Chapter XXI.

The Unwinding of the Skein.

Lady Dorrington was one of the puzzles in human nature to which age alone furnishes the key. In her youth her beauty was of that order which at once sets the heart of man in a glow, and sends the blood coursing rapidly through the veins. While looking at her one forgot to notice the shallowness of her brain, and the selfishness of her disposition. In middle age, when the greatness of her beauty had waned, her real nature became more apparent, and at fifty-five she was as good a specimen of the calculating mercenary woman, without refinement of soul, and without the true sympathy or weakness which makes true feminine nobleness, as could well be met with. The Earl of Annesley had, of course, seen her from time to time in society, and as she increased in years he more and more wondered to himself how on earth he could ever have been in love with her.

Florence Dorrington was the very opposite of her mother. She had less beauty than had Lady Dorrington in her youth, but twice the intellect, and was far beyond her in generosity and nobleness of disposition. She resembled more her father, who was a free-hearted and open-handed man, full of animal spirits, and without a taint of selfishness. Thus, it was hardly possible for two natures so utterly at variance to agree. As a rule, Florence gave way to her mother, and laughed while she humoured her foibles. But this forbearance had only reference to minor details. On any vital point Florence could be as obstinate as Lady Dorrington. It was, of course, impossible for the girl to keep her attachment to Viscount Morleigh a secret​—​indeed, when matters were brought to a climax by his arrest, she at once made a confidant of her mother, in the hopes of finding that sympathy she needed so much at such a moment. Terribly was she disappointed. Lady Dorrington expressed herself utterly scandalised at the whole affair. It was bad enough to enter into a clandestine engagement, but to continue it under such circumstances was simply, so she said, indelicate. The illegitimacy of the Viscount had, in some curious roundabout way, got noised abroad; it was known, at all events, that the Earl had refused him all assistance, and, with this in view, Lady Dorrington was horrified at her daughter’s persistence. Then ensued a stormy scene, in which neither mother nor daughter would give way, and the result was that for nearly two days not a word passed between the two. But, whatever may have been the disposition of Lady Dorrington, it was not in the nature of Florence to be at variance long with anyone, and she was the first to hold out the olive branch. It is true the breach was not completely healed, but, by a sort of tacit understanding, each carefully avoided the dangerous ground, and on third day when they met at the breakfast table there was nothing to indicate to a stranger that within the last few hours, and, for the first time in their lives, they had had a most violent quarrel. Florence kissed her mother as usual, and sat down at the table. By her plate was a letter, the writing on the envelope unfamiliar to her. A few days before she would at once have made some remark upon this circumstance, but now her mouth was closed. She knew not what the letter might contain; she had an instinctive feeling of dread when she saw the strange handwriting, and, though anxious to know its contents, dared not break the seal. It, accordingly, lay unopened on the table.

“Are you going out to-day, Florence?” inquired her mother after a pause, during which both had been going through the form​—​for it was little more​—​of breakfasting.

“No​—​that is, perhaps I may,” returned the young lady absently.

“You do not expect any visitors, I suppose?” continued Lady Dorrington, with just the slightest tinge of sarcasm in her tone. “Of course, it doesn’t matter to me; still, I may be excused if I am desirous of saving trouble. Not that you need consider me. I am past that, and do not expect it,” she added, with an air of resignation.

“Dear mamma, you know that I wish to consider you. I am sure I have always given way to you in everything, excepting——”

“There, Florence, pray do not make any reference to that very painful subject. I’m sure my nerves are upset quite sufficiently already;” and the dowager sniffed vigorously at her vinaigrette.

“I have said all I intended, mamma,” returned the girl quietly.

“I’m sure it’s a wonder I have not been seized with some terrible illness. I hope I may not be; though what I have gone through has been enough to try the strongest constitution. Thank heaven,” she ejaculated piously, “I have nothing to reproach myself with.”

Florence did not reply, but bending her head over her cup, toyed carelessly with the spoon. Every word her mother uttered went like a dagger to her heart; but she had made up her mind never again to introduce the subject of her attachment, unless absolutely obliged by unforeseen circumstances, and she simply held her tongue.

After a few observations to the effect that she supposed it was now the duty of a mother to sacrifice herself for her children, though when she was young things were very different; that when she was dead and gone perhaps her words would be remembered, that it was always the fate of those who desired the happiness and wellbeing of others to be misunderstood, and various other reflections of more or less inane wisdom, Lady Dorrington at length arose from the table and intimated her intention​—​not without expressing a hope that her daughter’s plans would not be at all interfered with thereby​—​she was now very desirous that Florence should have her own way in everything​—​of dressing for the purpose of going out.

