Chapter XX.

The Hand of Death.

Mr. Kraker was much more disturbed by Edward Preston’s intelligence than he cared to own. It was not so much the positive denial of the Viscount, but his utter inability to find a defence which puzzled him. On no principle could he reconcile it with the caution and astuteness displayed by the murderer all along. “Coincidences are curious things, and no one can say how far circumstances may run parallel,” he thought; “and if the Viscount put this possibility forward as the groundwork of defence, why, his loss of memory as to what he did on this particular night might be deemed, if not logical, at all events natural. But this is a subtlety which would be utterly lost on a jury, and no man with any knowledge of human nature would dream of concocting so elaborate a scheme. Is it possible I can have made a mistake? But no, the cain is too complete.”

Thus reflecting, he arrived at Russell Square. The door was opened to him by Gerald, for the servant had not returned from the Earl’s.

“Well, my dear fellow, and how is Mrs. Delanne?”

“As bad as she can possibly be. Her strength is going fast. She can take no nourishment, and I doubt very much if she will last through the night,” replied the young man gravely. “You will come in?” he added, for Mr. Kraker lingered hesitatingly on the step.

“Shall I be in the way?” he asked.

“Not at all. Nothing can be done for Mrs. Delanne. It is a question of time, and I shall be only too glad for someone to sit with me through the weary hours. I shall not go to bed to-night.”

“If that’s the case, then I’ll come in.”

Mr. Kraker followed Gerald upstairs, and they went into the latter’s private room.

“Sit down, Kraker, in that easy chair. You can smoke here, you know, as much as you like. What will you have? Here’s some very fair Lafitte. I know you don’t care for anything very strong.”

“That will do very well,” replied Matthew, as he sat himself down.

The room was lighted by a single lamp standing on Gerald’s desk, the light surmounted by a large shade perforated in such a manner as to allow a certain portion of light to pass through. Ever eager to pursue his favourite study, human nature, the little man amused himself by watching his host as he moved softly across the room, the dark shadows in which gave it almost a weird appearance. Whether it was due to the coloured light, for the perforated portions of the shade above mentioned were covered with tinted paper, or not he could not tell, but Matthew Kraker was struck by the peculiar aspect of Gerald’s face. He was worn and anxious, his eyes were heavy, and there was a weariness in his movements very different from his usually elastic tread.

“In spite of the injustice she has inflicted he must really love this woman,” thought Mr. Kraker. “If it were not that I am afraid of betraying myself I should like just to put a few questions on the subject. I wonder whether she has made any utterance about the murder? Well, well, patience has served me before, and perhaps it will serve me again.”

Meanwhile Gerald had placed a bottle and glasses before his visitor, and had seated himself in the chair near the desk. He did not seem inclined to talk, and Kraker was not the man to hurry him. For a few minutes there was a silence, broken only by the occasional puffs which Mr. Kraker gave at his pipe.

At last the young man, looking up, said​—​

“You’re not in a hurry for that money, are you, Kraker?”

“Not at all. Don’t bother about it just now. You have plenty to think about, and I’m not in want of it.”

“If you are really pressed I dare say I could manage it for you. If not, I should be glad to let it stand over for a month or two.”

“Don’t say another word, my boy.”

“Well, it’s only right you should know how I stand. In three months’ time all my difficulties will be over. I have seen the Earl of Annesley.”

Mr. Kraker could have jumped off the chair. The conversation was taking just the line he wanted. However, he never moved a muscle of his countenance, and simply replied​—​

“Ah, and with what result?”

“He has acknowledged my claim.”

“The deuce he has!” exclaimed Matthew, fairly startled out of his composure.

“Yes; and with no pressure on my part. In fact, he sent for me for the purpose. It is but a question of a few weeks and I assume my lawful position.”

“How extraordinary! And with no more evidence of your legitimacy that what you have told me?”

“Why, what more would you have?”

“Well, it is not complete, as you yourself pointed out. If the Viscount can clear himself of this charge he will have some ground to contest your claim. The substitution has only been suggested, not proved.”

“Precisely, and it is this which troubles me. Should Mrs. Delanne die without making reparation, and assuring me that she carried out the wishes of the Earl, my brother will be able to make a good fight, if he is declared innocent of this crime.”

Mrs. Delanne, then, has been silent on the subject?”

