Now, not this overwhelming business itself had been enough to dismiss wholly from my mind its haunting suspicions regarding the Baron. So secret, so subtle, so inexplicable, could it still be possible that he was somehow implicated in the affair? If not, was it not at least remarkable that it should have coincided with his coming, involved his servant', been followed by that midnight theft of the paper? And then suddenly there came to me, with a little shock of the blood, a memory of our conversation in the keeper's cottage on the fatal day of the shoot. How curious he had been then on the subject of poachers, of their methods, of their proneness to violence on occasion! He had asked so innocently yet shown such shrewdness in his questions, that even Orsden had laughingly commented on the discrepancy. And that mention of the muffling properties of a mist in the matter of a gunshot ! Why, it was as if he had wished to assure himself of the adequacy of some precaution already calculated and taken to mislead and bewilder in a certain issue I
The thought came upon me like a thunderclap. Was it, could it be possible that some blackguard poacher had been made the instrument of a diabolical plot--perhaps that fourth shadowy figure that had never materialised; perhaps Henstridge himself, who had volunteered the damning evidence, and whom it would be one's instinct to mistrust? Le Sage and Henstridge in collusion ! Was it an inspiration ? Did I stand on the threshold of a tremendous discovery? In spite of the feverish excitement which suddenly possessed me, I could still reason against my own theory. The motive? What possible motive in murdering an unoffending servant girl? Again, what time had been the Baron's in which to complot so elaborate a crime?
But, supposing it had all been arranged beforehand, before ever he came? I had not overlooked the mystery attaching to the girl herself. It might cover, for all one knew, a very labyrinthine intrigue of vengeance and spoliation.
And then in a moment my thought swerved, and the memory of Cleghorn returned to me-Cleghorn, white and abject, grasping the rail of the dock. Cleghorn fainting where he stood. What terrific emotion had thus prostrated the man, relieved from an intolerable oppression? Was mere revulsion of feeling enough to account for it, or was it conceivable that he too was, after all, concerned in the business, a third party, and overwhelmed under his sense of unexpected escape from what he had regarded as his certain doom?
I was getting into deep waters. I stood aghast before my own imagination. How was I to deal with its creations?
It was an acute problem, my decision on which was reached only after long deliberation. It was this : I would keep all my suspicions and theories to myself until I could confide them to the ear of the Counsel engaged on Hugo's behalf.
In the meantime some relief from the moral stagnation of Wildshott had become apparent with the opening of the day succeeding the inquiry. That deadly lethargy which had followed the first stunning blow was in part shaken off, and the household, though in hushed vein, began to resume its ordinary duties. Sir Calvin himself reappeared, white and drawn, but showing no disposition to suffer commiseration in any form, or any relaxation from his iron discipline. The events of the next few days I will pass over at short length. They yielded some pathos, embraced some preparations, included a visit. I may mention here a decision of the General's which a little, in one direction, embarrassed my designs. Just or unjust to the man, he would not have Cleghorn back. One could not wonder, perhaps, over his determination; yet I could have preferred for the moment not to lose sight of my suspect. We heard later that the butler, as if anticipating his dismissal, had gone, directly after his release, up to London, where, no doubt, he could be found if wanted. I had to console myself with that reflection. The valet, Louis, we came to learn about the same time, had taken refuge, pending his master's return-he had got to hear somehow of the Baron's absence -with an excellent Roman Catholic lady, who had pitied his case and offered him employment. He had no desire, very certainly, to return to a house where he had suffered so much.
Of a visit I was allowed to pay my friend in the prison I do not wish to say a great deal. The interview took place in a room with a grating between us and a warder present. The circumstances were inexpressibly painful, but I think I felt them more than Hugo. He was cheery and optimistic--outspoken too in a way that touched me to the quick.
'I want to tell you everything, Viv.,' he said hurriedly, below his breath; 'I want to get it all off my chest. You guessed the truth, of course; but not the whole of it. There was one thing-I'd like you to tell my father, if you will--it makes me out a worse cur than I admitted, but I can't feel clean till I've said it. It began this way. I surprised the girl over some tricky business--God forgive her and me; that's enough said about it!-and I bargained with her for my silence on terms. I'll say for myself that I knew already she was fond of me; but it doesn't excuse my behaving like a damned cad. Anyhow, she fell to it easily enough; and then the fat was in the fire. It blazed up when she discovered-you know. It seemed to turn her mad. She must be made honest-my wife-or she would kill herself, she said. I believe in the end I should have married her, if--Viv., old man, I loved that girl, I loved her God knows with what passion; yet, I tell you, my first emotion on discovering her dead was one of horrible relief. Call me an inhuman beast, if you will. I dare say it's true, but there it is. I was in such a ghastly hole, and my nerves had gone all to pieces over it. If I had done what she wished, it meant the end of everything for her and me. I knew the old man, and that he would never forgive such an alliance- would ruin and beggar us. I had been on a hellish rack, and was suddenly off it, and the momentary sensation was beyond my own control. Does the admission seem to blacken the case against me? I believe I know you better than to think so. I'm only accounting in a way for my behaviour on the night of the-the-. Why, all the time, at the bottom of my soul, I was crying on my dead darling to come back to me, that I could not live without her. O, Viv. ! why is it made so difficult for some men to go straight ?'