Chapter XXI. The Plot Unravels Itself
 

As Jack went on unfolding that strange tale of fraud and heartless wrong, my interest every moment grew more and more absorbing. But I can't recall it now exactly as Jack told me it. I can only give you the substance of that terrible story.

When Richard Wharton first learned of his wife's second marriage during his own lifetime to that wicked wretch who had ousted and supplanted him, he believed also, on the strength of Vivian Callingham's pretences, that his own daughter had died in her babyhood in Australia. He fancied, therefore, that no person of his kin remained alive at all, and that he might proceed to denounce and punish Vivian Callingham. With that object in view, he tramped down all the way from London to Torquay, to make himself known to his wife's relations, the Moores, and to their cousin, Courtenay Ivor of Babbicombe--my Jack, as I called him. For various reasons of his own, he called first on Jack, and proceeded to detail to him this terrible family story.

At first hearing, Jack could hardly believe such a tale was true--of his Una's father, as he still thought Vivian Callingham. But a strange chance happened to reveal a still further complication. It came out in this way. I had given Jack a recent photograph of myself in fancy dress, which hung up over his mantelpiece. As the weather-worn visitor's eye fell on the picture, he started and grew pale.

"Why, that's her!" he cried with a sudden gasp. "That's my daughter--Mary Wharton!"

Well, naturally enough Jack thought, to begin with, this was a mere mistake on his strange visitor's part.

"That's her half-sister," he said, "Una Callingham--your wife's child by her second marriage. She may be like her, no doubt, as half-sisters often are. But Mary Wharton, I know, died some eighteen years ago or so, when Una was quite a baby, I believe. I've heard all about it, because, don't you see, I'm engaged to Una."

The poor wreck of a clergyman, however, shook his head with profound conviction. He knew better than that.

"Oh no," he said decisively: "that's my child, Mary Wharton. Even after all these years, I couldn't possibly be mistaken. Blood is thicker than water: I'd know her among ten thousand. She'd be just that age now, too. I see the creature's vile plot. His daughter died young, and he's palmed off my Mary as his own child, to keep her money in his hands. But never mind the money. Thank Heaven, she's alive! That's her! That's my Mary!"

The plot seemed too diabolical and too improbable for anybody to believe. Jack could hardly think it possible when his new friend told him. But the stranger persisted so--it's hard for me even to think of him as quite really my father--that Jack at last brought out two or three earlier photographs I'd given him some time before; and his visitor recognised them at once, in all their stages, as his own daughter. This roused Jack's curiosity. He determined to hunt the matter up with his unknown connection. And he hunted it up thenceforward with deliberate care, till he proved every word of it.

Meanwhile, the poor broken-down man, worn out with his long tramp and his terrible emotions, fell ill almost at once, in Jack's own house, and became rapidly so feeble that Jack dared not question him further. The return to civilisation was more fatal than his long solitary banishment. At the end of a week he died, leaving on Jack's mind a profound conviction that all he had said was true, and that I was really Richard Wharton's daughter, not Vivian Callingham's.

"For a week or two I made inquiries, Una," Jack said to me as we sat there,--"inquiries which I won't detail to you in full just now, but which gradually showed me the truth of the poor soul's belief. What you yourself told me just now chimes in exactly with what I discovered elsewhere, by inquiry and by letters from Australia. The baby that died was the real Una Callingham. Shortly after its death, your stepfather and your mother left the colony. All your real father's money had been bequeathed to his child: and your mother's also was settled on you. Mr. Callingham saw that if your mother died, and you lived and married, he himself would be deprived of the fortune for which he had so wickedly plotted. So he made up another plot even more extraordinary and more diabolical still than the first. He decided to pretend it was Mary Wharton that died, and to palm you off on the world as his own child, Una Callingham. For if Mary Wharton died, the property at once became absolutely your mother's, and she could will it away to her husband or anyone else she chose to."

"But baby was so much younger than I!" I cried, going back on my recollections once more. "How could he ever manage to make the dates come right again?"

"Quite true," Jack answered; "the baby was younger than you. But your step-father--I've no other name by which I can call him--made a clever plan to set that straight. He concealed from the people in Australia which child had been ill, and he entered her death as Mary Wharton. Then, to cover the falsification, he left Melbourne at once, and travelled about for some years on the Continent in out-of-the-way places till all had been forgotten. You went forth upon the world as Una Callingham, with your true personality as Mary Wharton all obscured even in your own memory. Fortunately for your false father's plot, you were small for your age, and developed slowly: he gave out, on the contrary, that you were big for your years and had outgrown yourself, Australian-wise, both in wisdom and stature."

"But my mother!" I exclaimed, appalled. 'How could she ever consent to such a wicked deception?"

"Mr. Callingham had your mother completely under his thumb," Jack answered with promptitude. "She couldn't call her soul her own, your poor mother--so I've heard: he cajoled her and terrified her till she didn't dare to oppose him. Poor shrinking creature, she was afraid of her life to do anything except as he bade her. He must have persuaded her first to acquiesce passively in this hateful plot, and then must have terrified her afterwards into full compliance by threats of exposure."

"He was a very unhappy man himself," I put in, casting back. "His money did him no good. I can remember now how gloomy and moody he was often, at The Grange."

"Quite true," Jack replied. "He lived in perpetual fear of your real father's return, or of some other breakdown to his complicated system of successive deceptions. He never had a happy minute in his whole life, I believe. Blind terrors surrounded him. He was afraid of everything, and afraid of everybody. Only his scientific work seemed ever to give him any relief. There, he became a free man. He threw himself into that, heart and soul, on purpose, I fancy, because it absorbed him while he was at it, and prevented him for the time being from thinking of his position."

"And how did you find it all out?" I asked eagerly, anxious to get on to the end.

"Well, that's long to tell," Jack replied. "Too long for one sitting. I won't trouble you with it now. Discrepancies in facts and dates, and inquiries among servants both in England and in Victoria, first put me upon the track. But I said nothing at the time of my suspicions to anyone. I waited till I could appeal to the man's own conscience with success, as I hoped. And then, besides, I hardly knew how to act for the best. I wanted to marry you; and therefore, as far as was consistent with justice and honour, I wished to spare your supposed father a complete exposure."

"But why didn't you tell the police?" I asked.

"Because I had really nothing definite in any way to go upon. Realise the position to yourself, and you'll see how difficult it was for me. Mr. Callingham suspected I was paying you attentions. Clearly, under those circumstances, it was to my obvious interest that you should get possession of all his property. Any claims I might make for you would, therefore, be naturally regarded with suspicion. The shipwrecked man had told nobody but myself. I hadn't even an affidavit, a death-bed statement. All rested upon his word, and upon mine as retailing it. He was dead, and there was nothing but my narrative for what he told me. The story itself was too improbable to be believed by the police on such dubious evidence. I didn't even care to try. I wanted to make your step-father confess: and I waited for that till I could compel confession."