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THE NEPHEW FROM AMERICA
THE Coroner's announcement naturally centered attention on the witness from New York. Only two people among the occupants of the crowded court knew that Edith had fainted where she sat. Those two were the detective and Lester. They watched the girl from widely different motives. Each, in his own way, was conscious of a mutual distrust. Lester's first instinct — whether the instinct of a lover or of a medical man he did not seek to discover — was to rush to her assistance. But he realized that Edith's overwrought condition was due to something more than the mere ordeal she had undergone. And the suspicion came to him with a chilling shock that people were even now prone to regard this bright and charming young woman not only as Lord Arncliffe's heiress but as his murderess.
So he sat there, watching in an agony of apprehension for the drooped head to rise again from its resting-place on Mrs. Aingier's ample shoulder. Only in the last resort would he draw the attention of the eager crowd, already gorged with excitement, to this fresh evidence of agitation on her part. In a moment, nature asserted itself, for Edith was normally as healthy a girl as ever breathed. The blue eyes opened slowly and rested on the new witness with something of amazed inquiry. Then the color came back to the blanched cheeks with a rush, and Edith took a deep breath or two, scarcely conscious of her momentary lapse, but much awake to the astounding incidents which were taking place.
For the stranger had repeated the quaint formula of the oath administered on such occasions. He would tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — "So help me, God! "
The witness glanced with some disfavor at the Book, its soiled cover reeking of contact with the lips of many liars, which the Coroner's officer handed to him. Then he raised his hand aloft after the Scottish fashion.
"Go ahead, Judge," he said.
The Coroner darted a frowning glance at the lean-faced, alert young man who addressed him thus curtly, but seeing nothing of studied disrespect in the cool indifference which met his scrutiny, checked the impending rebuke.
"What is your name?"
"William Lincoln Bradshaw."
"I understand you are able to give certain material evidence regarding Lord Arncliffe's death?"
"I don't know anything about Lord Arncliffe's death, beyond what I have read in the newspapers," rejoined Bradshaw. "Indeed, I am on the lookout for some information in that direction myself."
"Yes, yes!" cried the Coroner, impatiently. "But the object of this inquiry is to elicit information, not to impart it. You bear the same family name as the late Lord Arncliffe. Am I to understand that you are a relative?"
"Yes, sir. Lord Arncliffe was my uncle."
Mr. Aingier sprang up promptly. Hobson had prepared him for this staggering statement, but he felt that a legal veto must be registered forthwith.
"I must be allowed to say, sir," he exclaimed with impressive slowness, "that I enjoyed Lord Arncliffe's confidence for the last twenty-five years, and during that time he told me repeatedly that he had no relatives in existence, with the exception of the most distant cousins. Indeed, he has often deplored the fact."
The New Yorker shrugged his shoulders. "I guess I am here," he pointed out.
"What are the acts, Mr. Bradshaw?" demanded the Coroner. "Have you never made yourself known to Lord Arncliffe?"
"Why, yes — and that is what is puzzling me.
I wrote Lord Arncliffe from New York nearly two months ago, introducing myself, but received no reply. I wrote again ten days ago, saying that I was coming to Europe and would call on him. It appeared to me," added the witness, dryly, "that as I neither wanted nor asked for any favor, beyond a mere acquaintance, Lord Arncliffe might be reasonably glad to meet the son of his only brother."
The Coroner bent his brows in a legal frown; the inquiry had reached bounds he had never foreseen.
"I suppose, Mr. Bradshaw," he said, "you are prepared to substantiate your claim to be Lord Arncliffe's nephew?"
"Of course, I can do that, though I don't know that it would be any particular advantage under the circumstances. I understand he held only a life-peerage, and, in any case, I have no use for a title."
"If he can't prove it, I can, sir!" broke in old Simpson. "The gentleman standing there might be his lordship's son; only that he is taller and more strongly built, he is the himmige —"
"Oh, do be quiet! " snapped the Coroner.
Inspector Hobson handed up yet another note, and, during a brief interlude, it seemed that an exaggerated importance had been attached to the evidence of this new witness.
