Read CHAPTER XXV - ON THE RACK. of Of High Descent , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

How was he to pass that day?  At home in a state of agony, starting at every word, trembling at every knock which came to the door?  He felt that he could not do that, and that he must be engaged in some way to crush down the thoughts which were fermenting in his brain.

Certain now that he had lost the locket in the slight struggle in the office, he literally determined to leave no stone unturned, and walked once more down to the beach, where he went on searching, till glancing up he saw Poll Perrow, the old fish-woman, resting her arm on the rail at the edge of the cliff, looking down at him, and apparently watching him.

That was sufficient to turn him from his quest, and he went off hastily, and without intent, to find himself upon the long, narrow, pier-like point which acted as a breakwater to the harbour.

He went on and on, till he reached the end, where with the sea on three sides, and the waves washing at his feet, he sat down on one of the masses of rock as his uncle often took up his position to fish, and watched the swirling current that ran so swiftly by the end of the point.

“How easy it would be,” he thought, “to step down off the end of the rock into the sea, and be carried right away.”

“And disgrace them by acting like a coward,” he said half aloud; and leaping up he walked swiftly back to the cliff, and then went up the path that led to home.

At the door he met Louise and his father.

“Back again, Harry?” said the latter, wonderingly.

“Yes; the place is shut up.  No business to-day,” he said hastily.

“Did you see Madelaine?” asked Louise, anxiously.

He shook his head.

“Or poor Mrs Van Heldre?” said his father.

“No; I thought it would worry them.”

“But you asked how Van Heldre was?”

No,” said Harry, confusedly.  “I ­it seemed a pity to disturb them.”

“Come back and make amends,” said Vine rather sternly.  “They must not think we desert them in their trouble.”

“But both you and Louise have been on this morning.”

“Yes, and would have stayed if it would have helped them,” said Vine.  “Come.”

Harry hung back for a moment, and then, in the hope that he might be able to slip away from them, and search the office in Crampton’s absence, he went on by their side.

To the surprise of all, as they reached the house the door was opened by Crampton, who stood scowling in the doorway, and barred the way.

“How is he now, Crampton?” said Vine, as Harry’s heart began to palpitate with the fear that all this was intended for him.

“Dying,” said the old man, shortly.

“No, no, not so bad as that,” cried Louise and her father in a breath.  “Doctor Knatchbull said ­”

“What doctors always say, Miss Louise, that while there’s life, there’s hope.  ’Tisn’t true.  There’s often life and no hope, and it’s so here.”

“Crampton, you are taking too black a view of the matter,” said Vine, quickly.  “It’s very good of you to be so much moved as his old and faithful servant, but let’s all, as a duty, look on the best side of things.”

“There is no best side,” said Crampton bitterly.  “The whole world’s corrupt.  Well:  what do you people want to say?”

“To say!  We have come to be of help if we can.  Come, Louise, my dear.”

He took a step forward, but the old man stood fast.

“You know all there is to know,” said the old clerk sourly, as he looked half angrily at Vine, and then, totally ignoring Harry, he turned his eyes on Louise, when the hard look softened a little.  “Send in by and by if you want to hear, or I’ll send to you ­if he dies.”

“Dies!” cried Vine, with a start of horror.  “No, no; he is not so bad as that.”

“As bad as a man can be to live.”

“You forget yourself, Crampton,” said Vine, with dignity.  “You forget yourself.  But there, I can look over it all now.  I know what you must feel.  Go and tell Mrs Van Heldre or Miss Madelaine that we are here.”

The old man hesitated for a few moments, and then drew back to allow Louise and her father to pass; but as Harry stepped forward hastily to follow, the old man interposed, and fiercely raised his hand.

“No!” he said.  “I’m master now.  Go back!  Go back!”

Harry shrank from him as Crampton stood pointing down the street, and then strove hard to master the abject sensation of dread which made him feel that all the old man said was true.  He was master now; and with an angry gesture he turned and walked swiftly away, to turn as he reached the end of the street and see Crampton watching him from the doorstep, and with his hand still raised.

“Am I such an abject coward that I am frightened of that old man?” he muttered, as he recalled how only a few hours back he used to treat him with a flippant condescending contempt.  “Yes, he’s master now, and means to show it.  Why did I not go in boldly?”

He knew why, and writhed in his impotence and dread.  The task of keeping a bold face on the matter was harder than he thought.  He wandered about the town in an objectless way hour after hour, and then went home.  His father and sister had not returned, but Aunt Marguerite was down, ready to rise in her artificial manner and extend her hand.

