Read CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN - Guest speaks out of Witness to the Deed , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

“Why not a run to Saint Malo and a couple of months’ yachting?”

Sir Mark proposed as a cure foreign travel, but Myra refused to go.  Edie tried vainly to inveigle her into some distraction, and Guest spent a little fortune in concert and opera tickets in trying to persuade her to accompany them, but they were generally wasted.

Miss Jerrold tried hard, too, and was more successful, coaxing her niece to come and stay at her house, or to spend quiet afternoons with her, no one else being admitted.  And all the time it was understood that the unfortunate engagement was a subject tabooed; but one day, when Myra was with her alone, Guest having been there by accident when the cousins came ­that is to say, by one of his accidents, and at a suggestion from Miss Jerrold that a walk would do Edie good, as her face looked “very pasty,” having taken Edie for the said walk ­Miss Jerrold seeing the wistful eyes, sunken cheeks, and utter prostration of her niece’s face, bethought her of a plan to try and revive interest in things mundane, at a time when the girl seemed to be slowly dropping out of life.

“We’ve petted and cosseted her too much,” said Aunt Jerrold to herself.  “I’ll try that.”

She tried that, and attacked her niece in a very blunt, rough way, keenly watching the effect of her words the while.

“I do wonder at a girl of your spirit wearing your heart out for the sake of a scoundrel.  That’s done it!” she added to herself, for a complete change came over Myra’s aspect.

“Aunt!” she cried indignantly.

“I can’t help it, my dear,” said the old lady sharply.  “I’ve kept it back too long, and it’s only just that I should tell you how reprehensible your conduct is.  Here is a wretched man who professes to love you ­”

“Malcolm Stratton did love me, aunt,” said Myra proudly, as stung beyond endurance she gave utterance to the thoughts she had kept hidden so long.

“Looks like it!” continued Aunt Jerrold.  “Bah! the horsepond is too good for such as he!”

Myra turned upon her fiercely.

“Aunt,” she cried, “it is not true!”

“But it is true, my dear, or the wretch would have said a few words in his defence.”

“I cannot stay here and listen to you, aunt,” cried Myra, rising with dignity.  “It is cruel of you to speak of Mr Stratton like this.”

“Oh, of course.  Silly girl!  The worse a man is, the more weak, infatuated woman defends him.”

“I defend him, aunt, because I am sure there must be some good reasons for Mr Stratton’s conduct.  He was not the man who could have acted so.  His whole career gives your charges the lie.”

At that moment Edie and Guest returned, the former joyous and bright, but forcing a serious look as soon as she saw her cousin’s agitated face.

“I am waiting for you, Edie,” said Myra coldly; and, turning to her aunt, she bent her head slightly.  “Good-afternoon, Mr Guest,” she said, and she left the drawing room.

“Aunt, dear, what is the matter?” whispered Edie.

“We’ve been quarrelling, my dear; thank goodness!” said Miss Jerrold dryly.  “There, good-bye.  Run after her, little woman.  Kiss me; I haven’t quarrelled with you.”

She embraced the girl affectionately; and as Guest followed to the door, and held out his hand, Miss Jerrold whispered: 

“Come up again when you’ve seen them to the carriage.”

In five minutes Guest was back looking at his hostess wonderingly, for the old lady was standing in the middle of the room with her face full of wrinkles, and her arms folded across her chest.  She did not seem to see him, and he made a slight movement to attract her attention, when she waved her hand toward a chair.

“Sit down, boy,” she said, without looking in his direction; “I’m thinking.  I’ll attend to you directly.”

He obeyed, more puzzled than ever; and at last she took a chair by the back, dragged it across the carpet in a masculine way, and thumped it down in front of him.

“It’s not a pleasant subject for a lady ­an unmarried lady ­to talk about, Percy Guest,” she said; “but I’m getting such an old woman now that I think it’s time I might speak plainly.”

“What about?” said Guest, wondering of what breach of good manners he had been guilty.

“What about, you silly boy?  Here’s poor Myra eating her heart out, Edie miserable, my brother a perfect bear, I’m worried to death, and you say, what about!  Malcolm Stratton, to be sure.”

“Oh!” cried Guest, very much relieved.

“Well, I do not see anything to look pleased about, sir.”

“No, of course not; only I thought I had been doing something.”

“You have been doing nothing, it seems to me,” said Miss Jerrold sharply.

