The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XXVI. A Cardinal Point
The irresistible discomfiture of this ruffian did not affect the value of the evidence which he had volunteered. Langholm was glad to remember that he had volunteered it; the creature was well served for his spite and his cupidity; and the man of peace and letters, whose temperament shrank from contention of any kind, could not but congratulate himself upon an incidental triumph for which it was impossible to feel the smallest compunction. Moreover, he had gained his point. It was enough for him to know that there was a certain secret in Steel's life, upon which the wretch Abel had admittedly traded, even as his superior Minchin had apparently intended to do before him. Only those two seemed to have been in this secret, and one of them still lived to reveal it when called upon with authority. The nature of the secret mattered nothing in the meanwhile. Here was the motive, without which the case against John Buchanan Steel must have remained incomplete. Langholm added it to his notes--and trembled!
He had compunction enough about the major triumph which now seemed in certain store for him; the larger it loomed, the less triumphant and the more tragic was its promise. And, with all human perversity, an unforeseen and quite involuntary sympathy with Steel was the last complication in Langholm's mind.
He had to think of Rachel in order to harden his heart against her husband; and that ground was the most dangerous of all. It was strange to Langholm to battle against that by the bedside of a weaker brother fallen in the same fight. Yet it was there he spent the night. He had scarcely slept all the week. It was a comfort to think that this vigil was a useful one.
Severino slept fitfully, and Langholm had never a long stretch of uninterrupted thought.
But before morning he had decided to give Steel a chance. It was a vague decision, dependent on the chance that Steel gave him when they met, as meet they must. Meanwhile Langholm had some cause for satisfaction with the mere resolve; it defined the line that he took with a somewhat absurd but equally startling visitor, who waited upon him early in the forenoon, in the person of the Chief Constable of Northborough.
This worthy had heard of Langholm's quest, and desired to be informed of what success, if any, he had met with up to the present. Langholm opened his eyes.
"It's my own show," he protested.
"Would you say that if you had got the man? I doubt it would be our show then!" wheezed the Chief Constable, who was enormously fat.
"It would be Scotland Yard's," admitted Langholm, "perhaps."
"Unless you got him up here," suggested the fat official. "In that case you would naturally come to me."
Langholm met his eyes. They were very small and bright, as the eyes of the obese often are, or as they seem by contrast with a large crass face. Langholm fancied he perceived a glimmer of his own enlightenment, and instinctively he lied.
"We are not likely to get him up here," he said. "This is about the last place where I should look!"
The Chief Constable took his departure with a curious smile. Langholm began to feel uneasy; his unforeseen sympathy with Steel assumed the form of an actual fear on his behalf. Severino was another thorn in his side. He knew that Rachel had been written to, and fell into a fever of impatience and despair because the morning did not bring her to his bedside. She was not coming at all. She had refused to come--or her husband would not allow it. So he must die without seeing her again! The man was as unreasonable as sick men will be; nothing would console him but Langholm's undertaking to go to Normanthorpe himself after lunch and plead in person with the stony-hearted lady or her tyrannical lord. This plan suited Langholm well enough. It would pave the way to the "chance" which he had resolved to give to Rachel's husband.
That resolve was not weakened by successive encounters, first with a policeman near the entrance gates, next with a trespasser whom Langholm rightly took for another policeman in plain clothes, and finally with the Woodgates on their way from the house. The good couple welcomed him with a warmth beyond his merits.
"Oh, what a blessing you have come!" cried Morna, whose kind eyes discovered a tell-tale moisture. "Do please go up and convince Mrs. Steel that you can't be rearrested on a charge on which you have already been tried and acquitted!"
"But of course you can't," said Langholm. "Who has put that into her head, Mrs. Woodgate?"
"The place is hemmed in by police."
"Since when?" asked Langholm, quickly.
"Only this morning."
Langholm held his tongue. So the extortioner Abel, outwitted by the amateur policeman, had gone straight to the professional force! The amateur had not suspected him of such resource.
"I don't think this has anything to do with Mrs. Steel," he said at last; "in fact, I think I know what it means, and I shall be only too glad to reassure her, if I can."
But his own face was not reassuring, as Hugh Woodgate plainly told him in the first words which the vicar contributed to the discussion.
