Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The silver cord - Part 39
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
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Yet Laura might have safely and discreetly surrendered the volume to the applicant on board the boat. For he was not, as she naturally suspected, a hostile emissary, but an agent who had been employed at the desire of Charles Hawkesley, and by concert between him and the chief of the police. They had better reasons for the precaution than she could imagine.
Hawkesley, on returning from the bureau, after hearing the views of M. ——, had gone to the apartment of Arthur Lygon, and had apprised him of the catastrophe at Versailles.
Rarely has terrible news wrought such a change in the hearer as did these tidings cause in the hitherto impassive Lygon. He had listened in the calmest silence to the short introduction by which Hawkesley sought to approach the subject without undue abruptness, and had waited steadily for the narrative of the issue of the conflict; but when his brother-in-law announced that Urquhart was no more, the eyes of Lygon suddenly lighted up, his face reassumed its long-lost expression of determination and self-reliance, and—it was a small trait, but characteristic of the man—he rose and gave a brief, business-like glance at the mirror, as if to satisfy himself that he was duly qualified to mingle again in the world upon its own terms. Then he turned to Hawkesley.
“Poor Robert! He deserved better than to die by such a hand. Has Adair been arrested?”
“You do not mean that he has escaped?”
“For the present.”
“The police have let him escape?”
“They have not yet secured him.”
“So much for the boasted French police! We will see whether our English heads can help them. You will come with me to Versailles?”
And with an alacrity which he had not displayed since the day on which the one great blow had descended upon him, Lygon hastened to throw together a few private papers and other matters, and to secure them, and was then about to go out, when Hawkesley stopped him.
“What do you propose to do, Arthur?”
“What is there to do but one thing? Let us make the best of our way to Versailles, learn for ourselves what particulars we can, and if these police cannot hit upon the track of the miscreant, we may be more fortunate.”
“You are for hunting him down?”
“Can you ask that? Do you think that I will rest until I have seen him brought out on the scaffold?”
“Sit down, and listen to me.”
“Let us talk, if it must be so, as we go along. Come.”
“No. I have an answer to give in Paris, and it must be given after you have heard me. Ten minutes will suffice, and they will not be thrown away.”
“You speak in a tone that leaves me no choice,” said Lygon, laying his watch on the table before him.
“It is proposed to me by the police that we should let this man escape altogether,” said Hawkesley, quietly.
Lygon uttered a deep oath.
“He is their confederate, but we could hardly have expected this,” he said, furiously. “But they shall not save him. Come, let us get upon his traces. I have had some experience in such matters. If we once run him down, all the confederates in the world shall not save him.”
“It is not for his own sake that they wish to spare him.”
“For whose then, in the name of—”
“I have asked you for ten minutes, Arthur, and you will do well to hear me out.”
“For my sake!” repeated Lygon, angrily.
“It is my duty to tell you what has been said to me. Then you will act as you may think fit.”
Arthur Lygon sat down opposite to Hawkesley, and fixed a steady gaze upon his brother-in-law.
“Finish, Charles. You are no trifler, but every moment we waste is a shame and a disgrace to Urquhart’s brothers.”
“There are duties to the living as well as to the dead, Arthur. Listen to me. Urquhart has died a sacrifice for a reputation that should be dearer to us than any memory.”
“I do not understand you.”
“It is all before me now, and you must not doubt for a moment that I am speaking the entire truth. The villain who has slain Urquhart had obtained possession of letters which Robert believed to be conclusive evidence against your wife, Arthur. She, poor wretch, terrified by his threats to use them, came to France to rescue them from him, in order to throw them before you, and beg you to judge and save her.”
Lygon waved his hand impatiently, but made no reply.
“This is the truth, as God shall judge me, Lygon!”
“You desire to believe it, and you do,” replied Lygon, quickly, “and that is all that you have a right to say. I do not believe it—”
“Nor desire to believe it?” asked Hawkesley, sternly.
“Do I desire to believe a lie? Did that dead man give credit to such a tale? We will not talk of this any more,” said Arthur, becoming pale with emotion which he struggled to hide.
