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[-198-]  

CHAPTER LXIV.

THE COUNTERPLOT.

ON the same day that the above conversation took place in the parlour of the boozing-ken on Saffron Hill, Markham was seated in his library, with several books before him. His countenance was pale, and bore the traces of recent illness; and an air of profound melancholy reigned upon his handsome features. He endeavoured to fix his attention on the volume beneath his eyes; but his thoughts were evidently, far away from the subject of his studies. At length, as if to compose his mind, he turned abruptly towards his writing-desk, and took thence a note which he had already perused a thousand times, and every word of which was indelibly stamped upon his memory.
    We can suppose a traveller upon Saara's burning desert, - sinking beneath fatigue, and oppressed by s thirst, the agony of which becomes maddening. Presently he reaches a well: it is deep and difficult of access ;- nevertheless, the traveller's life or death reposes at the bottom of that well. In like manner did Markham's only hope lay in that letter.
    No wonder, then, that he read it so often; no marvel that he referred to it when his mind was afflicted, and when the wing of his spirit was oppressed by the dense atmosphere of despair.
    And yet the contents of that letter were simpleand laconic enough:

"Richmond

"The Countess Alteroni presents her compliments to Mr. Markham, and begs to acknowledge Mr. Markham's letter of yesterday's date.
    "The Countess expresses her most sincere thanks for a communication which prevented an arrangement that, under the circumstances disclosed, would have proved a serious family calamity.

