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It was still an hour or two before dawn. No trace whatever of the marauders had been discovered either outside the house or within. With difficulty the Earl had been persuaded to relinquish his smoking revolver, and had retired to his room. The doors had all been locked, and two of the most trustworthy servants left in charge of the library. Wolfenden had himself accompanied his father upstairs and after a few words with him had returned to his own apartment. With his mother he had scarcely exchanged a single sentence. Once their eyes had met and he had immediately looked away. Nevertheless he was not altogether unprepared for that gentle knocking at his door which came about half an hour after the house was once more silent.
He rose at once from his chair—it seemed scarcely a night for sleep—and opened it cautiously. It was Lady Deringham who stood there, white and trembling. He held out his hand and she leaned heavily on it during her passage into the room.
He wheeled his own easy chair before the fire and helped her into it. She seemed altogether incapable of speech. She was trembling violently, and her face was perfectly bloodless. Wolfenden dropped on his knees by her side and began chafing her hands. The touch of his fingers seemed to revive her. She was not already judged then. She lifted her eyes and looked at him sorrowfully.
“What do you think of me, Wolfenden?” she asked.
“I have not thought about it at all,” he answered. “I am only wondering. You have come to explain everything?”
She shuddered. Explain everything! That was a task indeed. When the heart is young and life is a full and generous thing; in the days of romance, when adventures and love-making come as a natural heritage and form part of the order of things, then the words which the woman had to say would have come lightly enough from her lips, less perhaps as a confession than as a half apologetic narration. But in the days when youth lies far behind, when its glamour has faded away and nothing but the bare incidents remain, unbeautified by the full colouring and exuberance of the springtime of life, the most trifling indiscretions then stand out like idiotic crimes. Lady Deringham had been a proud woman—a proud woman all her life. She had borne in society the reputation of an almost ultra-exclusiveness; in her home life she had been something of an autocrat. Perhaps this was the most miserable moment of her life. Her son was looking at her with cold, inquiring eyes. She was on her defence before him. She bowed her head and spoke:
“Tell me what you thought, Wolfenden.”
“Forgive me,” he said, “I could only think that there was robbery, and that you, for some sufficient reason, I am sure, were aiding. I could not think anything else, could I?”
“You thought what was true, Wolfenden,” she whispered. “I was helping another man to rob your father! It was only a very trifling theft—a handful of notes from his work for a magazine article. But it was theft, and I was an accomplice!”
There was a short silence. Her eyes, seeking steadfastly to read his face, could make nothing of it.
“I will not ask you why,” he said slowly. “You must have had very good reasons. But I want to tell you one thing. I am beginning to have grave doubts as to whether my father’s state is really so bad as Dr. Whitlett thinks—whether, in short, his work is not after all really of some considerable value. There are several considerations which incline me to take this view.”
The suggestion visibly disturbed Lady Deringham. She moved in her chair uneasily.
“You have heard what Mr. Blatherwick says,” she objected. “I am sure that he is absolutely trustworthy.”
“There is no doubt about Blatherwick’s honesty,” he admitted, “but the Admiral himself says that he dare trust no one, and that for weeks he has given him no paper of importance to work upon simply for that reason. It has been growing upon me that we may have been mistaken all along, that very likely Miss Merton was paid to steal his work, and that it may possess for certain people, and for certain purposes, a real technical importance. How else can we account for the deliberate efforts which have been made to obtain possession of it?”
“You have spent some time examining it yourself,” she said in a low tone; “what was your own opinion?”
“I found some sheets,” he answered, “and I read them very carefully; they were connected with the various landing-places upon the Suffolk coast. An immense amount of detail was very clearly given. The currents, bays, and fortifications were all set out; even the roads and railways into the interior were dealt with. I compared them afterwards with a map of Suffolk. They were, so far as one could judge, correct. Of course this was only a page or two at random, but I must say it made an impression upon me.”
There was another silence, this time longer than before. Lady Deringham was thinking. Once more, then, the man had lied to her! He was on some secret business of his own. She shuddered slightly. She had no curiosity as to its nature. Only she remembered what many people had told her, that where he went disaster followed. A piece of coal fell into the grate hissing from the fire. He stooped to pick it up, and catching a glimpse of her face became instantly graver. He remembered that as yet he had heard nothing of what she had come to tell him. Her presence in the library was altogether unexplained.