“We will talk of it, Lygon, while I have anything to say to you—or we never speak again. I have not shown myself so worthless a friend, I think, as to be so cast off, or to be denied what you would grant to a stranger. The happiness of Laura, of yourself, and of your children, is as dear to me as my own, and I will not be silenced while I believe that I can do you service by speaking. You must answer me, too. If I can prove to you beyond a shadow of doubt that what I have told you is true, what will you do?”
“Let us hunt down this murderer, and then we may speak of other things.”
“Other things, Arthur Lygon! Are those words for the happiness of your own life and Laura’s? Will you answer me now? If I have truly told you what was Laura’s errand to France, will you forbid her to accomplish it?”
“Laura and I meet no more in this world. When Urquhart’s death has been avenged, I will leave the rest to your care.”
“May God deal to you more justice than you deal to the mother of your children!”
“You do not understand me, Hawkesley,” was Lygon’s calm reply. “Be content to believe that. Have you more to say?”
“But that I hope to save you and Laura yet; you and I should say no more to one another from this minute. But I will not be defeated by your resolution, until I have done my work. Do you hear me say that, Arthur Lygon?”
“Do you believe,” replied Lygon, kindly, “that I ever doubted your affection for us? But you can serve no good purpose by endeavouring to make me share the deception that has been practised on you. By Heaven, Charles,” he exclaimed, passionately, “if the past could be done away, and I could be once more what I was on that accursed day when I went to what I had left a happy home, and found the abandoned—” the words rose chokingly in his throat, and it was with tearful eyes, and yet a vehement utterance, that after a pause he finished the sentence. “If the past could be undone, as Heaven shall judge me, I could go a pauper and a cripple towards my grave, and go in gladness that I had known the love of a pure and true woman. A curse has come upon me, and I have not deserved it.”
Hawkesley looked at him in silence, while Arthur dashed away the tears which he did not attempt to hide, and made an effort to recover his self-possession. Then the former said—
“I ask you, Arthur, for the sake of our relationship—for the sake of our friendship—for the sake of your children, one thing. You have no right to refuse it me?”
“What do you ask?”
“That you will see these letters.”
“To what good? Why would you force upon me the evidences of my dishonour?”
“I ask you to read them.”
“And if I should,” replied Lygon, bitterly, “and if they should prove, as I suppose by your urging it you think they will prove, somewhat less conclusive than such cursed letters usually are; if it should chance to turn out that they leave only doubts where we believe there is certainty—what then?”
“Then I will say, Arthur Lygon, carry out your resolve, and let the name of Laura be forgotten by you. That is my reply.”
“What do you expect?” asked Lygon in a low, despairing voice.
“I will not say. But I will ask you once more. If these letters utterly refute themselves, or, rather, prove that poor Urquhart read them wrong, and interpreted them into a terrible falsehood; if, in your own judgment, and I will ask no other, they testify to the truth and innocence of Laura, will you accept that testimony?”
“Hawkesley, you have not thought over all this as I have done. Heaven forbid you should ever have need to give such thoughts to anything in this world! But even you, with all your affectionate resolution to see comfort where there is nothing but blackness and sorrow, even you must perceive that the very story you have adopted is Laura’s self-condemnation. There is a book of letters, such as must establish a woman’s innocence—my God, that I should be alive and speaking such words about my wife—and the fact that a scoundrel has these letters drags the woman from her home and separates her from her children for ever. What strong delusion has laid hold on you?”
“I will not argue it with you. I will only ask you to believe it possible, and to say what you will do, should I be right.”
“What else can I say than what I have said already? All is over between me and Laura. Let the inconceivable truth be that the letters are forgeries—do you assert that?”
“What—can you seriously hold such a thought? Does a woman fly her home in dread of a false charge? Would Laura have done so—Laura, whose courage at least was her virtue? Would she not have defied an accuser, and sent him to me to be dealt with as he deserved? Is it worth while to waste more time, Charles? Let us go to Versailles—or must I go alone?”
“Once more, will you see the letters? I do not ask you more.”
“So be it, if you will. You have them?”
“No—the poor girl herself, who risked all to obtain them, and who has borne them away so gallantly, has them in her own keeping, and will hardly part with them again except that they may pass into your hands. But when they are laid before you, I have your promise to read them?”