    "Yes - Isabella is saved!" said Markham to himself, as his eyes wandered over the contents of that most welcome note, which he had received some days previously: "it is impossible to mistake the meaning of that last sentence. She is saved - and I have been the instrument of her salvation! I have rescued her from an union with a profligate, an adventurer, a man of infamous heart! Surely - surely her parents will admit that I have paid back a portion of the debt of gratitude which their kindness imposed upon me! Yes - the countess herself seems to hold out a hope of reconciliation ;- that note bids me hope! It Is more than coldly polite - it is confidential :- it gives me to understand the results of my own letter denouncing the miscreant George Montague Greenwood."
    Richard's countenance brightened as he reasoned thus within himself. But in a few moments, a dark cloud again displaced that gleam of happiness.
    "Enthusiastic visionary that I am !" he murmured to himself. I construe common politeness into a ground of hope: I fancy that every bird I see - however ill-omened - is a dove of promise, with an olive-branch in its mouth! Alas! mine is a luckless fate - and God alone can tell what strange destinies yet await me."
    He rose from his chair, and walked to the window. The rain, which had poured down in torrents all the morning, had ceased; and the afternoon was fine and unusually warm for the early part of January. He glanced towards the hill, whereon the two trees stood, and thought of his brother - that much-loved brother, of whose fate he was kept so cruelly ignorant!
    While he was standing at the window, buried in profound thought, and with his eyes fixed upon the hill, he heard a light step near him; and in a moment Ellen Monroe was by his side.
    "Do I intrude, Richard ?" she exclaimed. " I knocked twice at the door; and not receiving any reply, imagined that there was no one here. I came to change a book. But you - you are thoughtful and depressed."
    "I was meditating upon a topic which to me is always fraught with distressing ideas," answered Markham: " I was thinking of my brother!"
    "Your brother," ejaculated Ellen; and her countenance became ashy pale.
    "Yes," continued Richard, not observing her emotion; "I would rather know the worst - if misfortunes have really overtaken him - than remain in this painful state of suspense. If he be prosperous, why should he stay away? if poor, why does he not seek consolation with me?"
    "Perhaps," said Ellen, hesitatingly, " perhaps he is - in reality - much better off than - than - any one who feels interested in him."
    "Heaven knows!" ejaculated Markham. "But are now you observed that I was melancholy and dispirited; and I have told you wherefore. Ellen. I must make the same charge against you."
    [-199-] "Against me!" cried the young lady, with a start, while at the same time a deep blush suffused her cheeks.
    "Yes, against you," continued Richard, now glancing towards her. "You may think that I am joking - but I never was more serious in my life. For the few days that you have been in this house, you have been subject to intervals of profound depression."
    "I!" repeated Ellen, the hue of her blushes becoming more intensely crimson, as her glances sank confusedly beneath those of Markham.
    "Alas! Ellen," answered Richard, " I have myself been too deeply initiated in the mysteries of adversity and sorrow,- I have drunk too deeply of the cup of affliction, - I have experienced too much; bitter, bitter anguish, not to be able to detect the presence of unhappiness in others. And by many signs, Ellen, have I discovered that you are unhappy. I speak to you as a friend - I do not wish to penetrate into your secrets ;- but if there be any thing in which I can aid you - if there be aught wherein my poor services or my counsels may be rendered available, - speak, command me!"
    "Oh! Richard,". cried Ellen, tears starting into her eyes, "how kind - how generous of you thus to think of me - you who have already done so much for my father and myself!"
    "Were you not the companion of my childhood, Ellen? and should I not be to you as a brother, and you to me as a sister? Let me be your brother, then - and tell me how I can alleviate the weight of that unhappiness which is crushing your young heart!"
    "A brother!" exclaimed Ellen, almost wildly "yes - you shall - you must be a brother to me! And I will be your sister! Ah there is consolation in that idea!" - then, after a moment's pause, she added, "But the time is not yet come when I, as a sister, shall appeal to you as a brother for that aid which a brother alone can give! And until then - ask me no more - speak to me no farther upon the subject - I implore you!"
    Ellen pressed Richard's hand convulsively, and then hurried from the room.
    Markham had scarcely recovered from the astonishment into which these last words had thrown him, - words which, coming from the lips of a young and beautiful girl, were fraught with additional mystery and interest,- when Whittingham entered the library.
    "A young lad, Master Richard," said the old butler, " has called about the situation which is vacated in our household. I took the percaution of leaving word yesterday with the people at a public of most dubitable respectability called the Servants' Arms, where I call now and then when I go into town; and it appears that this young lad having called in there quite perspicuously this morning heard of the place."
    "Let him step in, Whittingham," said Markham. " I will speak to him - although, to tell you the truth, I do not admire a public-house recommendation."
    Whittingham made no reply, but opening the door, exclaimed, "Step in here, young man; step in here."
    And Henry Holford stood in the presence of Richard Markham.
    Whittingham retired.
    "I believe you are in want of a young lad, sir," said Holford, "to assist in the house."
    " I am," answered Markham. " Have you ever served in that capacity before ?"
    "No, sir; but if you would take me and give me a trial. I should feel very much obliged. I have neither father or mother, and am totally dependant upon my own exertions."
    These words were quite sufficient to command the attention and sympathy of the generous-hearted Richard. The lad was moreover of superior manners, and well-spoken; and there was something in his appeal to Markham which was very touching.
    "What have you been before, my good lad?"
    "To tell you the truth, sir," was the reply, " I have been a simple pot-boy in a public-house."
    " And of course the landlord will give you a character?"
    "Yes - for honesty and Industry, sir; but —"
    "But what?"
    "I do not think it is of any use to apply to that landlord for a character, because —"
    "Because what?" demanded Markham, seeing that the young man again hesitated. "If you can have a character for honesty and industry, you need not be afraid of anything else that could be said of you"
    " The truth is, sir," answered Holford, " I absented myself without leave, and remained away for two or three days: then, when I returned this morning at a very early hour I refused to give an account of my proceedings. That is the whole truth, sir; and if you will only give me a trial —"
    "There is something very straightforward and ingenuous about you," said Markham: " perhaps you would have no objection to tell me how you were occupied during your absence."
    "That, sir, is impossible! But I declare most solemnly that I did nothing for which I can reproach myself - unless," added Holford, " it was in leading a couple of villains to believe that I would do a certain thing which I never once intended to do."
    "Really your answers are so strange," cried Richard, " that I know not what to say to you. It however appears from your last observation that two villains tempted you to do something wrong - that you lead them to believe you would fall into their plans - and that you never meant to fulfil your promise."