"You were naturally surprised, Mr. Bradshaw, at receiving no reply to your letters to Lord Arncliffe?" resumed the court.
"Not so much at the time, because I thought he might possibly be abroad, but I am much surprised now that I learn he must have received my letters. I have only recently discovered the relationship, but he wrote so affectionately up to the date of my father's death, that it seems incredible he should have utterly ignored my communications."
"That will do, for the present, Mr. Bradshaw. Call Samuel Barnes."
An asthmatic old man hobbled forward.
"You act as village postman, I believe, Barnes?"
"Yes, sir, forty years come Christmas —"
"Never mind that. Do you remember having delivered any letters at the Hall recently, letters bearing American stamps?"
"Yes, sir; there was two of 'em. One a few days ago, and one sometime back. I noticed them because we don't often have letters from Ameriky. Forty years come Christmas —"
"You can stand down, Barnes," interrupted the Coroner. "Now can any one tell me whose duty it was to receive such letters as were delivered at the Hall?"
"Mine," answered Edith at once. The shock which caused her faintness had apparently passed away, but she was very pale, and her voice had lost its fire. "I went through all Lord Arncliffe's letters unless they were marked `private,' but I am positive that I saw none from this gentleman — none, I mean, bearing an American postmark."
This closed the evidence, and the Coroner resumed his interrupted summing-up:
"It can hardly be said, gentlemen, that the statement of Mr. Bradshaw throws any light on the mystery of Lord Arncliffe's death, but it is important in so far as it indicates the presence of some unknown person pursuing an underhanded course. Considering all the circumstances, this new evidence points to the deliberate suppression of certain of Lord Arncliffe's letters, for, had Lord Arncliffe by any chance received them, he would surely have communicated such news to his solicitors, and probably to the young lady he had chosen as heiress of his vast wealth. In conclusion, I may say that none of these facts will be lost sight of in the police investigations which must, of course, follow, and, if I may indicate the lines of your verdict, I think you will best aid justice at this stage by finding that Lord Arncliffe died from the effects of arsenic, but how, or by whom administered, there is no evidence to show."
"That's all very well, Mr. Coroner," objected the foreman; "but it seems to me that if we find the person who kept back those letters we shall not be very far off the murderer."
The Coroner raised his hand in deprecation of such strong language.
"Of course," he assented, "in a case of this sort, any one shown to be guilty of such an act would naturally be regarded with suspicion. But letters pass through so many hands that it is extremely difficult to fix responsibility. For instance, Miss Holt tells us she had charge of Lord Arncliffe's correspondence. Yet it is possible that before the mail reached her it might be scrutinized by a footman or some of the maids. However, as I have told you, gentlemen, none of these matters will be neglected, nor do they really concern you, and you may retire to consider your verdict, in confidence that everything possible will be done to further the ends of justice."
Juries usually do as they are told, sooner or later. Although the obstinacy of the foreman was responsible for an unconscionable waste of time, the twelve wise-heads ultimately returned a verdict on the lines suggested by the Coroner.
Lester and the stranger from America remained to dinner, at Aingier's invitation. The lawyer was naturally anxious to look into the claims of Lord Arncliffe's self-styled nephew. He could not disguise from himself that if a suppression of letters had really taken place the young man had been hardly dealt with. Lord Arncliffe, whatever his regard for Edith, could not have failed to look upon his brother's son in the light of an heir.
Edith, too, had realized the same thing at once, and she lost no time in communicating her ideas to Angier.
"If this gentleman is Lord Arncliffe's nephew," she said, "of course he is entitled to all the property."
"He is not entitled to sixpence," answered the solicitor, bluntly —"that is, legally speaking. At the same time, morally -- and I hope I shall not be struck off the rolls for suggesting such a consideration — I think it is unquestionably your duty to make some handsome provision for the young man -- always, of course, presuming that he establishes his claim."