“One word more, and you shall go. I told you that the police officials, in proposing that this man should elude justice for the time, made the suggestion in your own interest. They naturally urged that vengeance on the murderer involved an exposure of the whole painful story which belongs to the crime, and that a woman’s honour is mixed up with that story. If Adair escapes, the tale is secret. If he is tried, it is public, and you have children.”
“Ah!” said Lygon, with a deep sigh. “You fling your whole case to the winds. What has an innocent woman to fear from the truth?”
“The world, which never accepts the truth?”
“To save pain, then, to a guilty wife, I am asked to pardon the murderer of one of the two dearest friends I had in the world.”
“Had it been my destiny to meet the fate of poor Robert, and I could have spoken a last request, it would have been that you abstained from revenge, under such circumstances. Do you think that I would not gladly stand by you and see the man guillotined? But the faces of your little children come between me and that scaffold.”
“Let us do right,” said Arthur Lygon, “and leave the rest to Providence. I am suffering under an undeserved punishment, and I will not deserve any part of it by foregoing my duty. That man has died by a crime brought about by the sin of my wife. So far as I can aid justice I will do so.”
“And little Fred and Walter, are they to be pointed at through life, Arthur, as the children of one who, as you believed, sinned?”
“I will hope that each will have strength to vindicate his own character, and then he need not care what is said of another’s.”
“Do not speak of Clara.”
“I must. I have a right to speak for her, loving her so well. Arthur, you know what the world is to woman. Do not think of Clara as she now is, a child at play. Add a few years, and think of her as a beautiful and loving girl, whose destiny it would be to make some good fellow happy—only his friends look at her, and admire her, and pass on, and next day come and tell him that her mother was compromised in a sad French story, and that a daughter is, most frequently, what her mother was—could you bear to know that such things were said, Lygon?”
“You work hard upon my feelings, Charles, and now listen in return. I have all through life sought to act upon principle, and it is not when I come to the hardest trial of life that I ought to give way. And I will not. I would give my life for those children, but I will not forget my duty because hereafter my having done it may cause them pain and suffering. I will do my duty.”
“You will do all in your power to arrest Adair?”
“I will, and I have waited too long. I must now go.”
“I will not attempt to delay you any longer.”
“And unless I am seconded by the police, I will go to a member of the government, and formally accuse them of screening the assassin. There may be reasons why they will not willingly lie under such a charge, and you can prove the proposition that has been made.”
“I can. I will follow you to Versailles, Arthur. I have letters to write.”
Lygon was at the door when he turned, and saw an expression of deep grief upon the face of his friend.
Arthur returned, took his hand, and clasped it warmly.
“You do not understand me, Charles,” he said, “but do not doubt that I understand you, and all your affection.”
Hawkesley made no answer, but when Lygon released his hand, withdrew it, and rose to go to his own room.
He walked towards it slowly, and Lygon hastened away.
But as soon as Arthur had left the hotel, Hawkesley put on his hat.
“Then I, too, have a duty,” he said, in a low voice.
And he returned as speedily as he could to the bureau he had so lately quitted.
“You have decided, I perceive, Mr. Hawkesley,” said M. ——, receiving him with gravity, and at once resuming the conversation, as if it had been interrupted for a moment only.
“How do you know, M. ——?”
“Your manner tells me that you have done so. I may almost go further, and believe that the suggestions which I made on the side of forbearance have had their weight with Mr. Lygon and yourself.”
“With myself only.”
“Ah! I regret that. I am sure that you did every justice to the arguments.”
“You would imply that I did not. But, had my brother-in-law been here, you would have found that the strongest reason which we could urge was idle against his conviction of what his duty demands.”
“And that is—”
“That, as the nearest relatives of Mr. Urquhart, we claim all the assistance the police can afford us in tracing the assassin.”
“Such, then, is your demand of me? I have told you that I will be guided by your wishes, but I had hoped a different decision.”
“Such would be Mr. Lygon’s demand, but he has hurried off to Versailles in the hope of being himself able to afford aid in the detection of Adair.”
M. ——, notwithstanding the gravity of the occasion, could scarcely repress a smile, but it was momentary.
“I cannot, I fear, flatter you with the idea that he will effect anything which the officers themselves fail in achieving. If Ernest Adair is wanted,” he continued, resuming all his habitual composure, “he will be in their hands in a quarter of an hour from my signalling that he is to be taken.”
