Binns, installed as the private secretary, so to speak, of Mr. Rupert Dacre, had been hard at work. This defection from the ranks of the “people” had given rise to some little comment among the few who had noticed that the “young man from London” had originally appeared upon the scene of strife in a somewhat different character, but such defections were common enough, and Binns had been too cautious in his proceedings to make himself noticeable. A few of the leading men in the New Town party had remarked upon it, but they laid the matter little to heart, not considering such defection of much moment. Perhaps only Piper and Potter knew how useful the young man had been, and they kept their own counsel. The political aspirations of a boy like Binns troubled them but little, and even the Parliamentary Huskinson, who had come down to superintend the deploying of his forces, only knew that the protegé of the pet Government candidate had done his work satisfactorily. He had been recommended by Dacre as a fit person for such dirty work as had been needed, and the fact of his now being chief aide-de-camp to his master, was natural enough. Huskinson was too familiar with the customs of elections to wonder at any baseness, least of all at such a venial dereliction from the strict path of honesty as this. He knew that Binns had been once an employé on the other side, but the boy was young and insignificant, and might be reasonably supposed to change his opinions for money or self-interest.
But Binns himself felt degraded and uncomfortable. He knew that he had sold his party—such as it was—for a shadow of political power; that he had yielded to the first temptation, and had been false to his own principles. He was oppressed with shame at what he had done, even though the real facts were unknown to all save himself. He could never again go back to his old friends. He would not if he could. In accepting Dacre’s offer, he had severed the tie that bound him to the “working man,” and was now adrift upon a treacherous sea of political intrigue. He knew as well as possible now, that all his hopes and aspirations were gone for ever. He knew as well as possible, that, whatever the issue of the election might be, he would be cast off by the men he had served, without remorse. His eyes had been opened, and he had realised his true position. He knew now that his dreams of political success and political power were simply ridiculous, and that the blandly smiling secretary to Lord Nantwich had thought so from the first. He had rushed, in his blind folly and conceit, into the snare that had been laid for him, and Dacre had worked upon his vanity and ignorance to make him a tool for his own ends. His first impulse was to go home, and sin no more; to confess his defeat, and address himself to the real business of life. The shop that he had despised was the proper place for him, and he would go back there. But the sight he had seen in the lane had changed his intentions. He could not tell why, but he felt that some peril was hanging over the woman whom his plebeian heart still worshipped, and that to remain at Kirkminster was the only way to help her. Poor Binns! He was only a grocer’s lad; a foolish, vain, half-educated boy, whose mediocre intellect had been urged on by indiscriminate reading and insufficient education to attempt tasks beyond it. He was just clever enough to make him “attempt.” The cheap press has given birth to many like him, and their puny efforts to become great men are more pitiable than ludicrous. Binns was disillusioned. The events of the last few months had opened his eyes, and he knew now that, though by study and labour he might become something greater than nature and fortune had made him, he could never hope to reach those shining heights of fame and honour, where walked the elect of the earth. He remembered Bland’s wild burst of despairing eloquence on the night when he had promised to watch over the safety of his lost love. How far off the time seemed! “Genius is of no name, of no nation!” True, but the triumphs of genius were not for him. He was but a foolish boy, puffed up with vain hopes and vain longings, and his place in the world was among the taught not the teachers. He would go back and settle down to his drudgery, and forget that he had ever owned an aspiration higher than the counter. But he would be true to his promise, he would to the last watch over the wife of his enemy, and would save her from the toils of sin and shame that some strange instinct told him were fast closing in around her.
He wrote to Bland to remind him of his promise, and then set himself to do Dacre’s work, with eyes watchful of aught that might throw light on the mystery he sought to discover.
Mr. Rupert Dacre himself was ill at ease. He was playing a very risky game, and a false move might be fatal. Up to this point all had gone well enough. Huskinson had told him that he was sure of the issue of the contest as far as the Government were concerned.
“They are bound to return one of you,” said he. “Crofts has no chance at all.”
“Are you sure?” asked Dacre.
“Quite. I never jump at conclusions.”
This was on the evening of the first day, and the votes were as yet all in favour of the New Town candidate.
“Those people exhaust themselves at first,” said the experienced Huskinson. “I never knew it otherwise. We shall out-vote them tomorrow.”
As he spoke, the noise of shouting and cheering came up from the street below. Huskinson smiled.
“We don’t waste our breath in shouting,” he said.
Dacre tried to return the laugh, but the attempt was a failure. He was harassed and fatigued. This was his first election contest, remember, and the suspense and excitement was more than enough even for his cool head and practised assumption of indifference.
