Read CHAPTER XVII. - LYDIA BELCHER INTERVENES. of The Adventures of Harry Revel , free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

The effect of my words astounded me.  As a regiment holding itself bravely against an attack in front will suddenly melt at an unexpected shout on its flank and collapse without striking another blow, so Mr. Whitmore collapsed.  His jaw fell; his eyes wildly searched the dim corners of the room; his hands gripped the edge of the table; he dropped slowly into the chair behind him, dragging the tablecloth askew as he sank.

With that I felt Mr. Rogers’s grip on my shoulder ­no gentle one, I can assure you.  He, too, had been gazing at the curate, but now stared down, searching my face.

“You’ve hit him, by George!  Quick, boy! ­have you learnt more than you told me last night?  Or is it only guessing?”

“Ask him,” said I, “why he married Miss Isabel.”

“Married!  Isabel Brooks married!” ­Mr. Rogers’s eyes, wide and round, turned slowly from me and fastened themselves on the curate.

“Not to him, but to Archibald Plinlimmon.  Mr. Whitmore married them privately.  Ask him why!”

“Why?” Mr. Rogers released me and springing on the curate, seized him by the collar.  “Why, you unhanged cur?  Why?  Or better, say it’s not true ­say something, else by the Lord I’ll kill you here and now!”

Mr. Whitmore slid from his chair and grovelling on the floor clasped Mr. Doidge’s knees.  “Take him off!” he gasped.  “Have mercy ­take him off!  You shall hear everything, sir:  indeed you shall.  Only have mercy, and take him off!”

“Pah!” Mr. Rogers hurled him into a corner.

“Enough, Mr. Rogers!” commanded the Rector.  The two stood eyeing the culprit who, crouching where he fell, gazed up at them dumbly, pitifully, as a dog between two thrashings.

“Now, sir,” the Rector continued.  “You married this couple, it seems.  At whose request?”

“At their own,” came the answer in a whisper.

“Ay,” said Mr. Rogers, “at their own request.  You ­not being a priest at all, or in orders, but a swindler with a forged licence ­ married that lady at her own request.”

“Is that true?” the Rector demanded.

The poor wretch made as if to crawl towards him, to clasp his knees again.  “Mercy!” he whined, between two sobs.

“One moment,” Mr. Rogers insisted, as the Rector held up a hand.  “Did young Plinlimmon know of the fraud?”

“No.”

“Does he know now?”

“No.”

“Thank the Lord for that small mercy!  For, by the Lord, I’d have shot him without grace to say his prayers.”

“Mr. Rogers!” Again the Rector lifted a reproving hand.

“You don’t understand, sir.  For this marriage ­which isn’t a marriage ­Isabel Brooks gave the door to an honest man.  He may be a bit of a fool, sir:  but since she wasn’t for him, he prayed she might find a better fellow.  That’s sound Christianity, hey?  I can tell you it came tough enough.  And now ­” He swung round upon Whitmore.  “Did this man Letcher know?” he demanded.

“He did, Mr. Rogers.  Oh, if you only knew what agonies of mind ­”

“Stow your agonies of mind.  We’ll begin with those you’ve caused.  What was Letcher’s game?”

“His right name is Leicester, sir.  He is Mr. Plinlimmon’s cousin ­or second cousin, rather ­though Mr. Plinlimmon don’t know it.”  Mr. Whitmore, with his gloss rubbed off, was fast returning to his native style even in speech.  You could as little mistake him now for a gentleman as for a priest.

“And how does that bear on your pretty plot?”

“I will tell you, gentlemen:  for when George Leicester forced me to it ­and it was only under threats so terrible that you would hardly believe ­”

“In other words, he knew enough to hang you.”

“It was terrorism, gentlemen:  I was his slave, body and soul.  But when he came and proposed this, and never told me what he was to get by it ­for the plan was all his, and I stood to win nothing, absolutely nothing ­I determined to find out for myself, thinking (you see) that by getting at his secret I might put myself on level terms.”

“You mean, that you might discover enough to hang him.  I hope you succeeded.”

“To this extent, Mr. Rogers ­George Leicester and Archibald Plinlimmon’s mother were first cousins.  There were three Leicesters to begin with, as you might say ­Sir Charles, who was head of the family and is living yet, though close on eighty, and two younger brothers, Archibald and Randall, both dead.  Sir Charles was a bachelor, and for years his brothers lived with him in a sort of dependence.  Towards middle-age they both married ­I was told, by his orders ­and near about at the same time.  At any rate each married and each had a child ­Archibald a daughter and Randall a son.  Archibald’s daughter ­he died two years after her birth ­was brought up by her uncle, Sir Charles, who made a pet of her; but she spoilt her prospects by marrying a poor soldier, Captain Plinlimmon.  She ran away with him.  And the old man would never speak to her again, nor see her, but cut her out of his will.”

