Chapter XXII. The Darkest Hour
 

The amateur detective walked slowly up to Piccadilly, and climbed on top of a Chelsea omnibus, a dejected figure even to the casual eye. He was more than disappointed at the upshot of his wild speculations, and in himself for the false start that he had made. His feeling was one of positive shame. It was so easy now to see the glaring improbability of the conclusion to which he had jumped in his haste, at the first promptings of a too facile fancy. And what an obvious idea it had been at last! As if his were the only brain to which it could have occurred!

Langholm could have laughed at his late theory if it had only entailed the loss of one day, but it had also cost him that self-confidence which was the more valuable in his case through not being a common characteristic of the man. He now realized the difficulties of his quest, and the absolutely wrong way in which he had set about it. His imagination had run away with him. It was no case for the imagination. It was a case for patient investigation, close reasoning, logical deduction, all arts in which the imaginative man is almost inevitably deficient.

Langholm, however, had enough lightness of temperament to abandon an idea as readily as he formed one, and his late suspicion was already driven to the four winds. He only hoped he had not shown what was in his mind at the club. Langholm was a just man, and he honestly regretted the injustice that he had done, even in his own heart, and for ever so few hours, to a thoroughly innocent man.

And all up Piccadilly this man was sitting within a few inches of him, watching his face with a passionate envy, and plucking up courage to speak; he only did so at Hyde Park Corner, where an intervening passenger got down.

Langholm was sufficiently startled at the sound of his own name, breaking in upon the reflections indicated, but to find at his elbow the very face which was in his mind was to lose all power of immediate reply.

"My name is Severino," explained the other. "I was introduced to you an hour or two ago at the club."

"Ah, to be sure!" cried Langholm, recovering. "Odd thing, though, for we must have left about the same time, and I never saw you till this moment."

Severino took the vacant place by Langholm's side. "Mr. Langholm," said he, a tremor in his soft voice, "I have a confession to make to you. I followed you from the club!"

"You followed me?"

Langholm could not help the double emphasis; to him it seemed a grotesque turning of the tables, a too poetically just ending to that misspent day. It was all he could do to repress a smile.

"Yes, I followed you," the young Italian repeated, with his taking accent, in his touching voice; "and I beg your pardon for doing so--though I would do the same again--I will tell you why. I thought that you were talking about me while I was strumming to them at the club. It is possible, of course, that I was quite mistaken; but when you went out I stopped at once and asked questions. And they told me you were a friend of--a great friend of mine--of Mrs. Minchin!"

"It is true enough," said Langholm, after a pause. "Well?"

"She was a very great friend of mine," repeated Severino. "That was all."

And he sighed.

"So I have heard," said Langholm, with sympathy. "I can well believe it, for I might almost say the same of her myself."

The 'bus toiled on beside the park. The two long lines of lights rose gently ahead until they almost met, and the two men watched them as they spoke.

"Until to-day," continued Severino, "I did not know whether she was dead or alive."

"She is both alive and well."

"And married again?"

"And married again."

There was a long pause. The park ended first.

"I want you to do me a great favor," said Severino in Knightsbridge. "She was so good to me! I shall never forget it, and yet I have never been able to thank her. I nearly died--it was at that time--and when I remembered, she had disappeared. I beg and beseech you, Mr. Langholm, to tell me her name, and where she is living now!"

Langholm looked at his companion in the confluence of lights at the Sloane Street corner. The pale face was alight with passion, the sunken eyes ablaze. "I cannot tell you," he answered, shortly.

"Is it your own name?"

"Good God, no!"

And Langholm laughed harshly.

"Will you not even tell me where she lives?"

"I cannot, without her leave; but if you like I will tell her about you."

There was no answer as they drove on. Then of a sudden Langholm's arm was seized and crushed by bony fingers.

"I am dying," the low voice whispered hoarsely in his ear. "Can't you see it for yourself? I shall never get better; it might be a year or two, it may be weeks. But I want to see her again and make sure. Yes, I love her! There is no sense in denying it. But it is all on my side, and I am dying, and she has married again! What harm can it do anybody if I see her once more?"

The sunken eyes were filled with tears. There were more tears in the hollow voice. Langholm was deeply touched.

"My dear fellow," he said, "I will let her know. No, no, not that, of course! But I will write to her at once--to-night! Will that not do?"

Severino thanked him, with a heavy sigh. "Oh, don't get down," he added, as Langholm rose. "I won't talk about her any more."

"I am staying in this street," explained Langholm, guardedly.

"And these are my lodgings," rejoined the other, pulling a letter from his pocket, and handing the envelope to Langholm. "Let me hear from you, for pity's sake, as soon as you hear from her!"

Langholm sauntered on the pavement until the omnibus which he had left was no longer distinguishable from the general traffic of the thoroughfare. The address on the envelope was that of the lodging-house at which he was to have called that night. He was glad now that his luck had not left him to find Severino for himself; the sense of fatuity would have been even keener than it was. In a way he now felt drawn to the poor, frank boy who had so lately been the object of his unjust and unfounded suspicions. There was a new light in which to think of him, a new bond between them, a new spring of sympathy or jealousy, if not of both. But Langholm was not in London to show sympathy or friendship for any man. He was in London simply and solely upon his own great quest, in which no man must interrupt him. That was why he had been so guarded about his whereabouts--though not guarded enough--and why he watched the omnibus out of sight before entering his hotel. The old Londoner had forgotten how few places there are at which one can stay in Sloane Street.

A bad twenty-four hours was in store for him.

