Chapter XXVII. Mr. Wraythwaite of Wraye
 

Had the Mayor of Highmarket, lying there sullen and suspicious, only known what was taking place close to him at that very moment, only known what had been happening in his immediate vicinity during the afternoon and evening, he might have taken some course of action which would have prevented what was shortly to come. But he knew nothing--except that he was angry, and full of doubts, and cursed everything and everybody that had led to this evil turn in his fortunes, and was especially full of vindictiveness towards the man and woman in the next room, who, as he felt sure, were trying to take advantage of his present helplessness. And meanwhile, not far away, things were going on--and they had been going on all that day since noon.

Brereton, going away from Highmarket Town Hall after the dramatic discharge of Cotherstone, was suddenly accosted by a smart-looking young man whom, at first glance, he knew to be in some way connected with the law.

"Mr. Gifford Brereton?" inquired this stranger. "I have a note for you, sir."

Brereton took the note and stepped aside into a quiet corner: the young man followed and stood near. To Brereton's surprise he found himself looking at a letter in the handwriting of a London solicitor who had two or three times favoured him with a brief. He hastily glanced through its contents:--

"THE DUKE'S HEAD HOTEL" Norcaster.

"DEAR MR. BRERETON,--

"I have just arrived at this place on business which is closely connected with that which you have in hand. I shall be much obliged if you join me here at once, bringing with you the daughter of your client Harborough--it is important that she should accompany you. The bearer will have a car in readiness for you.

Yours sincerely, "H. C. CARFAX."

Brereton put the note in his pocket and turned to the messenger.

"Mr. Carfax wishes me to return with you to Norcaster," he remarked. "He mentions a car."

"Here, Mr. Brereton--round the corner--a good one, that will run us there in twenty minutes," replied the messenger.

"There's a call to make first," said Brereton. He went round the corner with his companion and recognized in the chauffeur who waited there a man who had once or twice driven him from Norcaster of late. "Ah!" he said, "I daresay you know where Mrs. Northrop lives in this town--up near the foot of the Shawl? You do?--run us up there, then. Are you one of Mr. Carfax's clerks?" he asked when he and the messenger had got into the car. "Have you come down with him from London?"

"No, sir--I am a clerk at Willerby & Hargreaves' in Norcaster," replied the messenger. "Carfax and Spillington are our London agents. Mr. Carfax and some other gentlemen came down from town first thing this morning, and Mr. Carfax got me to bring you that note."

"You don't know what he wants to see me about?" asked Brereton, who was already curious to the point of eagerness.

"Well, sir, I have a pretty good idea," answered the clerk, with a smile, "but I think Mr. Carfax would rather tell you everything himself. We shall soon be there, Mr. Brereton--if the young lady doesn't keep us."

Brereton ran into Northrop's house and carried Avice off with scant ceremony.

"This, of course, has something to do with your father's case," he said, as he led her down to the car. "It may be--but no, we won't anticipate! Only--I'm certain things are going to right themselves. Now then!" he called to the driver as they joined the clerk. "Get along to Norcaster as fast as you can."

Within half an hour the car stopped at the old-fashioned gateway of the Duke's Head in Norcaster market-place, and the clerk immediately led his two companions into the hotel and upstairs to a private sitting-room, at the door of which he knocked. A voice bade him enter; he threw the door open and announced the visitors.

"Miss Harborough--Mr. Brereton, Mr. Carfax," he said.

Brereton glanced sharply at the men who stood in the room, evidently expectant of his and his companion's arrival. Carfax, a short, middle-aged man, quick and bustling in manner, he, of course, knew: the others were strangers. Two of them Brereton instantly set down as detectives; there were all the marks and signs of the craft upon them. They stood in a window, whispering together, and at them Brereton gave but a glance. But at the fourth man, who stood on the hearthrug, he looked long and hard. And his thoughts immediately turned to the night on which he and Avice had visited the old woman who lived in the lonely house on the moors and to what she had said about a tall man who had met Harborough in her presence--a tall, bearded man. For the man who stood there before him, looking at Avice with an interested, somewhat wistful smile, was a tall, bearded man--a man past middle age, who looked as if he had seen a good deal of the far-off places of the world.

Carfax had hurried forward, shaken hands with Brereton, and turned to Avice while Brereton was making this rapid inspection.

"So here you are, Brereton--and this young lady, I suppose, is Miss Harborough?" he said, drawing a chair forward. "Glad you've come--and I daresay you're wondering why you've been sent for? Well--all in good time, but first--this gentleman is Mr. John Wraythwaite."

The big man started forward, shook hands hastily with Brereton, and turned more leisurely to Avice.

"My dear young lady!" he said. "I--I--the fact is, I'm an old friend of your father's, and--and it will be very soon now that he's all right--and all that sort of thing, you know! You don't know me, of course."

Avice looked up at the big, bearded figure and from it to Brereton.

"No!" she said. "But--I think it was you who sent that money to Mr. Brereton."

"Ah! you're anticipating, young lady!" exclaimed Carfax. "Yes--we've a lot of talking to do. And we'd better all sit down and do it comfortably. One moment," he continued, and turned away to the two men in the window, who, after a few words with him, left the room. "Now then--we'll do our first part of the business, Brereton!" he went on, as they all took seats at a table near the fire. "You, of course, don't know who this gentleman is?"

"Not at all," replied Brereton.

