The Secret of the Moor Cottage
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Secret of the Moor Cottage is a novel written in 1906 by H. Ripley Cromarsh which was the pen name of Bryan Mary Julia Josephine Doyle, the youngest sister of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Published in 1906 by Small, Maynard & Co. (Boston, USA) and in 1907 by Ward, Lock & Co. (London, UK).
- 1 Editions
- 2 The Secret of the Moor Cottage
- 2.1 Book I: Adrian Ashton's Story
- 2.1.1 Chapter I: How I Came to Stanton
- 2.1.2 Chapter II: The Man at the Window
- 2.1.3 Chapter III : I Make a Discovery
- 2.1.4 Chapter IV: Franklyn Brings Strange News
- 2.1.5 Chapter V: I Speak to the Constable
- 2.1.6 Chapter VI: I Am Sorry for Miss Clarke
- 2.1.7 Chapter VII: The Cry in the Night
- 2.1.8 Chapter VIII: The Man on the Wall
- 2.1.9 Chapter IX: I am Pursued
- 2.1.10 Chapter X: I Meet the Vicar
- 2.1.11 Chapter XI: I Hear an Explanation
- 2.1.12 Chapter XII: I Pass the Night on the Fells
- 2.1.13 Chapter XIII: The Face of the Dead
- 2.1.14 Chapter XIV: Hedley Acts
- 2.1.15 Chapter XV: I am Released
- 2.2 Book II: Miss Clarke's Narrative
- 2.2.1 Chapter XVI: Count Mouroff
- 2.2.2 Chapter XVII: Monica Has Her Desire
- 2.2.3 Chapter XVIII: The Fate of Count Mouroff
- 2.2.4 Chapter XIX: The Fugitive
- 2.2.5 Chapter XX: How the Persecution Began
- 2.2.6 Chapter XXI: My sister's misery
- 2.2.7 Chapter XXII: Much is Explained
- 2.2.8 Chapter XXIII: Monica's Flight
- 2.2.9 Chapter XXIV: The End of the Narrative
- 2.3 Book III: Arian Ashton Resumes
- 2.1 Book I: Adrian Ashton's Story
- The Secret of the Moor Cottage (1906, Small, Maynard & Co. [US])
- The Secret of the Moor Cottage (1907, Ward, Lock, Maynard & Co. [UK])
The Secret of the Moor Cottage
Book I: Adrian Ashton's Story
Chapter I: How I Came to Stanton
On May 16, 18 — I left my home in Surrey, and journeyed north to Yorkshire to become the agricultural pupil of Edward Franklyn, farmer, of the Glen Farm, near Stanton-on-Sudley. I may briefly explain my reasons for this step. I am a man of birth, and sufficient means, and was then under thirty, master of a fine estate, and a bachelor. I suppose that is the root of the matter ; for if I had been married no doubt my wife would have objected, but my dear mother, with whom I lived, gave in to my idea: she thought it would amuse me to learn farming. I meant it to do more than this. I meant to farm our home-farm myself, and set the tenants a good example. I knew nothing of farming, but I intended to learn, An advertisement of Franklyn's caught my attention: he wanted a pupil ; and eventually we came to an arrangement. Beyond the references exchanged, we knew nothing of each other: I meant him to know nothing of me — he should entertain a landowner unawares. It would be more pleasant, and more amusing too. I will confess this point weighed with me. He should think me a penniless young fellow, who wished to learn how to make himself a living.
I farm the home-farm still, and can make it pay, so any farmer who may read this, will know that my time was not wasted in Yorkshire. Franklyn could farm, there is no doubt of that, and I certainly received more than my money's worth from him.
It was a wet, windy day when I saw him first at the lonely fell station of Stanton. I can't write the whole of the name of the place every time, and it is always called Stanton up there, except when the names are slurred together into a word which you have to know to understand. I came out of the station buildings with my modest valise trundling after me on a trolly, and there was Franklyn in his dogcart, holding his green and battered "wet-weather" bowler upon his head.
"That you Mr. Ashton?" he cried cheerily. "Well, I'm glad to see you ; what a day, to be sure, and four miles to drive. Get that waterproof over you."