"I shall give him everything," persisted Edith with Spartan determination, albeit a little tragically. Since inheriting forty thousand a year she had builded castles in the air. Not having the least notion what so much money meant she could have fulfilled all her delightful little schemes with a tithe of her income. At this moment the relinquishment of her innocent plans brought with it something of a wrench.
"Pooh! Nonsense, my dear! Act as generously as you like, but do not talk in that way. After all, you have plenty and to spare, even if there are other Richmonds in the field, and I should be the last to advise you otherwise. But there is no need for you to be Quixotic. The terms of the will are so emphatically favorable toward you that I am beginning to doubt whether, in any event, Lord Arncliffe would have allowed an utterly unknown nephew to affect your position."
"Is that your honest opinion, Mr. Aingier?" asked Edith, looking at him with an open-eyed candor which caused him to laugh a trifle uneasily.
"Oh, come, you must not ask a lawyer for an honest opinion. Your duty is to carry out Lord Arncliffe's wishes as you know them. For instance, how do we know that this young American would respect Lord Arncliffe's plans regarding the various researches in which he was interested? On the contrary, he might apply the entire fortune to the creation of some gigantic 'trust,' or 'corner,' and you would find yourself indirectly responsible for dear bread, or a rise in cotton, bringing loss and starvation to those very operatives whose condition Lord Arncliffe did so much to ameliorate."
"And then again," broke in a level voice, "how do we know that this young American would be such a mean skunk as to take money from an unprotected girl?"
Aingier and Edith sprang to their feet aghast.
They turned to see William Lincoln Bradshaw quietly examining an old scimitar of Rajputana, exquisitely inlaid with golden line-drawings of the life of Buddha.
"I think, sir, "stammered the lawyer, very red of face and striving to cover his confusion with an assumption of great indignation, "a private conversation such as this might have been respected by you. I don't know what the custom is in your country —"
"Just the same as anywhere else," said Bradshaw, in the same unemotional voice. "You left me in here ten minutes ago, and asked me to excuse you and amuse myself with some of these old curios, and I could hardly suppose you would bring the lady here for a private conversation."
Mr. Aingier almost struck his forehead in despair. In all the worry of the moment he had completely forgotten the circumstance, and now he found himself not only in the wrong, but, what was worse, looking somewhat ridiculous.
"Don't say a word," said Bradshaw, cutting short the other's rather lame apologies. "As a matter of fact, I ought to have spoken directly I understood the conversation had reference to myself. As it was, I could not resist listening to this lady's benevolent plans in my behalf, because I never had a girl take so much stock in me before.
And I should like to say right here," he added, stepping forward and addressing himself directly to Edith, "that this gentleman has taken a very proper view of the situation. I am a business man, and, if I owned a place like this, just as likely as not I should turn it into a dime museum."
He was goodly to look at, not essentially handsome, but endowed with the steady eyes and tenderly firm mouth that women like. Edith seemed to detect a lurking humor in his concluding lamentable confession. She held out her hand with a frankly friendly smile.
"We will go into business later, Mr. Bradshaw," she said." Meanwhile, I hope you will consider Arncliffe in every way at your disposal."
"You two are providing quite a little romance," remarked the solicitor in a diplomatic attempt to learn something of the young man's credentials. "The amazing thing is that you should not have discovered your relationship until all these years had passed."
Bradshaw was far too shrewd not to see through the ruse, but he had no object in frustrating it. "It is very simple," he said. "I was not born until several months after my father's death. Naturally, my mother turned in her trouble to her own people rather than to those of her husband. As luck would have it, I happened across some letters from Lord Arncliffe to my father — perhaps you would like to see them," he interpolated, and he handed Aingier a packet of time-yellowed papers, "and I felt I would like to know something of my father's family. As a matter of fact, Miss Holt, most everybody in the United States has had a grandfather, though I know that some people on this side will never believe it."
Aingier glanced through the letters. The handwriting was unmistakably that of Lord Arncliffe, though it had the steadiness of a man in full vigor. He noted that the letters were dated thirty years back, and his legal mind seized on the point at once.
"I see," he said, "that these letters were written from Manchester, long before Lord Arncliffe was elevated to the peerage. How did you learn that he was one and the same with your uncle William Bradshaw?"
