The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XXIV. One Who Was Not Bidden
Langholm went north next morning by the ten o'clock express from King's Cross. He had been but four nights in town, and not four days, yet to Langholm they might have been weeks, for he had never felt so much and slept so little in all his life. He had also done a good deal; but it is the moments of keen sensation that make up the really crowded hours, and Langholm was to run the gamut of his emotions before this memorable week was out. In psychological experience it was to be, for him, a little lifetime in itself; indeed, the week seemed that already, while it was still young, and comparatively poor in incident and surprise.
He had bought magazines and the literary papers for his journey, but he could concentrate his mind on nothing, and only the exigencies of railway travelling kept him off his legs. Luckily for Langholm, however, sleep came to him when least expected, in his cool corner of the corridor train, and he only awoke in time for luncheon before the change at York. His tired brain was vastly refreshed, but so far he could not concentrate it, even on the events of these eventful days. He was still in the thick of them. A sense of proportion was as yet impossible, and a consecutive review the most difficult of intellectual feats. Langholm was too excited, and the situation too identical with suspense, for a clear sight of all its bearings and potentialities; and then there was the stern self-discipline, the determined bridling of the imagination, in which he had not yet relaxed. Once in the night, however, in the hopeless hours between darkness and broad day, he had seen clearly for a while, and there and then pinned his vision down to paper. It concerned only one aspect of the case, but this was how Langholm found that he had stated it, on taking out his pocket-book during the final stages of his journey--
As Langholm read and re-read these precise pronouncements, with something of the detachment and the mild surprise with which he occasionally dipped into his own earlier volumes, he congratulated himself upon the evidently lucid interval which had produced so much order from the chaos that had been his mind. Chaotic as its condition still was, that orderly array of impression, discovery, and surmise, bore the test of conscientious reconsideration. And there was nothing that Langholm felt moved to strike out in the train; but, on the other hand, he saw the weakness of his case as it stood at present, and was helped to see it by the detective officer's remark to him at Scotland Yard: "You find one [old Australian] 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." Langholm had found the old Australian who could be proved to have been in Chelsea, or thereabouts, on the night in question; but the pistol he could not hope to find, and the motive was mere surmise.
And yet, to the walls of the mind that he was trying so hard to cleanse from prejudice and prepossession--to school indeed to an inhuman fairness--there clung small circumstances and smaller details which could influence no one else, which would not constitute evidence before any tribunal, but which weighed more with Langholm himself than all the points arrayed in his note-book with so much primness and precision.
There was Rachel's vain appeal to her husband, "Find out who is guilty if you want people to believe that I am not." Why should so natural a petition have been made in vain, to a husband who after all had shown some solicitude for his wife's honor, and who had the means to employ the best detective talent in the world? Langholm could only conceive one reason: there was nothing for the husband to find out, but everything for him to hide.
Langholm remembered the wide-eyed way in which Steel had looked at his wife before replying, and the man's embarrassment grew automatically in his mind. His lips had indeed shut very tight, but unconscious exaggeration made them tremble first.
And then the fellow's manner to himself, his defiant taunts, his final challenge! Langholm was not sorry to remember the last; it relieved him from the moral incubus of the clandestine and the underhand; it bid him go on and do his worst; it set his eyes upon the issue as between himself and Steel, and it shut them to the final possibilities as touching the woman in the case.
So Langholm came back from sultry London to a world of smoke and rain, with furnaces flaring through the blurred windows, and the soot laid with the dust in one of the grimiest towns in the island; but he soon shook both from his feet, and doubled back upon the local line to a rural station within a mile and a half of his cottage. This distance he walked by muddy ways, through the peculiarly humid atmosphere created by a sky that has rained itself out and an earth that can hold no more, and came finally to his dripping garden by the wicket at the back of the cottage. There he stood to inhale the fine earthy fragrance which atoned somewhat for a rather desolate scene. The roses were all washed away. William Allen Richardson clung here and there, in the shelter of the southern eaves, but he was far past his prime, and had better have perished with the exposed beauties on the tiny trees. The soaking foliage had a bluish tinge; the glimpse of wooded upland, across the valley through the gap in the hedge of Penzance briers, lay colorless and indistinct as a faded print from an imperfect negative. A footstep crunched the wet gravel at Langholm's back.
"Thank God you've got back, sir!" cried a Yorkshire voice in devout accents; and Langholm, turning, met the troubled face and tired eyes of the woman next door, who kept house for him while living in her own.
"My dear Mrs. Brunton," he exclaimed, "what on earth has happened? You didn't expect me earlier, did you? I wired you my train first thing this morning."
"Oh, no, it isn't that, sir. It's--it's the poor young gentleman--"
And her apron went to her eyes.
"What young gentleman, Mrs. Brunton?"
"Him 'at you saw i' London an' sent all this way for change of air! He wasn't fit to travel half the distance. I've been nursing of him all night and all day too."
