“The house is not without a master,” said young Carteret, who seemed inclined to have the last word. “If one master has gone from it, poor fellow! there’s another to replace him; and he is at your elbow now.”
He at her elbow was Val Elster. Lady Kirton gathered in the sense of the words, and gave a cry; a prolonged cry of absolute dismay.
“He can’t be its master.”
“I should say he is, ma’am. At any rate he is now Lord Hartledon.”
She looked from one to the other in helpless doubt. It was a contingency that had never so much as occurred to her. Had she wanted confirmation, the next moment brought it to her from the lips of the butler.
“Hedges,” called out Percival sternly, in his embarrassment and grief, “open the dining-room door. We must get the hall cleared.”
“The door is open, my lord.”
“He Lord Hartledon!” shrieked the countess-dowager, “why, I was going to recommend his brother to ship him off to Canada for life.”
It was altogether an unseemly scene at such a time. But almost everything the Countess-Dowager of Kirton did was unseemly.
MR. PIKE’S VISIT.
Percival Elster was in truth Earl of Hartledon. By one of those unexpected calamities, which are often inexplicable—and which most certainly was so as yet in the present instance—a promising young life had been snapped asunder, and another reigned in his place. In one short hour Val Elster, who had scarcely cross or coin to call his own, had been going in danger of arrest from one moment to another, had become a peer of the realm and a man of wealth.
As they laid the body down in a small room opening from the hall, and his late companions and guests crowded around in awe-struck silence, there was one amidst them who could not control his grief and emotion. It was poor Val. Pushing aside the others, never heeding them in his bitter sorrow, he burst into passionate sobs as he leaned over the corpse. And none of them thought the worse of Val for it.
“Oh, Percival! how did it happen?”
The speaker was Dr. Ashton. Little less affected himself, he clasped the young man’s hand in token of heartfelt sympathy.
“I cannot think how it could have happened,” replied Percival, when able to control his feelings sufficiently to speak. “It seems awfully strange to me—mysteriously so.”
“If he found himself going wrong, why didn’t he shout out?” asked young Carteret, with a rueful face. “I couldn’t have helped hearing him.”
It was a question that was passing through the minds of all; was being whispered about. How could it have happened? The body presented the usual appearance of death from drowning; but close to the left temple was a wound, and the face was otherwise disfigured. It must have been done, they thought, by coming into contact with something or other in the water; perhaps the skiff itself. Arm and ankle were both much swollen.