Chapter XXV. A Point to Langholm
 

"I am glad you have come back," said Dr. Sedley with relief. "Of course eventually he will require trained nursing, either here or somewhere else; there is only one end to such a case, but it needn't come yet, unless he has another hemorrhage. I understand you offered him your cottage while you were away, but there was some muddle, and he came before they were ready for him? It was like your kindness, my dear fellow, only never you send another consumptive to the northeast coast or anywhere near it! As to his seeing any ladies who like to look him up, by all means, only one at a time, and they mustn't excite him. Your return, for example, has been quite enough excitement for to-day, and I should keep him quiet for the next twenty-four hours."

The doctor had called within an hour of the return of Langholm, who repeated these stipulations upstairs, with his own undertaking in regard to Rachel. He would write that night and beg her to call the following day. No, he preferred writing to going to see her, and it took up far less time. But he would write at once. And, as he went downstairs to do so then and there, Langholm asked himself whether an honorable man could meet the Steels again without reading to their faces the notes that he had made in London and conned in the train.

This letter written, there was a small pile of them awaiting attention on top of the old bureau; and Langholm sat glancing at proofs and crumpling up press-cuttings until he needed a lamp. The letter that he kept to the last looked like one of the rare applications for his autograph which he was not too successful to welcome as straws showing the wind of popular approval. In opening the envelope, however, he noticed that it bore the Northborough postmark, also that the handwriting was that of an illiterate person, and his very surname misspelt. The contents were as follows:

"Northborough, August 18, 189--.

"MR. LANGHAM, Sir,

"I here as you are on the tracks of them that murdered Alexander Minchin, if you want to know of them that had a Reason for doing it I can give you the straight Tip.

"I have been out to your place to-night, but you are only due home to-morrow night, therefore I will be your way again to-morrow night, but will only come to the cross-roads as your old girl look suspichious last night and this is on the strickt Q.T.

"Till to-morrow night then at the cross-roads near your place, from nine to ten to-morrow night, when you will here of something to your advantage.

"Believe your's faithly,

"JOHN WILLIAM ABEL."

Langholm could not guess who this man Abel might be, but idly imagined him one of the innumerable drinking drones who stood about the street corners of Northborough from morning till night throughout the year. This one had more information than the common run, with perhaps more cunning and ingenuity to boot. Langholm deemed it discreet not to mention the matter to his dear "old girl" of disrespectful reference, who served him an excellent supper at eight o'clock. And little better than an hour later, having seen the invalid once more, and left him calm and comfortable for the night, the novelist sallied forth to meet his unknown correspondent.

It was a dark night, for the rain was by no means over, though not actually falling at the moment; and the cross-roads, which lay low, with trees in all four angles, was a dark spot at full moon. As he approached with caution, rapping the road with his stick in order to steer clear of the ditch, Langholm wished he had come on his bicycle, for the sake of the light he might have had from its lamp; but a light there was, ready waiting for him, though a very small and feeble one; for his illiterate correspondent was on the ground before him, with a cutty-pipe in full blast.

"Name of Langholm?" said a rather rollicking voice, with a rank puff and a shower of sparks, as the cautious steps followed the rapping stick.

"That's it," said Langholm; "if yours is Abel, I have got your letter."

"You have, have you?" cried the other, with the same jovial familiarity. "And what do you think of it?"

The glowing pipe lit a wild brown beard and mustache, thickly streaked with gray, a bronzed nose, and nothing more. Indeed, it was only at each inhalation that so much stood out upon the surrounding screen of impenetrable blackness. Langholm kept his distance, stick in hand, his gaunt figure as invisible as the overhanging trees; but his voice might have belonged to the most formidable of men.

"As yet," said he, sternly, "I think very little of either you or your letter. Who are you, and what do you mean by writing to me like that?"

"Steady, mister, you do know my name!" remonstrated the man, in rather more respectful tones. "It's Abel--John William--and as much at your service as you like if you take him proper; but he comes from a country where Jack isn't the dirt under his master's feet, and you're no master o' mine."

"I don't want to be, my good fellow," rejoined Langholm, modifying his own manner in turn. "Then you're not a Northborough man?"

"Not me!"