“He has been discovered, then,” said Hawkesley. And the feeling that came over him was a mixture of gratification and repugnance—the prey was marked down, and it required an effort to let it escape. There was something of natural indignation at the crime, something of the hunter’s fierce instinct, and reluctance to spare. There is more of this in many a sacrifice to justice than we may all care to allow.“In truth, he can hardly be said to have been well lost sight of. The officers are intelligent, and they were assisted with great zeal by several persons whose enmity Adair had successfully cultivated. Specially foremost in the chase was the mechanic
“He is in our hands, then?” repeated Hawkesley.
“When you will. I do not press you for any immediate answer—you have not taken half the time which I ventured to offer, nor, I suppose, have you seen the person whom I desired to visit you?”
“No. But it seemed to me that time was important. M. ——, I wish that Adair may be allowed to escape.”
“No doubt. I could not suppose that you would come to any other decision. But you have surrendered your views in deference to those of your friend?”
“I have not. He has taken his own course, independently of me, and I claim the same liberty. In the interest of all who are concerned, I believe that I am acting best in requesting you to set the miscreant at liberty.”
“We must not put it quite in that way,” said M. ——, with the faintest curl of the lip. “He is not, in fact, in custody. But we understand one another.”
Hawkesley then repeated a portion of the conversation he had had with Lygon, reserving, however, the threat of the latter to appeal to the Minister.
“I may save you some consideration,” said M ——, “by remarking that Mr. Lygon’s idea that circumstances have given him any special right to interfere, is not worth discussion. Assuredly, it would have no weight with me. And I may be forgiven if I say that I seem to recognise a sort of vindictiveness towards his wife in his extreme readiness to connect her with the crime that has been committed. The accident which brought the two men together arose but partially from anything bearing on Mrs. Lygon’s history—Mr. Urquhart was bent upon meeting the other, and would have succeeded, unless prevented, whether those documents had been in existence or not.”
“I did not combat his view—I felt it over-strained,” said Hawkesley, “but that matters little. You will, then, ensure Adair’s escape?”
“I almost think that you believe him in increased danger from the efforts of your brother-in-law.”
“Mr. Lygon is a shrewd and resolute man, and I cannot say that he may not obtain such clues as may make it difficult for your officers to hold back.”
“There will be no holding back. But now, Mr. Hawkesley, do you desire to impose any terms upon the man whom you are releasing? They are easily made under such circumstances.”
“But not easily enforced.”
“I will undertake that whatever engagement Adair enters into with you, he shall fulfil to the letter. Were your friend Mr. Aventayle here, he would tell you that there are terrors for those who are mad enough to forget pledges given to us.”
“If it were possible to induce him to promise one thing—”
“I promise it in his behalf.”
“It may be more important than you imagine. If he would go to England, and there keep himself in readiness to afford some information—”
“Any you can ask of him.”
“I? Do you think that I could ever find myself again face to face with the assassin, without striking him down? No, he must submit to be questioned by those who will not know to what a miscreant they are talking.”
“He shall submit. I have some guess at the nature of the evidence you would extract from him, but we will speak of that presently. I am glad that you have come to this decision. I need not add to an English gentleman, that he will not unduly speak of what has passed. I make no absurd request of a pledge to secrecy, but I dare say that you will take care not to mention anything to zealous persons who may have notions like those of Mr. Lygon.”
“I shall be too glad to be silent—to say nothing of my personal debt to you.”
“Say nothing of that. We will now send for Wolowski.”
“You were not, I am sure, fool enough to think of taking that window,” said M. Wolowski to Ernest Adair.
The Pole entered, somewhat hastily, a garret with sloping roof, and with one square window that would just have permitted a slight man to pass through it. The room was at the top of a lonely old house about three miles from Versailles.
Adair turned upon the Pole, but there was no menace in the look of the slayer of Urquhart. He was haggard and nervous, and the effect of the terrible conflict he had gone through, and of its fearful issue, was visible in his easily agitated frame. His eyes were bloodshot, and his tongue incessantly played upon and moistened the feverish lips.