"A young gentleman, and sent by me?" Langholm's face was blank until a harsh light broke over it. "What's his name, Mrs. Brunton?"
"I can't tell you, sir. He said he was a friend of yours, and that was all before he took ill. He's been too bad to answer questions all day. And then we knew you'd soon be here to tell us."
"A foreigner, I suppose?"
"I should say he was, sir."
"And did he really tell you I had sent him?"
"Well, I can't say he did, not in so many words, but that was what I thought he meant. It was like this, sir," continued Mrs. Brunton, as they stood face to face on the wet gravel: "just about this time yesterday I was busy ironing, when my nephew, the lad you used to send with letters, who's here again for his summer holidays, comes to me an' says, 'You're wanted.' So I went, and there was a young gentleman looking fit to drop. He'd a bag with him, and he'd walked all the way from Upthorpe station, same as I suppose you have now; but yesterday was the hottest day we've had, and I never did see living face so like the dead. He had hardly life enough to ask if this was where you lived; and when I said it was, but you were away, he nodded and said he'd just seen you in London; and he was sure he might come in and rest a bit. Well, sir, I not only let him do that, but you never will lock up anything, so I gave him a good sup o' your whiskey too!"
"Quite right," said Langholm--"and then?"
"It seemed to pull him together a bit, and he began to talk. He wanted to know about all the grand folks round about, where they lived and how long they'd lived there. At last he made me tell him the way to Normanthorpe House, after asking any amount of questions about Mr. and Mrs. Steel; it was hard work not to tell him what had just come out, but I remembered what you said before you went away, sir, and I left that to others."
"Good!" said Langholm. "But did he go to Normanthorpe?"
"He started, though I begged him to sit still while we tried to get him a trap from the village; and his self-will nearly cost him his life, if it doesn't yet. He was hardly out of sight when we see him come staggering back with his handkerchief up to his mouth, and the blood dripping through his fingers into the road."
"Yes, sir, yon was the very word the doctor used, and he says if he has another it'll be all up. So you may think what a time I've had! If he's a friend of yours, sir, I'm sure I don't mind. In any case, poor gentleman--"
"He is a friend of mine," interrupted Langholm, "and we must do all we can for him. I will help you, Mrs. Brunton. You shall have your sleep to-night. Did you put him into my room?"
"No, sir, your bed wasn't ready, so we popped him straight into our own; and now he has everything nice and clean and comfortable as I could make it. If only we can pull him through, poor young gentleman, between us!"
"God bless you for a good woman," said Langholm, from his heart; "it will be His will and not your fault if we fail. Yes, I should like to see the poor fellow, if I may."
"He is expecting you, sir. He told Dr. Sedley he must see you the moment you arrived, and the doctor said he might. No, he won't know you're here yet, and he can't have heard a word, for our room is at t'front o' t'house."
"Then I'll go up alone, Mrs. Brunton, if you won't mind."
Severino was lying in a high, square bed, his black locks tossed upon a spotless pillow no whiter than his face; a transparent hand came from under the bedclothes to meet Langholm's outstretched one, but it fell back upon the sick man's breast instead.
"Do you forgive me?" he whispered, in a voice both hoarse and hollow.
"What for?" smiled Langholm. "You had a right to come where you liked; it is a free country, Severino."
"But I went to your hotel--behind your back!"
"That was quite fair, my good fellow. Come, I mean to shake hands, whether you like it or not."
And the sound man took the sick one's hand with womanly tenderness; and so sat on the bed, looking far into the great dark sinks of fever that were human eyes; but the fever was of the brain, for the poor fellow's hand was cool.
"You do not ask me why I did it," came from the tremulous lips at last.
"Perhaps I know."
"I will tell you if you are right."
"It was to see her again--your kindest friend--and mine," said Langholm, gently.
"Yes! It was to see her again--before I die!"
And the black eyes blazed again.
"You are not going to die," said Langholm, with the usual reassuring scorn.
"I am. Quite soon. On your hands, I only fear. And I have not seen her yet!"
"You shall see her," said Langholm, tenderly, gravely. He was rewarded with a slight pressure of the emaciated hand; but for the first time he suspected that all the scrutiny was not upon one side--that the sick youth was trying to read him in his turn.
"I love her!" at last cried Severino, in rapt whispers. "Do you hear me? I love her! I love her! What does it matter now?"
"It would matter to her if you told her," rejoined Langholm. "It would make her very unhappy."
"Then I need not tell her."
"You must not, indeed."
"Very well, I will not. It is a promise, and I keep my promises; it is only when I make none--"
"That's all right," said Langholm, smiling.
"Then you will bring her to me?"
"I shall have to see her first, and the doctor."
"But you will do your best? That is why I am here, remember! I shall tell the doctor so myself."
"I will do my best," said Langholm, as he rose.
A last whisper followed him to the door.
"Because I worship her!" were the words.