    "It is all perfectly true, sir. They proposed a certain scheme in which I was to be an agent: I accepted the office they assigned to me, because it suited my disposition, and promised to gratify my curiosity in a way where it was deeply interested."
    "And how did you explain your conduct to the two men whom you speak of?" inquired Richard, not knowing what to think of the young lad, but half inclining to believe that his brain was affected.
    " I invented certain excuses, sir," was Holford's reply, " which completely damped their ardour in the matter alluded to. And now, sir, will you give me a trial? I feel convinced you will: had I not thought so from the very beginning, I should not have spoken so freely as I have done."
    " I am disposed to assist you - I am desirous to meet your wishes," said Markham. " Still, your representations are rather calculated to awaken fears than clear up doubts concerning you. What guarantee can you offer that you will never see those two villains again? what security —"
    "Sir," said Holford, " your own manner is so frank and kind - so very condescending, indeed, to a poor lad like me - that I would not deceive you for the world. I had promised to meet those men to-night-for the last time—"
    "To meet them again?"
    "Yes, sir - to receive the reward promised for the service which I undertook —"
    [-200-] "Ah! young man," cried Markham, "this is most imprudent - if not actually criminal and where was this precious interview to take place?"
    "At the Dark-House, sir —"
    "The Dark-House!" ejaculated Markham. "what - a low tavern in Brick Lane, Spitalfields?"
    "The same, sir."
    "And the names of the two men?" demanded Richard hastily.
    "Their right names and those by which they are commonly known amongst their own set, are very different," said Holford.
    "How are they known? what are they called in their own infamous sphere ?" cried Markham his impatience amounting almost to a fever: "speak!"
    "I do not know whether I shall be doing right," said Holford, hesitating,- "perhaps I have already told you too much —"
    "Speak, I say!" cried Richard, taking Holford by the collar of his jacket; "speak. You do not know - you cannot guess how necessary it is for me to have my present suspicions cleared up! Speak - I swear no harm shall happen to you on the contrary - I will reward you, if it should turn out as I suppose. Once more, who are these villains?"
    "They are called —"
    "What? speak - speak!"
    "The Resurrection Man —"
    "Ah!"
    "And the Cracksman."
    "Then I am right - my suspicions are confirmed !" ejaculated Markham, relinquishing his hold upon Holford's jacket, and throwing himself upon a chair. "Sit down, my good lad - sit down : you and I have not done with each other yet."
    The young man appeared alarmed by Richards exclamations and manners, and seemed undecided whether to remain where he was or attempt to escape.
    Richard divined what was passing in the lads bosom, and hastened to reassure him.
    "Sit down - and fear nothing. I swear most solemnly that no harm shall happen to you, be you who or what you may: for I cannot suppose that you are a participator in the crimes of these miscreants. You would not have come to me to tell me all this - Oh! no; Providence has sent you hither this day."
    Holford took a seat, wondering how this extra ordinary scene was to terminate.
    "Are you aware of the pursuits of those two men whom you have named - I mean the full ex tent of the atrocity of their pursuits?" demanded Richard, after a few moments' pause.
    "I know that they are body-snatchers and burglars, sir," answered Holford: "indeed it was a burglary of which they would have made me the instrument; but, oh! sir - believe me, I am incapable of such a crime; and the representations I have made to them have induced them to abandon all idea of it."
    "And you are not aware then," continued Richard, "that they are more than body-snatchers and burglars ?"
    "More, sir!" repeated Holford in a tone of unfeigned surprise: "Oh! no, sir - how can they be more than that?"
    "They are more - far more," rejoined Markham with a shudder: "they are murderers !"
    "Murderers!" ejaculated Holford, starting from his chair with mingled emotions of horror and alarm.
    "Yes - murderers of the most diabolical and cold-blooded description," said Markham. "But it is too long a tale to tell you now. Let it suffice for you, to know that I was myself upon the point of becoming a victim to that most infernal of miscreants, the Resurrection Man; and I should conceive that the other whom you named is in all respects as bad as he!"
    "Murderers!" repeated Holford, his mental eyes fixed, by a horrible and snake-like fascination, upon the fearful idea now suddenly engendered in his imagination.
    "Murderers," echoed Markham solemnly; "and through you must they be surrendered up justice!"
    "Through me!" cried Holford.
    "Yes - through you. If you be really imbued with such honourable feelings as you ere now professed, you will not hesitate for one moment in discharging this duty towards society."
    "But it would be an odious act of treachery on my part," said Holford, "let the men be what they may."
    "If you manifest such a reluctance to rid the metropolis of two murderers," cried Markham angrily, "I shall conceive that you are more intimately connected with them than you choose to admit. But if you imagine that these villains are more innocent than I describe them - if you fancy that some motive prompts me to exaggerate their infamy, I will tell you that no language can enhance their guilt - no vengeance be too severe. Have you not heard that men have disappeared in a most strange and mysterious manner within the last year, at the eastern end of the metropolis,- disappeared without leaving a trace behind them, - men who were not in that situation which hurries the despairing wretch on to suicide? You must have heard of this! If not, learn the dismal fact now from my lips! But the assassins - the dark and secret assassins of these numerous victims, are the wretches whom we shall this night lodge in the grasp of justice!"
    "As you will, sir," said Holford, awe-inspired by the solemnity of Markham's voice, and the impressiveness of his manner. "I was to meet them at the Dark-House at nine o'clock: do you take measures to secure them."
    "Most assuredly I will," returned Markham emphatically. "And when I think of all that you have told me, my good lad," continued Richard, "I am inclined to believe that you yourself would have been a victim to those wretches."
    "Me!" exclaimed Holford, horror-struck at the mere idea.
    "Yes - such is now my conviction. They made an appointment with you at the Dark-House, to give you a sum of money you say ?"
    "Yes, sir."
    "Foolish boy! Do such men pay their agents or accomplices who fail to fulfil their designs, or who deceive them? do such men part with their money so readily - that money which they encounter so many perils to obtain? And that Dark-House - the place of your appointment, - that Dark-House is in the immediate neighbourhood of the head-quarters of their crimes! Yes - there cannot be a doubt: you also were to be a victim!"
    "My God! what a fearful danger have I incurred !" ejaculated Holford, shuddering from head to foot, as Markham thus addressed him; then, when be called to mind the ferocity with which the Cracksman menaced him with his knife, and the coaxing manner in which the Resurrection Man had engaged him to form the appointment for the evening, be felt convinced that the dread suspicion was a correct one.
    "You say that the hour of meeting is fixed for nine ?" cried Markham, after a few minutes' reflection.
    [-201-] 