"I seem to have heard your voice before," said Langholm, to whom the wild hair on the invisible face was also not altogether unfamiliar. "Where do you come from?"

"A little place called Australia."

"The devil you do!"

And Langholm stood very still in the dark, for now he knew who this man was, and what manner of evidence he might furnish, and against whom. The missing links in his own secret chain, what if these were about to be given to him by a miracle, who had discovered so much already by sheer chance! It seemed impossible; yet his instinct convinced Langholm of the nature of that which was to come. Without another word he stood until he could trust himself to speak carelessly, while the colonist made traditional comparisons between the old country as he found it and the one which he wished he had never left.

"I know you," said Langholm, when he paused. "You're the man I saw 'knocking down your check,' as you called it, at an inn near here called the Packhorse."

"I am so!" cried the fellow, with sudden savagery. "And do you know where I got the check to knock down? I believe he's a friend of yours; it's him I've come to talk to you about to-night, and he calls himself Steel!"

"Isn't it his real name?" asked Langholm, quickly.

"Well, for all I know, it is. If it isn't, it ought to be!" added Abel, bitterly.

"You knew him in Australia, then?"

"Knew him? I should think I did know him! But who told you he was ever out there? Not him, I'll warrant!"

"I happen to know it," said Langholm, "that's all. But do you mean to tell me that it was Mr. Steel to whom you referred in your letter?"

"I do so!" cried Abel, and clinched it with an oath.

"You said 'they.'"

"But I didn't mean anybody else."

Langholm lowered his voice. Neither foot nor hoof had passed or even sounded in the distance. There was scarcely a whisper of the trees; an ordinary approach could have been heard for hundreds of yards, a stealthy one for tens. Langholm had heard nothing, though his ears were pricked. And yet he lowered his voice.

"Do you actually hint that Mr. Steel has or could have been a gainer by Mr. Minchin's death?"

Abel pondered his reply.

"What I will say," he declared at length, "is that he might have been a loser by his life!"

"You mean if Mr. Minchin had gone on living?"

"Yes--amounts to the same thing, doesn't it?"

"You are not thinking of--of Mrs. Steel?" queried Langholm, after pausing in his turn.

"Bless you, no! She wasn't born or thought of, so far as we was concerned, when we were all three mates up the bush."

"Ah, all three!"

"Steel, Minchin, and me," nodded Abel, as his cutty glowed.

"And you were mates!"

"Well, we were and we weren't: that's just it," said Abel, resentfully. "It would be better for some coves now, if we'd all been on the same footin' then. But that we never were. I was overseer at the principal out-station--a good enough billet in its way--and Minchin was overseer in at the homestead. But Steel was the boss, damn him, trust Steel to be the boss!"

"But if the station was his?" queried Langholm. "I suppose it was a station?" he added, as a furious shower of sparks came from the cutty.

"Was it a station?" the ex-overseer echoed. "Only about the biggest and the best in the blessed back-blocks--that's all! Only about half the size of your blessed little old country cut out square! Oh, yes, it was his all right; bought it for a song after the bad seasons fifteen year ago, and sold it in the end for a quarter of a million, after making a fortune off of his clips alone. And what did I get out of it?" demanded Abel, furiously. "What was my share? A beggarly check same as he give me the other day, and not a penny more!"

"I don't know how much that was," remarked Langholm; "but if you weren't a partner, what claim had you on the profits?"

"Aha! that's tellings," said Abel, with a sudden change both of tone and humor; "that's what I'm here to tell you, if you really want to know! Rum thing, wasn't it? One night I turn up, like any other swaggy, humping bluey, and next week I'm overseer on a good screw (I will say that) and my own boss out at the out-station. Same way, one morning I turn up at his grand homestead here--and you know what! It was a check for three figures. I don't mind telling you. It ought to have been four. But why do you suppose he made it even three? Not for charity, you bet your boots! I leave it to you to guess what for."

The riddle was perhaps more easily solvable by an inveterate novelist than by the average member of the community. It was of a kind which Langholm had been concocting for many years.

"I suppose there is some secret," said he, taking a fresh grip of his stick, in sudden loathing of the living type which he had only imagined hitherto.

"Ah! You've hit it," purred the wretch.

