Geoffrey Clavering's reply to Lady Katharine's staggering question was give_o promptly that one might have been tempted to believe he had expected it an_repared himself for the question beforehand.
"I had no idea of going there at first," he said. "I couldn't remain among th_uests after you had left the Close and Narkom's men had bundled that D_ouvisan out of the house; my head seemed full of fire, and I simply couldn't.
I got away as soon as I decently could, and went upstairs to my own room. _ouldn't stop there, either; the stillness and the loneliness half maddened m_nd set me to thinking and thinking until I thought my head would burst. So, in sheer desperation, I caught up a cap, sneaked down the back stairs, and le_yself out. Nobody saw me go, and, thank God, nobody saw me return, either. _alked about the Common for heaven knows how long before I turned round at th_ound of some one coming toward me through the mist, and the next thing I kne_ 'bumped' smack into that person, and found it to be my stepmother."
"Lady Clavering?" said the girl in a tone of the utmost surprise—and Clee_ould have blessed her for the words, since they voiced an inquiry upon _ubject which he much desired to have explained. "You mean to say that Lad_lavering was out there on the Common, away from her guests? What could hav_mpelled her to take such a step—and at such a time?"
"She had come in search of me, she said. She felt anxious, distressed, afraid, so she said, that I would do something desperate, and went to my room to tal_ith me. When she found it empty she jumped to the conclusion that I had gon_ut for the purpose of following De Louvisan and meeting him somewhere for th_ere satisfaction of thrashing him. She begged and implored me to come back t_he Close; to do nothing rash; to think of my father; to remember her; to b_areful to do nothing that would get your name mixed up in a vulgar brawl. An_he wouldn't leave me until I promised her on my word of honour that I woul_ake no effort to find De Louvisan. When I did that, she was satisfied an_ent back to the Close."
In the darkness of the stone staircase Cleek puckered up his brows an_houghtfully pinched his chin.
Oho! so that was the explanation of her ladyship's presence on the Common las_ight, was it? Mere solicitude for the welfare of a beloved stepson, eh?
Hum-m-m! Rather disappointing, to say the least of it, to find that she had n_ore connection with the case than just that. After all, she was merely "a re_erring drawn across the trail," eh? He shouldn't have thought so, but, o_ourse, if young Clavering spoke the truth, that eliminated _her_ from th_ffair altogether. Odd that she should have bribed the Common keeper not t_ay a word about having met her! In the circumstances, why should she hav_one so?
Ah, yes—just so! She wouldn't like to have the affair talked about; sh_ouldn't like to have young Geoff put on his guard, so that he might purposel_void meeting her, and she would be most anxious to get him back into th_ouse as quietly and as expeditiously as possible. No, decidedly, you neve_an be certain. Women are queer fish at the best of times, and mothers hav_dd methods of reasoning when beloved sons are concerned. But stepmothers?
Hum-m-m! Yes, yes! To be sure, there are always exceptions. Still, he hadn'_hought—he decidedly had not thought——
Young Clavering was speaking again. Cleek let the "thought" trail off and los_tself, and pricked up his ears to listen.
"I suppose it was her speaking of you that first put the idea into my head,"
Geoff went on, "and impelled me to walk over to the place where we had been s_appy before your father returned from Argentina and spoiled everything fo_s. That's why I went. That's how I came to meet you there."
"You did not meet me there!" she flung back indignantly. "Really this is pas_ jest."
"A jest? You think I'm likely to jest over it—a thing that threatens the lif_f the girl I love? In the name of heaven, Kathie, put an end to thi_onsense. You know I did meet you there! You know how surprised I was when _ot to the place to see you stealing out of the gates. Why, the very momen_ou saw me you spoke my name, and that I had no more than just time to say t_ou, 'For God's sake, Kathie, how did you come here?' when you plucked me b_he sleeve and said, 'Come in, come in; I'll show you something that wil_ight the way back to the land of happiness, dear!' And after all that to fac_e down like this—to pretend that you were not there. It is simpl_idiculous."
"I am glad you can give it so mild a name," said the girl coldly. "To me i_eems the cruellest and the wickedest falsehood a man could possibly utter.
Dear God! what has come over you, Geoff? Are you mad, or are you somethin_orse, to come here and make this abominable lying charge against me—agains_me_? And when you know in your heart that there is not one word of truth i_t!"
"Oh, for God's sake, don't treat me as if I were a fool, Katharine. Who i_here to impersonate you, and for what reason? I know what I know, I know wha_'ve seen, what I've heard, what I've been through! Then what in heaven's nam_s the use of keeping up this idle pretence with me?"
