THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница

next result of my interview with Mrs. Catherick--otherwise he would

never have placed his spies there to wait for me. Smoothly and fairly

as appearances looked in the vestry, there was something wrong beneath

them--there was something in the register-book, for aught I knew, that

I had not discovered yet.

X

Once out of sight of the church, I pressed forward briskly on my way to

Knowlesbury.

The road was, for the most part, straight and level. Whenever I looked

back over it I saw the two spies steadily following me. For the greater

part of the way they kept at a safe distance THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница behind. But once or twice

they quickened their pace, as if with the purpose of overtaking me,

then stopped, consulted together, and fell back again to their former

position. They had some special object evidently in view, and they

seemed to be hesitating or differing about the best means of

accomplishing it. I could not guess exactly what their design might

be, but I felt serious doubts of reaching Knowlesbury without some

mischance happening to me on the way. These doubts were realised.

I had just entered on a lonely part of the road, with a sharp turn at

some distance ahead, and had just concluded THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница (calculating by time) that

I must be getting near to the town, when I suddenly heard the steps of

the men close behind me.

Before I could look round, one of them (the man by whom I had been

followed in London) passed rapidly on my left side and hustled me with

his shoulder. I had been more irritated by the manner in which he and

his companion had dogged my steps all the way from Old Welmingham than

I was myself aware of, and I unfortunately pushed the fellow away

smartly with my open hand. He instantly shouted for help. His

companion, the tall man in the THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница gamekeeper's clothes, sprang to my right

side, and the next moment the two scoundrels held me pinioned between

them in the middle of the road.

The conviction that a trap had been laid for me, and the vexation of

knowing that I had fallen into it, fortunately restrained me from

making my position still worse by an unavailing struggle with two men,

one of whom would, in all probability, have been more than a match for

me single-handed. I repressed the first natural movement by which I

had attempted to shake them off, and looked about to see if there was

any person near to THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница whom I could appeal.

A labourer was at work in an adjoining field who must have witnessed

all that had passed. I called to him to follow us to the town. He

shook his head with stolid obstinacy, and walked away in the direction

of a cottage which stood back from the high-road. At the same time

the men who held me between them declared their intention of charging

me with an assault. I was cool enough and wise enough now to make no

opposition. "Drop your hold of my arms," I said, "and I will go with

you to the town." The man in THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница the gamekeeper's dress roughly refused.

But the shorter man was sharp enough to look to consequences, and not

to let his companion commit himself by unnecessary violence. He made a

sign to the other, and I walked on between them with my arms free.

We reached the turning in the road, and there, close before us, were

the suburbs of Knowlesbury. One of the local policemen was walking

along the path by the roadside. The men at once appealed to him. He

replied that the magistrate was then sitting at the town-hall, and

recommended that we should appear before him immediately THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница.

We went on to the town-hall. The clerk made out a formal summons, and

the charge was preferred against me, with the customary exaggeration

and the customary perversion of the truth on such occasions. The

magistrate (an ill-tempered man, with a sour enjoyment in the exercise

of his own power) inquired if any one on or near the road had witnessed

the assault, and, greatly to my surprise, the complainant admitted the

presence of the labourer in the field. I was enlightened, however, as

to the object of the admission by the magistrate's next words. He

remanded me at once for the production of the witness THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница, expressing, at



the same time, his willingness to take bail for my reappearance if I

could produce one responsible surety to offer it. If I had been known

in the town he would have liberated me on my own recognisances, but as

I was a total stranger it was necessary that I should find responsible

bail.

The whole object of the stratagem was now disclosed to me. It had been

so managed as to make a remand necessary in a town where I was a

perfect stranger, and where I could not hope to get my liberty on bail.

The remand merely extended over THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница three days, until the next sitting of

the magistrate. But in that time, while I was in confinement, Sir

Percival might use any means he pleased to embarrass my future

proceedings--perhaps to screen himself from detection

altogether--without the slightest fear of any hindrance on my part. At

the end of the three days the charge would, no doubt, be withdrawn, and

the attendance of the witness would be perfectly useless.