He was a smallish, ruddy-faced man, with sandy hair and beard ; and a bright, intelligent fellow, with a heap of sense, as I was to learn in time. I liked him at once. We had a wet and gusty drive, and I was glad when we turned into the fields at last, and followed an ash-covered road up to the Glen Farm, about a quarter of a mile away.
It was a very ordinary farm-house, grey stone, as nearly all the buildings are up there, not at all beautiful, but picturesque in a way. There was a great cobble-paved yard before it, where calves strayed, and poultry scratched in fine weather, and outbuildings circling it in — Cow-houses, pig-styes, barns, stables, and all the rest of it. The place was finely situated on the verge of the wild fells, which rose above it, in brown, undulating slopes ; with a rocky fringe here and there. They are gloomy in bad weather: I thought so, though I admired them too, as we drove up. But inside the house it was bright enough. Mrs. Franklyn, a pleasant woman of forty or so, welcomed me shyly, and led me into the huge kitchen. It had "settles," and an immense grate with a bright fire, long, bare, well-scrubbed tables, and a sanded floor. But I cut out further description of the place: of my "settling down" and initiation into the art of farming, which soon began. I cannot enter into all this if I am to tell my story without being too long about it. The family consisted of my host, his wife, two daughters (Ada and Milly, aged ten, and twelve), a servant "Mary Lizzie," and three labourers. These were seldom seen indoors save at meals, and for a few minutes in the evening before they stumped away yawning to bed. Franklyn had many more men, but they "lived out," having their homes in the neighbourhood. There appeared to be a few people of standing,scattered about the poorly populated district, but I saw nothing of them, and desired to see nothing. I had already quite enough acquaintances, and in my present position it would not have suited my plans, to make more in that neighbourhood.
I am an old-fashioned churchman, and through going to church, and also through seeing him occasionally at the farm and elsewhere, I came to have a sight acquaintance with the vicar of the parish. Very sight, I may say, because I contented myself with a few polite words and passed on, though I could see he was curious about me, and would have drawn me out if he could. Apart from other things, I did not like the fellow: he had a saturnine face that repelled me ; he was the sort of man I always instinctively avoid ; one of your lean, rat-faced specimens, thin-lipped and hard-eyed.
This description gives a wrong idea, I am afraid: he was not ugly ; rather good-looking, in fact, but as a venomous creature might be so. That was my opinion, though it was not general, and I did not express it. Mr. Denham — that was his name — was a tactful man, with a head on his shoulders, and in that respect it would be better if many of his brother clergy were like him.
I led a very busy life ; up at dawn, and to bed early, and dog tired. It was hard work, but I liked it ; perhaps had there been any prospect of my having to spend my life at farming, I should not have enjoyed it. As it was, for the year I meant to spend at Stanton, I found it an interesting experience.
It was the height of summer, when the first incident occurred in the story I have set out to tell. It was a scorching hot day — I remember it well, we were haymaking at an outlying part of the farm. I was taking a short cut back to the fields; after forking up a load of hay with the assistance of two of the comic Irish "haytime men," whom Franklyn had engaged for the busy season.
I recollect how I came to the crest of a hillock overlooking a road, and saw below me a horse dashing along at full gallop, with an empty dogcart rattling madly behind. I took in what was about to occur in a second. Round the next turn a heavy dray was sauntering along unconcernedly, entirely blocking the lane, its rumble preventing the old carter from hearing the galloping hoofs behind. There would be a horrible collision, the runaway horse must be stopped, or it would attempt to dash by the dray and then — the deluge.
I sped across the few yards of field, and sprang over the low fence into the road, about twenty or thirty yards ahead of the runaway. He had in this manner time to see me and slacken speed perhaps: I stood in the middle of the lane and held my hay-rake out. It was a chance, and as luck would have it the animal slowed down and drew up snorting, a few paces from me. I approached with caution and soothing words, and in a moment had grasped the rein.
I patted the excited beast, and looked with interest at the trap. It bore no signs of an accident, but something of the kind must have happened. Then it came to my mind that I had seen the vehicle and the horse before. Yes, I had seen them at Stanton, driven by a young lady, whose name I remembered to have been told was Miss Clarke, There was nothing especially remarkable about this young lady, but Franklyn had called my attention to the horse. It was rather a good one. Saul the "mail-gig man" had sold it to its present owner,
Mr. Clarke, who had come to live at the Moor Cottage, some months before. I recalled that this Mr. Clarke was a "soft kind of man, seldom seen about," of whom little was known. He had just come and "settled" in the neighbourhood, and was apparently a widower with this one daughter, who kept his house.
