Chapter VII.

An Extraordinary Story.

“Are you not afraid to leave your mother?” said he.

“No,” replied the young man. “If Mrs. Delanne requires anything she can ring. The servant will attend to her.”

Mrs. Delanne again,” murmured Mr. Kraker. “How coldly he speaks of her, and he used to be so fond and attentive. What can have happened?”

The young man must have read his thoughts, for he said in a dry, constrained tone, “I see you wonder at my calling my mother Mrs. Delanne. I do it for the simplest and best of all reasons. She is not my mother.”

His words fell like the stroke of a hammer upon the ears of the amateur detective.

“Nonsense,” said he, with a positive air. “It is absurd, impossible. You have been working too hard, and this sudden ill news of the mother’s has warped your brain.”

“It is absurd, impossible,” repeated Gerald in a grave tone, “but it is true, Kraker. For thirty-three years​—​that is to say, since the day of my birth​—​this woman has played a deceptive, a treacherous part towards me, that her son​—​for she had a son​—​might benefit.”

“My dear friend,” commenced Matthew Kraker, who now began to see a glimmer of light, as it were, fall upon the dark and impenetrable tragedy whose smallest details he had set himself to unearth. But Gerald never heeded his interruption, and, indeed, he seemed dead to everything but his own thoughts. Cold and self-constrained as he usually was, those passions over which he kept so strong a curb seemed to be surging within his breast, and to be asserting their power in spite of his efforts to control them.

“I say to you solemnly, and before God, there never was a man more cruelly deceived than I have been. Believing her to be my mother I loved her heart and soul; I would have made any sacrifice for her. And she​—​she must have held me in scorn. Her deception dates from the time when she first held me in her arms, and from that time she has never wavered in the detestable part she comes to play. Her devotion was a falsehood, her caresses simply clever acting, her whole life has been a lie.”

“Hush,” muttered Kraker, who, in spite of his hardihood, was inexpressibly shocked.

“You know not what she has been guilty of, or you would not say that,” returned Gerald. “No, do not you wonder why she should take all this trouble to deceive me? but the answer is very simple. That she might betray me, rob me of my birthright, give all to her own child​—​the child of sin, of shame​—​all, my name, future, everything.”

He ceased for a moment, for the violence of his passion has deprived him of breath. The great drops of perspiration stood on his brow, and his features worked convulsively. Never could Matthew have believed such a transformation possible.

“Can you be aware of the dreadful charge you are bringing against Mrs. Delanne?” asked Mr. Kraker, taking advantage of the pause to say a word or two, “you know, if what you say is true, we must suppose that Mrs. Delanne possesses an audacity, a power of acting, which few women ever attain to. Besides, she would not have acted thus alone. She must have had a reason for doing thus. Who were her accomplices? Her husband?”

“Her husband!” said Gerald, with a bitter laugh. “There is no husband. Mr. Delanne has never existed, save in the imagination of the widow. She was the mistress of my father, and the money upon which she has lived is the price of shame. Good heaven! can you not see it all?”

“I must confess I do not,” returned Mr. Kraker; “but do not get so excited. Tell me all calmly, quietly, and I shall then be better able to help you. While you storm and rave I can do nothing. How did you learn all this, and what proof have you that it is true?” The cool, decided tone of Mr. Kraker seems to have its effect upon the young man. He threw himself into an easy chair, and buried his face in his hands. Then lifting his head, after a minute or more’s reflection, he said, almost in a whisper, “I have known it for three weeks. It was quite a chance discovery, and I have, at least, indirect truth of the proof of my assertion. One word, and one word only, pronounced by Mrs. Rennett would have made these indirect proofs certainties, but this word, as we know by the newspapers, she can never utter. Mrs. Delanne would deny all, yes, though she stood upon the scaffold. I know her. After so many years of deception I cannot expect my father to side with me. I am, of course, a total stranger to him.”

“But how did you find all this out?” asked Matthew, who had been silently revolving something within himself while Gerald had been talking.

“Simply by chance. It so happened I lost some papers, and thinking the servant might have put them by mistake in Mrs. Delanne’s escritoire, I opened the lid. As I did so a packet of letters fell to the ground, and being but loosely tied, were scattered about. I picked them up, intending to replace them, when, upon looking at the superscriptions, written in a bold, masculine hand, and the seal, upon which there was a crest, I felt an irresistible desire to open them. They had evidently been written years ago, for the paper was yellow and the ink faded. I hesitated, naturally hating the meanness of the action, but at last I yielded, and read the first letter which came to my hand.”

“That was wrong,” said Mr. Kraker in a low voice.