My indignation, I may almost say, my despair, at this mischievous check

to all further progress--so base and trifling in itself, and yet so

disheartening and so serious in its probable results--quite unfitted me

at THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница first to reflect on the best means of extricating myself from the

dilemma in which I now stood. I had the folly to call for writing

materials, and to think of privately communicating my real position to

the magistrate. The hopelessness and the imprudence of this proceeding

failed to strike me before I had actually written the opening lines of

the letter. It was not till I had pushed the paper away--not till, I

am ashamed to say, I had almost allowed the vexation of my helpless

position to conquer me--that a course of action suddenly occurred to my

mind, which Sir Percival had probably not THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница anticipated, and which might

set me free again in a few hours. I determined to communicate the

situation in which I was placed to Mr. Dawson, of Oak Lodge.

I had visited this gentleman's house, it may be remembered, at the time

of my first inquiries in the Blackwater Park neighbourhood, and I had

presented to him a letter of introduction from Miss Halcombe, in which

she recommended me to his friendly attention in the strongest terms. I

now wrote, referring to this letter, and to what I had previously told

Mr. Dawson of the delicate and dangerous nature of my inquiries. I had

not revealed THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница to him the truth about Laura, having merely described my

errand as being of the utmost importance to private family interests

with which Miss Halcombe was concerned. Using the same caution still,

I now accounted for my presence at Knowlesbury in the same manner, and

I put it to the doctor to say whether the trust reposed in me by a lady

whom he well knew, and the hospitality I had myself received in his

house, justified me or not in asking him to come to my assistance in a

place where I was quite friendless.

I obtained permission to hire a messenger to drive away THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница at once with my

letter in a conveyance which might be used to bring the doctor back

immediately. Oak Lodge was on the Knowlesbury side of Blackwater. The

man declared he could drive there in forty minutes, and could bring Mr.

Dawson back in forty more. I directed him to follow the doctor

wherever he might happen to be, if he was not at home, and then sat

down to wait for the result with all the patience and all the hope that

I could summon to help me.

It was not quite half-past one when the messenger departed. Before

half-past three THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница he returned, and brought the doctor with him. Mr.

Dawson's kindness, and the delicacy with which he treated his prompt

assistance quite as a matter of course, almost overpowered me. The

bail required was offered, and accepted immediately. Before four

o'clock, on that afternoon, I was shaking hands warmly with the good

old doctor--a free man again--in the streets of Knowlesbury.

Mr. Dawson hospitably invited me to go back with him to Oak Lodge, and

take up my quarters there for the night. I could only reply that my

time was not my own, and I could only ask him to THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница let me pay my visit in

a few days, when I might repeat my thanks, and offer to him all the

explanations which I felt to be only his due, but which I was not then

in a position to make. We parted with friendly assurances on both

sides, and I turned my steps at once to Mr. Wansborough's office in the

High Street.

Time was now of the last importance.

The news of my being free on bail would reach Sir Percival, to an

absolute certainty, before night. If the next few hours did not put me

in a position to justify his worst fears THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница, and to hold him helpless at

my mercy, I might lose every inch of the ground I had gained, never to

recover it again. The unscrupulous nature of the man, the local

influence he possessed, the desperate peril of exposure with which my

blindfold inquiries threatened him--all warned me to press on to

positive discovery, without the useless waste of a single minute. I

had found time to think while I was waiting for Mr. Dawson's arrival,

and I had well employed it. Certain portions of the conversation of the

talkative old clerk, which had wearied me at the time, now recurred to

my memory THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница with a new significance, and a suspicion crossed my mind

darkly which had not occurred to me while I was in the vestry. On my

way to Knowlesbury, I had only proposed to apply to Mr. Wansborough for

information on the subject of Sir Percival's mother. My object now was

to examine the duplicate register of Old Welmingham Church.

Mr. Wansborough was in his office when I inquired for him.

He was a jovial, red-faced, easy-looking man--more like a country

squire than a lawyer--and he seemed to be both surprised and amused by

my application. He had heard of his father THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница's copy of the register, but

had not even seen it himself. It had never been inquired after, and it

was no doubt in the strong room among other papers that had not been

disturbed since his father's death. It was a pity (Mr. Wansborough

said) that the old gentleman was not alive to hear his precious copy

asked for at last. He would have ridden his favourite hobby harder than

ever now. How had I come to hear of the copy? was it through anybody

in the town?

