. Indeed, read by the light of what he already knew​—​circumstances which at present were unknown to the solicitor​—​the guilt of the young nobleman was beyond a doubt.

“Well, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good,” he murmured to himself, as he folded up his brief. “It will be a cause celebre, and some of the notoriety will be reflected on the lesser luminaries. Who knows?​—​perhaps I shall figure in the Illustrated News, ‘Mr. Edward Preston, counsel for the prosecution.’ Ha!” and the young man laughed a loud laugh.

Of course, the police court was densely crowded, but it is not necessary to give a description. One scene of this kind is very much like another, and we have not the pen of a “special correspondent.”

The prisoner was naturally the observed of all observers. He was, however, not by any means disturbed by his position. He was certainly pale, but this was all. Apparently he took little interest in the proceedings, and regarded the functionaries with an aristocratic and nonchalant air, especially gratifying to the many ladies in the court, some of whom, to use a newspaper phrase, were “accommodated with a seat on the bench.” As Edward Preston and Mr. Rabbits had arranged, very little indeed was gone into. Indeed, it scarcely amounted to more than that which had been recounted at the inquest, and simply related to finding the body of the murdered woman. A remand for a week was granted, bail refused, and the preliminary examination came to an end. The only fact worth relating was that the prisoner was undefended, and in reply to the magistrate as to whether he wished to ask the witnesses any questions, answered in the negative.

Edward Preston slowly sauntered back to his chambers in a somewhat meditative mood. Although Marlborough Street is some distance from the Temple he did not ride, and hence did not arrive home until nearly five.

“A gentleman been waiting to see you, sir,” said his clerk. “Been waiting quite half-an-hour.”

“Oh. Who is he?”

“Wouldn’t give his name, sir.”

“Very well.”

He entered his room, and found an elderly man, tall, and with an aristocratic air, pacing impatiently up and down. He bowed, and the visitor, stopping his walk, said, somewhat abruptly​—​

“Are you Mr. Preston?”

“That is my name.”

“Yes, of course; I recognise you. You looked older in your wig and gown. Perhaps you may have seen me at the court to-day?”

“Can’t say I did,” replied the young barrister, somewhat nettled at the off-hand air of the stranger.

“No? Perhaps not. Well, you may know my name. I am the Earl of Annesley.”

“Phew!” whistled Edward to himself, “the father of Viscount Morleigh.”

There did not appear to be any obvious reply to this statement, and the young man simply bowed.

“I wanted to speak to you, Mr. Preston, about my​—​about this unfortunate affair. Now, of course, as a lawyer, as the prosecuting lawyer, I may say, and as a man of the world, you must already have arrived at some opinion respecting the guilt or innocence of​—​of​—​the accused person.”

“The deuce!” mutted Edward to himself, “this is a singular fellow. No one would suppose from his talk that the ‘accused person’ was his son. I beg your pardon, my lord,” said he aloud, “but I scarcely gather from your remarks what you wish to convey.”

“I will be plain with you, Mr. Preston,” answered the Earl, still walking up and down (it was singular how his erect, well-proportioned figure and distinguished bearing seemed to fill the room); “I do not know whether it is a fair question, or whether it would be unprofessional on your part to answer such a question, but what I wish to know is this​—​Have you sufficient evidence in your possession to show without much doubt that my son is guilty of the crime which is laid at his door?”

“I will frankly confess to you, my lord, that I think this is a question which ought not to be put to any advocate.”

“Probably,” returned the Earl, unmoved. “I am, however, in an exceptional position, and I have a right to know. The honour of my lineage is in any case tarnished, and I am the last person in the world to shield a guilty man, even though he be my own son.”

“I repeat, my lord, that this is a question which I would rather not answer. I should have thought that your own feelings——”

My feelings!” said the Earl, in a tone of ineffable scorn; “what have they to do with my honour? I ask you again, as one who has a right to know, do you believe Viscount Morleigh to be guilty or not?”

“If I speak the truth, my lord, I do.”

If Edward Preston expected his answer to have any effect on the Earl he must have been grievously disappointed, for the muscles of that hard, handsome face never quivered, the eye never blanched, and he showed not by the least sign that he felt any emotion.

“And you have evidence in support of that belief?”


“Thank you. That is all I wish to ask. I will not take up any more of your time,” and carelessly putting on his hat he walked towards the door.

At first the barrister was overcome with astonishment, and it was only when the nobleman had reached the staircase that he recovered his presence of mind.

“My lord,” he cried, “hear me for one moment. Your son to-day was undefended. I gather from your tone that you are not friends. Now, I implore you​—​believe me, I speak will all sincerity​—​to spare no expense in procuring him the best advice possible. I have no right to make this statement, but the case is very strong against him, and unless he be very ably defended I would not answer for the consequences.”

“That is enough, sir. I wish to hear no more. What I shall do is my own affair.”

And coldly lifting his hat the Earl descended the staircase with his usual dignity, and walked to his carriage, which was waiting for him in Fleet Street.

“Well, I have had some extraordinary affairs to deal with, but this goes beyond every one. I am awfully glad I’m not mixed up in mysteries. To say the least of them, they are terrible hindrances to work.”

And lighting his meerschaum, he sat down to his books, although every now and then he could not help pausing to puzzle over the enigma which had just been presented to him.

“Let me see,” he muttered, after going over the story for about the twentieth time. “According to Kraker’s theory this Viscount is illegitimate. The Earl evidently is a relic of the feudal times, a man who I thought until now was only found in the pages of the novelist. He gave the key to his character when he said that his feelings were as nothing compared to his honour. It is possible he is going to throw over this man, and reinstate the rightful heir? By Jove, it looks like it!”

And this was the conclusion that Edward Preston came to.