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- Thomas Wingfold, Curate V3 - 3/31 -
closely inquired into. His company at the magistrate's was by all possible means to be avoided. George had easily persuaded Helen, more easily than he expected, to wait their return in the carriage, and the two men were shown into the library, where the magistrate presently joined them. He would have shaken hands with Leopold as well as George, but the conscious felon drew back.
"No, sir; excuse me," he said. "Hear what I have to tell you first; and if after that you will shake hands with me, it will be a kindness indeed. But you will not! you will not!"
Worthy Mr. Hooker was overwhelmed with pity at sight of the worn sallow face with the great eyes, in which he found every appearance confirmatory of the tale wherewith Bascombe had filled and prejudiced every fibre of his judgment. He listened in the kindest way while the poor boy forced the words of his confession from his throat. But Leopold never dreamed of attributing his emotion to any other cause than compassion for one who had been betrayed into such a crime. It was against his will, for he seemed now bent, even to unreason, on fighting every weakness, that he was prevailed upon to take a little wine. Having ended, he sat silent, in the posture of one whose wrists are already clasped by the double bracelet of steel.
Now Mr. Hooker had thought the thing out in church on the Sunday; and after a hard run at the tail of a strong fox over a rough country on the Monday, and a good sleep well into the morning of the Tuesday, could see no better way. His device was simple enough.
"My dear young gentleman," he said, "I am very sorry for you, but I must do my duty."
"That, sir, is what I came to you for," answered Leopold, humbly.
"Then you must consider yourself my prisoner. The moment you, are gone, I shall make notes of your deposition, and proceed to arrange for the necessary formalities. As a mere matter of form, I shall take your own bail in a thousand pounds to surrender when called upon."
"But I am not of age, and haven't got a thousand pounds," said Leopold.
"Perhaps Mr. Hooker will accept my recognizance in the amount?" said Bascombe.
"Certainly," answered Mr. Hooker, and wrote something, which Bascombe signed.
"You are very good, George," said Leopold. "But you know I can't run away if I would," he added with a pitiful attempt at a smile.
"I hope you will soon be better," said the magistrate kindly.
"Why such a wish, sir?" returned Leopold, almost reproachfully, and the good man stood abashed before him.
He thought of it afterwards, and was puzzled to know how it was.
"You must hold yourself in readiness," he said, recovering himself with an effort, "to give yourself up at any moment. And, rememher, I shall call upon you when I please, every week, perhaps, or oftener, to see that you are safe. Your aunt is an old friend of mine, and there will be no need of explanations. This turns out to be no common case, and after hearing the whole, I do not hesitate to offer you my hand."
Leopold was overcome by his kindness, and withdrew speechless, but greatly relieved.
Several times during the course of his narrative, its apparent truthfulness and its circumstantiality went nigh to stagger Mr. Hooker; but a glance at Bascombe's face, with its half-amused smile, instantly set him right again, and he thought with dismay how near he had been to letting himself be fooled by a madman.
Again in the carriage, Leopold laid his head on Helen's shoulder, and looked up in her face with such a smile as she had never seen on his before. Certainly there was something in confession--if only enthusiasts like Mr. Wingfold would not spoil all by pushing things to extremes and turning good into bad!
Leopold was yet such a child, had so little occupied himself with things about him, and had been so entirely taken up with his passion, and the poetry of existence unlawfully forced, that if his knowledge of the circumstances of Emmeline's murder had depended on the newspapers, he would have remained in utter ignorance concerning them. From the same causes he was so entirely unacquainted with the modes of criminal procedure, that the conduct of the magistrate never struck him as strange, not to say illegal. And so strongly did he feel the good man's kindness and sympathy, that his comfort from making a clean breast of it was even greater than he expected. Before they reached home he was fast asleep. When laid on his couch, he almost fell asleep again, and Helen saw him smile as he slept.