I turned the horse and led it back down the road, in the direction from which it had come. I had not gone far before I met Miss Clarke running towards me, flushed and breathless. She could hardly speak.
"Oh, you've caught him," she gasped: "I am so glad ; I didn't know what would happen!"
"Have you had an accident?" I inquired. "I caught the horse, by good fortune, dashing up the lane ; there was a cart blocking the road entirely, and I feared there would be a collision, but, happily, he allowed me to stop him."
"I am sure I am very much obliged to you," said Miss Clarke, and I saw she was glancing at me in puzzled interest. I was dressed much as were the other hay-workers, and she could not quite understand me. "There was no accident," she continued ; "I was reading a paper as I came along, and the breeze blew it from me into the ditch. Job is not generally so excitable, and I did not hold him when I got down to get it. I think he must have heard a train in the distance — he hates trains — anyway, he started off at full speed and left me behind. But for you there is no knowing what might have happened."
"I am most happy to have been of any service," I replied, "and glad that neither horse nor trap appears any the worse for the run."
Miss Clarke mounted into the dogcart, while I examined it to make sure that no bolt had been loosened in the springs, or other damage done.
Chapter II: The Man at the Window
When the lady, with renewed thanks, had driven off, I returned as quickly as possible to my work. She seemed to me a capable level-headed girl, and I mentally remarked that no doubt she "ran the show" at "The Moor Cottage." I know slang is vulgar and all that, but it is so useful and expressive that we really can't do without it: no, not even the best of us. Why, I have caught my mother, the most particular of persons, using now and then terms which were certainly not precise English. As a boy, she continually corrected my speech, and does so even now sometimes, so that when I can catch her erring, it is a notable triumph which we both enjoy. But to return to the point. I told Franklyn of my adventure. This led him to talk of the Clarkes, and I learnt all their history so far as it was known, which was no further back than their arrival at their present home. They had few friends in the neighbourhood, lived very quietly, kept only one maid, and were considered eccentric — at least the old man was. This, as far as I could gather, was merely because he was not often seen and had a taste for chemistry. The servant reported that he pored over books and bottles continually. The daughter was fond of horses, she managed house and stable alike, and spent much of her time in riding over the fells. She was reported on favourably. The description of the household interested me.
One day, after haytime was over, I took Milly, who was a great friend of mine, to "look some lots," in the direction of the Clarkes' house. This I had never seen, and she proposed we should come back that way. "There's a green parrot in the window," she confided to me, as if there was only one window in the place ; "he calls out 'go away do' so loud, you can hear him in the road when the door's open."
It was a quaint little grey cottage, with ivy and Virginian creepers brightening its weather-stained walls, and a rather tumble-down stable and barn, at the end of a pretty old-fashioned garden.
I could not get Milly away. "Do stop," she cried, tugging at my coat ; "he won't say it unless you stop and look at him."
"We can't stand staring into the window," I represented.
"It's no harm, we always do," she said pouting ; "me, and the other girls coming back from school, often does; I believe he knows us."
"It's all very well for you, you can peep through the railings, Milly, and the bushes hide you ; but I can't do that kind of thing, you know."
"Double up," she suggested ; " you'd best if you don't want 'em to see you, and you'll see him right enough."
"I have seen him," I protested, laughing at her proposal, "and now I'm going on ; you can soon catch me up."
The child did not overtake me, however, for some little time, and I sat on a gate and waited for her. Presently she appeared panting.
"Couldn't come afore, Mr. Ashton," 'cause she came out and we got talking." Milly always made me laugh, she was the quaintest and wisest little mortal, and in some things absurdly like her father. The elder child was a much more ordinary character.
"Who did you get talking with?"
"Why her, Miss Clarke."
"She caught you peeping!"
"Well, she didn't mind me looking at him, she's used to it ; 'sides he's there so as folks can see him, likely enough, and right too."
"And what did Miss Clarke say?"