“I wish it was over,” he said, and helped himself to wine.
Huskinson looked at him from under his bent brows. The agent was a man of ability. He knew well that, of the two candidates for the honour of representing Kirkminster in the Conservative interest, the more talented, the more useful, was the man before him. He knew also that Rupert Dacre’s heart was set upon victory. He was quite familiar enough with the world to know that the private secretary of his old patron could not but live up to his income, and perhaps beyond it. But Rupert had done his work well, and was admitted to have claims upon the Government; and he knew that if ever Lord Nantwich became premier, the young man would be fairly started on the road to fortune and power. Jonas Huskinson was an honest man, and did his duty to his employers without consideration for personal feelings, or personal friendship, but he had in his pocket at that moment a letter which Dacre had long expected, but the contents of which he would have given much to know.
True to his scheme, when he found that Cyril was likely to be returned, Rupert had brought into play his knowledge of his rival’s former delinquency. “Nantwich has only sent me down here to make sure of the borough,” he thought. “I know the old fox too well to imagine that he will waste money in election expenses if he thought that Chatteris was certain of the place, or that his affection for me is so great as to lead him to oust an eligible man for my sake; but if it gets abroad that the Conservative candidate is the Radical writer in the Mercury who put out the Ministry, I think that Master Cyril may go back to Matcham as soon as he likes, despite his father’s friendship with the Government.” But it was not so easy to achieve this with security to himself. Had he been in direct opposition to Cyril, the thing could have been easily done, but he was presumed to be but a friendly antagonist, and he had no wish to quarrel with Saville Chatteris. If the mine was sprung at all, it must be sprung from a distance, and in secret. It was a very ticklish thing to attempt, and he had reserved it for his last resource; but his chance of election had seemed so poor that he had been compelled to fire his last shot, and if that failed, he would be defeated to a certainty. He had shot his bolt artfully enough. The Earl of Foozleton was in the country. To him had Dacre written a carefully considered letter, sent upon the specious pretence of some political details of town gossip, and referring briefly enough to his present electioneering business.
“I am in the Conservative interest, of course,” he wrote, “as your lordship knows, and hope to be successful. I think, indeed, that there is little doubt of that party which your lordship has so long and so successfully led, coming again into power. The Radicals are working very hard down here, but Mr. Huskinson thinks that they have little chance, more especially as there is another Conservative candidate in the field—a Mr. Cyril Chatteris, a son of Saville Chatteris,—who, I fancy, stands better with the electors than myself. I frankly confess that though he is a friend of mine—(by the way, I think I mentioned his name before to your lordship),—I hope that I may have the good fortune to beat him. However, I must not forget your lordship’s patience in the consideration of my own interests. The political waifs and strays of news are very few. I see that,” etc., etc., etc.
Of the result of this little bombshell Dacre had heard nothing as yet; he had almost begun to imagine that Foozleton had forgotten the intelligence sent to him so long ago. Such, however, was not the case. The Stop-gap Cabinet that had received Nantwich into its bosom when the Premier had been so ignominiously cast down, was on its last legs. Some faint attempts had been made to collect together the shattered fragments of the old Foozleton Administration, but such a project was seen to be useless. As I have said, dissatisfaction reigned supreme, and a “New Ministry” was talked of as if it was a thing of any moment. But the Conservative party made no sign, and the awful prospect of the so-long-hinted-at Liberal Ministry seemed close at hand. Nantwich had resolved to push matters to a crisis. He was tired of holding a secondary position, and resolved to make a bold stroke for the Premiership. Dacre’s advice had been excellent. The country was tired of the pottering policy of the recent Government, but was not prepared to accept an absolute Opposition. It was the precise moment for the Party of Mediation to strike the blow. There were many difficulties in the way. It was necessary to soothe the extremes on either side, and it was not without much secret whipping and spurring that Nantwich got his team together. Foozleton had been an important item in Dacre’s calculation. He was out of office, and his hopes of the premiership were blighted for ever. In this strait he would readily fall in with the Nantwichian scheme, and would bring with him a clientéle, valuable, strong, and numerous. But he was a bird that required cautious approaching; Nantwich was only waiting for Foozleton’s adherence to give the signal for the fight, but Foozleton as yet kept carefully aloof. On the receipt of Dacre’s letter, however, he had sought an interview with Nantwich. “I see your private secretary has resigned and gone up for Kirkminster,” said he. “I suppose you want the borough, eh, Nantwich?”
“Not at all—not at—not at all,” says Nantwich. “Another man—Chatteris,—make sure, that’s all, eh?”