But although such was George Bascombe's judgment of Leopold, and such his conduct of his affair, he could not prevent the recurrent intrusion of the flickering doubt which had showed itself when first he listened to the story. Amid all the wildness of the tale there was yet a certain air, not merely of truthfulness in the narrator--that was not to be questioned--but of verisimilitude in the narration, which had its effect, although it gave rise to no conscious exercise of discriminating or ponderating faculty. Leopold's air of conviction also, although of course that might well accompany the merest invention rooted in madness, yet had its force, persistently as George pooh-poohed it--which he did the more strenuously from the intense, even morbid abhorrence of his nature to being taken in, and having to confess himself of unstable intellectual equilibrium. Possibly this was not the only kind of thing in which the sensitiveness of a vanity he would himself have disowned, had rendered him unfit for perceiving the truth. Nor do I know how much there may be to choose between the two shames--that of accepting what is untrue, and that of refusing what is true.
The second time he listened to Leopold's continuous narrative, the doubt returned with more clearness and less flicker: there was such a thing as being over-wise: might he not be taking himself in with his own incredulity? Ought he not to apply some test? And did Leopold's story offer any means of doing so?--One thing, he then found, had been dimly haunting his thoughts ever since he heard it: Leopold affirmed that he had thrown his cloak and mask down an old pit-shaft, close by the place of murder: if there was such a shaft, could it be searched?--Recurring doubt at length so wrought upon his mind, that he resolved to make his holiday excursion to that neighbourhood, and there endeavour to gain what assurance of any sort might be to be had. What end beyond his own possible satisfaction the inquiry was to answer he did not ask himself. The restless spirit of the detective, so often conjoined with indifference to what is in its own nature true, was at work in him--but that was not all: he must know the very facts, if possible, of whatever concerned Helen. I shall not follow his proceedings closely: it is with their reaction upon Leopold that I have to do.
The house where the terrible thing took place was not far from a little moorland village. There Bascombe found a small inn, where he took up his quarters, pretending to be a geologist out for a holiday. He soon came upon the disused shaft.
The inn was a good deal frequented in the evenings by the colliers of the district--a rough race, but not beyond the influences of such an address, mingled of self-assertion and good fellowship, as Bascombe brought to bear upon them, for he had soon perceived that amongst them he might find the assistance he wanted. In the course of conversation, therefore, he mentioned the shaft, on which he pretended to have come in his rambles. Remarking on the danger of such places, he learned that this one served for ventilation, and was still accessible below from other workings. Thereafter he begged permission to go down one of the pits, on pretext of examining the coal-strata, and having secured for his guide one of the most intelligent of those whose acquaintance he had made at the inn, persuaded him, partly by expressions of incredulity because of the distance between, to guide him to the bottom of the shaft whose accessibility he maintained. That they were going in the right direction, he had the testimony of the little compass he carried at his watch-chain, and at length he saw a faint gleam before him. When at last he raised his head, wearily bent beneath the low roofs of the passages, and looked upwards, there was a star looking down at him out of the sky of day! But George never wasted time in staring at what was above his head, and so began instantly to search about as if examining the indications of the strata. Was it possible? Could it be? There was a piece of black something that was not coal, and seemed textile! It was a half-mask, for there were the eye-holes in it! He caught it up and hurried it into his bag--not so quickly but that the haste set his guide speculating. And Bascombe saw that the action was noted. The man afterwards offered to carry his bag, but he would not allow him.
The next morning he left the place and returned to London, taking Glaston, by a detour, on his way. A few questions to Leopold drew from him a description of the mask he had worn, entirely corresponding with the one George had found; and at length he was satisfied that there was truth more than a little in Leopold's confession. It was not his business, however, he now said to himself, to set magistrates right. True, he had set Mr. Hooker wrong in the first place, but he had done it in good faith, and how could he turn traitor to Helen and her brother? Besides, he was sure the magistrate himself would be anything but obliged to him for opening his eyes! At the same time Leopold's fanatic eagerness after confession might drive the matter further, and if so, it might become awkward for him. He might be looked to for the defence, and were he not certain that his guide had marked his concealment of what he had picked up, he might have ventured to undertake it, for certainly it would have been a rare chance for a display of the forensic talent he believed himself to possess; but as it was, the moment he was called to the bar--which would be within a fortnight--he would go abroad, say to Paris, and there, for twelve months or so, await events.
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