Chapter XV.

Love Triumphant.

Three days passed over, and during this time both Matthew Kraker and Mr. Rabbits were hard at work at what is known in legal parlance, “getting up the case.” Edward Preston had heard nothing more from the Earl, and whether his surmise had been a correct one or not he could not say. On the fourth day, about ten o’clock in the morning, when he was deep in a somewhat intricate brief, came a tap at the door.

“What is it?” he called out.

“A lady to see you.”

“What does she want?”

“Don’t know, sir. Wouldn’t tell me her name. Wants to see you on more important business.”

The barrister was not particularly well pleased at this interruption, for he wanted the morning to himself.

“Confound it!” he muttered; “that’s just the way with all women. If a favourite cat dies it is the most important thing in the world. Well, I suppose I must see her. Show the lady in, Fermor,” he called out.

The door opened, and the rustling of a silk dress was heard in the passage, but he did not trouble to look up until the lady was fairly in the room. Then turning his head he saw a tall and graceful figure, elegantly dressed, and closely veiled.

“Will you be seated, madam?” said he, pointing to a chair by the table.

The lady did not notice his motion, but advancing close to him raised her veil with her left hand, and held out to him the right.

He started with astonishment, for in the features of the lady before him he recognised Florence Dorrington.

“We are friends, are we not?” said she, with a sad smile.

Mr. Preston rose somewhat confusedly, and bent for a moment over the hand outstretched to him to hide his emotion.

“Yes, Miss Dorrington,” he replied in a low voice; “certainly.”

“Do you know why I have come?” she inquired.

“I cannot even guess.”

It was scarcely a week since he received the death blow to all his hopes, and the wound was still fresh. He flattered himself that he was beginning to overcome his passion, but at the sight of Florence it had returned, and before her he felt quite powerless. She sat down, and for a few moments seemed to be collecting her thoughts. Then raising her eyes to the young man’s face, she said​—​

“I hardly know how to tell you the business upon which I wish to speak. It is so terrible, so unexpected, so——”

Her voice trembled, and for a moment she could not go on. The barrister, who was scarcely less agitated, though outwardly calm, now saw that her face was deadly pale, and her bosom heaving with emotion.

“Whatever trouble you have, Miss Dorrington, in which I can in any way be useful, you have but to command me. I shall esteem it the greatest honour and the greatest privilege if I am able to do you even the humblest service.”

It was only by a violent effort that he spoke these words so composedly as he did. He was too proud to let her see how deeply he was moved, and she never suspected the passion which underlaid his words, commonplace and simple as they were.

“Yes,” she went on in a firmer tone, “I was sure of that. And it is in your power to do me the greatest service possible; although,” she added, a faint colour tinging her cheek as she spoke, “I am the last person in the world who should ask it. But you are generous, I know, and when you know what I have to say you will pity me, and help me. Mr. Preston, I have come to ask your assistance on behalf of Viscount Morleigh, who is accused of​—​of​—​but I need not tell you the terrible charge. You, with everyone else, must know of it by this time.”

“Great heaven!” exclaimed the young man, involuntarily.

“Yes,” continued the lady, misunderstanding the reason of his exclamation; “a more baseless assertion was never made. But you are powerful and clever.”

“Yes, yes,” broke in Edward, somewhat impatiently. “But why do you come to me? His father is a peer of the realm; and those with money do not usually lack friends.”

“His father!” repeated Florence. “But you do not know at all. His father has refused to have anything to do with him. He is alone in prison, without absolutely a friend.”

The barrister rose from his seat in agitation. A dreadful suspicion had seized him, and he could no longer retain his composure. Florence was at first too troubled herself to remark his agitation. She had indeed noticed his exclamation, but could not suspect the cause. She thought naturally that he still had the remembrance of her refusal of his hand in his mind, that he loved her yet, and the scar was still fresh. The idea, of course, distressed her, and she felt a feeling of shame creep over her.

“I could not go to anyone else,” she murmured. “They could not understand me, nor take that interest which I felt you would do.”

The exclamation seemed literally to be forced from him, and he turned his face from the light so that Florence should not see the struggle that was going on within.

“With you,” she continued, in a pleading, tearful voice, “I have no fear. You have told me you are my friend, and you will not deceive me. Oh, Mr. Preston, do help me. I do not know why they accuse him, but I swear to you he is innocent.”

