Chapter XVI.

The Web is Drawn Tighter.

Before transferring the case to his friend, Edward Preston once more looked over the evidence which the energy and sagacity of Mr. Kraker had collected. From this he found it proved, with a fair amount of certainty, that the day after Gerald had called upon the Viscount, the latter kept within his room, and gave orders that anyone who called to see him was to be told he had gone into the country for the day. He had a very slight dinner, consisting of a mutton cutlet, of which he ate but a small portion, and a couple of glasses of hock. He seemed to be very irritable, and the impression in the household was that he was unwell. On the following morning he rose late, complained of a headache, and drank a cup of tea, eating nothing but a scrap of dry toast. His valet heard him say once to himself, “I must put an end to this suspense”; and on another occasion, “It is the only way.” He wrote two letters that morning, one addressed to Miss Florence Dorrington, which Jenkins, the footman, was charged to deliver only to herself, and the other to a man at the Reform Club​—​the name Jenkins could not recollect. The valet declared that the second letter contained two bank notes. He kept at home that day, and went to bed early. On the following day, which was Tuesday, the 25th of May, he rose at a somewhat earlier hour than usual, was strangely impatient in his manner, and altogether unlike himself. He went into the garden, but soon returned to the house, sat for a while in the library, glanced over the Times and seemed disturbed, and the valet declared, as if he were expecting something that would not arrive. Of the rest of the day the valet knew nothing, as his master gave him a holiday, as he had already told Mr. Kraker. About noon a post arrived, and by it a letter which the Viscount tore open and read eagerly. He was heard by the page to mutter, “She will not. Then I must find other means.” This letter he burnt. He dined at six, and two of his friends calling upon him about this hour tried to persuade him to accompany them to the opera. He refused, on the ground that he had an important engagement. He ate a little more at dinner than he had the previous days, and drank an entire bottle of chablis, and afterwards two small glasses of curacoa. He then smoked a cigar in the dining room, a most unusual thing for him to do. At half-past seven, according to the evidence of the valet, but nearly eight by the hall porter, he went out, carrying in his hand an umbrella. He returned at two o’clock in the morning; the porter, who, by the way, he had told not to wait up, waking at this hour on hearing him let himself in and ascend the staircase. On Wednesday the valet, on returning from his holiday, was struck with the state of his master’s clothes. (This, it will be remembered, did not quite coincide with the man’s first statement to the amateur detective. He then said he did not remember seeing the clothes before, but afterwards, on being pressed, owned that this statement was incorrect.) They were damp and muddy, and the trousers were torn. When he made a slight remark on the subject to his master, the latter replied sharply, “What is it to do with you? They will come to you the sooner, that is all.” He seemed to be in better health and spirits, and ate a fair breakfast. The morning he passed in his study, and burnt several papers. On the following day his former indisposition returned, and on Friday, on which day he expected his father, he became worse. His valet offered to fetch a doctor, but he refused peremptorily. This, in substance, was the evidence which had been collected from the servants of the Earl’s household.

Edward closed the manuscript with a grave air.

“Poor girl, poor girl,” he sighed, “everything that comes out makes his guilt blacker and blacker.”

In the afternoon he set out on his mission. Nothing but the deep love he had for Florence could have induced him to undertake the task he had imposed upon himself. Let him take the most favourable view he could, there was but one conclusion he could come to, and his work of interrogation seemed to him the most profitless that could be imagined. Nevertheless he was curious to hear the Viscount’s defence, and, from a professional point, this, at all events, promised something instructive. By a strong effort of self-control he had resolutely buried all bitterness which the thought that he was about to assist his fortunate rival might have suggested, and when he appeared before the accused man in Newgate (where, for the present he was lodged, the magistrate absolutely refusing all offers of bail), he was the keen lawyer, immovable by any feeling save that of doing the best for his client. He found the Viscount calm in manner, but with a weary and worn expression on his face, which, it may be added, was very pale.

“The face of a determined man,” was the barrister’s thought as he bowed.

“I need not say upon what errand I have come,” said he; “Miss Dorrington has doubtless written to you on the subject.”

“Yes. It is very kind of you to interest yourself in me,” answered the Viscount in a mechanical tone.

Edward took no notice of his remark, but resumed.

“In the course of the questions I may have to put to you it is possible there are some which will cause you pain. You will, however, take it that I have no other object than to make your defence as complete as possible.”

The Viscount bowed.

“I am prepared to answer anything you may ask me,” said he simply.

The barrister bowed. “Nothing like taking a man by surprise,” he thought. “I will plunge into the matter by a few leading questions.”

“My lord,” said he, “I believe I am right in supposing that you are aware of the exact relationship existing between yourself and the Earl of Annesley?”

The young man’s pale face flushed.

“I am aware,” he replied, “that I am the natural son of the Earl of Annesley. I am aware, further, that my father could not recognize me if he wished, as his lawful son is at this moment alive.”

“Precisely. Now, I may say that I know something of this matter, but I should like to hear from your own mouth how you first became acquainted with the fact that you were disinherited.”