“I think that you will make a mistake if you let them return Mr. Chatteris,” said old Foozleton, with his gray eyebrows coming down.
“Eh, what? Why so?”
“I have every reason to believe that he is closely connected with the Radical interest, and that he has more than once given them very important information concerning the Government.”
The recollection of the Morning Mercury flashed across Nantwich. The Most Noble Earl wanted a little revenge, did he? He should have it, if he would pay for it.
“Indeed—indeed—indeed! Eh, eh, eh! You surprise me. Sit down, my lord; sit down, and let us talk it over.”
The result of that conversation, was the letter which now reposed in Huskinson’s pocket-book.
The parliamentary agent looked across the table at Rupert Dacre.
“I have had a letter from Nantwich this morning,” he said.
Dacre’s heart leapt. “What did he say?” he asked, with an enforced calmness.
“You’re a lucky fellow, Dacre,” returned the other. “Read it!” and he flung across the note.
It was very short.
DEAR H.,—If there is any doubt about Mr. Dacre’s return, you can use the Government interest to secure it.|
Yours very truly,
Dacre’s eyes sparkled. He was successful at last. There was no doubt about it now. He was as sure of being returned as if he had seen his name heading the poll on the morrow. He got up with a sigh of relief. “Well, it’s a weight off my mind,” he said, “for I was not very sanguine.”
“I congratulate you,” says Huskinson, getting up, “and now I must go. We meet to-morrow,” he added, with a smile, “and I can then congratulate you again.”
As he went out, Binns entered with the evening mail. Dacre seized the packet eagerly. There was a letter from Nantwich, telling him of the promised support, and also adding that Foozleton had come over to his views (Dacre noticed, with pardonable pride, that he had written “our views”) and that now all was ripe and ready. Rupert, forgetful of the presence of his “secretary,” got up and paced the room delightedly. All was done, all was won! He had gained the summit of his hopes. To-morrow he would be member for Kirkminster, and in a few days his patron would be Prime Minister of England! Fortune smiled upon him. His eyes turned again to the table. Binns, who was sorting the letters, had stopped suddenly and was gazing with flushed face upon a little pink note, directed in a wavering woman’s hand he knew well. Dacre saw the note, but not the boy’s face, and in his present paroxysm of joy forgot all his fears and suspicions. He took the letter from Binns’s unresisting hand and tore it open, letting the envelope in his eagerness flutter to the floor. Victory again! Fortune seemed to shower favours on him. The wretched note, tear-stained and blurred with haste, was another proof of his invincible powers. He had won all the stakes he played for, and as he crushed the paper contemptuously in his hand, he laughed aloud.
Binns, watching him from the shadow, could have leapt forth and struck him to earth for that laugh. Would have done it possibly, but for one thing. At his feet, shining under the candlelight, lay the bright envelope, face downwards, and Binns saw, what Dacre in his haste had not seen, that there was writing on the fly-leaf. He stooped quickly and picked it up. Dacre had turned again, and his face had resumed its natural complacency. The table was covered with papers, and he had much to do. “Sit down, Mr. Binns,” he said, “and we will get rid of some of this writing. I shall have to go up to town tomorrow night, in any case.”
Binns thrust the paper into his breast, and sat with it there, writing from Dacre’s dictation until far into the night. What he wrote he did not know, the words seemed to form themselves mechanically under his pen, his thoughts had nothing to do with his fingers. He was writing and thinking of two very different things. The letter in his breast burnt him like fire. His thoughts were all of it. What was it? What did it mean? Were his suspicions confirmed? Had Dacre been playing his friend false? Did Cyril Chatteris suspect anything? Did he—could he know anything? Had Dacre spoken truth to him when he had given him that memorable interview which had resulted in his present appointment? Could it be that Dacre wished him out of the way, and that he had been entrapped into leaving his watch and ward? Was this letter the first, or one of many? Had Dacre written to her before? What did his laugh mean? Was the letter an innocent one? When could he get away to read it? How should he act if its contents were evil? Should he be too late? This went round and round in his brain with desperate persistency. He still wrote on, however, in a sort of dream. At length the last letter was written, signed, and sealed, and Dacre dismissed him, with a well-bred sigh of weariness. The instant he was in his own room, he tore the note from his breast. The writing was evidently a postscript hurriedly written as a last repetition of something that had been repeated often in the letter itself.
You will not forget? Nine o’clock. I shall be waiting—alone.|
The blow had fallen at last!
He was stupified for a moment, and then he sat down on the little bed, and forced himself to think. “How could he save her?”