Chapter VI.

On the Track.

As we have already said, he was on very familiar terms with the Delannes. He frequently strolled in about this hour, and was always sure of a hearty welcome. They did not keep much company​—​that is to say, as far as the lady was concerned; but Gerald had a large circle of friends, and frequently gave dinner parties, more for ulterior reasons that for any real love of sociality. Between the mother and son the utmost affection existed. She had a profound faith in his talents, and firmly believed in his ultimate distinction. Indeed, her love for him had become almost a passion; in her eyes he could do no wrong, and his slightest wish was law. When he spoke she was silent, and listened. She studied his tastes, anticipated every desire, and, in a word, lived but for him. On his side he accepted this adoration with a kind of nonchalance, whether real or affected it was difficult for a stranger to say; but those who knew him asserted that in his secret heart he entertained for her a very deep affection. The servant who opened the door was so accustomed to Mr. Kraker’s visits, that she was not surprised he should walk past her without taking the usual precaution of asking whether her master or mistress were at home. He thus walked into the sitting room where they usually say unannounced. A single wax candle (Gerald abhorred gas) lighted the apartment, which was in its accustomed order. A walnut table usually in the centre had, however, been moved into a corner, while on the ground, close by the sofa on which Mrs. Delanne usually sat, was a newspaper half folded. Neither the lady nor the son were in the room. The amateur detective took in the whole scene at a glance.

“Something has happened,” said he, turning to the servant, who had followed him up the staircase. “What is it?”

The girl’s face wore an air of concern, and she replied, in some agitation, “Oh, sir, we’ve had such a fright!”

“Why, what has frightened you?”

“Well, sir, you know missis hasn’t been very well for the last month, hasn’t eaten anything, and all that. Well, she came upstairs after dinner, as she generally does, and asked me to fetch her the Times. She likes to read the paper a bit after dinner, you know, sir.”

“Yes,” returned Mr. Kraker.

“Well, I fetched her the paper, and she scarcely looked at it half-a-minute when she gave, oh! such a dreadful scream​—​I shall never forget it,” said the girl, with a shudder​—​“and fell on the ground just as if she’d been struck dead. I was just going out of the door when she fell, and it gave me such a fright I could do nothing but scream for Mr. Gerald.”

“Was Mr. Gerald in the house, then?”

“Yes, in his own room. He came running upstairs, and lifted her up, and carried her into her bedroom.”

“And is she better?”

“I don’t know, sir. Mr. Gerald said it was only a fainting fit, and that she would soon get over it; but he said she’d better not be disturbed, so I haven’t seen her. She’s come to, I know, because I heard her speaking, and I thought it was so curious.”

“Thought what was so curious?” asked the little man.

“What she said to Mr. Gerald. I was standing near the door, and I heard her say——”

Mr. Kraker, in spite of his detective proclivities, never expressed them except in a business capacity. He had, also, a good deal of gentlemanly feeling, and rarely descended to idle gossip.

“What Mrs. Delanne said is of no consequence to me, or to you either, especially as you heard it outside the door. I’m sure your master and mistress would be very angry if they knew what you had been saying.”

“I know, sir. I beg your pardon,” said the girl, turning red, “I didn’t mean anything.”

“No, perhaps not. But there, that will do. You need not disturb Mr. Gerald; I will wait.”

In some confusion the girl went out of the room, and left Mr. Kraker to himself. To amuse himself he took up the newspaper which was lying on the ground, moved the sofa nearer the table so as to be nearer the light, and settled down to read at his ease. He had not read a dozen lines before he started and uttered an exclamation of surprise. The paragraph which had thus arrested his attention ran as follows:​—​

“Hammersmith was yesterday the scene of a terrible tragedy, which has caused the utmost excitement in that usually quiet neighbourhood. A woman named Rennett, living by herself in Ivy Cottage, Water Lane, has been found lying dead in her house, with a large wound in the back, evidently caused by some sharp instrument.”

Then followed some details, and the paragraph wound up by stating that the greatest activity was being displayed by the police, and it was believed that they were already on the track of the murderer.

“The devil!” muttered Mr. Kraker; “surely this paragraph can have nothing to do with Mrs. Delanne’s fainting fit? No, no, impossible,” he murmured. “Thinking about this business so much has made me stupid.”

However, an irresistible curiosity made him closely examine the paper. He could find nothing with the exception of this paragraph likely to cause the slightest emotion.

“To say the least it is a singular coincidence,” he said to himself. A second examination showed to him that the edge of the paper close to the paragraph was crumpled and a little torn, as if by a convulsive hand. “Devil take it! it’s odd,” he thought.