"Miss Holt, promise you will never give me away!" said the American, who lost no opportunity of directing his conversation to Edith. "You must understand that in the little town where my mother lives, people don't have much to do, and some of the ladies have lately been causing considerable jealousy by discovering that their ancestors were among the teeming millions who came over in the Mayflower. Now, my mother would not have worried much about that, but somebody dug up her grandfather. I mean they found out that he was a Congressman, and people were always bringing it up against her. So, with a thing like that on her side of the family, she reckoned it would be better to look up my paternal ancestors a little, and I rather agreed with her, because I thought I was just as likely as not to be descended from some aristocratic pirate. Anyway, a man in Boston undertook to establish my relationship to anybody, from a duke downward, on certain terms, and as I could not afford to go any higher than just a plain peer, he discovered that I was Lord Arncliffe's nephew. By the way, Miss Holt, if you really want to give me anything, I would be powerfully gratified by that battle-ax over there. I could tell the folks at home that my ancestor, Sir Galahad de Bradawl, knocked out William the Conqueror's brains with it."
Edith appreciated the kindly badinage which endeavored to cheer her under painful circumstances. Though she was none the less resolved to make restitution, she felt that her task would be fraught with many difficulties and objections. It was the fault, perhaps, of her single-hearted honesty that she did not yet realize how slanderous tongues were already branding her as a schemer who had supplanted Lord Arncliffe's rightful heir. She had, indeed, grave misgivings that her purity of motive was being impugned, but the episode of the three hundred pounds given to her by Lord Arncliffe was more nearly in her mind. Had she only taken the experienced and trustworthy lawyer into her confidence in that matter, she might have saved herself many heartburnings.
She had a brother, two years younger than herself, to whom the affections of her orphan heart were given without stint. She had regarded him with a selfless devotion which governed her whole life. Lord Arncliffe had helped the boy as he had helped her, and would have forwarded his career with no niggard hand had he shown himself worthy. But Lord Arncliffe, a man who had won a vast fortune by his own unaided efforts, would encourage no drones. Thus it was that the youngster, after receiving a sound education, was placed in a commercial house on probation, with the ultimate prospect of a substantial position in one of the great enterprises under Lord Arncliffe's control, directly he should win his spurs in the arena of business.
And then came the old, old tragedy — a lad spending a little more than his salary so that he might "do as the other fellows did" — a loving sister making matters worse by sending him every penny she could save out of her own earnings. And finally, a tampering with money-lenders, a juggling with accounts, a dread of disgrace, and a despairing threat that was not, perhaps, merely a threat, of suicide.
It was only three hundred pounds, but Edith had already given him all she had, and it was at that moment, in a frenzy of anguish, she appealed to Lord Arneliffe. The old peer had, indeed, given her the money. He would have saved young Holt from the consequences of his folly, even without Edith's intervention but he had no sympathy with one who transgressed the first rule of a business career. He was so angry that Edith, for the time being, supposed her benefactor to be hopelessly offended with her.
"You can have the three hundred pounds you ask for," he said, "but it will be the last money you can hope to receive from me. I had, of course, intended to make some provision for you after my death, but I should do you no kindness in giving you an income that would only be drained from you by your scamp of a brother."
Edith had not regretted her sacrifice. She felt that her brother, who was really a good-hearted lad, would yet show himself a worthy member of society. Whatever happened, his lapse from rectitude should remain a secret. This, then, was the cause of her agitation when she had been questioned so searchingly respecting the check for three hundred pounds. It also explained her fainting fit when the witness from New York was announced. For it was to New York her brother had gone when Lord Arncliffe insisted that he should leave the firm whose confidence in him was weakened, and make a fresh start. And for one unreasoning moment she imagined her brother had come forward to clear her reputation at the expense of his own.