“Ah, Henri, my child,” she said; “how pale and careworn you look!  Where are they all?”

“Van Heldre’s,” said Harry shortly.

“Ah, poor man!  Very bad, I hear.  Yes, it’s very sad, but I do not see why his accident should so reverse our regular lives at home.  Henri, dear, you must break with Mr Van Heldre after this.”

“I have broken with him, aunt,” cried the young man fiercely.

“Ah! that’s right; that is spoken as one of our race should speak.  Good boy.  And, Henri, my darling, of course there will be no more silly flirtings with your sister’s friend.  Remember what I have told you of the fair daughters of France, and let the fraulein marry that man Leslie.”

“Aunt, you’ll drive me mad,” exclaimed Harry, grinding his teeth; and without another word he dashed out of the house.  His first thought was to go up the cliff-path on to the wild granite plain and moors which overlooked the town, but he could not stir in that direction.  There was the haunting dread of that locket being found, and he went on down again into the town, and looked about the shore for hours.

The afternoon was growing old, and his mind was becoming better able to bear the brunt of all that was to come.

He raised his eyes, and was on the point of going back home to see if his father and sister had returned, when he caught sight of old Crampton coming out of the post-office, after which the old man walked on in the direction of his home.

The opportunity at last!  The office would be unguarded; and, walking swiftly in the direction of Van Heldre’s, he turned round into the back lane, and, strung up to act firmly and determinedly, he pressed the back gate.

It was fast.

Desperate and determined now, he went round to the principal office door, but it was locked.  Harry drew a long breath, and walked straight to the front door and rang.

The maid who opened drew back to let him pass.

“My father ­sister here?”

“In the drawing-room; in with my mistress.”

“No, no,” said Harry hastily, as the maid moved towards the door; “never mind me; I’ll go in soon.”

The woman left him in the hall, and he waited till he heard the kitchen door close, when he walked swiftly and softly to the glass window, and hurried into the office.

The inner office door was open, and he darted in, to hastily look all round, under table, chairs, beneath the book-shelves, among the newspapers that lay in places in a heap; but there was no sign of the missing trinket, and an icy feeling of dread began to grow upon him.

The waste-paper basket!

It was half full, and the locket might easily have dropped in there, but a hasty examination was without avail.

The fireplace!

He looked there, in the ready-laid fire, beneath the grate, in the fender; he even raised it, but without avail.

“It must be here somewhere,” he muttered fiercely; and he looked round again, and in amongst the papers on the table.

Still without avail.

“It is in the waste-paper basket,” he said, with a feeling of conviction upon him, as, trembling in every limb, he went to the other side of the table where it stood.

“What’s that?”

A faint sound.  Was it Crampton returning?

He stood listening, his brow glistening with the cold perspiration; and as he remained breathless and intent, he seemed to see again the office as it was on the previous night, almost totally dark, the safe opened, and the shadowy figure of Van Heldre dashing at him.

Was it fancy, or was the place really dark?  A curious mist was before his eyes, but all was silent; and he went down on his knees, turned the waste-paper basket upside down ­the torn letters, envelopes, and circulars forming a heap on the well-worn Turkey carpet; but no piece of metal fell out with a low pat.

“It is here; it is here; it shall be here,” he panted; and then he sprang to his feet shivering with shame and dread, face to face with Madelaine Van Heldre, who, pale with emotion, heavy-eyed with weeping, but erect and stern, flashed upon him a look full of anger and contempt.

“Ah, Madelaine!” he stammered, “have you seen a half-written letter ­ must be here somewhere ­left on my desk?”

“Henri des Vignes ­the soul of honour!” she said bitterly.  “Have you fallen so low as this?”

“I ­I don’t understand you.”

“You coward!  And you can lie to me ­the woman you professed to love!”

“Madelaine, for pity’s sake.”

“Let me tell you what you are looking for.”

“I ­looking for?”

“Yes:  you are looking for something for fear it should fall into the hands of the police.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh! is it possible that a man can be so base?  Let me tell you, then.  You are looking for the locket snapped from your chain when my poor father was stricken down.”

“Madelaine! what are you saying?”

“Stricken down by the wretch whom, in my pity and love, I had asked him to receive into his house, that he might redeem his character, and prove to the world that he had only been weak.”

“You ­you did this!” he gasped.

“I did this; and found that in his love for his old friend my father had already determined to be a second father to his son.”

“Oh!”

“And for what?  To bring him where he might play the part of serpent on the hearth, and sting him to the quick.”

“Madelaine, for God’s sake, mercy!”