"I have been finding out things--I have not been altogether unsuccessful--but the things are rather on my mind," the author explained. "How does Steel take the development, by the way?"
"As a joke!" cried Morna, with indignation; her husband was her echo both as to words and tone; but Langholm could only stare.
"I must see him," he exclaimed, decisively. "By the way, once more, do you happen to know whether Mrs. Steel got a letter from me this morning, Mrs. Woodgate?"
"Yes, she did," answered Morna at once. Her manner declared her to be not unacquainted with the contents of the letter, and Langholm treated the declaration as though spoken.
"And is she not going to see that poor fellow?" he asked.
"At once," said Morna, "and I am going with her. She is to call for me with the phaeton at three."
"Do you know anything about him, Mrs. Woodgate?"
"Then I can only commend him to the sympathy which I know he has already. And I will talk to Mr. Steel while you are gone."
The first sentence was almost mechanical. That matter was off Langholm's mind, and in a flash it was fully occupied with the prospect before himself. He lifted the peak of his cap, but, instead of remounting his bicycle, he wheeled it very slowly up the drive. The phaeton was at the door when Langholm also arrived, and Rachel herself ran out to greet him on the steps--tall and lissome, in a light-colored driving cloak down to her heels, and a charming hat--yet under it a face still years older than the one he wore in his heart, though no less beautiful in its distress.
"I hardly dare ask you!" she gasped, her hand trembling in his. "Have you found out--anything at all?"
And he opened his hand so that hers must drop.
"Oh, but anything is better than nothing! Come in and tell me--quick!"
"Bravo!" added an amused voice from the porch.
It was Steel, spruce and serene as ever, a pink glow upon his mobile face, a pink flower in his reefer jacket, a jaunty Panama straw covering his white hairs, and buckskin shoes of kindred purity upon his small and well-shaped feet. Langholm greeted him in turn, only trusting that the tremors which had been instantly communicated to his own right hand might not be detected by the one it was now compelled to meet.
"I came to tell Mr. Steel," said Langholm, a little lamely.
"Excellent!" murmured that gentleman, with his self-complacent smile.
"But am I not to hear also?" demanded Rachel.
"My dear Mrs. Steel, there is very little to tell you as yet. I only wish there were more. But one or two little points there are--if you would not mind my first mentioning them to your husband?"
"Oh, of course."
There was no pique in the tone. There was only disappointment--and despair.
"You manage a woman very prettily," remarked Steel, as they watched the phaeton diminish down the drive like a narrow Roman road.
"You are the first who ever said so," rejoined the novelist, with a rather heavy sigh.
"Well, let us have a cigar and your news. I confess I am interested. A stroll, too, would be pleasanter than sitting indoors, don't you think? The thickest walls have long ears, Langholm, when every servant in the place is under notice. The whole lot? Oh, dear, yes--every mother's son and daughter of them. It is most amusing; every one of them wants to stay and be forgiven. The neighbors are little better. The excuses they have stooped to make, some of them! I suppose they thought that we should either flee the country or give them the sanguinary satisfaction of a double suicide. Well, we are not going to do either one or the other; we are agreed about that, if about nothing else. And my wife has behaved like a trump, though she wouldn't like to hear me say so; it is her wish that we should sit tighter than if nothing had happened, and not even go to Switzerland as we intended. So we are advertising for a fresh domestic crew, and we dine at Ireby the week after next. It is true that we got the invitation before the fat fell into the fire, but I fancy we may trust the Invernesses not to do anything startling. I am interested, however, to see what they will do. It is pretty safe to be an object-lesson to the countryside, one way or the other."
During this monologue the pair had strolled far afield with their cigars, and Langholm was beginning to puff his furiously. At first he had merely marvelled at the other's coolness; now every feeling in his breast was outraged by the callousness, the flippancy, the cynicism of his companion. There came a moment when Langholm could endure the combination no longer. Steel seemed disposed to discuss every aspect of the subject except that of the investigations upon which his very life might depend. Langholm glanced at him in horror as they walked. The broad brim of his Panama hat threw his face in shadow to the neck; but to Langholm's heated imagination, it was the shadow of the black cap and of the rope itself that he saw out of the corners of his eyes. It was the shadow that had lit upon the wife the year before, happily to lift forever; now it was settling upon the husband; and it rested with Langholm--if it did rest with him--and how could he be sure? His mind was off at a tangent. He was not listening to Steel; without ceremony he interrupted at last.