"Very good!" continued Carfax, rubbing his hands as if in enjoyment of the situation. "Then you've some interesting facts to hear about him. To begin with, he's the man who, when your client, this young lady's father, is brought up at these coming Assizes, will prove a complete alibi on his behalf. In other words, he's the man with whom Harborough was in company during the evening and the greater part of the night on which Kitely was murdered."

"I thought so," said Brereton. He looked reflectively at Mr. Wraythwaite. "But why did you not come forward at once?" he asked.

"My advice--my advice!" exclaimed Carfax hastily. "I'm going to explain the reasons. Now, you won't understand, Brereton, but Miss Harborough, I think, will know what I mean, or she'll have some idea, when I say that this gentleman is now--now, mind you!--Mr. Wraythwaite of Wraye."

Avice looked up quickly with evident comprehension, and the solicitor nodded.

"You see--she knows," he went on, turning to Brereton. "At least, that conveys something to her. But it doesn't to you. Well, my dear sir, if you were a native of these parts it would. Wraye is one of the oldest and most historic estates between here and the Tweed--everybody knows Wraye. And everybody knows too that there has been quite a romance about Wraye for some time--since the last Wraythwaite died, in fact. That Wraythwaite was a confirmed old bachelor. He lived to a great age--he outlived all his brothers and sisters, of whom he'd had several. He left quite a tribe of nephews and nieces, who were distributed all over the world. Needless to say, there was vast bother and trouble. Finally, one of the nephews made a strong claim to the estate, as being the eldest known heir. And he was until recently in good trim for establishing his claim, when my client here arrived on the scene. For he is the eldest nephew--he is the rightful heir--and I am thankful to say that--only within this last day or two--his claim has been definitely recognized and established, and all without litigation. Everything," continued Carfax, again rubbing his hands with great satisfaction, "everything is now all right, and Mr. Wraythwaite of Wraye will take his proper and rightful place amongst his own people."

"I'm exceedingly glad to hear it," said Brereton, with a smile at the big man, who continued to watch Avice as if his thoughts were with her rather than with his solicitor's story. "But--you'll understand that I'd like to know how all this affects my client?"

"Ye--yes!" said Mr. Wraythwaite, hastily. "Tell Mr. Brereton, Carfax--never mind me and my affairs--get on to poor Harborough."

"Your affair and Harborough's are inextricably mixed, my dear sir," retorted Carfax, good-humouredly. "I'm coming to the mingling of them. Well," he continued, addressing himself again to Brereton. "This is how things are--or were. I must tell you that the eldest brother of the late Squire of Wraye married John Harborough's aunt--secretly. They had not been married long before the husband emigrated. He went off to Australia, leaving his wife behind until he had established himself--there had been differences between him and his family, and he was straitened in means. In his absence our friend here was born--and at the same time, sad to say, his mother died. The child was brought up by Harborough's mother--Mr. Wraythwaite and Harborough are foster-brothers. It remained in the care of Harborough's mother--who kept the secret of the marriage--until it was seven years old. Then, opportunity occurring, it was taken to its father in Australia. The father, Matthew Wraythwaite, made a big fortune in Australia, sheep-farming. He never married again, and the fortune, of course, came at his death to his only son--our friend. Now, he had been told of the secret marriage of his father, but, being possessed of an ample fortune himself, he concerned himself little about the rest of the old family. However, a year or so ago, happening to read in the newspapers about the death of the old Squire, his uncle, and the difficulty of definitely deciding the real heirship, he came over to England. But he had no papers relating to his father's marriage, and he did not know where it had taken place. At that time he had not consulted me--in fact, he had consulted no one. If he had consulted me," continued Carfax, with a knowing wink at Brereton, "we should have put him right in a few hours. But he kept off lawyers--and he sought out the only man he could remember--his foster-brother, Harborough. And by Harborough's advice, they met secretly. Harborough did not know where that marriage had taken place--he had to make inquiries all over this district--he had to search registers. Now and then, my client--not my client then, of course--came to see Harborough; when he did so, he and Harborough met in quiet places. And on the night on which that man Kitely was murdered," concluded the solicitor, "Harborough was with my client from nine o'clock until half-past four in the morning, when he parted with him near Hexendale railway station. Mr. Wraythwaite will swear that."

"And fortunately, we have some corroboration," observed Brereton, with a glance at Avice, "for whether Mr. Wraythwaite knows it or not, his meeting with Harborough on the moors that particular night was witnessed."

"Capital--capital!" exclaimed Carfax. "By a credible--and creditable--witness?"

"An old woman of exceptional character," answered Brereton, "except that she indulges herself in a little night-poaching now and then."

"Ah, well, we needn't tell that when she goes into the witness-box," said Carfax. "But that's most satisfactory. My dear young lady!" he added, turning to Avice, "your father will be released like--like one o'clock! And then, I think," he went on bustling round on the new Squire of Wraye, "then, my dear, I think Mr. Wraythwaite here----"

"Leave that to me, Carfax," interrupted Mr. Wraythwaite, with a nod at Avice. "I'll tell this young lady all about that myself. In the meantime----"

"Ah, just so!" responded Carfax. "In the meantime, we have something not so interesting or pleasing, but extremely important, to tell Mr. Brereton. Brereton--how are things going? Has any fresh light been thrown on the Kitely murder? Nothing really certain and definite you say? Very well, my dear sir--then you will allow me to throw some light on it!"

So saying, Carfax rose from his chair, quitted the room--and within another minute returned, solemnly escorting the two detectives.