“You have traced me,” said Adair. “It was a friend’s business. I regret that I can offer you no hospitality.”
“A couch and a chair,” replied the Pole, looking round the miserable room, “and a scrap of looking-glass, and a picture of St. Somebody—female, however. Better men have been worse off. But, my brave Ernest, I never expected to see you again.”
“Nor would you, Wolowski, had I not been robbed, and consequently been without the means—”
“Of bribery. Fie, is it thus you speak of old colleagues?”
“Of purchasing food,” said Ernest Adair. “I am faint with hunger, or you should have had a longer chase, my friend.”
“Actually hungry?” said Wolowski.
“Yes. I have scarcely tasted food for twenty-four hours. I did not mind it at first, but now the privation tells upon me. I am your prisoner.”
“Nay, do not surrender until it is required of you. The weakest fortress expects the courtesy of a summons. But first let us throw provisions into the fortress.”
And he handed a packet to Adair, which the latter tore open, and seizing some bread and meat ate them with an eagerness that excited the compassion of the Pole, cruel only as matter of business.
“It was well I thought of providing myself against a night in the open air,” said the Pole. “Do not eat too hastily, however. And here, take my flask. I suppose you will not stab me while I am drawing the cork.”
He handed a travelling-bottle to Adair, who, however, took but a small quantity, and returned it.
“You should have nothing to say against that liquor. It is from the cellar of the Silver Lion.”
“I am restored, in some measure,” said Adair, “and I am ready to accompany you, M. Wolowski.”
“Thanks for the Monsieur, which you omitted before. It is a sort of grace after meat. But I have not come to arrest you. We leave duties of that kind, as you know, to inferior agents, which prevents unpleasantness afterwards, when people are released and meet as friends in society.”
“You have not come to arrest me? Ah, but there are men round the house?”
“I will show my confidence in an armed man by telling him that there is not one. Now, do you meditate an attack upon me?”
“Why are you here?”
“That is a practical question, to which I will give you an answer later. That blow was struck well, Ernest, that blow in the drawing room.”
“It was struck in defence of my own life.”
“The master of the house arrests a robber, and the robber holds that he may kill the honest man.”
“I was no robber. I came there to seek my own property, and I was watched and trapped. He entered the house intending to murder me, and he had all but succeeded when I saved myself with a blow.”
“I am bound to tell you that the most unfavourable view will be taken of your case.”
“That means that M. —— sacrifices me.”
“Well, it is thought that to give up a first-rate employé of the police to justice would have a good effect upon the public mind, and therefore circumstances will be recalled, and on the whole your case is not an agreeable one.”
“You know all,” said Adair, “and will tell me what you please. I thought it possible that the Englishmen might wish to avoid a prosecution.”
“The Englishmen have strange notions of duty, and have invoked all the vengeance of the law upon you.”
“Regardless of the consequences.”
“Regardless of the fact, strongly urged upon them by M ——, that you will, when upon trial, make it a pleasure as well as a business to offer Paris and London a story neither is likely to forget.”
“They might have spared me, nevertheless,” said Adair, under his breath.
“What is that arrière pensée, if one might ask?”
“No matter. But you do not tell me that I am a prisoner.”
“My friend, your persistence in being a prisoner becomes monotonous. I repeat to you that you are as free as I am, so far as I know, and I add, that I have only a favour or so to ask, which you can refuse or not as you think proper.”
“I am in exactly the position to make terms?”
“And am I in the habit of offering such things idly? But I make allowance for your excitement. I remember that the first time I had unfortunately an opportunity of experiencing similar sensations I was a good deal haunted by the incessant presence of a red tint which insisted on settling upon everything. I was younger than you are, however,” added the Pole, “and imaginative, besides being slightly patriotic. You look really very much shaken—I have often dissuaded you from cognac, but try it now.”
“No. I am strong enough.”
“And wisely keep the brain unclouded, the better to judge of my offer. You are right. Now, attend. You had a great desire to visit England?”
“England! True,” said Ernest, after a pause. “It seems an age since I was thinking of that.”
“The age has passed, and brought the event nearer.”
“You would send me to England!”
“You will go of your own will and accord, if you go at all.”