She could have none then.

“To give shelter, ah! and, some day, the hand of the weak, trusting girl who loved him, and said, `Give him time, father, and he will change’ ­to give him some day her hand and love, and welcome him as a son.”

“Madelaine!” he cried, throwing himself on his knees to clasp the hem of her dress and literally grovel at her feet.

“To the man who could stoop to be a vile contemptible thief!”

“No, no, no!” cried Harry, springing to his feet; “not that ­not that.”

“And rob him.”

“No; anything but that.  I swear I did not do that.”

“And when detected in the act did not scruple to play the would-be murderer.”

“Madelaine, have pity!”

“And cruelly struck him down.”

“Madelaine.  All you say is not true.”

“Not true?  Go up to where he lies hovering between life and death, and see your work.  Coward!  Villain!  Oh, that I should ever have been so weak as to think I loved such a wretch as you!” He drew himself up.

“It is not true,” he said.  “I did not commit that theft; and it was in my agony and shame at being found before the safe that I struck him down.”

“You confess you were there ­that you were a partner in the crime?”

“Yes, I was there,” said Harry, slowly; “and I sinned.  Well, I am ready.  Take your revenge.  I am in your hands.  You have the evidence of my crime.  Denounce me, and let me out of your sight for ever.”

“And my father’s old friend ­my second father?  And Louise, my more than sister?  What of them?”

He quailed before her as she stood, her eyes flashing, a hectic flush on either cheek; and he felt that he had never known Madelaine Van Heldre till then.

“Oh!” he groaned as he covered his face with his hands, “I am guilty.  Let me suffer,” he said slowly.  “They will soon forget, for I shall be as one who is dead.”

No,” she said; “I cannot speak.  If he who is hovering between life and death could advise, he would say, `Be silent; let his conscience be his judge.’  I say the same.  Go.  The locket is not there.”

“The police?” he cried in a questioning tone.

“No,” she said; “the secret was mine.  I found it tightly clasped in my poor father’s hand.”

“Then the secret is safe.”

“Safe?” she said scornfully.  “Safe?  Yes, it is my secret.  You asked for mercy.  I give it you, for the sake of all who are dear to me; and because, if he lives, my poor father would not prosecute the son of his old friend.  There is your locket.  Take it, and I pray Heaven we may never meet again.  Crampton!”

“Yes, Miss Maddy, Crampton ­old Crampton, who held you in his arms when you were one hour old.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Watching my master’s interests ­watching over you.”

“Then you have heard?”

“Every word, my child.”

“You cursed spy!” cried Harry fiercely, as he seized the old man by the throat.

“You’ve done enough, Master Harry Vine, enough to transport you, sir; and if he dies to send you to your death.”

“Crampton!” shrieked Madelaine, as Harry drew back trembling.

“Be merciful, like you, my dear?  No, I cannot.”

“Then you’ll go and tell ­”

“What I’ve heard now, my dear?  No; there is no need.”

“What do you mean?”

“To watch over you, whether my poor master lives or dies.  I know you!  You’d forgive him if he asked.”

“Never!  But, Crampton, it is our secret.  He must go ­to repent.  Dear Crampton,” she cried, throwing her arms about his neck, “you must be merciful too!”

“Too late, my dear,” said the old man sternly; “too late.”

He placed his arm round her and drew her to his breast, as if to defend her from Harry.

“When I went home that night,” he continued in a slow, solemn voice, “I felt that something was not right, and I came on here ­in time to see ­”

“Oh!” cried Madelaine.  “In time to see that shivering, guilty wretch flee from where he had struck my poor master down; and if I had been a young man and strong I could have killed him for his crime.”

“You saw him?”

“Yes, my dear.  No need for the locket to bear witness.  I had my duty to do, and it is done.”

“Done?”

“Yes; to punish him for his crime.”

“Crampton, what have you said?  Harry! before it is too late!”

“It is too late, my child.  See here.”  He held out a scrap of reddish paper.  “From the London police.  I could not trust those bunglers here.”

Madelaine snatched the paper from his hand and read it.

“Oh!” she moaned, and the paper dropped from her hand.

Harry snatched it from the floor, read it, let it fall, and reeled against the table, whose edge he grasped.

Madelaine struggled and freed herself from the old man’s detaining arm.

“Harry!” she panted ­“it would be my father’s wish ­escape!  There may yet be time.”

He leaned back against the table, gazing at her wildly, as if he did not grasp her words.  Then he started as if stung by a sudden lash as old Crampton said: 

“I have done my duty.  It is too late.”