“No doubt, you have made your own arrangements, Florence,” she added, with much humility, as she rose from her seat. “Pray do not alter anything on my account” (for Florence had murmured something about accompanying her if she so desired). And she swept out of the room with a dignified air, without waiting for her daughter’s reply.

Florence sat for a few moments with her head still bent, and a tear rolled down her pallid cheek. “It is cruel of mamma. She will drive me mad.” And then her gaze fell on the letter, and taking it she rose from her chair and went slowly towards the window. After a moment’s hesitation she broke the seal. On reading the first few lines her face brightened, but when she reached the end it had resumed its old sadness. “Not a word of encouragement,” she said half aloud to herself with a sigh. “He does not say so, but I know he still believes Frank is guilty. Oh, how can anyone be so blind?”

The letter was from Edward Preston, and simply said that he had visited the Viscount, and had had a long conversation with him. He had placed the case, with the concurrence of the solicitor, into Mr. Roxby’s hands, and would do his best to assist him. It was a half formal, half friendly note, but certainly not written in a sanguine, or even a hopeful spirit. It was a bitter disappointment to Florence, for, turning first of all to the signature, she saw it was from the young barrister, and had immediately jumped to the conclusion that Viscount Morleigh had convinced him of his innocence. But not a word of this was there in the note from beginning to end, and this reed, on which for the last few days she had rested for comfort, taken from her, she felt herself the most miserable creature on earth.

While she was thus standing pensively against the window Lady Dorrington, dressed for walking, entered the room.

“I don’t think I shall be home in time for luncheon,” said the dowager. “I want to go to Westbourne Grove, and I think I shall call at the Moltenos. I know they lunch about one, and that will suit me admirably. Can I do anything for you, my dear?”

“No, thank you, mamma,” returned Florence, with her face half averted, for she was too proud to let her mother see the traces of grief on her countenance.

A little pony carriage was at the door, and into this Lady Dorrington got; the neatest of pages followed, Lady Dorrington gathered up the reins with the air of an experienced horsewoman, touched the pony gently with the whip, and the carriage rattled off down the broad drive.

Full of wretchedness, intensified by the thought that she was utterly unable to help her lover, Florence leaned her head against the window frame, and looked out into the bright sunlight. The house was an old-fashioned one, but had been modernised by Lady Dorrington to the extent of having French windows, and as the girl stood the light fell upon her profile and outline of her figure with a charming picturesque effect, and with her dejected attitude, full of grace, despite its mournfulness and beautiful profile, she would have served for an artist’s ideal of Penseroso.

So absorbed was she with her own sad thoughts she did not notice that someone had entered the garden. The sound, however, of a footstep crunching the gravel recalled her wandering senses, and then she saw a stranger, whose eccentric behaviour at first gave her some alarm that a lunatic had somehow made his way in. He was a little man, very neatly dressed, and carrying an irreproachable umbrella. When Florence first caught sight of him he was standing firmly planted on his legs, which were a little wide apart, holding the umbrella, with both hands, across his shoulder. In this attitude he stood surveying the house with a critical air for at least a minute. Then, with a sudden wheel, he turned himself right round and stood looking at the wall which divided the garden from the road.

By-and-bye he stooped down and picked up a handful of gravel, heedless of the fact that he was seriously imperilling the hitherto spotless condition of his black kid gloves. The natural supposition of Miss Dorrington on seeing this act was that the intruder had some designs upon the windows, and she was relieved, though in no way less puzzled, to see that he placed some of the gravel in an envelope, fastened up the latter, and carefully put it into his pocket. One turn towards the huge old-fashioned gates, a moment’s inspection, and then the little man turned sharply round and walked briskly up to the house.

“What an extraordinary man! Who can he be, and whatever can he want?” was Florence’s very natural ejaculation. “I hope Mary will not let him in. How unfortunate mamma has gone out.”

The next moment the maid entered the room.

“A gentleman to see you, miss, on pertikler business.”

“You have not left him in the hall, Mary, I hope. I saw him come up the path, and he’s been behaving himself so strangely that I’m afraid he’s not right in his head.”

“He would come in, miss,” returned the girl; “and here’s his card.”