“I have no objection whatever to tell you;” and the Viscount related the particulars of his interview with Gerald, and, as far as Edward could recollect, his version agreed with what he had already heard. “I will not pretend,” the young man said in conclusion, “but that I felt as if a terrible blow had fallen upon me. Educated as I had been, the sacrifice I should have to make was enough to turn a man’s brain. You must remember that I had no thoughts of contesting the rights of Mr. Delanne, and it was only at the persuasion of my father that I consented to maintain my position.”

“Ah, an ingenious and well-worked-out story,” thought the barrister. “Of course you were prepared for what this decision involved. An expensive lawsuit, a number of witnesses, and one of them, if I do not mistake, who could throw an important light upon the matter?”

Viscount Morleigh looked up sharply as Edward Preston pronounced the last words.

“I understand your allusion. You mean Mrs. Rennett,” said he. “Oh yes, we were prepared for the consequences.”

“How coolly he says it,” murmured Mr. Preston. “Well, there is one important question upon which I should like to have a little light thrown. When you were arrested you exclaimed, ‘I am lost!’ What did you mean by that?”

Mr. Preston,” returned the Viscount with warmth, “imagine yourself accused of such a crime. Would you not be overwhelmed, knowing as I did, the frightful possibilities arising from such an accusation? Something within me said, ‘Who is most interested in the death of Mrs. Rennett?’ You know as well as I the only answer to this terrible question. No wonder I exclaimed, ‘I am lost!’”

The explanation was reasonable; the barrister admitted it to be so.

“Had you ever been to the house of this woman?” he inquired after a pause.

“Three or four times with my father; but, of course, I did not know the hold she had upon our family.”

“And if you had gone there, say, late in the evening, do you think she would had admitted you?”


“You were ill, were you not, about the time of the murder?”

“I had been indisposed, and I had reason to be.”

“Why did you forbid your valet going for a doctor?”

“What good could he do? All the science in the world could not give me my legitimacy.”

“And those papers you burnt?”

“Of no consequence to anyone. I burnt them because I had made up my mind to leave my father’s house; a decision which, as I have already told you, I afterwards altered at his persuasion.”

To all these questions the prisoner replied without the least hesitation. His manner was assured, his voice did not tremble, he did not betray the least emotion. There was a silence of some two or three minutes, during which Edward Preston argued with himself the possibility of the Viscount’s innocence. But he could see no loophole of escape. His story it was true, was well connected and feasible, but what did this amount to? A man who was capable of carrying out so skilfully and so boldly a murder of such enormity was capable of providing himself with a good defence. As Kraker had said, nothing had been left to chance. All was carefully planned and coolly executed.

“This is all very well, as far as it goes,” observed the young barrister, “but, of course, it does not touch the chief point at issue. Now, tell me, if you will, how you spent your time on the evening of Tuesday, the 25th of May?”

For the first time Viscount Morleigh hesitated, and betrayed confusion. His disconcerted look did not escape the keen eye of the questioner.

“During the evening of the 25th?” he repeated, as if to gain time.

“Yes. Your chance of being found innocent greatly depends on this.”

“I must own that I have some difficulty in satisfying you on this point. I have not a very good memory for that kind of thing.”

“But it is not so long ago,” said Edward. “If I had asked you to remember what took place on a certain night, say, in January, there might be some foundation for your excuse.”

“I suppose I must have gone out somewhere, but I really can’t recollect.”

Edward’s manner became a little grave.

“Let us see if we can’t aid your memory. Where did you dine?”

“Oh, at home, of course.”

“Do you remember doing anything out of the way​—​did you drink a whole bottle of chablis, for instance?”

“Yes, that is quite true. Barker, the butler, would swear to that,” answered the prisoner, who had by this time recovered his composure.

“And did not two friends call upon you, and you objected to go to the opera with them on the ground that you had an important engagement?”

“Yes, that was so. But my excuse was only to get rid of them. I had no other motive.”

“During the day you were heard to say, ‘She will not. Then I must find some other means.’ Of whom did you speak?”

“Of a person to whom I had written the previous day, and who had just replied. I had the letter in my hand when I uttered the words. Really, if I had been the murderer, I could not have been more closely watched.”

The young man spoke with a certain amount of sarcasm, his coolness extorting from the barrister an inward expression of admiration. But will all his admiration he felt puzzled. Kraker had made sure that the Viscount would have had his proof of an alibi beautifully complete, but, in point of fact, there was not the least attempt at proving an alibi. If he had no better tale than this, what possible defence could be offered to the overwhelming evidence in the possession of the police?

He went on with his questioning.

“And after dinner what did you do?”

“I went out.”


“No; I smoked a cigar first.”

“By the way, what cigars do you generally smoke?”

Mr. Preston, you may have some reason for asking such a question, but I really do not see its relevancy. You cannot complain that I have kept anything from you, looking at you, as I do, in the light of a confessor.”

“I have nothing to complain of,” answered Edward, calmly. “But I have a reason for asking this apparently trivial question.”

“If you wish to know, then, I generally smoke cheroots.”