They began well enough with the unexpected discovery that an eminent authority on crime and criminals, who had been a good friend to Langholm in his London days, was still in town. The novelist went round to his house that night, chiefly because it was not ten minutes' walk from the Cadogan Hotel, and with little hope of finding anybody at home. Yet there was his friend, with the midnight lamp just lighted, and so kind a welcome that Langholm confided in him on the spot. And the man who knew all the detectives in London did not laugh at the latest recruit to their ranks; but smile he did.

"I'll tell you what I might do," he said at length. "I might give you a card that should get you into the Black Museum at New Scotland Yard, where they would show you any relics they may have kept of the Minchin murder; only don't say why you want to see them. Every man you see there will be a detective; you may come across the very fellows who got up the case; if so, they may tell you what they think of it, and you should be able to find out whether they're trying again. Here you are, Langholm, and I wish you luck. Doing anything to-morrow night?"

Langholm could safely say that he was not.

"Then dine with me at the Rag at seven, and tell me how you get on. It must be seven, because I'm off to Scotland by the night mail. And I don't want to be discouraging, my dear fellow, but it is only honest to say that I think more of your chivalry than of your chances of success!"

At the Black Museum they had all the trophies which had been produced in court; but the officer who acted as showman to Langholm admitted that they had no right to retain any of them. They were Mrs. Minchin's property, and if they knew where she was they would of course restore everything.

"But the papers say she isn't Mrs. Minchin any longer," the officer added. "Well, well! There's no accounting for taste."

"But Mrs. Minchin was acquitted," remarked Langholm, in tone as impersonal as he could make it.

"Ye-es," drawled his guide, dryly. "Well, it's not for us to say anything about that."

"But you think all the more, I suppose?"

"There's only one opinion about it in the Yard."

"But surely you haven't given up trying to find out who really did murder Mr. Minchin?"

"We think we did find out, sir," was the reply to that.

So they had given it up! For a single second the thought was stimulating; if the humble author could succeed where the police had failed! But the odds against such success were probably a million to one, and Langholm sighed as he handled the weapon with which the crime had been committed, in the opinion of the police.

"What makes you so certain that this was the revolver?" he inquired, more to satisfy his conscience by leaving no question unasked than to voice any doubt upon the point.

The other smiled as he explained the peculiarity of the pistol; it had been made in Melbourne, and it carried the bullet of peculiar size which had been extracted from Alexander Minchin's body.

"But London is full of old Australians," objected Langholm, for objection's sake.

"Well, sir," laughed the officer, "you find one who carries a revolver like this, and prove that he was in Chelsea on the night of the murder, with a motive for committing it, and we shall be glad of his name and address. Only don't forget the motive; it wasn't robbery, you know, though her ladyship was so sure it was robbers! There's the maker's name on the barrel. I should take a note of it, sir, if I was you!"

That name and that note were all that Langholm had to show when he dined with the criminologist at his service club the same evening. The amateur detective looked a beaten man already, but he talked through his teeth of inspecting the revolvers in every pawnbroker's shop in London.

"It will take you a year," said the old soldier, cheerfully.

"It seems the only chance," replied the despondent novelist. "It is a case of doing that or nothing."

"Then take the advice of an older fogey than yourself, and do nothing! You are quite right to believe in the lady's innocence; there is no excuse for entertaining any other belief, still less for expressing it. But when you come to putting salt on the real culprit, that's another matter. My dear fellow, it's not the sort of thing that you or I could hope to do on our own, even were the case far simpler than it is. It was very sporting of you to offer for a moment to try your hand; but if I were you I should confess without delay that the task is far beyond you, for that's the honest truth."

Langholm walked back to his hotel, revolving this advice. Its soundness was undeniable, while the source from which it came gave it exceptional weight and value. It was an expert opinion which no man in his senses could afford to ignore, and Langholm felt that Mrs. Steel also ought at least to hear it before building on his efforts. The letter would prepare her for his ultimate failure, as it was only fair that she should be prepared, and yet would leave him free to strain every nerve in any fresh direction in which a chance ray lit the path. But it would be a difficult letter to write, and Langholm was still battling with the first sentence when he reached the Cadogan.

"A gentleman to see me?" he cried in surprise. "What gentleman?"

"Wouldn't leave his name, sir; said he'd call again; a foreign gentleman, he seemed to me."

"A delicate-looking man?"

"Very, sir. You seem to know him better than he knows you," added the hall-porter, with whom Langholm had made friends. "He wasn't certain whether it was the Mr. Langholm he wanted who was staying here, and he asked to look at the register."

"Did you let him see it?" cried Langholm, quickly.

"I did, sir."

"Then let me have another look at it, please!"

It was as Langholm feared. Thoughtlessly, but naturally enough, when requested to put his own name in the book, he had also filled in that full address which he took such pains to conceal in places where he was better known. And that miserable young Italian, that fellow Severino, had discovered not only where he was staying in town, but where he lived in the country, and his next discovery would be Normanthorpe House and its new mistress! Langholm felt enraged; after his own promise to write to Rachel, a promise already fulfilled, the unhappy youth might have had the decency to refrain from underhand tricks like this. Langholm felt inclined to take a cab at once to Severino's lodgings, there to relieve his mind by a very plain expression of his opinion. But it was late; and perhaps allowances should be made for a sick man with a passion as hopeless as his bodily state; in any case he would sleep upon it first.

But there was no sleep for Charles Langholm that night, nor did the thought of Severino enter his head again; it was suddenly swept aside and as suddenly replaced by that of the man who was to fill the novelist's mind for many a day.

Idly glancing up and down the autographed pages of the hotel register, as his fingers half-mechanically turned leaf after leaf backward, Langholm's eye had suddenly caught a name of late as familiar to him as his own.

It was the name of John Buchanan Steel.

And the date was the date of the Minchin murder.