"It is not a pretence—it is the truth, the simple and the absolute truth!" sh_eplied with heat. "If they were the last words I had to say in this world, _ould repeat on the very threshold of the one to come: _I was not at Glee_ottage last night._ I came straight from Clavering Close to Wuthering Grange, and I never left my room for one instant from that time until I came down t_reakfast this morning. Ailsa Lorne was with me when I returned; she will tel_ou that I am speaking the truth."
Yes, decidedly Ailsa Lorne would tell him; that Cleek acknowledged to himself.
Had she not done so already? But again she might also have told him that sh_hought she heard Lady Katharine's bedroom door open in the night and some on_teal out of it. Besides, there was another thing—the golden capsule of th_cent bracelet—to be reckoned with. Hum-m-m! Was there, then, a possibilit_hat Geoff Clavering was speaking the truth, and that it was Lady Katharin_erself who was lying? Of course, in that case—— Stop a bit—they were going a_t again, and he could not afford to lose a single word.
"I don't care a hang what Ailsa Lorne or anybody else will say; I know what _now," young Clavering flung in doggedly. "You can't tell me that I didn't se_ thing when I did see it—at least, you can't and expect to make me believ_t. Give me credit for a little common sense."
"How can I when your own words so utterly refute it, when you convict yoursel_ut of your own mouth, when even the dead man himself is a witness to th_tter folly of this charge?"
"Yes. He speaks for me!"
"He speaks for me," she repeated, not noticing the interruption, "and if yo_ill not believe a living witness, then you must believe a dead one. Uncl_aynor and Harry said this morning that the Count de Louvisan's body had bee_ound, not lying on the ground, but lifted up and spiked to the wall; and yo_ho claim to have seen me in that house last night claim also to have searche_he place and found no one but me present. Will you tell me, then, how I coul_ossibly have lifted the body of a man weighing ten or eleven stone at th_east computation, much less have lifted it high enough to spike it to _all?"
"One for the girl!" commented Cleek silently.
"You might have had help; there might have been somebody there who left befor_ arrived," replied Geoff.
"And another one for the man!" Cleek was obliged to admit. "Which of thi_nteresting pair is doing the lying? They can't both be speaking the truth. A_east, they can't unless—— By Jupiter! Hum-m-m! Quite so! Quite so! 'Write m_own an ass, gentlemen,' and an ass with a capital A." Then the curious one- sided smile travelled up his cheek, and lingered there longer than usual.
Young Clavering's last remark had hurt the girl more than anything he had ye_aid; hurt her so deeply that she gave a little shuddering cry and, womanlike, broke into tears.
"That is the wickedest thing of all!" she said. "The very wickedest thing o_ll. I can't doubt any longer that you have made up your mind to bolster u_his abominable thing by every possible insult to me!"
"Insult? What funny things are sometimes said by accident!" he flung bac_tridently. "I am likely to 'insult' you when I'm ready to stand by yo_hrough thick and thin, am I not? And to lie till I'm black in the face, s_hat I keep others from knowing what I know!"
"You don't know it—you can't know it! It never happened! I was not in tha_ouse last night, and you did not see me there!"
"Oh, well then, let us say I didn't," impatiently. "What does it matter on_ay or the other? Say I didn't, then! Say _I_ murdered him; but, for God'_ake, don't say I insult you when I have come here merely to show you how muc_ love you—how ready I am to fight the whole world for you. Come back into m_rms, and let me tell you what I want to tell, dear. Come back, and don't fea_nything or anybody on earth. They shan't touch you! They shan't lift a finge_o harm you, say one single word against you; and God help the first tha_ries it, that's all! A man doesn't cease to love a woman just because sh_oes a desperate thing for his sake. No, not he! If he's worthy of the name o_an, he loves her all the better for it. That's how I love you! Better to-da_han I ever loved you in all the days that were; better than I shall ever lov_nything in all the days that are to be. I don't care if you are red with th_lood of a hundred men, you're the girl I love, the girl I mean to marry, th_irl I'm going to stand up and fight for as long as there's breath left in m_ody!"
"Marry—marry?" Her voice struck through his even before he had finishe_peaking, and there was a sting in it that bit. "Do you think for one instan_hat I would marry you when you make such a charge as that against me? Do yo_hink I would? Do you? I'd no more marry you than I would cut off my righ_and, Geoff Clavering, after you have slandered me and lied about me lik_his."
"No—please! If you touch me I think I shall faint! Stay where you are! Let m_lone! Ah, please do—please! I have suffered and suffered and suffered, bu_ot like this; oh, never like this before! That you should say thes_hings—you! That you should even dream of saying them! You ought to be ashame_f yourself—ashamed!"
"No, no—don't, please don't; it would be wicked to touch me when I a_uffering so much. I want to get back to my room— I want to lie down; my hea_ill split if I don't. Please do not follow me; please stay where you are. _on't say a word to anybody; I promise you I won't. I'll try to bear it, I'l_ry to forget it. Nine years! Dear God, nine years; and—those marks totalle_ine!"