“And usually in a cigar holder?”

“Yes,” returned the Viscount, with a surprised air.

“What time was it when you went out?”

“About eight, as nearly as I can recollect.”

“Had you an umbrella?”


“And where did you go?”

“Oh, I simply went out for a stroll.”

“What! Strolled about all the evening?”


“Then, perhaps, you will be good enough to tell me where you strolled as near as you can?”

“That is easier said than done,” rejoined the Viscount, with a little of his former embarrassment. “I took no heed where I went, for I simply went out to get rid of the blues which had been tormenting me for some days past. You can understand my condition of mind. I know I went in the direction of Hyde Park, and I think I remember being at one time in the Brompton Road, but really I quite forget.”

Edward grew more and more dissatisfied.

“But surely,” he urged, “you met someone, or called somewhere, so that we could get a little corroborative evidence. If you even purchased a box of cigar lights for one of your cheroots it would be something.”

“I did nothing of the kind. I went nowhere. I saw no one.”

“Then, Viscount Morleigh, all I can say is that you are a most unfortunate man. It so happens that on this particular Tuesday evening, somewhere between eight o’clock and midnight, this woman was murdered. For heaven’s sake, try and recollect something of your doings on that night. Do you know that the evidence against you is of the strongest possible kind?”

The barrister’s words evidently unnerved the prisoner. The blood fled from his lips, his face became of an unnatural, death-like pallor, and his eyes glared wildly. Passing his hand over his forehead with a gesture of despair, he replied​—​

“I am, indeed, unfortunate, Mr. Preston, but I can say nothing further.”

Edward rose from his seat. He could do no more, say no more. Whether the prisoner was speaking the truth, or whether he was simply acting, he could not determine, but of this he was certain that in the eyes of a jury the inability to prove an alibi would be of the gravest moment. The young man paced up and down for a few seconds, and then stopping suddenly, said​—​

“The woman was stabbed by a broken foil. By a singular coincidence a broken foil was also found in your room.”

“That is very likely. I broke one a month since, fencing with Castelli, the Life Guards instructor.”

“Very well; but what has become of the other portion? The hilt only was found.”

“That I cannot tell. Probably Wicks, my valet, may know.”

“But this is not all. A mould of footprints found in the garden of Mrs. Rennett has been taken, and corresponds exactly with your shoes.”

“I cannot help it. I suppose it is nothing extraordinary for two people to have the same sized feet. Any shoemaker would get over that difficulty.”

“Possibly; but, in addition, let me say that the impression made by an umbrella handle where it fell in the mud also corresponds precisely with an umbrella in your possession.”

“Umbrellas are made of one pattern by the score,” answered the Viscount calmly.

“You smoke cheroots in a cigar holder. The end of a cheroot has been found in the murdered woman’s room, unmoistened by contact with the lips.”

“It is a singular fatality. An extraordinary chain of coincidences​—​nothing more.”

“I have not finished. The murderer of Mrs. Rennett wore gloves​—​grey kid gloves. The miserable woman, in her death struggles, seized the hands of the murderer, and portions of the leather were found underneath her nails. The gloves found with your clothes in the wardrobe were not only of grey kid, but had minute stripes torn from the surface.”

The fact could not be disguised. The Viscount was absolutely terrified at this extraordinary accumulation of damning facts. The perspiration stood upon his brow in large drops, and his hands absolutely trembled. In a hoarse whisper he muttered, “It is horrible, horrible.”

“And then the clothes, the coat damp and soiled, the trousers muddy and torn! You see, my lord, that all this will have to be satisfactorily explained. No counsel will be able to help you unless you are perfectly candid.”

“I can only recognise this, Mr. Preston,” answered the Viscount, endeavouring to speak in a firm voice; “that I am the victim of one of those extraordinary sequence of coincidences which makes me almost doubt one’s being. I can only say I am innocent.”

“You have only to explain where you passed the evening of Monday, the 25th, and your innocence is proved.”

“I have already told you I cannot. I have no more to add.”

“Then, may heaven have mercy on you. Probably you will be waited on by a solicitor​—​for what I have done to-day is quite unprofessional, and undertaken solely for the sake of one who takes a deep interest in you​—​and by that time you will have remembered more than you have told me.”

Mr. Preston,” exclaimed the prisoner, evidently moved, “you mean well towards me I am sure, and with the terrible charge hanging over my head, and with these frightful proofs to combat, you may well suppose that I appreciate the friendly act of to-day. But, in spite of appearances, I say again that I am innocent. I own I cannot well see how to convince you, but I do not despair. I await my trial with that confidence which a good conscience alone can give.”

The barrister was staggered for a moment, for the prisoner spoke with such earnestness that it was difficult to believe he was not telling the truth. But then he thought of all the surrounding circumstances, the stakes which were at issue depending upon the utterance of the murdered woman, and he quickly decided that the acting of the Viscount was very good, nay, superb, but still only acting. He said no more, but, coldly bidding the prisoner adieu, he went out sadly, thinking of the unhappiness which was in store for poor Florence.