Florence took the piece of pasteboard, and read​—​

“Matthew Kraker,” and then in the corner was written “by favour of Edward Preston,” in the same handwriting as the letter which reached her that morning.

“How strange,” she murmured, “but there can be no harm, for this most certainly is Mr. Preston’s writing. But who is Mr. Kraker?”

This was a question, however, to which she could in the absence of the gentleman so named return no satisfactory answer, and, accordingly, bidding the maid to show Mr. Kraker in, she awaited with some curiosity her visitor.

Mr. Kraker’s long residence on the continent had given him a perfect ease of manner, and he introduced himself to Miss Dorrington like a gentleman. Whatever eccentricity he might have displayed in the garden it had certainly disappeared in the drawing room.

“I need not ask you, Miss Dorrington, if you wonder at my presence here to-day. It may startle you, perhaps, to know that it is through my agency that Viscount Morleigh lies this moment in prison.”

The blood for a moment dyed the girl’s cheeks and then left them ashen pale. She half rose indignantly from the couch, and was about to express her astonishment, when Mr. Kraker, without manifesting the least disquietude, interrupted her.

“Do not alarm yourself, Miss Dorrington, I beg. I repeat that it is I who have traced this crime, and I may tell you that never have I had a case in which I was more positive I had put my finger on the perpetrator.”

“But——” exclaimed Florence.

“There, there, you ladies are so impatient. Just one moment, and you shall ask me as many questions as you please, and say what you like. I repeat that never before have I been so self-confident, and, as a natural consequence, I have been blinded on several little points which I ought not to have overlooked.”

Florence gazed at him in a bewildered fashion, and Mr. Kraker, with a complacent air, continued​—​

“The fact is, I am a detective, but I must ask you, as a particular favour, to keep the matter a secret if ever anyone should ask you who Matthew Kraker is. Very well, so much for yourself. Now, Miss Dorrington, I want you, if you please, to listen to a little story. It’s something of what is called the ‘sensational’ order, but I believe that is a rather favourable quality in a story​—​not that I can speak positively on this point, for I only deal in fact, never in fiction. However, you must take what I am going to say as simply a romance from the circulating library. Don’t fancy it’s true, and then you’ll be better able to hear me out to the end.”

Mr. Kraker spoke in his easy, calm, persuasive voice, and, reassured by his manner, Florence bowed her assent, and the amateur detective then went on to relate in a succinct and graphic manner, first the discovery of the murder, and then the circumstances which had led him to fix the crime on the Viscount. With wonderful calmness Florence heard him to the end, but as he unfolded every detail with logical clearness, and showed how each step he had taken led him towards the same goal, she felt as though she were on a solitary rock which the sea was slowly but surely undermining, and which ere long must crumble into dust.

“Now,” resumed Mr. Kraker, “against all this there is but one thing, and that is Viscount Morleigh’s point blank denial. Under ordinary circumstances, and in a common-place crime, I should not attach much importance to this fact, but in a case of such intricacy it becomes very important. But I won’t trouble you with my theories, which may be true or false, but simply come to the object of my visit. The murder was committed on the 27th of May——”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Kraker,” exclaimed Florence, starting. “What day did you say?”

“The 27th,” returned the detective, gazing curiously on the agitated features of the young girl.

“Great heaven!” murmured Florence; “it cannot be. There is some dreadful mistake. No; he is innocent: I am certain of it. Mr. Kraker,” she resumed, trembling with excitement, “pray tell me what time of the day?”

Her face was flushed, and her eyes sparkling as she asked the question.

“I have fixed it at ten o’clock; at all events not earlier than half-past nine.”

“Thank heaven!” cried the girl, starting to her feet, and pressing her hand to her bosom to calm its throbbing. “Mr. Kraker!” she exclaimed with animation, “I cannot thank you enough. Viscount Morleigh is innocent. I can prove it.”

Mr. Kraker’s answer was to take out his snuff-box, tap it three times, and take a pinch with infinite satisfaction.

“You can prove it?” said he at last; “how?”

“Because Viscount Morleigh,” began Florence impetuously, and then she stopped and hesitated, blushing deeply meanwhile. After a pause she said, quietly, “From half-past nine to ten Viscount Morleigh was here​—​at this house.”

Mr. Kraker nodded half at Florence and half to himself​—​

“Anybody see him besides yourself?”

Again Florence blushed.

“No, unfortunately. The truth is,” she added, “Viscount Morleigh came here secretly, to see me on a very important matter. I met him in the garden. The gate was locked, and he climbed over the wall.”

