'I am quite prepared to believe that George Ridgway made his wife a good husband during the few years which remained to them in company, for he did not very long survive his marriage. Moreover, Sir Calvin's liberality had placed the two in such comfortable circumstances that no excuse for discontent existed. The Quartermaster-Sergeant adhered honourably to his part of the bargain, and it was not until long after his death that the question arose in the widow's mind as to whether or not she was justified in continuing to mislead her son in the matter of his origin. Of that in a moment.
' In the meantime the two children, step-brothers in fact, were brought up together, and considered themselves as half brothers. They were both christened John--the younger through some unconquerable perversity of the mother in insisting on calling him after her seducer's second name-an anomaly which, however open to curious comment at first, was soon no doubt lost sight of in the inevitable nicknames which affection would come to bestow on the pair. Still, for the purposes of distinction, I will continue to call the one John and the other Jean. Jean was popularly regarded as the Ridgways' child, though in truth no child was born of their union.
John, though the elder by some three years, was frequently, as time went on, mistaken, by those who. did not know, for the younger of the two boys-an error also not without its bearing on subsequent events. Jean from the outset betrayed, if it could have been guessed, an unmistakable sign of his origin in the use of his second for his digit finger'- an inherited trick due to the shock caused to his mother by the sight of Sir Calvin's mutilation, associated as it had been with all the agony and despair of that time. He was a dreamy boy, and early developed artistic proclivities. I have no means or intention of tracing the career of either of the children up to and beyond manhood. At some period, as we know, Jean went to Paris; at some period John joined the Metropolitan Police force, with subsequent promotion to a valued position in the Criminal Investigation Department. I pass from these ascertained facts to an estimate of the circumstances which first engendered in the latter's mind a thought of the daring project which has ended by bringing him to his present situation.
"Now I have already told you how Jean, on the occasion of a visit to England, had been at last made acquainted by his mother with the true story of his paternity. She told it him, being herself under the fear of death at the time; and there is no doubt that the poor woman still believed perfectly honestly in the legality of her first marriage, not only before heaven, but on the practical testimony of the little Catholic vade-mecum in which the names of the contracting parties, with their clerical witness, had been inscribed. She believed, moreover, on the strength of some muddled innuendo gathered from the Quartermaster-Sergeant, that the creature Barry Skelton had deceived, as much as she herself had been deceived by, Sir Calvin, and that he had actually been an ordained priest at the time of the marriage. It was not true, I think, the ordination having occurred subsequently, as the General took pains to make known to her; for she wrote to him on the subject of the vade-mecum, begging him to return it to her hands, whence he had appropriated it when he deserted her. Why, you may ask, had he, after securing possession of, persisted in retaining through all these years that damning witness to his guilt? For the very same reason of the evidence it contained, which to her stood for proof, to him for disproof, of the legality of the marriage. Wherefore he could not make up his mind to destroy it. But he thought it well to pay a visit to his correspondent, to assure her that she was completely mistaken in her surmise, and that the continuance of his support depended upon the utter future abandonment by her of any such attempts on his forbearance.
'Still thinking for her boy, the fond soul was not convinced. So little was she convinced that, when her death came actually to be imminent, she called John to her side and confided to him the whole story, begging him to look after his step-brother's .uterests, and to vindicate, if possible, his true claim to the name and estates of Kennett, something about which, she told him, Jean already knew." And John promised-she was not his mother, remember ; he may have been, for all we are aware to the contrary, a cold and undutiful stepson. But he promised, we know; for he went after her death to Paris, to visit the other, to acquaint him of his mother's end, .and to discuss with him the strange story she had committed to his keeping: he went accompanied by a beautiful young creature of his acquaintance'- whom he had brought with him probably for no other reason than her pleasure and his own infatuation-only to find Jean himself at the point of death.
'Was it then for the first time that a daring idea began to germinate in his mind? I think so. 'Whether spontaneously, or at Ms companion's instance, I believe the conception of the plot dated from that moment. Jean dead, what was to prevent him, John, from personating his step-brother, from claiming himself to be Sir Calvin's son, from profiting by the evidence which was said to prove that son's legitimacy? As to that he had only Mrs Ridgway's word, but it had been uttered with such solemnity and conviction, by a dying woman, as to leave little doubt of its truth. At worst the thing would be a gamble; but there was that in the very romantic hazard of it to appeal to his imagination: at best it would be prosperity beyond his dreams. And what were the odds ? To consider them was to find them already curiously in his favour. Th^ similarity of their names; the fact that he himself had always been regarded as the younger; the early death of the Quartermaster-Sergeant, and the consequent long removal of the one most damaging witness to the truth; Jean's prolonged absence from home in a foreign city; his own more apparent devotion to the woman to be claimed as his mother-he could find nothing in it all inimical to the success of the plot. Only the first essential would be tc obtain possession of the vade-mecum. There was full reason to believe, from what Sir Calvin had told Mrs Ridgway, that the book to this day was jealously retained by him, for the reason stated, in his secure keeping. How to recover it?