“I am perfectly aware of that, but, as I tell you, I read the letter, and had not got farther than ten lines before I found that it was from my father, about whom Mrs. Delanne had always been so strangely, so obstinately silent. You can easily imagine how I felt. Consumed by a desire I could not resist, I did not rest until I had read the whole of the correspondence, which told me too plainly the shameful story.”

“You have those letters yet?” asked Matthew.

“Certainly. My first impulse was to put them back, and keep the secret which had been so unexpectedly put into my hands; but, on thinking the matter over, the sense of the wrong that had been done me became more and more vivid, and so at last I took possession of them, determined to fight the battle to the last, no matter who might be affected by the result.”

He rose as he spoke, and, walking to the writing table, opened a small brass-bound desk, and took from a secret drawer a packet of letters, with which he returned to the amateur detective.

“You will understand, Kraker,” said he, “that I don’t want to bore you with insignificant details, and will only ask you to read those letters which go to establish the truth of my assertions. I have gone carefully through them all, and numbered them with regard to dates. Nos. 1 to 6 have no particular bearing on the matter, so we will begin with No. 7.”

He opened the letter, and forthwith commenced:​—​

“‘My Dearest Margaret,​—​To-day has been a happy day. I received your delightful letter this morning, and read it a hundred times. You cannot think how glad the news it contained has made me. I thought at first you had been deceived, but from what you now say it must be really true. And yet, mingled with my joy comes the miserable thought that I can never place you in that position which is yours by right. Never as in this moment have I so cursed this fatal marriage which my family have forced upon me. I will not go so far as to say that I hate my unhappy wife, who, like myself, has been compelled to wear the chains which gall and chafe at every turn, but that I can ever love her is perfectly impossible; yet by a strange destiny, and if as to add to my perplexities, she tells me that she, like yourself, is about to become a mother. Should both be boys I dare not contemplate the consequences. The son of her I love can never bear my name, never inherit that to which he is entitled; while the son of the woman with whom I am mated, but for whom I care not an atom, will take my title, will come into possession of my estates. All that I can do is to make what reparation I can both to you and to my son​—​yours and mine​—​while I live. That, believe me, my own Margaret, will be the one object of my life.’”

“And then follow some tender expressions,” broke in Gerald, smiling bitterly as he spoke; “such as a lover would naturally use towards his mistress. We need not read this part.”

“What is the date of this letter?” asked Matthew.

“You may see for yourself,” rejoined the young man, holding out the paper.

Mr. Kraker took it in his hand, and read​—​

“Mayfair, 15th November, 1825.”

“You will see presently,” went on young Delanne, “the importance of this first letter. It establishes the motive of the scheme afterwards carried out​—​that is to say, it shows that my father, married against his will to a woman unsuited to him, adored his mistress. Both women are about to become mothers at the same time, and his feelings with regard to the children are not far to seek. Even now, if I am not much mistaken, the shadow of the idea which he was later on not afraid to put into practical execution was hovering over his mind.”

Judging from what we know of Mr. Matthew Kraker it might be supposed that he was highly imaginable. This was not the case. The story he had evolved was but the natural deduction of a close and minute observation. In point of fact, he was essentially practical.

“You have said enough,” he interrupted, for Gerald was about to enter into an elaborate statement of the reasons which had led him to come to his opinions; “I understand perfectly the position so far.”

“Very well. I pass by letters, 7, 8, and 9, and come to No. 10, dated January 19, 1827. The only passage I need runs as follows:​—​”

“‘The condition of the Countess becomes more and more evident. I know not whether it is my fancy, but she seems to suspect the cause of my coldness to her. I cannot help it. You alone hold my heart. I feel pity for her, but destiny must have its way.’”

“All these letters,” continued Gerald, holding up some half-a-dozen letters, “are in the same strain. I need not weary you with these, since they only go to establish more fully what we already suspect. Now, here is one of a different kind. It is short but decisive:​—​”

“‘Dearest Margaret,​—​Pray let me know as near as you possibly can, the hour. I await your answer with intense anxiety, which I think you will understand if you can imagine my plans for the future of our child.’”

“I do not know,” said the young man, looking up from the paper, “whether Mrs. Delanne complied; but, at all events, she seems to have answered at once, for here is a letter dated but three days afterwards:​—​”

“‘Your answer, dearest, tells me more than I dared to hope. The project I have conceived is now practicable. Our child will bear my name, and I shall not be separated from him. He will be brought up under my care, and he will never know the secret of his birth.’”

“I beg your pardon, Gerald,” interrupted Matthew, “but you do not tell me your father’s name​—​do you know it?”

“Yes,” replied the young man gravely; “my father was the Earl of Annesley.”

“Phew!” whistled the ex-croupier, “one of the richest peers in England,” he said to himself.