"I thought you came out to listen to me?"
"My dear fellow," cried Steel, "and so, to be sure, I did! Why on earth did you let me rattle on? Let me see--the point was--ah, yes! Of course, my dear Langholm, you haven't really anything of any account to tell? I considered you a Quixote when you undertook your quest; but I shall begin to suspect a dash of Munchausen if you tell me you have found out anything in the inside of a week!"
"Nevertheless," said Langholm, grimly, "I have."
"Anything worth finding out?"
"I think so."
"You don't mean to tell me you have struck a clew?"
"I believe I can lay hands upon the criminal," said Langholm, as quietly as he could. But he was the more nervous man of the two.
The other simply stood still and stared his incredulity. The stare melted into a smile. "My dear fellow!" he murmured, in a mild blend of horror and reproof, as though it were the fourth dimension that Langholm claimed to have discovered. It cost the discoverer no small effort not to cry out that he could lay hands on him then and there. The unspoken words were gulped down, and a simple repetition substituted at the last.
"I could swear to him myself," added Langholm. "It remains to be seen whether there is evidence enough to convict."
"Have you communicated with the police?"
"They seem to have some absurd bee in their helmet down here, you know."
"They don't get it from me."
It was impossible any longer to doubt the import of Langholm's earnest and rather agitated manner. He was doing his best to suppress his agitation, but that strengthened the impression that he had indeed discovered something which he himself honestly believed to be the truth. There was an immediate alteration in the tone and bearing of his host.
"My dear fellow," he said, "forgive my levity. If you have really found out anything, it is a miracle; but miracles do happen now and then. Here's the pond, and there's the boathouse behind those rhododendrons. Suppose you tell me the rest in the boat? We needn't keep looking over our shoulders in the middle of the pond!"
For an instant Langholm dreamt of the readiest and the vilest resource; in another he remembered, not only that he could swim, but the insidious sympathy for this man which a darker scoundrel had sown in his heart. It had grown there like Jonah's gourd; only his flippancy affected it; and Steel was far from flippant now. Langholm signed to him to lead the way, and in a very few minutes they were scaring the wildfowl in mid-water, Steel sculling from the after thwart, while Langholm faced him from the crimson cushions.
"I thought," said the latter, "that I would like to tell you what sort of evidence I could get against him before--before going any further. I--I thought it would be fair."
Steel raised his bushy eyebrows the fraction of an inch. "It would be fairest to yourself, I agree. Two heads are better than one, and--well, I'm open to conviction still, of course."
But even Langholm was not conscious of the sinister play upon words; he had taken out his pocket-book, and was nervously turning to the leaves that he had filled during his most sleepless night in town.
"Got it all down?" said Steel.
"Yes," replied Langholm, without raising his eyes; "at least I did make some notes of a possible--if not a really damning--case against the man I mean."
"And what may the first point be?" inquired Steel, who was gradually drifting back into the tone which Langholm had resented on the shore; he took no notice of it now.
"The first point," said Langholm, slowly, "is that he was in Chelsea, or at least within a mile of the scene of the murder, on the night that it took place."
"So were a good many people," remarked Steel, smiling as he dipped the sculls in and out, and let his supple wrists fall for the feather, as though he were really rowing.
"But he left his--he was out at the time!" declared Langholm, making his amended statement with all the meaning it had for himself.
"Well, you can't hang him for that."
"He will have to prove where he was, then."
"I am afraid it will be for you to prove a little more first."
Langholm sat very dogged with his notes. There had been a pause on Steel's part; there was a thin new note in his voice. Langholm was too grimly engrossed to take immediate heed of either detail, or to watch the swift changes in the face which was watching him. And there he lost most of all.
"The next point is that he undoubtedly knew Minchin in Australia--"
"That he was and is a rich man, whereas Minchin was then on the verge of bankruptcy, and that Minchin only found out that he was in England thirty-six hours before his own death, when he wrote to his old friend for funds."
"And you have really established all that!"
Steel had abandoned all pretence of rowing; his tone was one of admiration, in both senses of the word, and his dark eyes seemed to penetrate to the back of Langholm's brain.