At this moment a step was heard descending the staircase, and immediately afterwards the door opened and Gerald came in. He started at seeing Mr. Kraker, as he doubtless thought the room was empty; but he came forward at once, and held out his hand. His usually calm face wore a troubled look, and the hand which Matthew grasped was icy cold.

“How is your mother?” asked Mr. Kraker in a tone of concern. “Nothing serious, I hope?”

“Oh, dear, no; Mrs. Delanne will doubtless be better in the morning.”

Mrs. Delanne,” thought Matthew, “how strangely he talks of her. Ah,” he added aloud, “she had a spasm of some kind. The heart, perhaps?”

“Perhaps,” repeated the young man, in a tone of constraint. In spite of his apparent self-possession, it was evident Gerald was moved by some internal struggle, and after a pause, during which he had sunk into a chair as if overcome, he suddenly exclaimed, in an agitated voice, “The fact is, Kraker, I’ve made a shocking discovery, and it’s completely upset me.”

“Indeed,” replied the little man, in his soft tone; “what is the matter?”

The young man hesitated, as if he were not quite prepared for such an abrupt question. At length he said, “Well, to tell you the immediate cause of my mother’s indisposition, it is simply this:​—​She was reading the Times, when by chance she came across a paragraph relating to a murder, in which the person murdered happened to be a very old friend.”

Mr. Matthew Kraker said nothing, but his eyes shone the brighter at this extraordinary chance which had thrown him against someone who could tell him something of the past history of Mrs. Rennett. Practised, however, as he was at concealing his emotions, he did not betray himself, and even Gerald did not know his connection with the police, and it was important, he felt, that this should not be revealed. He took the paper which young Delanne placed in his hand with every appearance of curiosity, and read the paragraph as if he had never seen it before in his life.

“Good God!” he exclaimed, “what a horrible affair.”

“This Mrs. Rennett,” continued Delanne, in a grave, measured tone, “was at one time devoted to my​—​to Mrs. Delanne’s interest. The attachments of servants to their employers is a thing, as a rule, met with only in books; but in her case it was really the blind devotion of the dog. I believe she would have gone through fire and water to serve my mother.”

“Then, I suppose, you also knew this woman?” asked Mr. Kraker, unconcernedly.

“A long while ago​—​I should say at least ten years,” replied Gerald in whose voice there was a peculiar sadness. “To tell you the truth, she was my nurse.”

Matthew opened his eyes at this, and muttered something under his breath. The murdered woman Gerald’s nurse! There was certainly something almost providential in this. In less than half-an-hour he had obtained all, and more than he could have hoped after days of anxious search. He could scarcely utter a word, and yet, to avoid appearing singular, he knew he must say something, express some kind of sympathy.

“It is a frightful business,” he muttered.

“You are right, for me, at least, if not for Mrs. Delanne. It is scarcely creditable; it is more like a far-fetched romance than the plain truth​—​but the death of Mrs. Rennett has given a death blow to all my hopes​—​all my ambition.”

He seemed so dejected, and spoke in so low a tone that Mr. Kraker scarcely heard what he said. Leaning forward, Gerald continued, “I have been the victim of a most cruel injustice, aye, an injustice the most bitter that can be inflicted on a man. By Heaven! I believe I am the most miserable fellow alive.”

The amateur detective listened attentively, but was much puzzled by Gerald’s mysterious words. What possible connection could there be between his hopes and ambition and the murder at Hammersmith? He felt that it was of supreme importance that he should know all that the young man could tell him, but how if he were not disposed to open his mouth? After a minute’s reflection he decided upon his course of action.

“Gerald,” he said, “we must look this matter in the face. Tell me a little more, and I’ll wager that we shall be able between us to see a way out of the difficulty.”

It must be confessed that he spoke somewhat at random, and what the difficulty he alluded to consisted of he had not the least idea. But, as fortune would have it, his chance expression answered his purpose completely. Delanne rose to his feet abruptly, and passing his hand through his hair, exclaimed “Yes, I will tell you all. In truth, the weight of this horrible secret has been almost too much for my brain the last three weeks. I have indeed need of a friend in whom I might confide.”

“My dear Delanne,” returned Kraker, “I am an older man than you, and have seen something of the world. If I can help you in any way you have but to speak.”

The young man was silent for a moment, and then resumed: “Then you must know​—​but no​—​I cannot tell you the story here​—​come to my own room.”

And so saying he led the way downstairs, followed by the amateur detective.