"Oh, a heap of things, and give me this pencil-sharpener what she had in her pocket."
Milly produced the sharpener for me to admire, and we talked of nothing else for some time. At length the child took up her story again.
"She said a heap of things," she repeated, "and asked me about you."
I had expected this ; for, I reflected. Miss Clarke had probably identified me in some way before then, and possibly seen me with Milly that afternoon, whilst she held me in bondage to admire the parrot.
"Did she? " I remarked.
"Yes, asked what your name was, and where you lived at."
"And you told her."
"Yes, I said you was Mr. Adrian Ashton, and lived with us ; and she asked whatever for."
"She didn't say that? " I asked laughing.
Milly shook her fair crop of tousled curls and frowned.
"She did," she asserted, "only finer ; but I won't tell you no more if you make game of me."
"I won't really," I replied earnestly.
"Well, she asked all that, and I told her, and she told me how you caught the horse, which I'd heard father telling mother; she seemed puzzled like."
"Do you mean Miss Clarke? "
"In course I do, who ever else? "
"Well, you see, it was so mixed up about your mother and———"
"When I heard about it, I told our Ma'y Lizzie, and she said any one could see, short of a gawk, that you was a hero."
Milly chatted on gaily till we reached home.
I was isolated from my kind, and had no mental occupation ; I suppose it was for this reason that the Moor Cottage and its occupants began to interest me. I do not know, but I dare say that was why the Clarkes first began to fill my thoughts.
They were mysterious in a way, too, though not more so as a matter of fact than several other families I have known of. In most places people are to be found whose past is unknown in their neighbourhood. The couple were interesting apart from this ; the lonely scientific recluse, the daughter with her opposite tastes — they were distinctly uncommon, and I am always attracted by the uncommon, it is such a relief in these days. They were unusual people in unusual surroundings ; the vast pathless fells stretched beyond their lonely cottage and hemmed it in on two sides. They were fearless of danger it seemed, though indeed there was nothing to dread. Still the man was old, the girl — a, girl, and their servant it seemed slept at her father's house, half a mile away. Many people would not have felt themselves in safety, for there were no houses nearer than their servant's home,
Readers will make up their minds that I had lost my heart to Miss Clarke at first sight. Let me disabuse them of this idea. It was not so. I was interested, curious, that was all. I can understand how an uneventful country life, can have the effect of making one concern oneself in the affairs of others, after my experience at Stanton. Neighbours in lonely country places are deeply interesting to each other. Town people, who live perhaps years within a few feet of persons, whose names they do not even know; can hardly understand this interest. Let them try living on the Stanton fells, and they will learn. I learnt to find an interest in all the little details of parish news, in the market gossip, and the doings of the landowners ; but to me the greatest interest undoubtedly began very soon to centre about the Moor Cottage. After events made it absorbing, and they came so quickly that they seemed to tread on each other's heels. I will try to write them down as clearly as possible. I remember well the evening when I lost my way upon the fells, and was delayed in my return till after nightfall. I had to pass the Moor Cottage. I recall how I paused in the roadway to note the cheerful effect of the ruddy light falling through the Clarkes' crimson blinds, upon the foliage of the creepers round the windows of their house. I had been walking on a grassy foot-track beside the road, and my approach had made little or no noise. The light was pretty, but I should have paused merely a second, had not my ears caught the sound of a soft and stealthy rustle among the shrubs of the garden. I listened, and it came again, a twig snapped, a pause ensued, and then from the tangle of bushes I saw a form cautiously emerge. By the light from the house I could distinctly see the figure of a man, steal across the little lawn before me. The night was dark and I was safe from observation. I instinctively grasped my stick near the head, and leant forward over the railing. It came to my mind that a good Irish blackthorn was a useful weapon, mine had served me before.
The man in the garden crossed the lawn like a cat, but he hesitated on the verge of the gravel path that separated him from the lighted windows, towards which I felt he was making. One of their red blinds was not fully drawn down. Under its lace edge I could catch a glimpse of some furniture in the room within. In a moment the trespasser had taken two cautious steps, and was crouching between me and the light. I could see nothing of his face, but I noted the drawn-down cap, the short overcoat. He was not a big man, but of stalwart make, and I judged below middle age.