I parried the question as well as I could. It was impossible at this

stage of THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница the investigation to be too cautious, and it was just as well

not to let Mr. Wansborough know prematurely that I had already examined

the original register. I described myself, therefore, as pursuing a

family inquiry, to the object of which every possible saving of time

was of great importance. I was anxious to send certain particulars to

London by that day's post, and one look at the duplicate register

(paying, of course, the necessary fees) might supply what I required,

and save me a further journey to Old Welmingham. I added that, in the

event of my subsequently requiring a copy of the original THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница register, I

should make application to Mr. Wansborough's office to furnish me with

the document.

After this explanation no objection was made to producing the copy. A

clerk was sent to the strong room, and after some delay returned with

the volume. It was of exactly the same size as the volume in the

vestry, the only difference being that the copy was more smartly bound.

I took it with me to an unoccupied desk. My hands were trembling--my

head was burning hot--I felt the necessity of concealing my agitation

as well as I could from the persons about me in THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница the room, before I

ventured on opening the book.

On the blank page at the beginning, to which I first turned, were

traced some lines in faded ink. They contained these words--

"Copy of the Marriage Register of Welmingham Parish Church. Executed

under my orders, and afterwards compared, entry by entry, with the

original, by myself. (Signed) Robert Wansborough, vestry-clerk."

Below this note there was a line added, in another handwriting, as

follows: "Extending from the first of January, 1800, to the thirtieth

of June, 1815."

I turned to the month of September, eighteen hundred and three. I

found the marriage of the man whose Christian name was THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница the same as my

own. I found the double register of the marriages of the two brothers.

And between these entries, at the bottom of the page?

Nothing! Not a vestige of the entry which recorded the marriage of Sir

Felix Glyde and Cecilia Jane Elster in the register of the church!

My heart gave a great bound, and throbbed as if it would stifle me. I

looked again--I was afraid to believe the evidence of my own eyes. No!

not a doubt. The marriage was not there. The entries on the copy

occupied exactly the same places on the page as the THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница entries in the

original. The last entry on one page recorded the marriage of the man

with my Christian name. Below it there was a blank space--a space

evidently left because it was too narrow to contain the entry of the

marriages of the two brothers, which in the copy, as in the original,

occupied the top of the next page. That space told the whole story!

There it must have remained in the church register from eighteen

hundred and three (when the marriages had been solemnised and the copy

had been made) to eighteen hundred and twenty-seven, when Sir Percival

appeared at Old Welmingham THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница. Here, at Knowlesbury, was the chance of

committing the forgery shown to me in the copy, and there, at Old

Welmingham, was the forgery committed in the register of the church.

My head turned giddy--I held by the desk to keep myself from falling.

Of all the suspicions which had struck me in relation to that desperate

man, not one had been near the truth.

The idea that he was not Sir Percival Glyde at all, that he had no more

claim to the baronetcy and to Blackwater Park than the poorest labourer

who worked on the estate, had never once occurred to THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница my mind. At one

time I had thought he might be Anne Catherick's father--at another time

I had thought he might have been Anne Catherick's husband--the offence

of which he was really guilty had been, from first to last, beyond the

widest reach of my imagination.

The paltry means by which the fraud had been effected, the magnitude

and daring of the crime that it represented, the horror of the

consequences involved in its discovery, overwhelmed me. Who could

wonder now at the brute-restlessness of the wretch's life--at his

desperate alternations between abject duplicity and reckless

violence--at THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница the madness of guilty distrust which had made him imprison

Anne Catherick in the Asylum, and had given him over to the vile

conspiracy against his wife, on the bare suspicion that the one and the

other knew his terrible secret? The disclosure of that secret might, in

past years, have hanged him--might now transport him for life. The

disclosure of that secret, even if the sufferers by his deception

spared him the penalties of the law, would deprive him at one blow of

the name, the rank, the estate, the whole social existence that he had

usurped. This was the Secret, and it was mine THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница! A word from me, and

house, lands, baronetcy, were gone from him for ever--a word from me,

and he was driven out into the world, a nameless, penniless, friendless

outcast! The man's whole future hung on my lips--and he knew it by this

time as certainly as I did!

That last thought steadied me. Interests far more precious than my own

depended on the caution which must now guide my slightest actions.