Mr. Kraker closed his snuff-box with a sharp noise, and exclaimed​—​

“I thought so.” Then jumping to his feet, he said, with some eagerness in his manner, “Miss Dorrington, you have removed a doubt from my mind. Will you have the kindness to take me to the place where Viscount Morleigh climbed?”

Florence now saw the meaning of her visitor’s eccentric actions in the garden a short time previously. He had evidently a strong suspicion of the truth.

No, she had no objection; indeed, why should she have? She was now as full of hope as she had before been plunged in dejection; so, opening one of the French windows, she stepped out on to the lawn. Kraker followed her to the wall, which was about seven feet in height, very old, and filled in the interstices between the brick with moss. Florence stopped near a tree of the arbor vitæ kind.

“Yes,” said she, “this is as near as possible the spot, because a few drops of rain were falling, and I sheltered myself under this tree.”

There was a broad flowerbed running the whole length of the wall, and Kraker, stepping lightly on to the mould, examined carefully the surface.

“The Viscount must have jumped from the top rather violently,” said he, after a pause.

“Yes. How he managed to climb on the wall without cutting himself on the broken bottles, I cannot imagine. But how did you discover it?”

“By these two deep footprints. Although made some days ago, and in spite of the rain we have had, they are still plainly distinguishable. If you look at them carefully you will see that the heel has touched the ground first. Had he lowered himself by means of his hands the toes would have been the first to touch, and the impression would have been fainter; indeed, I don’t suppose we should now have found any trace.”

“You are quite right, Mr. Kraker. The Viscount jumped so violently that he slipped, and tore the knee of his trousers.”

“By Jove!” muttered the detective, “facts beat fiction after all. No one could believe such a coincidence possible but those who actually witness it. Have you such a thing as a ladder on the premises, Miss Dorrington?” he added.

“We have a pair of steps,” said she. “There they are hanging against the shed.”

Mr. Kraker skipped across the garden with the activity of a boy, seized the steps, carried them to the wall, mounted them, and examined the broken glass on the wall minutely, not disdaining even the use of a magnifying glass. For a few minutes he was silent, and then he uttered a cry of joy.

“It is the most complete alibi I have ever seen.”

He descended to the ground, and showed Florence a strip of grey kid.

“The Viscount wore grey gloves, as I told you. This strip was torn off when climbing the wall. I don’t think I need trouble you any further, Miss Dorrington. Make your mind perfectly easy as to the result.”

He was about to take his leave when Florence, looking at him, said​—​

“Shall you be seeing Mr. Preston?”

“No doubt. He is much interested in this case, and as he knows I have called upon you he will be anxious to learn the result.”

“And you will tell him?”


She paused for a moment, and then said​—​

“Would you mind adding a few words from me? I have not told you why the Viscount came that night. We were engaged, but both my mother and the Earl were averse, and, indeed, we never hoped to have their consent. The Viscount had proposed to me a secret marriage, and it was to learn my decision that he visited me that evening. It is, perhaps, of not much importance, but I should like Mr. Preston to know it. Thank you again, Mr. Kraker. But for your wonderful acuteness I should be the most miserable creature alive. When​—​when do you think he will be released?”

“Probably at the next examination, but don’t be under any anxiety on that score.” And with a respectable bow he bade her adieu.

“Ah, ah! I see it all now, clear as daylight. The Viscount was too jealous of the lady’s reputation to compromise her even in the slightest degree. Well, it does him all the more credit. But, hang it! what credit shall I get out of the affair? The Viscount is innocent, that’s certain. Who, then, are interested in the murder? The Earl and the woman now lying dead in Russell Square. Those are the only two, and, of course, the woman is out of the question. As for poor Gerald, he was a decided loser, although, as events have turned out, he’s not much to be pitied. It will be odd, though, if, when the Viscount is cleared, he chooses to assert his rights. Well, well, what he will do is nothing to me just now. I have to find the murderer of Mrs. Rennett, and how to do it I can’t tell. I am fairly at my wits’ ends.” And in a very uncomfortable state of mind he hurried off to Scotland Yard to report the sudden change in the state of affairs.

Superintendent Parkinson looked up from a mass of official documents on the table before him, and greeted Mr. Kraker with pleasure.

“You’re just the man I wanted. Read that,” said he.

It was a telegraphic message, dated from Folkstone, and ran as follows:​—​

“I have found the man with the earrings. I shall bring him to town to-night. Forrest.