The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XXI. Worse Speed
Langholm returned to his hotel and wrote a few lines to Rachel. It had been arranged that he was to report progress direct to her, and as often as possible; but it was a very open arrangement, in which Steel had sardonically concurred. Yet, little as there was to say, and for all his practice with the pen, it took Langholm the best part of an hour to write that he believed he had already obtained a most important clew, which the police had missed in the most incredible manner, though it had been under their noses all the time. So incredible did it appear, however, even to himself, when written down, that Langholm decided not to post this letter until after his interview with the Chelsea landlady.
To kill the interval, he went for his dinner to the single club to which he still belonged. It was a Bohemian establishment off the Strand, and its time-honored name was the best thing about it in this member's eyes. He was soon cursing himself for coming near the place while engaged upon his great and sacred quest. Not a "clubable" person himself, as that epithet was understood in this its home, Langholm was not a little surprised when half-a-dozen men (most of whom he barely knew) rose to greet him on his appearance in the smoking-room. But even with their greetings came the explanation, to fill the newcomer with a horror too sudden for concealment.
It appeared that Mrs. Steel's identity with the whilom Mrs. Minchin had not only leaked out in Delverton. Langholm gathered that it was actually in one of that morning's half-penny papers, at which he had not found time to glance in his hot-foot ardor for the chase. For the moment he was shocked beyond words, and not a little disgusted, to discover the cause of his own temporary importance.
"Talk of the devil!" cried a comparative crony. "I was just telling them that you must be the 'well-known novelist' in the case, as your cottage was somewhere down there. Have you really seen anything of the lady?"
"Seen anything of her?" echoed a journalist to whom Langholm had never spoken in his life. "Why, can't you see that he bowled her out himself and came up straight to sell the news?"
Langholm took his comparative crony by the arm.
"Come in and dine with me," he said; "I can't stand this! Yes, yes, I know her well," he whispered, as they went round the screen which was the only partition between pipes and plates; "but let me see what that scurrilous rag has to say while you order. I'll do the rest, and you had better make it a bottle of champagne."
The "scurrilous rag" had less to say than Langholm had been led to expect. He breathed again when he had read the sequence of short but pithy paragraphs. Mrs. Minchin's new name was not given after all, nor that of her adopted district; while Langholm himself only slunk into print as "a well-known novelist who, oddly enough, was among the guests, and eye-witness of a situation after his own heart." The district might have been any one of the many manufacturing centres in "the largest of shires," which was the one geographical clew vouchsafed by the half-penny paper. Langholm began to regret his readiness to admit the impeachment with which he had been saluted; it was only in his own club that he would have been pounced upon as the "well-known novelist"; but it was some comfort to reflect that even in his own club his exact address was not known, for his solicitor paid his subscription and sent periodically for his letters. Charles Langholm had not set up as hermit by halves; he had his own reasons for being thorough there. And it was more inspiriting than the champagne to feel that no fresh annoyance was likely to befall the Steels through him.
"It's not so bad as I thought," said Langholm, throwing the newspaper aside as his companion, whose professional name was Valentine Venn, finished with the wine-card.
"Dear boy," said Venn, "it took a pal to spot you. Alone I did it! But I wish you weren't so dark about that confounded cottage of yours; the humble mummer would fain gather the crumbs that fall from the rich scribe's table, especially when he's out of a shop, which is the present condition of affairs. Besides, we might collaborate in a play, and make more money apiece in three weeks than either of us earns in a fat year. That little story of yours--"
"Never mind my little stories," said Langholm, hastily; "I've just finished a long one, and the very thought of fiction makes me sick."
"Well, you've got facts to turn to for a change, and for once they really do seem as strange as the other thing. Lucky bargee! Have you had her under the microscope all the summer? Ye gods, what a part of Mrs.--"
"Drink up," said Langholm, grimly, as the champagne made an opportune appearance; "and now tell me who that fellow is who's opening the piano, and since when you've started a musical dinner."
The big room that the screen divided had a grand piano in the dining half, for use upon those Saturday evenings for which the old club was still famous, but rarely touched during the working days of the week. Yet even now a dark and cadaverous young man was raising the top of the piano, slowly and laboriously, as though it were too heavy for him. Valentine Venn looked over his shoulder.
"Good God!" said he. "Another fact worth most folks' fiction--another coincidence you wouldn't dare to use!"
"Why--who is it?"
Venn's answer was to hail the dark, thin youth with rude geniality. The young fellow hesitated, almost shrank, but came shyly forward in the end. Langholm noted that he looked very ill, that his face was as sensitive as it was thin and pale, but his expression singularly sweet and pleasing.
"Severino," said Venn, with a play-actor's pomp, "let me introduce you to Charles Langholm, the celebrated novelist--'whom not to know is to argue yourself unknown.'"
"Which is the champion non sequitur of literature," added Langholm, with literary arrogance, as he took the lad's hand cordially in his own, only to release it hurriedly before he crushed such slender fingers to their hurt.
"Mr. Langholm," pursued Venn, "is the hero of that paragraph"--Langholm kicked him under the table--"that--that paragraph about his last book, you know. Severino, Langholm, is the best pianist we have had in the club since I have been a member, and you will say the same yourself in another minute. He always plays to us when he drops in to dine, and you may think yourself lucky that he has dropped in to-night."