“I am traced here, M. Wolowski, and I understand all the rest.”
“Then use your comprehension, and do not raise subjects which it is useless to discuss. Suppose yourself in London.”
“I tell you that I was robbed at a place where I lay down to sleep, and I am without a franc in the world.”
“Excitement has enfeebled your usually lively imagination. The streets of London are paved with gold, as English clowns believe. At least you can imagine yourself there, and beyond the reach of want. I am not very wise, perhaps, in exposing my pocket-book to you, but there it is,” and he laid it on the table near him.
“Ah! I am wanted for some desperate service. Is there another Silvestre in London?” said Adair, slightly shuddering.
“Not at present,” replied the Pole, coolly. “My friend, it would seem that you are somewhat tigerish, and having once tasted—”
“Let us speak of your plans,” said Adair, with much irritation.
“Decidedly tigerish,” said Wolowski, looking at him quietly. “Change of air becomes a necessity for you. Well, do you accept the idea of an English sojourn?”
“What am I to do in England?”
“I have no more idea than yourself. Certainly, I do not think that it would be advisable for you, at present, to urge Mr. Aventayle, the manager, to the fulfilment of the engagement he seems to have promised. Your countrymen are said to be ferocious, and they like to see ballet-girls torn to pieces by lions on the stage, and to behold other frightful exhibitions, but there is a limit to their gladiatorial propensities. I do not think that in your rôle of an escaped assassin you would be acceptable to the insular mind.”
Adair listened in silence.
“You agree with me? Well, but I can imagine that if it suited your arrangements to go to London, to find yourself a modest apartment in some quarter entirely removed from that in which wanderers from France and other happy lands chiefly congregate—for then, if there be another Silvestre, as you imagine, you will not encounter so unworthy an acquaintance—in this case English hospitality may not be disturbed by any interference of your colleagues.”
“I am still one of you, then?”
“Why not? No offence has been proved against you, and as you are English, we will give you the benefit of the charming Anglican doctrine, which, if it were really practised in England, or elsewhere, would make society impossible. Consider yourself what you please. You will not be troubled with many orders from head-quarters.”
“You said that the Englishmen had invoked the law.”
“Some invocations are not immediately answered, as you may possibly be aware. At all events, the law can answer at any time. Complete the picture I have suggested, and suppose yourself in some remote district in London, and passing, for the sake of decorum, under some other name than that which you have laboured, not in vain, to make famous. The name of your friend Silvain may serve as well as another.”
“No, I will not take that,” said Adair, quickly.
“It sounds pleasantly.”
“It sounds like—no matter, I will not take that. Anything else will do as well. I will call myself by an English name—call me Hyde.”
“I applaud the courage that can make a jest of one’s condition at such a time.”
“Jest—bah! It was the name of my mother. It is easily remembered.”
“I will think of the park, of which you will be an ornament—that will do. Then, Mr. Hyde will have the kindness to take this card, and as soon as he has an address, he will forward it, with all care that it reaches its destination—to the gentleman here named. And Mr. Hyde will take care that when any message is sent to him, in reply, he is at home to receive it, and that he complies, in letter and in spirit, with any demand that may be addressed to him.”
“Any,” replied the Pole, changing his manner. “Do you comprehend?”
“There is money—there is the card—there is a passport”—replied Wolowski, abruptly, placing each in succession on the couch. “And one word more. Place your hands behind you,” he said in a tone of command. “Clasp them together, and turn your back to me.”
Adair obeyed, and the Pole held his hands together firmly, and said something in a fierce and hissing whisper.
“No need of menace,” replied Ernest, angrily.
“Leave the room, assassin,” said the Pole, releasing his hands, and pointing to the papers on the couch.
Adair gathered them up with deliberation, placed them in his pockets, and left the garret without even a glance at the other.
Laura’s hand was all but on the door of her sister’s house in London. She held under her arm the treasured volume, and she was about to knock, when she once more heard her name.
Ernest Adair stood before her.
“The dead man.” Whether the words escaped her or not, this was the thought in that brief interval between the moment and unconsciousness.
“Go to Lipthwaite, Mrs. Lygon, and go instantly,” said Adair.
Laura remembered no more, until she found herself in the arms of Beatrice.