I watched him with a kind of fascination. He had stooped to gaze into the room, and I stood staring aimlessly at him. Then I roused to the fact that I should do something in the matter, but I paused to consider how.
This man might be merely some curious yokel, or he might be a burglar, or a drunken ruffian. No, he was certainly not drunken, there had been steady purpose in his actions. Was it an evil purpose? I was uncertain and hesitated what to do ; but the matter was decided for me, my stick caught the railing and the sound, though slight, alarmed the fellow at the window. He vanished like a shadow, round the comer of the house by the moor.
Chapter III : I Make a Discovery
When he was gone I did not, on reflection, see that there was any cause for alarm, or reason to inform the household. It occurred to me that this might be the servant's sweetheart ; it was possible that she was still at the cottage, and that he had come to walk home with her. It was easy to imagine that curiosity might bring him from his post among the bushes, to peep into the window and see what was taking place in the house. I decided the matter had some such simple explanation, and that it required no interference from me. So I went my way.
It chanced, however, that the following afternoon I came on Miss Clarke, walking with her father upon the outskirts of the fells. I raised my hat and was passing them, but the lady detained me with a gesture.
"This is the gentleman who caught Job when he ran away, father," she said, laying a hand on his arm.
"You must allow me to thank you, sir " ; he turned to me with a courtly air — a well-made man, but feeble in appearance, with a worn and tired face. A gentleman I saw in him at once, and a man of cultivated and polished manner. He cordially expressed his thanks for my small service, and as we were going in the same direction for some little distance, we continued on our way together.
The meeting with the Clarkes recalled to my mind the incident which I had witnessed in their garden the night before, and almost before I was aware of it I was telling them what I had seen.
"By the way," I remarked, "I noticed a fellow hanging round your house last night, as I was passing by; perhaps I ought to let you know—" I broke off, for Mr. Clarke had stopped dead, and stood looking at me with alarm on his face. "Oh, there is no reason to fear that any harm will come of it," I stammered, surprised by his strange appearance. Was he such an utter coward?
"What was the man like?" he questioned, after an uncomfortable pause. I told him as far as I could, and of my idea that it was merely some countryman impelled by curiosity. Miss Clarke, if she were afraid, concealed her feelings, whereas her father's were evident. No doubt he was unaware of the fact, but his daughter was not.
"Shall we take this path home?" she asked him suddenly, with a hand on his sleeve. He seemed dazed, and barely replied, as I bade them good-bye and continued alone. The incident impressed me. Was his brain perhaps affected? It had seemed clear enough from his speech. Maybe, however, he was subject to attacks of eccentricity, and this was the reason why the Clarkes made so few associates. Or perhaps — another idea struck me: Franklyn said that for all they lived so simply, the Clarkes were reputed to be very well to do, and the father thought to be a miser. Perhaps it was true, and that he had in his house treasures which he feared to lose.
Well, I reflected, it was no business of mine, I should, however, know more later, very possibly, for Mr. Clarke had asked me to drop in and see him now and then; and I had been glad to accept his invitation.
There was not much to be done at the farm in that season, still I stuck to my post, but welcomed any little distraction which came my way. I had been south once or twice, but I preferred to be on the spot, and watch all the ins and outs of the trade I had come to learn. So I became an occasional visitor at the Moor Cottage, and I believe the verdict of the neighbourhood was that I was "courting" Miss Clarke. That is always the way in country places.
In reality I saw little of her; she was often absent from the room during my visits, or, if present, very quiet, and occupied with her work. She did not talk much, and rarely expressed an opinion. She was tactful in this, for I soon found that there was nothing her father liked so much as to express his uncontradicted. She let him talk, and I followed her lead and listened assentingly to all his ideas. He had many, on science, theology, and general subjects.
I always went in the evening when I visited the Clarkes. That was my free time.