“I see.  And she ­this daughter of Archibald Leicester ­was Archibald’s Plinlimmon’s mother.  Is she living?”

“Mrs. Plinlimmon died some years ago,” I put in.

“Hey?  What do you know about all this?” asked Mr. Rogers.

“A little, sir,” I answered.

“But what little you know ­does it bear this man’s story out?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s as well to have some check on it, for I’d trust him just so far as I could fling him by the eyebrows.”

“There was no profit for me in this business, Mr. Rogers,” protested Whitmore.  “I’m telling you the truth, sir!” And indeed the poor rogue, having for the moment another’s sins to confess, rattled on with his story almost glibly.  “As I was saying, sir, the old man cut her out of his will:  and not only this, but had a Bible fetched and took his oath upon it that no child of hers should ever touch a penny of his money.  Be so good as to bear that in mind, sir, for it’s important.”

“I see,” Mr. Rogers nodded.  “So that cuts out Master Archibald.  And the money, I suppose, went to her brother’s child ­the boy you spoke of?”

“Softly sir, for now we come to it.  That boy ­Randall Leicester’s son ­was George Leicester ­the man who calls himself Letcher.  Randall Leicester lived long enough to have his heart broken by him.  He started in the Navy, with plenty of pocket-money, and better prospects; for Sir Charles turned all his affection over to him and meant to make him his heir.  But ­if you knew George Leicester, gentlemen, as I do!  That man has a devil in him; and the devil showed himself early.  First there was an ugly story about a woman ­a planter’s wife in one of the West India islands, where he was serving under Abercromby ­Santa Lucia, I think, or it may have been St. Vincent.  They say that after getting her to run with him, he left her stranded and bolted back to the ship with his pockets full of her jewels.  On top of that came a bad business at Naples ­an affair of cards ­which cost him his uniform.  After that he disappeared, and for years his uncle has believed him to be dead.”

“Then who gets the money?”

“There’s the villainy, sir” ­he spoke as if indeed he had taken no hand in it.  “Sir Charles, you see, had vowed never to leave it to young Plinlimmon:  but it seems he’s persuaded himself that the oath doesn’t apply to young Plinlimmon’s children, should he marry and have children.  To whom else should it go?  ’Lawful heirs of his body’:  and if the inheritance is made void by bastardy, you see, he turns up as the legitimate heir and collars the best of the property.”

“My God!” shouted Mr. Rogers, and would have leapt on him again had not the Rector, with wonderful agility for his years, flung himself between.  “You dare to stand there and tell me that, to aid this devilry, you pushed a woman into shame ­and that woman Isabel Brooks?”

“Mr. Rogers,” the Rector implored, “control yourself!  I know better than you ­every man knows who has been a parish priest ­what vileness a man can be guilty of to save his skin.  Reserve your wrath for Leicester, but let this poor creature be ­he has an awful expiation before him ­and consider with me if the worst of this evil cannot be remedied.”  He turned to the curate.  “You have the registers ­the parish papers?  Where are they?  Here?”

Whitmore nodded towards a door in the corner.

“Is the licence for this marriage among them?  Give me the key.”

The curate seemed to search in his pocket for a moment; then jerked a hand towards the door, as if meaning that no key was necessary.  The Rector strode across to search.

“By God, it shall be remedied!” Mr. Rogers shouted.  “Rector!”

The old man turned.

“Well?” he asked.

“You can marry them yet?”

“To be sure I can.  And if the licence is in order, little time need be lost.  Let me search for it.”

“Man, there’s no time to lose!  The North Wilts Regiment sails to-morrow night for Portugal.  I heard the news as I left Plymouth.”

“If that’s so,” I put in, “Plinlimmon will be down at the cottage to-night, or to-morrow morning to say good-bye.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“Sure,” said I.  “Miss Isabel told me that he had his Colonel’s promise.”

Mr. Rogers slapped his thigh.  “Egad, boy, it seems to me you’re the good angel in this business!  We’ll send down to the Cottage at once.”

He pulled a dog-whistle from his pocket and blew two shrill calls upon it.  But above the second sounded the Rector’s voice in a sharp exclamation, and we spun round in time to see him fling back the door in the corner.  It opened on a lighted room.