There was no possible treachery which Sir Percival might not attempt

against me. In the danger and desperation of his position he would be

staggered by no risks, he would recoil at no THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница crime--he would literally

hesitate at nothing to save himself.

I considered for a minute. My first necessity was to secure positive

evidence in writing of the discovery that I had just made, and in the

event of any personal misadventure happening to me, to place that

evidence beyond Sir Percival's reach. The copy of the register was

sure to be safe in Mr. Wansborough's strong room. But the position of

the original in the vestry was, as I had seen with my own eyes,

anything but secure.

In this emergency I resolved to return to the church, to apply again THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница to

the clerk, and to take the necessary extract from the register before I

slept that night. I was not then aware that a legally-certified copy

was necessary, and that no document merely drawn out by myself could

claim the proper importance as a proof. I was not aware of this, and my

determination to keep my present proceedings a secret prevented me from

asking any questions which might have procured the necessary

information. My one anxiety was the anxiety to get back to Old

Welmingham. I made the best excuses I could for the discomposure in my

face and manner which Mr. Wansborough had already noticed, laid the

necessary THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница fee on his table, arranged that I should write to him in a

day or two, and left the office, with my head in a whirl and my blood

throbbing through my veins at fever heat.

It was just getting dark. The idea occurred to me that I might be

followed again and attacked on the high-road.

My walking-stick was a light one, of little or no use for purposes of

defence. I stopped before leaving Knowlesbury and bought a stout

country cudgel, short, and heavy at the head. With this homely weapon,

if any one man tried to stop me I THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница was a match for him. If more than

one attacked me I could trust to my heels. In my school-days I had

been a noted runner, and I had not wanted for practice since in the

later time of my experience in Central America.

I started from the town at a brisk pace, and kept the middle of the

road.

A small misty rain was falling, and it was impossible for the first

half of the way to make sure whether I was followed or not. But at the

last half of my journey, when I supposed myself to be about two miles

from the THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница church, I saw a man run by me in the rain, and then heard the

gate of a field by the roadside shut to sharply. I kept straight on,

with my cudgel ready in my hand, my ears on the alert, and my eyes

straining to see through the mist and the darkness. Before I had

advanced a hundred yards there was a rustling in the hedge on my right,

and three men sprang out into the road.

I drew aside on the instant to the footpath. The two foremost men were

carried beyond me before they could check themselves THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница. The third was as

quick as lightning. He stopped, half turned, and struck at me with his

stick. The blow was aimed at hazard, and was not a severe one. It

fell on my left shoulder. I returned it heavily on his head. He

staggered back and jostled his two companions just as they were both

rushing at me. This circumstance gave me a moment's start. I slipped

by them, and took to the middle of the road again at the top of my

speed.

The two unhurt men pursued me. They were both good runners--the road

was smooth and level, and for the first five minutes THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница or more I was

conscious that I did not gain on them. It was perilous work to run for

long in the darkness. I could barely see the dim black line of the

hedges on either side, and any chance obstacle in the road would have

thrown me down to a certainty. Ere long I felt the ground changing--it

descended from the level at a turn, and then rose again beyond.

Downhill the men rather gained on me, but uphill I began to distance

them. The rapid, regular thump of their feet grew fainter on my ear,

and I calculated by the THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница sound that I was far enough in advance to take

to the fields with a good chance of their passing me in the darkness.

Diverging to the footpath, I made for the first break that I could

guess at, rather than see, in the hedge. It proved to be a closed

gate. I vaulted over, and finding myself in a field, kept across it

steadily with my back to the road. I heard the men pass the gate,

still running, then in a minute more heard one of them call to the

other to come back. It was no matter what they did now, I THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница was out of

their sight and out of their hearing. I kept straight across the

field, and when I had reached the farther extremity of it, waited there

for a minute to recover my breath.

It was impossible to venture back to the road, but I was determined

nevertheless to get to Old Welmingham that evening.

Neither moon nor stars appeared to guide me. I only knew that I had

kept the wind and rain at my back on leaving Knowlesbury, and if I now

kept them at my back still, I might at least be certain of not

advancing altogether in the wrong direction THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница.