"It is evident enough, and always has been, for that matter," said Langholm, coldly. "And so you know what his secret is!"

"I do, mister."

"And did Mr. Minchin?"

"He did."

"You would tell him, of course?"

The sort of scorn was too delicate for John William Abel, yet even he seemed to realize that an admission must be accompanied by some form of excuse.

"I did tell him," he said, "for I felt I owed it to him. He was a good friend to me, was Mr. Minchin; and neither of us was getting enough for all we did. That was what I felt; to have his own way, the boss'd ride roughshod over us both, and he himself only--but that's tellings again. You must wait a bit, mister! Mr. Minchin hadn't to wait so very long, because I thought we could make him listen to two of us, so one night I told him what I knew. You could ha' knocked him down with a feather. Nobody dreamt of it in New South Wales. No, there wasn't a hand on the place who would have thought it o' the boss! Well, he was fond of Minchin, treated him like a son, and perhaps he wasn't such a good son as he might have been. But when he told the boss what I told him, and made the suggestion that I thought would come best from a gent like him--"

"That you should both be taken into partnership on the spot, I suppose?" interrupted Langholm.

"Well, yes, it came to something like that."

"Go on, Abel. I won't interrupt again. What happened then?"

"Well, he'd got to go, had Mr. Minchin! The boss told him he could tell who he liked, but go he'd have to; and go he did, with his tail between his legs, and not another word to anybody. I believe it was the boss who started him in Western Australia."

"Not such a bad boss," remarked Langholm, dryly; and the words set him thinking a moment on his own account. "And what happened to you?" he added, abandoning reflection by an effort.

"I stayed on."

"Forgiven?"

"If you like to put it that way."

"And you both filed the secret for future use!"

"Don't talk through your neck, mister," said Abel, huffily. "What are you drivin' at?"

"You kept this secret up your sleeve to play it for all it was worth in a country where it would be worth more than it was in the back-blocks? That's all I mean."

"Well, if I did, that's my own affair."

"Oh, certainly. Only you came here at your own proposal in order, I suppose, to sell this secret to me?"

"Yes, to sell it."

"Then, you see, it is more or less my affair as well."

"It may be," said Abel, doggedly. And his face was very evil as he struck a match to relight his pipe; but before the flame Langholm had stepped backward, with his stick, that no superfluous light might fall upon his thin wrists and half-filled sleeves.

"You are sure," he pursued, "that Mr. Minchin was in possession of this precious secret at the time of his death?"

"I told it him myself. It isn't one you would forget."

"Was it one that he could prove?"

"Easily."

"Could I?"

"Anybody could."

"Well, and what's your price?"

"Fifty pounds."

"Nonsense! I'm not a rich man like Mr. Steel."

"I don't take less from anybody--not much less, anyhow!"

"Not twenty in hard cash?"

"Not me; but look here, mister, you show me thirty and we'll see."

The voice drew uncomfortably close. And there were steps upon the cross-roads at last; they were those of one advancing with lumbering gait and of another stepping nimbly backward. The latter laughed aloud.

"Did you really think I would come to meet the writer of a letter like yours, at night, in a spot like this, with a single penny-piece in my pocket? Come to my cottage, and we'll settle there."

"I'm not coming in!"

"To the gate, then. It isn't three hundred yards from this. I'll lead the way."

Langholm set off at a brisk walk, his heart in his mouth. But the lumbering steps did not gain upon him; a muttered grumbling was their only accompaniment; and in minute they saw the lights. In another minute they were at the wicket.

"You really prefer not to come in?"

There was a sly restrained humor in Langholm's tone.

"I do--and don't be long."

"Oh, no, I shan't be a minute."

There were other lights in the other cottage. It was not at all late. A warm parallelogram appeared and disappeared as Langholm opened his door and went in. Was it a sound of bolts and bars that followed? Abel was still wondering when his prospective paymaster threw up the window and reappeared across the sill.

"It was a three-figured check you had from Mr. Steel, was it?"

"Yes--yes--but not so loud!"

"And then he sent you to the devil to do your worst?"

"That's your way of putting it."

"I do the same--without the check."

And the window shut with a slam, the hasp was fastened, and the blind pulled down.