Knowing what he did, and with every startling link of evidence furnished him by Kraker and the solicitor riveted firmly in his brain, how could he hear her thus touchingly express her belief in this man’s innocence and not suffer inexpressible torture? And then her manner, if not her words, had suddenly revealed to him a fact of which previously he had not had the faintest suspicion. With the quickness of love he had discovered that this Viscount Morleigh, this sham nobleman, this suspected murderer, was the lover of the girl whom he himself would have made his wife. All was now as clear as noon. This was why she had refused him, and this was why she had come to seek his aid. The thought was agonising.

“Miss Dorrington,” he said, in a hard voice, strangely unlike his usually pleasant tone, “I fear you deceive yourself. The evidence is very clear indeed against Viscount Morleigh.”

“The evidence!” Florence repeated in a bewildered tone. “Why, what can you know? Nothing has yet appeared.”

“Simply,” he replied mechanically, “that I am retained for the prosecution.”

Florence guess rather than knew what this phrase implied, and she seemed utterly crushed by this unexpected news.

“I pity you, Miss Dorrington, from the bottom of my heart,” he continued; “but it is better you should learn the truth from the mouth of a friend than——”

“Stay,” she cried, suddenly rising to her feet and confronting him. “Is it the act of a friend to believe that a man is guilty before he has been allowed to prove his innocence? What is the charge against Viscount Morleigh? Why should it not be a tissue of falsehoods? Why should he wish for the death of anyone​—​of a woman whom he has never seen? Lord Morleigh is the soul of honour; those who know him know it, but it is the people who accuse him who are wicked and base.”

Her pale cheeks flushed, her eyes sparkled, with the fire in them, her voice trembled with indignation, and never before had the young barrister seen her look so beautiful. And then came the reaction, for scarcely had she finished speaking ere she sank into a chair, and covered her face with her hands.

Immeasurably distressed, and, indeed, almost beside himself, the young man sought to comfort her. But she never heeded him, the sobs which escaped at intervals from her overcharged breast indicating how deep was her emotion. What could he do? Even supposing the Viscount was falsely accused, could he be guilty of such weakness, and could he disregard professional etiquette so far as to throw up the brief he had received that morning, and go over on the other side? And yet it was possible, loving Florence as he still did, that he could be the chief instrument in bringing to the scaffold the man whom she rightly or wrongly loved? True, if he wished to be revenged here was an unexampled opportunity, but he was a gentleman, and not for a moment would he allow so unworthy a feeling to triumph over him. Never before, it seemed to him, had a man been placed in so difficult a position, and for some few minutes he was silent, and nought was heard in the room but the convulsive sobs of the distressed girl by his side.

“Miss Dorrington,” said he at last, “some day, perhaps, you will not think me so heartless as my words may have appeared to you. I have thought over this matter, and I may tell you now that it is my intention to at once return the brief with which I have been entrusted this morning.”

She looked up with swimming eyes, and rested them searchingly on his face.

“Then you will defend him?” she said, quickly.

“That I cannot do,” he replied, with some gentleness of manner. “You know not what you ask. It is opposed to all professional honour and etiquette. Believe me, I will do anything to assist you but that. I am not the only barrister in the world,” he added, smiling sadly. “There is Mr. Roxby; he has had far more experience than I, and is a Q.C. besides.”

“But I cannot explain myself to him as I have to you,” murmured Florence.

“I will see Mr. Roxby myself. That shall not give you any trouble.”

“Thank you, Mr. Preston. I do not deserve such kindness at your hands. There is one more thing I would like to ask, but I am almost afraid.”

“And what is that?” inquired the young barrister, gravely.

“If you would only see​—​see Viscount Morleigh yourself,” returned the lady, hesitatingly. “If you would only question him, and hear from his own lips his story, I think​—​nay, I feel almost sure​—​you would believe in his innocence as much as I do.”

Edward Preston did not for a moment reply. A struggle was evidently going on within him. At last he said​—​

“For your sake, Miss Dorrington, I will do this.”

She looked at him gratefully, and thought how she had misjudged him. She had fancied he was cold and mechanical, but her woman’s intuition now told her that he loved her with a depth she never could have imagined possible.

“Good-bye, Mr. Preston. I shall never forget how good you have been to me.”

The young man half-sighed. It was, however, but a momentary weakness. With his customary politeness he bade his visitor adieu, and conducted her down the somewhat dark staircase, and then, returning to his room, more desolate than ever now that Florence was gone, once more plunged into his work.