“She has admitted that I am not her son, but of what value is this admission without witnesses? A word from her now, say, in your presence, and before a medical man​—​this is important, because it might be said she was not in her right mind​—​would be of incalculable value. But since her attack she has been unconscious. The brain is paralysed.”

“Then what are the Earl’s intentions towards the Viscount?” inquired Kraker, after a pause.

“I don’t know, but I suspect very strongly that he means to leave him to his fate.”

“Confound it, that’s rather heartless!” exclaimed Kraker.

“Possibly; but I’m not at all sure the Earl is not right,” replied Gerald, coldly.

“From one point of view, yes. A man who could commit so cold-blooded a crime does not deserve much sympathy; but for all that it is rather like prejudging the case. Now, a few days ago, I was as positive as a man could be that the Viscount——”

Mr. Kraker paused. He saw Gerald look up curiously at him, and he suddenly remembered that he was approaching dangerous ground. Very little of the real facts of the case had yet appeared in the newspapers. Only the first examination at the police court had yet been held, and, as we have seen, nothing of the circumstantial evidence collected by Kraker had been brought forward. Hence, to say positively that the Viscount was innocent or guilty was to assume much more than the published details could warrant. True, Kraker had been made acquainted with a motive for the crime by Gerald’s story, but in all their conversation they had never alluded to the murder excepting as a circumstance most unfortunate for young Delanne.

“Yes, you were saying,” put in Gerald.

“Simply, from what you have told me suspicion points more strongly to the Viscount.”

“Unhappily it does. However, that is a question the law must decide as far as I am concerned. The Earl chooses to reinstate me; it is a decision justified by equity, if not by law, and I do not see why any sentimental consideration should prevent me from coinciding with it.”

“Of course not,” replied Kraker.

There was a pause, at the end of which Gerald rose, and, asking Kraker to excuse him, said he was about to see how Mrs. Delanne was.

“I must not leave her long. You can easily understand why,” said he.

He was absent for five or six minutes. While Kraker was alone he heard the street door open, and someone ascend the staircase.

Shortly afterwards Gerald returned.

“The doctor has just come,” said he. “There is a decided change, whether for better or worse he cannot yet tell. Have you any objection to seeing her, Kraker? I have explained why to Cathcart, and he has raised no opposition. Indeed, Mrs. Delanne is in such a state that nothing can possibly affect her.”

Mr. Kraker was only too glad to have the opportunity; but, of course, he did not say so. He simply replied that if he could do Gerald any service by seeing Mrs. Delanne he would do so.

They ascended the staircase with that peculiarly soft step which one assumes when visiting a sick person, although in this case it was wholly superfluous, as since her attack Mrs. Delanne had entirely lost her sense of hearing.

As they entered the room the nurse motioned them to be silent. The doctor was stooping over the sick woman with an intent and anxious expression on his face. It was evident a crisis was approaching.

“Can we go near?” whispered Gerald to the nurse.

“Yes, but you had better not let her see you,” replied the woman.

“What!” exclaimed Gerald, with some agitation, “does she, then, recognise anyone?”

“I fancied she did just now. But wait a moment.”

She whispered a few words to the doctor; he nodded, and she then beckoned Gerald and Kraker to approach. In a few short hours a great change had taken place. The body was still motionless, the arms lay limp and nerveless in the coverlet, but the face had lost the death-like hue and vacant expression which were so evident before. There was a faint hectic flush on the cheeks, although the brow and the lips were as white as the sheet. The eyes had no longer a fixed unnatural stare, but were illumined with a gleam of intelligence, while the mouth, instead of being tightly closed over the teeth, was relaxed, and once or twice the lips moved.

“Has she spoken?” whispered Gerald to the doctor.

“Hush! keep in the shadow. She must not see you yet,” he returned in a low voice.

A small lamp was placed on a table by one side of the bed, opposite to that on which the doctor stood. At the side of the doctor was the nurse, and Gerald and Kraker kept in the shadow thrown from these two.

There was a dead silence in the room for a few minutes, broken only by the ticking of a watch on the mantelshelf. It seemed as if the minutes had the power of lengthening themselves, so slow did they pass, and so measured were the monotonous sounds.

Suddenly the doctor held up his hand. A faint voice, scarcely audible, but marvellously distinct in its articulation, was heard in the room.