Proceeding on this plan, I crossed the country--meeting with no worse

obstacles than hedges, ditches, and thickets, which every now and then

obliged me to alter my course for a little while--until I found myself

on a hill-side, with the ground sloping away steeply before me. I

descended to the bottom of the hollow, squeezed my way through a hedge,

and got out into a lane. Having turned to the right on leaving the

road, I now turned to the left, on the chance of regaining the line

from which I had wandered. After following the muddy windings of the

lane for ten minutes THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница or more, I saw a cottage with a light in one of

the windows. The garden gate was open to the lane, and I went in at

once to inquire my way.

Before I could knock at the door it was suddenly opened, and a man came

running out with a lighted lantern in his hand. He stopped and held it

up at the sight of me. We both started as we saw each other. My

wanderings had led me round the outskirts of the village, and had

brought me out at the lower end of it. I was back at Old Welmingham,

and the man THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница with the lantern was no other than my acquaintance of the

morning, the parish clerk.

His manner appeared to have altered strangely in the interval since I

had last seen him. He looked suspicious and confused--his ruddy cheeks

were deeply flushed--and his first words, when he spoke, were quite

unintelligible to me.

"Where are the keys?" he asked. "Have you taken them?"

"What keys?" I repeated. "I have this moment come from Knowlesbury.

What keys do you mean?"

"The keys of the vestry. Lord save us and help us! what shall I do?

The keys are gone! Do you hear?" cried the THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница old man, shaking the lantern

at me in his agitation, "the keys are gone!"

"How? When? Who can have taken them?"

"I don't know," said the clerk, staring about him wildly in the

darkness. "I've only just got back. I told you I had a long day's

work this morning--I locked the door and shut the window down--it's

open now, the window's open. Look! somebody has got in there and taken

the keys."

He turned to the casement window to show me that it was wide open. The

door of the lantern came loose from THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница its fastening as he swayed it

round, and the wind blew the candle out instantly.

"Get another light," I said, "and let us both go to the vestry

together. Quick! quick!"

I hurried him into the house. The treachery that I had every reason to

expect, the treachery that might deprive me of every advantage I had

gained, was at that moment, perhaps, in process of accomplishment. My

impatience to reach the church was so great that I could not remain

inactive in the cottage while the clerk lit the lantern again. I

walked out, down the garden path, into the lane.

Before I had advanced ten paces a THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница man approached me from the direction

leading to the church. He spoke respectfully as we met. I could not

see his face, but judging by his voice only, he was a perfect stranger

to me.

"I beg your pardon, Sir Percival----" he began.

I stopped him before he could say more.

"The darkness misleads you," I said. "I am not Sir Percival."

The man drew back directly.

"I thought it was my master," he muttered, in a confused, doubtful way.

"You expected to meet your master here?"

"I was told to wait in the lane."

With that answer he THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница retraced his steps. I looked back at the cottage

and saw the clerk coming out, with the lantern lighted once more. I

took the old man's arm to help him on the more quickly. We hastened

along the lane, and passed the person who had accosted me. As well as

I could see by the light of the lantern, he was a servant out of livery.

"Who's that?" whispered the clerk. "Does he know anything about the

keys?"

"We won't wait to ask him," I replied. "We will go on to the vestry

first."

The church was not visible, even by daytime, until the end THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница of the lane

was reached. As we mounted the rising ground which led to the building

from that point, one of the village children--a boy--came close up to

us, attracted by the light we carried, and recognised the clerk.

"I say, measter," said the boy, pulling officiously at the clerk's

coat, "there be summun up yander in the church. I heerd un lock the

door on hisself--I heerd un strike a loight wi' a match."

The clerk trembled and leaned against me heavily.

"Come! come!" I said encouragingly. "We are not too late. We will

catch the man, whoever he THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница is. Keep the lantern, and follow me as fast

as you can."

I mounted the hill rapidly. The dark mass of the church-tower was the

first object I discerned dimly against the night sky. As I turned

aside to get round to the vestry, I heard heavy footsteps close to me.

The servant had ascended to the church after us. "I don't mean any

harm," he said, when I turned round on him, "I'm only looking for my

master." The tones in which he spoke betrayed unmistakable fear. I

took no notice of him and went on.

The instant I turned THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT 44 страница the corner and came in view of the vestry, I saw

the lantern-skylight on the roof brilliantly lit up from within. It

shone out with dazzling brightness against the murky, starless sky.

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