“You were very good,” she said slowly; “you stayed what might have been a tragedy. You knew that I was there, you helped me to escape; yet you must have known that I was in league with the man who was trying to steal those papers.”
“There was no mistake, then! You were doing that. You!”
“It is true,” she answered. “It was I who let him in, who unlocked your father’s desk. I was his accomplice!”
“Who was the man?”
She did not tell him at once.
“He was once,” she said, “my lover!”
“Before I met your father! We were never really engaged. But he loved me, and I thought I cared for him. I wrote him letters—the foolish letters of an impulsive girl. These he has kept. I treated him badly, I know that! But I too have suffered. It has been the desire of my life to have those letters. Last night he called here. Before my face he burnt all but one! That he kept. The price of his returning it to me was my help—last night.”
“For what purpose?” Wolfenden asked. “What use did he propose to make of the Admiral’s papers if he succeeded in stealing them?”
She shook her head mournfully.
“I cannot tell. He answered me at first that he simply needed some statistics to complete a magazine article, and that Mr. C. himself had sent him here. If what you tell me of their importance is true, I have no doubt that he lied.”
“Why could he not go to the Admiral himself?”
Lady Deringham’s face was as pale as death, and she spoke with downcast head, her eyes fixed upon her clenched hands.
“At Cairo,” she said, “not long after my marriage, we all met. I was indiscreet, and your father was hot-headed and jealous. They quarrelled and fought, your father wounded him; he fired in the air. You understand now that he could not go direct to the Admiral.”
“I cannot understand,” he admitted, “why you listened to his proposal.”
“Wolfenden, I wanted that letter,” she said, her voice dying away in something like a moan. “It is not that I have anything more than folly to reproach myself with, but it was written—it was the only one—after my marriage. Just at first I was not very happy with your father. We had had a quarrel, I forget what about, and I sat down and wrote words which I have many a time bitterly repented ever having put on paper. I have never forgotten them—I never shall! I have seen them often in my happiest moments, and they have seemed to me to be written with letters of fire.”
“You have it back now? You have destroyed it?”
She shook her head wearily.
“No, I was to have had it when he had succeeded; I had not let him in five minutes when you disturbed us.”
“Tell me the man’s name.”
“I will get you the letter.”
“He would not give it you. You could not make him.”
Wolfenden’s eyes flashed with a sudden fire.
“You are mistaken,” he said. “The man who holds for blackmail over a woman’s head, a letter written twenty years ago, is a scoundrel! I will get that letter from him. Tell me his name!”
Lady Deringham shuddered.
“Wolfenden, it would bring trouble! He is dangerous. Don’t ask me. At least I have kept my word to him. It was not my fault that we were disturbed. He will not molest me now.”
“Mother, I will know his name!”
“I cannot tell it you!”
“Then I will find it out; it will not be difficult. I will put the whole matter in the hands of the police. I shall send to Scotland Yard for a detective. There are marks underneath the window. I picked up a man’s glove upon the library floor. A clever fellow will find enough to work upon. I will find this blackguard for myself, and the law shall deal with him as he deserves.”
“Wolfenden, have mercy! May I not know best? Are my wishes, my prayers, nothing to you?”
“A great deal, mother, yet I consider myself also a judge as to the wisest course to pursue. The plan which I have suggested may clear up many things. It may bring to light the real object of this man. It may solve the mystery of that impostor, Wilmot. I am tired of all this uncertainty. We will have some daylight. I shall telegraph to-morrow morning to Scotland Yard.”
“Wolfenden, I beseech you!”
“So also do I beseech you, mother, to tell me that man’s name. Great heavens!”
Wolfenden sprang suddenly from his chair with startled face. An idea, slow of coming, but absolutely convincing from its first conception, had suddenly flashed home to him. How could he have been so blind? He stood looking at his mother in fixed suspense. The light of his knowledge was in his face, and she saw it. She had been dreading this all the while.
“It was Mr. Sabin!—the man who calls himself Sabin!”
A little moan of despair crept out from her lips. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed.
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