“Really, I have done my best.”

“But I thought barristers were such clever people!”

“Oh, dear no,” said Guest seriously.  “Very stupid folk as a rule.  Sort of gun a barrister is.  The solicitor is the clever man, and he has to load the barrister before he goes off.”

“Then for goodness’ sake get some solicitor to load you, and then go off and shoot something.”

“I wish you would load me, Miss Jerrold.”

“Well, look here, my dear boy.  We seem to have settled down to a belief that Malcolm Stratton has been a great scamp, and that he drew back on his wedding morning in consequence of the interference of some lady who had a hold upon him.”

“Yes, that is what we thought,” said Guest sadly.

“And then tried to commit suicide out of misery and shame?”

“Yes, I have been able to get no further, poor fellow.  He is utterly dumb, as soon as I try to get anything from him.”

“What does that friend of his ­that Mr Brettison say?”

“Mr Brettison?  I have not seen him.”

“Why not?  He has known Mr Stratton many years.  You should have consulted him, and tried to find out from him what might have happened in days gone by.”

“I did think of that.”

“And did not act?”

“I have had no chance.  Mr Brettison is out of town.  I have not seen him since the wed ­”

“Ah!” cried Miss Jerrold warningly.

“Since that unhappy day.”

“On that day?”

“No.  It was a day or two before, but I think I heard Stratton say Mr Brettison came to see him that day, and that he was going out of town.”

“Humph!  That’s strange!”

“Why?” said Guest.

“He was very fond of Malcolm Stratton, wasn’t he ­I mean, isn’t he?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Why should he go out, on Stratton’s wedding day, instead of stopping to congratulate him?”

“I don’t know.  It was odd, but Mr Brettison is eccentric.”

“It’s more than odd, Percy Guest,” said Miss Jerrold, looking very keen and intent; “the clue lies that way.  Mr Brettison must have known something and quarrelled with Malcolm Stratton, it seems to me.”

“You think so?”

“Yes; his conduct suggests it.  Out of town?  Hasn’t he been to his chambers since?”

“I think not.”

“There’s your clue then.  I’ve loaded you.  Go off.”

“And find Mr Brettison?”

“Of course.  Then try and get from him the information we want.”

“Do we want that information, Miss Jerrold?”

“Of course we do, sir.  Malcolm Stratton’s actions may be purged from their grossness, and happiness come after all.”

“Heaven grant it may!” cried Guest.

“There, then, you have something sensible to do; better than always calling here in your speculative way.  Go to work at once, and come and communicate with me.”

Guest went off at once, and had himself driven to Benchers’ Inn, where he ascended to Stratton’s door, but turned off to Brettison’s, where all was dark and silent.

He knocked, but there was no answer; and, after repeating the knock several times, he went to Stratton’s door, where he had no better success.  Going down, he crossed to the tunnel-like archway, where he found Mrs Brade, and learned that Mr Brettison had not yet returned from the country.

“Mr Stratton does not seem to be at home either.”

“No, sir.  He goes out a deal now, and is very seldom at home.  Many people come to ask for him, and I give them his message ­that they are to write.”

“Well, that’s reasonable enough if they have not made appointments, Mrs Brade, so pray don’t shake your head like that.”

“Certainly not, sir, if you don’t wish it, but I can’t help thinking he’d be better not left alone.”

“Why?” said Guest impetuously, Mrs Brade tapped her forehead, and Guest frowned angrily.

“Nonsense, my good woman,” he cried; “don’t exaggerate, and pray don’t jump at conclusions.  Mr Stratton is no more mad than you are.”

“That ain’t saying much, mister,” cried the porter from the next room, where he was making up for late hours consequent upon sitting up for occupants of the inn.  “My missus is as mad as a hatter.”

Mrs Brade darted to the door and closed it with a heavy bang, following it up by snatching, more than drawing the curtain over the opening ­a curtain originally placed there to keep off draughts, but so used by Mrs Brade as to give the onlooker the idea that her husband was a personage kept on exhibition, and not shown save as a favour and for money paid.

“I don’t know what I could be thinking of to marry such a man, sir,” she said indignantly.  “Mad, indeed!  Not mad enough to take more than’s good for me, and pretty often, too.”

“A lesson for you, Mrs Brade,” said Guest sternly, “You cannot make a more painful or dangerous assertion about a person than to say that a person or personage is mad.”