He jumped as though some one had stabbed him; a red wave rushed up an_rimsoned all his face, then flashed out of existence again and left it waxe_hite.
"Good God! you won't attempt to suggest——" he began, then lost the power o_peaking altogether, and stood looking at her with blank eyes and wit_olourless lips hard shut as she crept on through the shadowy dusk to wher_he doorway of the ruin showed a pointed arch against the dimming saffron of _wilight sky. A moment her drooping figure stood there against that shield o_ellow light, pausing irresolute with one foot on the edge of the drawbridge, one hand pressed to her head; then she turned and looked back at the plac_here he stood. But in the dim dusk of the ruin she could scarcely see him.
"I will never speak, I will never tell—even to the day I die I won't!" sh_aid in a whisper; then waited an instant as if expecting a reply, and gettin_one, added yet more sadly, "Good-bye," and went across the drawbridge to th_arkening gardens, and was gone.
For a minute the man made neither movement nor sound till of a sudden ther_ame something so totally unexpected as to cause him to literally jump. Som_ne had given a none too perfect representation of a muffled sneeze, tellin_im that he was not alone.
"Who's there? Who are you?" he cried in an excited whisper
But nobody answered.
"Do you hear what I say? Come out and show yourself, whoever you are!" h_alled in a slightly louder tone; and then, getting no answer this tim_ither, he fumbled in his pocket, fished out his match box, and struck _esta.
The glimmering light showed him what the dusk had so successfully conceale_eretofore—namely, the gap in the floor and the underside of the slab whic_sually covered the entrance to the underground cells, but which was now lai_ack on its hinges with its lower side upmost and the way to the ston_taircase in full view. And in the very instant he made this discovery ther_olled up from that gap the sound of somebody running away.
In a sort of panic young Clavering made a dash for the trap, and was throug_t and down the stone steps in almost no time, the wax vesta flickering an_laring in the fingers of his upraised hand and sending gushes of ligh_eaving in and out among the arches of the passage and the gaping doorways o_he mimic cells.
Nobody in sight. He called, but nobody answered; he commanded, but nobody cam_orth. And with the intention of routing the author of the sneeze and th_ootsteps, he had just started forward to investigate the cells themselves, when the match burnt his fingers and was flung down sharply. Darkness shut i_s though a curtain had fallen. He fumbled with the box to get another match, and had almost secured one when he heard a movement behind him and flashe_ound on his heel.
"Anybody there?" he rapped out sharply.
"Yes; Cleek, of Scotland Yard!" answered a bland voice immediately in front o_im; then there was a sharp spring, a swift rustle, a metallic click-click!
His match box was on the floor, and a band of steel was locked about eac_rist.
"Good Lord! you've put handcuffs on me, you infernal scoundrel!" Claverin_ried out indignantly. "What is the meaning of this outrage? What are——Here!
chuck that! Confound your cheek! what are you doing to my ankles?"
"Same thing as I've done to your wrists," replied Cleek serenely. "Sorry, bu_ shall have to carry you, my young friend; and I can't risk getting my shin_icked to a pulp."
"Carry me? Carry me where? Good God, man! not to jail?"
"Oh, no. That may come later, and certainly will come if you are guilty. Fo_he present, however, I am simply going to carry you to a rather uncomfortabl_ell at the end of the passage, and put you where you won't be able to ru_way. I am afraid, however, that I shall have to gag you as well as handcuf_ou, and make you more uncomfortable still. But I'll manage somehow to ge_ome bedding of some sort, and to see that you don't miss your dinner. You ar_oing to spend the night here, my friend. Now, then, up you come and—there yo_re, on my shoulder. Steady, if you please, while I get out my pocket torch t_ight the way. I suppose you realize that I have heard all that passed betwee_ou and Lady Katharine Fordham this evening?"
"And you know that I lied, don't you?" put in Geoff eagerly. "You know tha_he _wasn't_ there last night, after all?"
"To the contrary, my friend, I know that she was."
"It's a lie—it's a dashed lie! She never was near the place. That was pur_luff. It was I who killed the man."
"Don't tell any more lies than you are obliged to, my lad. I don't believe sh_illed him, and I'm not so very sure that you killed him—and there you are."
"Then what are you arresting me for?"
"I'm not arresting you; I'm simply sifting evidence. Your stepmother—accordin_o _your_ story—must be very, very fond of you, and very, very solicitous fo_our welfare. And if she risked catching cold and having people talk and al_hat sort of thing to rush out after you when you had only been gone for _hort time, let's see how she'll act when you disappear mysteriously and don'_ome home all night!"