I was running towards this door to see what his exclamation might mean when at the other appeared the constable whom Mr. Rogers called “Jim” ­a youngish man, and tall, with a round head set like a button on top of a massive pair of shoulders.

“You whistled for me, sir?”

“I did.  You will not be wanted to keep watch any longer.  Step down to Minden Cottage and give this note to Miss Brooks.”  He pulled out a pencil, searched his pockets, found a scrap of paper, and, leaning over the table, scribbled a few lines.  “If Miss Brooks has gone to bed, you must knock her up.”

“Very good, sir.”  Constable Jim touched his hat and retired.

“And now what’s the matter in there?  Come along, you Whitmore.  Has he found the licence?”

But this was not what the Rector’s cry had announced.  The room into which we passed had apparently served Mr. Whitmore for a bed-chamber and private study combined, for a bed stood in the corner, and a bookcase and bureau on either side of the chimneypiece.  In the middle of the floor lay an open valise, and all around it a litter of books and clothes, tossed here and there as their owner had dragged them out to make a selection in his packing.

Mr. Rogers uttered a long whistle.  “So you were bolting?” He stared around, rubbing his chin, and fastened his eyes again on Whitmore.  “Now why to-night?”

“My conscience, Mr. Rogers ­”

“Oh, the devil take your conscience!  Your conscience seems to have timed matters pretty accurately.  Say that your nose smelt a rat.  But why to-night?”

I cannot say wherefore; but, as he stared around, a nausea seemed to take the unfortunate man.  Perhaps, the excitement of confession over, the cold shadow of the end rose and thrust itself before him.  He was, I feel sure, a coward in grain.  He swayed and caught at the ledge of the chimneypiece, almost knocking over one of the two candles which burned there.

With that there smote on our ears the sounds of two voices in altercation outside ­one a woman’s high contralto.  Footsteps came bustling through the outer room and there stood on the threshold ­ Miss Belcher.

She was attired in a low-crowned beaver hat and a riding habit the skirt of which, hitched high in her left hand, disclosed a pair of tall boots cut like hessians.  On this hand blazed an enormous diamond.  The other, resting on her hip, held a hunting-crop and a pair of gauntleted gloves.

“I bid ye be quiet, Sam Hodgson,” she was saying to the expostulating constable.  “Man, if you dare to get in my way, I’ll take the whip to ye.  To heel, I say!  ‘Mr. Rogers’s orders?’ Damn your impidence, what do I care for Mr. Rogers?  Why hallo, Jack! ­”

As her gaze travelled round the room, Mr. Rogers stepped up and addressed the constable across her.

“It’s all right, Hodgson:  you may go back to your post.  Begad, Lydia,” he added as the constable withdrew, “this is a queer hour for a call.”

But Miss Belcher’s gaze moved slowly from the Rector ­whose bow she answered with a curt nod ­to me, and from me to the figure of Whitmore by the fireplace.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded.  “Lord, if he’s not fainting!” ­and as she ran, the curate swayed and almost fell into her arms.  “Brandy, Jack!  I saw a bottle in the next room, didn’t I?  No, thank ye, Rector.  I can manage him.”

As Mr. Rogers hurried back for the brandy, she lifted the man and carried him, rejecting our help, to an armchair beside the window.  There for a moment, standing with her back to us, she peered into his face and (as I think now) whispered a word to him.

“Open the window, boy ­he wants air,” she called to me, over her shoulder.

While I fumbled to draw the curtains she reached an arm past me and flung them back:  and so with a turn of the wrist unlatched the casement and thrust the pane wide.  In doing so she leaned the weight of her body on mine, pressing me back among the curtain-folds.

I heard a cry from the Rector.  An oath from Mr. Rogers answered it.  But between the cry and the answer Mr. Whitmore had rushed past me and vaulted into the night.

“Confound you, Lydia!” Mr. Rogers set down the tray with a crash, and leapt over it towards the window, finding his whistle and blowing a shrill call as he ran.  “We’ll have him yet!  Tell Hodgson to take the lane.  Oh, confound your interference!”

Across the yard a clatter of hoofs sounded, cutting short his speech.

“The gate!” he shouted, clambering across the sill.

But he was too late.  As he dropped upon the cobbles and pelted off to close it, I saw and heard horse and rider go hurtling through the open gate ­an indistinguishable mass.  A shout ­a jet or two of sparks ­a bang on the thin timbers as on a drum ­and the hoofs were thudding away farther and farther into darkness.