    "Yes, sir; and now let me thank you with the most unfeigned sincerity for having thus saved me from a dreadful death. Your kindness and condescension have led to a lengthy conversation between us; and accident has made me reveal to you those particulars which have led you to form that conclusion relative to the fate destined for myself. You must not imagine for a moment that I would league with such villains in any of their diabolical plans. No, sir - I would sooner be led forth to the place of execution this minute. Although I consented to do their bidding In one respect, I repeat - that I had mine own curiosity to gratify - that is my own inclinations to serve: but when they wished to make me their instrument and tool in forwarding their unholy motives, I shrank back in dismay. Oh! yes, sir - now I comprehend the entire infamy of those men's characters : I see from what a fearful abyss I have escaped."
    There was again something so sincere and so natural in the manner and emphasis of this young lad, that Markham surveyed him with sentiments of mingled interest and surprise. Then all the thoughts of our hero were directed towards the one grand object he had in view - that of delivering a horde of ruffians ever to justice.
    "The gang may be more numerous than I imagine," said Markham; "indeed, I know that there are a third man and a hideous woman connected with those two assassins whom you have already named. It will therefore be advisable to lay such a trap that will lead to the capture of them all."
    "Oh! by all means, sir," exclaimed Holford, enthusiastically: I do not wish to show them an, mercy now!"
    "We have no time to lose: it is now four o'clock," said Markham; "and we must arrange the plan of proceeding with the police. You will accompany me on this enterprise."
    "Mr. Markham," returned Holford, respectfully but firmly, "I have no objection to aid you in any shape or way in capturing these miscreants, and rooting out their head quarters; but I must beg of you not to place me in a position where I shall be questioned how I came to make this appointment for to-night with those two wretches. It would compel me to make a revelation of the manner in which I employed my time during the last few days;  and that - for certain reasons - I could not do!"
    Markham appeared to reflect profoundly.
    "I do not see how your presence can be dispensed with," he observed at the expiration of some minutes. "In order to discover the exact spot where the murderers dwell, it will be advisable for you to allow yourself to be inveigled thither, and myself and the police would be close behind you."
    "Oh! never-never, sir!" cried Holford, turning deadly pale. "Were you to miss us only for a moment - or were you to force an entrance a single instant too late - my life would be sacrificed to those wretches."
    "True-true," said Markham: "it would he too great a risk in a dark night-in narrow streets, and with such desperadoes as those. No - I must devise same other means to detect the den of this vile gang. But first of all I must communicate [-202-] with the police. You can remain here until my return. To-morrow inquiry shall be made relative to your honesty and industry; and, those points satisfactorily ascertained, I will take you into my service, without asking any farther questions."
    Holford expressed his gratitude for this kindness on the part of Markham, and was then handed over to the care of Whittingham.
    Having partaken of some hasty refreshment, and armed himself with a brace of pistols, in preparation for his enterprise, Richard proceeded with all possible speed into London.

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