"But where does the coincidence come in?" asked Langholm, as the young fellow returned to the piano with a rather sad shake of the head.
"What!" cried Venn, below his breath; "do you mean to say you are a friend of Mrs. Minchin's, or whatever her name is now, and that you never heard of Severino?"
"No," replied Langholm, his heart in an instantaneous flutter. "Who is he?"
"The man she wanted to nurse the night her husband was murdered--the cause of the final row between them! His name was kept out of the papers, but that's the man."
Langholm sat back in his chair. To have spent a summer's day in stolid search for traces of this man, only to be introduced to the man himself by purest chance in the evening! It was, indeed, difficult to believe; nor was persuasion on the point followed by the proper degree of gratitude in Langholm for a transcendent stroke of fortune. In fact, he almost resented his luck; he would so much rather have stood indebted to his skill. And there were other causes for disappointment, as in an instant there were things more incredible to Langholm than the everyday coincidence of a chance meeting with the one person whom one desires to meet.
"So that's the man!" he echoed, in a tone that might have told his companion something, only the fingers which Langholm had feared to crush had already fallen upon the keys, with the strong, tender, unerring touch of a master, and the impressionable player was swaying with enthusiasm on his stool.
"And can't he play?" whispered Valentine Venn, as though it were the man's playing alone that they were discussing.
Yet even the preoccupied novelist had to listen and nod, and then listen again, before replying.
"He can," said Langholm at length. "But why was it that they took such pains to keep his name out of the case?"
"They didn't. It would have done no good to drag him in. The poor devil was at death's door at the time of the murder."
"But is that a fact?"
Venn opened his eyes.
"Supposing," continued Langholm, speaking the thing that was not in his mind with the deplorable facility of the professional story-teller--"supposing that illness had been a sham, and they had really meant to elope under cover of it!"
"Well, it wasn't."
"I dare say not. But how do you know? They ought to have put him in the box and had his evidence."
"He was still too ill to be called," rejoined Venn. "But I'll take you at your word, dear boy, and tell you exactly how I do know all about his illness. You see that dark chap with the cigar, who's just come in to listen? That's Severino's doctor; it was he who put him up here; and I'll introduce you to him, if you like, after dinner."
"Thank you," said Langholm, after some little hesitation; "as a matter of fact, I should like it very much. Venn," he added, leaning right across the little table, "I know the woman well! I believe in her absolutely, on every point, and I mean to make her neighbors and mine do the same. That is my object--don't give it away!"
"Dear boy, these lips are sealed," said Valentine Venn.
But a very little conversation with the doctor sufficed to satisfy Langholm's curiosity, and to remove from his mind the wild prepossession which he had allowed to grow upon it with every hour of that wasted day. The doctor was also one of the Bohemian colony in Chelsea, and by no means loath to talk about a tragedy of which he had exceptional knowledge, since he himself had been one of the medical witnesses at each successive stage of the investigations. He had also heard on the other side of the screen, that Langholm was the novelist referred to in a paragraph which had of course had a special interest for him; and, as was only fair, Langholm was interrogated in his turn. What was less fair, and indeed ungrateful in a marked degree, was the way in which the original questioner parried all questions put to himself; and he very soon left the club. On his way out, he went into the writing-room, and, tearing into little pieces a letter which he had written that afternoon, left the fragments behind him in the waste-paper basket.
His exit from the room was meanwhile producing its sequel in a little incident which would have astonished Langholm considerably. Severino had been playing for nearly an hour on end, had seemed thoroughly engrossed in his own fascinating performance, and quite oblivious of the dining and smoking going on around him according to the accepted ease and freedom of the club. Yet no sooner was Langholm gone than the pianist broke off abruptly and joined the group which the other had deserted.
"Who is that fellow?" said Severino, in English so perfect that the slight Italian accent only added a charm to his gentle voice. "I did not catch the name."
It was repeated, with such additions as may be fairly made behind a man's back.
"A dashed good fellow, who writes dashed bad novels," was one of these.
"You forget!" said another. "He is the 'well-known novelist' who is going the rounds as a neighbor and friend of Mrs.--"
Looks from Venn and the doctor cut short the speech, but not before its import had come home to the young Italian, whose hollow cheeks flushed a dusky brown, while his sunken eyes caught fire. In an instant he was on his feet, with no attempt to hide his excitement, and still less to mask the emotion that was its real name.
"He knows her, do you tell me? He knows Mrs. Minchin--"
"Or whatever her name is now; yes; so he says."
"And what is her name?"
"He won't say."
"Nor where she lives?"
"Then where does he live?"
"None of us know that either; he's the darkest horse in the club."
Venn agreed with this speaker, some little bitterness in his tone. Another stood up for Langholm.
"We should be as dark," said he, "if we had married Gayety choristers, and they had left us, and we went in dread of their return!"
They sum up the life tragedies pretty pithily, in these clubs.
"He was always a silly ass about women," rejoined Langholm's critic, summing up the man. "So it's Mrs. Minchin now!"
The name acted like magic upon young Severino. His attention had wandered. In an instant it was more eager than before.
"If you don't know where he lives in the country," he burst out, "where is he staying in town?"
"We don't know that either."
"Then I mean to find out!"
And the pale musician rushed from the room, in pursuit of the man who had been all day pursuing him.