“Ernest, I am so tired; why do you not come?” were the words that fell upon the ears of the awestruck listeners.

“She has recovered her speech, but her mind wanders. Of whom does she speak?” whispered the doctor to Gerald.

“Of my father,” returned the latter, pale, and apparently much moved.

“I have waited, oh! so long,” the sick woman went on, speaking with difficulty. “If you knew how I have longed for you you would come​—​yes, you would come.”

Again there was a pause. It evidently caused her pain to speak; but, after resting awhile, she continued​—​

“I have never deceived you. No; it is an enemy who has spoken ill of me. Ah, why do you not come? We were happy once, when I thought you poor. And then——”

At that moment the nurse moved on one side, and the light fell on Kraker’s face; the delirious creature caught sight of it, and in a moment an expression of ecstatic joy came into her face. Holding out her arms she cried, in a much stronger voice than she had hitherto had​—​

“Ah, I knew you would come, Ernest. Why did you keep away so long from me?”

“She takes me for your father,” said Kraker.

“Do not say anything; let her indulge her fancy,” interposed the doctor.

“It is a horrible dream. You did not really wish to take our child, Ernest? No. Who is this? Not my child; no.”

And she turned with a look of disgust which, despite the solemnity of the occasion, was almost ludicrous.

“No, I will never consent. It is wicked, monstrous, unnatural. You love my boy? Yes; and do I not also love him? Matilda Rennett!”

Kraker started. It sounded so horrible to hear the name of this murdered woman on the lips of one who herself was so near death. Her voice, too, had changed, and it was almost with a hoarse cry that she called out​—​

“Matilda Rennett,” she called again, “I forbid you. I will never consent, I tell you. What! do you dare to disobey me? Ah, he is gone!”

A convulsive tremor seized her body, and with a violent effort she tried to raise herself in bed. The doctor and the nurse, however, soothed her, and by-and-bye she laid down like a child.

The effort had exhausted her terribly, and she lay panting for breath, each respiration seeming almost to take the life from her body. The doctor administered a stimulant, and in a few minutes she became more composed. Her calmness, however, was deceptive. With a sudden energy, and with an amount of strength simply astonishing, she turned herself on the bed, and before the doctor or the nurse could prevent her had sat up, looking, with her wan face and streaming grey hair, like one raised from the dead.

“Ah!” she screamed, “it is my son who reproaches his mother. See, he comes nearer; he strikes me. Forgive me, my son, that I have injured you. Pardon! pardon!” Her voice sank almost to a whisper, and now, in a voice which those who heard never forgot, for it thrilled them to the very marrow, she threw all her remaining strength into the utterance of one word​—​“Murderer!

The next moment she fell back dead. For a few minutes a profound silence fell upon that little group. And then, naturally, three of the spectators turned to the fourth, Gerald, who, of all those present, was the most immediately concerned by what had just happened.

No wonder he was intensely agitated. No wonder that great drops of perspiration stood like beads upon his forehead. No wonder his cheeks were livid, and the lines in his face depressed. Such a scene was enough to unman the most stoical, and Kraker was not surprised to see the young man’s emotion.

“Come away for a little while,” whispered the amateur detective. “You can do no good now, and it is but distressing to remain.”

He placed his hand on Gerald’s arm, and gently led him away from the bed. Gerald offered no resistance, but when he was near the door he turned and looked once more at her whom he once loved and regarded as a mother. The wild and troubled expression had passed from her face, and her features wore that calm, placid expression which death so often brings even to those whose lives have been evil. But one glance, and a thrill seemed to pass over the young man’s frame. The next moment Kraker had led him from the room.

“You will stay awhile with me?” said he, after they had reached his study, and Kraker had made him swallow some spirits.

“Stay? Of course I will. I am in no hurry, never, you know.”

And far into the small hours​—​for, somehow, rest was not to be thought of with the remembrance of that terrible death scene fresh before their eyes​—​they sat, talking at intervals, and smoking, that never-failing solace of men in the time of trouble.

About six the servants brought in coffee, and soon after, the morning sun shining with increased brilliancy after his temporary eclipse of the day before, Mr. Kraker left Russell Square, and walked pensively back to his lodgings.

“Dead, and made no sign,” he muttered. “Well, that way is stopped. Poor Gerald!”