She now slipped out on to the balcony, and let the two men talking together. Her thoughts wandered again to the rosy future she had mapped out for her bright, careless brother. He was to return to college for a year or two, grow steadier under a good tutor, and then, perhaps, enter the army. And presently he would meet some nice girl, and Edith would buy them a pretty little place, and look after them until her reckless boy had learned to know the value of money so that he could be trusted with a great, great income of his own. And to-day it seemed that people were trying to drag that whole miserable business into the light — to ruin the boy's future all for one youthful folly.
"Never, if I die for it!" she exclaimed, bringing her little white teeth together with a snap. And then, womanlike, she began to sob hopelessly.
It was at this moment that Lester, who had been listening with exemplary patience to the placid iterations of Mrs. Aingier, made a decorous escape. By some subtle instinct, he found himself on the balcony with Edith.
"May I intrude on your solitude, Miss Holt?" he asked.
Somehow, she felt safe in his presence. She gave him a tremulous smile, and strove to frame an answer, but the smile took a downward curve and she was fain to turn her head away, though she put out a nervous, detaining hand in unaffected appeal for sympathy.
Lester promptly tucked that nervous hand tightly under his arm. There was nothing of familiarity or presumption in his action. It was, in its inception, the mere protective instinct of the strong man, as free from any thought save friendship as Edith's own involuntary movement.
Presently, indeed, he began to feel a magnetic glow from the hand. He was filled with a vague desire to slay unoffending dragons. So that his arm tightened to his side somewhat since man cannot harbor such strenuous thoughts without some tension of the muscles. And Edith would have slipped her hand away, only that her action would have seemed like a marked repulse, and that was not her intent. So the hand remained.
"I am very stupid to give way in this fashion," she faltered at last. "But it has been such a trying day. And people appear to think such dreadful things of me —"
"My dear Miss Holt," protested Lester, "you must not notice all the vulgarities of a Coroner's inquest. It is not conducted according to ordinary legal rules, and any idiot can make himself as offensive as he pleases. I wouldn't give another thought to the matter."
"There is one thing I must think of. Of course, Dr. Lester —" Edith suddenly regained possession of her hand ---- " the appearance of Lord Arncliffe's nephew will make a great difference to me."
"Can't you see?" she cried, almost petulantly, "I dare not keep all this money when I know that Lord Arncliffe would have given it to his nephew if he had lived long enough to meet him."
"Well," admitted Lester, "I suppose the meeting might have brought about some change in the bequests; but, under the circumstances —"
"I shall hand over the estate to Mr. Bradshaw," said Edith with determination. "I want you to believe this, because I would not have you think me capable of acting dishonorably."
"You may count on my implicit belief," he exclaimed so earnestly that the girl's eyes fell in confusion. "Of course," he added hurriedly, "you are right, in a way, but, from the little I have seen of him, Bradshaw does not impress me as a man to take anything he is not legally entitled to. In any case, it is quite evident that Lord Arncliffe would have made handsome provision for you."
"That is another matter," rejoined Edith. "But the real fortune must go to Mr. Bradshaw. I shall never accept it. I am coming to think, really, I shall be happier without such a great responsibility."
Lester, ordinarily so self-possessed, began to feel a delicious tremor of anxiety. He had regarded Edith's wealth as offering an insurmountable barrier to his suit. Although not so foolish as to prefer a dowerless maid to one who brought an income which should preserve her from want in the event of his death, he never contemplated marrying an heiress, a woman who would rank with the few really wealthy people in the land. Now, Edith's determination to relinquish Lord Arncliffe's millions opened up infinite vistas.
"Perhaps you are right," he said quietly, though his heart went pit-a-pat in the most unprofessional way. "After all, a lot of money must be a nuisance. Now, about fifteen hundred a year —"
"I made fifteen hundred last year, but I shall do better next. And — and —"
He had managed to take her hand again, and with it seemed to go all the troubles which harassed her so sorely. He was big and strong and trustworthy
"Yes," she whispered softly.
But Edith's Purgatory was not destined to end that night on the terrace. A door opened. They heard Mr. Aingier's voice.
"Ah! there you are, Miss Edith! Come here and convert our American cousin. He says that most of this armor ought to be put on the scrap-heap. Really, he is incorrigible!"