“In the month of May,” continued Gerald, “my father seems to have been staying at Cheltenham, and there, in the madness of his passion for his mistress not only conceived, but confided to paper one of the most monstrous projects you can possibly imagine. Hear what he says:​—​”

“‘Richard Taylor, the bearer of this letter, is my valet, and a man to be thoroughly trusted. From what you tell me there should now be no delay in carrying out my plan. Three weeks later I expect to be in London, where the confinement of the Countess will take place. A wet nurse, a woman in whom I have the fullest confidence, has been engaged, and when the child is old enough she will proceed to Hagley, in Yorkshire, where, as you know, I have property. You will meet her at a place I shall afterwards name, and by chance pass the night at the same inn. To change the children, I need not say, will be a matter of no difficulty. Every precaution has been taken, and I now only want your answer.’”

“Oh,” thought Kraker, “this, then, is the key to the problem. I was not so far out after all. And,” he continued aloud, “your mother​—​I beg pardon​—​Mrs. Delanne, how did she take this proposal?”

“She didn’t seem to half like it, for here are eight pages or so in which the Earl tries to persuade her. Then my father seems to have come to London, for the correspondence ceases, and we have no letter till this one written in June, and dated from the House of Lords:​—​”

“‘Your letter, dearest, has filled me with joy. Now that you are able to go out I have arranged with Matilda Rennett, in whom I have the most perfect confidence, to carry out the plan I have proposed to you.’”

“You see,” observed Gerald, breaking off, “that the children, of whom I was one, have been born, so that nothing now remains but to put the project into execution. The correspondence closes here, and with it my story.”

“Is there nothing more?” asked Mr. Kraker.

“About ten lines, written years after, but they add nothing to what we already know.”

“That’s unlucky,” observed the amateur detective thoughtfully.

“Now look here, Kraker,” said the young man, looking fixedly at his friend, and speaking very slowly and distinctly, “suppose that all my proof ceases here​—​suppose that I know nothing more than what I have told you​—​what is your opinion?”

Matthew Kraker did not reply for some moments. He was occupied in weighing the probabilities resulting from the letters of the Earl.

“Upon my soul,” said he, at last, with emphasis, “I believe sincerely you are not the son of Mrs. Delanne.”

“And, before Heaven, you are right,” returned Gerald, solemnly. “My first thought after seeing Viscount Morleigh was to seek Matilda Rennett. I found her, and though she denied at first all knowledge of the Annesley family, I afterwards compelled her, partly by threats and partly by bribes, to confess. The plan of the Earl, she told me, succeeded without a single hitch. A month after my birth I was betrayed, dispossessed of my inheritance, and virtually deserted by my father. In her heart Mrs. Rennett was thoroughly on my side, and she promised, when the time arrived, to come forward and give her evidence. That, of course, is now all over, and my only hope is from the letters she may have in her possession. She absolutely offered me some when I visited her. Like an ass, I refused them.”

“That was a mistake,” replied Matthew gravely. He knew, better than anyone else, how much hope was to be placed on this point. “These were the letters,” he said to himself, “the murderer was in search of. When he found them he burnt them in the frying pan.”

“Yes, but who could have supposed that the unfortunate creature was about to lose her life?”

“You are right,” returned Kraker, musing. And then, after a pause, he said, “Has your father actually taken no notice of you in any way?”

“I can remember a tall, good looking, well-dressed man coming to see me at school, but that is all. Probably I should have seen more of him but for a rupture between him and his mistress.”

“The deuce! How did you find that out?”

Gerald turned over the letters on the table, and at last took up one dingier and more frayed at the edges than the rest. He read the following:​—​

“‘A friend, candid and cruel, as true friends are, has opened my eyes. I at first doubted, but you have been watched, and, unhappily, I am now convinced. You have deceived me, and I know not whether this has not always been the case.’”

Mrs. Delanne,” continued Gerald, “tried to justify herself, but to no purpose. These other letters show that the upshot of the thing was that they separated; my father agreeing to allow her £500 a-year.”

A light tap at the door interrupted the young man.

“Who is it?” he called out.

Mrs. Delanne would like to speak to you, sir,” said the voice of the servant.

Gerald hesitated, and glanced at Kraker.

“You had better go,” said the latter, rightly interpreting the glance. The young man shrugged his shoulders, as if the task were an unpleasant one, but rose from his seat and went out.

“Poor fellow,” thought the amateur detective, now left to himself. “His has been very hard lines, and, as far as I can see, he has not much chance of getting his own. However, that’s his affair. Mine is concerned more with Mrs. Rennett. These letters are invaluable, and I’m very much tempted to appropriate one for a short time in case I want to compare the handwriting. It’s always best to be forearmed. Yes, I will,” and, with his usual cool air, he took up one of the yellow pieces of paper and deliberately placed it in his pocket.