"I can establish it," was the reply.
"Well! I think you have done wonders; but you will have to do something more before they will listen to you at Scotland Yard. What about a motive?"
"I was coming to that; it is the last point with which I shall trouble you for the present." Langholm took a final glance at his notes, then shut the pocket-book and put it away. "The motive," he continued, meeting Steel's eyes at last, with a new boldness in his own--"the motive is self-defence! There can be no doubt about it; there cannot be the slightest doubt that Minchin intended blackmailing this man, at least to the extent of his own indebtedness in the City of London."
There was a further change of voice and manner; and this time nothing was lost upon Charles Langholm.
"There cannot be the slightest doubt," he reiterated, "that Minchin was in possession of a secret concerning the man in my mind, which secret he was determined to use for his own ends."
Steel sat motionless, his eyes upon the bottom of the boat. It was absolutely impossible to read the lowered face; even when at length he raised it, and looked Langholm in the eyes once more, the natural inscrutability of the man was only more complete than ever.
"So that is your case!" said he.
And even his tone might have been inspired either by awe or by contempt, so truly rang the note between the two.
"I should be sorry to have to meet it," observed Langholm, "if I were he."
"I should find out a little more," was the retort, "if I were you!"
"Oh, then I should do my duty like a man--and take all the emoluments I could."
The sneer was intolerable. Langholm turned the color of brick.
"I shall!" said he through his mustache. "I have consulted you; there will be no need to do so again. I shall make a point of taking you at your word. And now do you mind putting me ashore?"
A few raindrops were falling when they reached the landing-stage; they hurried to the house, to find that Langholm's bicycle had been removed from the place where he had left it by the front entrance.
"Don't let anybody trouble," he said, ungraciously enough, for he was still smarting from the other's sneer. "I can soon find it for myself."
Steel stood on the steps, his midnight eyes upon Langholm, the glint of a smile in those eyes, but not the vestige of one upon his lips.
"Oh, very well," said he. "You know the side-door near the billiard-room? They have probably put it in the first room on the left; that is where we keep ours--for we have gone in for them at last. Good-by, Langholm; remember my advice."
And, that no ceremony should be lost between them, the host turned on his heel and disappeared through his own front door, leaving Langholm very angry in the rain.
But anger was the last emotion for such an hour; the judge might as well feel exasperated with the prisoner at the bar, the common hangman with the felon on the drop. Langholm only wished that, on even one moment's reflection, he could rest content in so primitive and so single a state of mind. He knew well that he could not, and that every subtle sort of contest lay before him, his own soul the arena. In the meantime let him find his bicycle and get away from this dear and accursed spot; for dear it had been to him, all that too memorable summer; but now of a surety the curse of Cain brooded over its cold, white walls and deep-set windows like sunken eyes in a dead face.
Langholm found the room to which he had been directed; in fact, he knew it of old. And there were the two new Beeston Humbers; but their lustrous plating and immaculate enamel did not shame his own old disreputable roadster, for the missing machine certainly was not there. Langholm was turning away when the glazed gun-rack caught his eye. Yes, this was the room in which the guns were kept. He had often seen them there. They had never interested him before. Langholm was no shot. Yet now he peered through the glass--gasped--and opened one of the sliding panels with trembling hand.
There on a nail hung an old revolver, out of place, rusty, most conspicuous; and at a glance as like the relic in the Black Museum as one pea to another. But Langholm took it down to make sure. And the maker's name upon the barrel was the name that he had noted down at the Black Museum; the point gained, the last of the cardinal points postulated by the official who had shown him round.
The fortuitous discoverer of them all was leaving like a thief--more and more did Langholm feel himself the criminal--when the inner door opened and Steel himself stood beaming sardonically upon him.
"Sorry, Langholm, but I find I misled you about the bicycle. They had taken it to the stables. I have told them to bring it round to the front."
"Sure you won't wait till the rain is over?"
"No, thank you."
"Well, won't you come through this way?"
"No, thank you."
"Oh, all right! Good-by, Langholm; remember my advice."
It was an inglorious exit that Langholm made; but he was thinking to himself, was there ever so inglorious a triumph? He knew not what he had said; there was only one thing that he did know. But was the law itself capable of coping with such a man?