It amused me to sit smoking and listen to my host: once started, he required only an occasional word to keep him going. Yet at times he seemed restless and nervous, and it was difficult to start a topic which would lift him out of himself. I think he liked me, I certainly liked him, I pitied him too. He had a great mind in many ways, yet he was childish at times. It seemed to me there were gaps in his mind, and now and then an odd lack of reasoning power. Sometimes he could not see a thing, and nothing would make him see it. I tried giving him my views at first, but I soon saw it was useless to attempt to convince him. He resented a different opinion, too, and a shade would fall upon his face which warned one to be silent. So I learned to let him have his own way and listened like his daughter. I soon saw that though he did most of the talking, it was the girl who managed everything, and appeared to manage well. Mr. Clarke took no interest in solid worldly affairs — I doubt if he ever gave them a thought. It was well for him that his daughter was of a more practical turn of mind.
As I had thought on first seeing her, she was a sensible and capable woman, well able to supply her father's deficiencies. I thought her a typically practical girl, rather more of a man than a girl, in fact. She appeared to have none of the little womanish ways that most girls of her age possess. There seemed no shadow of self-consciousness about her. Her age was twenty-six or eight, she was rather tall, well made, fair and good-looking, with a pleasant, frank face. She dressed simply and becomingly ; but from her manner she might have been seventy, and a regular mother Demdyke. I do not express just what I want to say: I mean she was as unconscious of her youth and good points as if they were not there ; and in this she differed from any other girl I had ever met. She took little notice of me, but I observed her with interest. She was unusual, I thought.
I was to find that she was a woman after all. One winter's evening I was returning from market with Franklyn, in his gig. When we came to a point not far from Clarkes' house I got down, to take a short cut to the farm, for the purpose of seeing to some sheep on my way. I went silently over the end of the moorland: the moon had risen and I could choose my path,among the ravines and ups and downs. I had to pass through the deep glen formed by the mountain stream, which coursed down the fells at that point, and cross it by a plank footbridge. This stream, or beck, as they are called up north, continued its way past the Clarkes' house (about half a mile distant) and down into the lowlands beyond.
The bridge was in a most lonely spot, only visited by one or two people in a week, I should say, and then in the daytime. I came down to it at night, and my surprise was great when I saw two figures, those of a man and a woman, standing right in the path between me and the bridge. I let them hear me approach, and they quickly left the pathway, proceeding up the glen. Quickly, but not quickly enough. The moonlight had streamed down clearly upon the clean-cut face of the vicar! I could not, moreover, fail to recognize his companion. Her little dog passed me on the bridge, following his mistress in hot haste. The animal might follow the maid-servant, but this was no servant to whom the vicar made love by moonlight in the glen.
I whistled as I strode over the fell. So that was it! My demure maiden was not so entirely — but I did not envy her her choice. It made me sick to think of it ; and there could be no mistake, for I had seen her slip from him at the sound of my approach. Again I said to myself it was no business of mine, but I thought of it all the same ; it was strange, and I thought it a pity. It worried me. She seemed too good for the man whom I mentally called "a swine." I felt disappointed also that so sensible a girl should be hoodwinked by him. What could she see in him? I gave that question up.
On my next visit to the cottage I watched its mistress carefully, to ascertain whether she was aware who had passed her that night in the glen. She showed no embarrassment, however, and convinced me she was totally unconscious that her secret was in my hands. No doubt she had imagined me some shepherd, and thought that by turning away she had escaped observation. I could hardly restrain a smile at the thought that this self-contained young lady stitching quietly by the fire, was the same I had surprised in a clandestine meeting with the vicar! There was a comic element in the situation.
Chapter IV: Franklyn Brings Strange News
I Think it was the following day that Franklyn returned from market in great excitement. Any one could see that he had met with some unusual adventure, but he said nothing till we were alone after supper.
We sat opposite each other at either side of the great hearth; he lit his pipe, puffed at it a while, and then looked up at me as I idly scanned the paper. I knew my man, and made ready to hear his story.
"What d'ye think?" he began. "When I was just started out of the Bear yard for home, I came on Hedley."
Hedley was the local constable, a popular character, not free from faults, but screened by his popularity.
"Was he sober?" I inquired.
"Well, about three sheets in the wind, I should call him," said Franklyn with twinkling eyes, " and glad of a lift, which I offers. Gladder than Dinah was to carry his fourteen stun, I'll warrant. However, we set off, and, being a bit fresh, he begins and tells me a bit of police news, that likely he shouldn't have done."
"Indeed," said I with interest, " what was it?"
"Well, with him being as I say fresh, it was a bit mixed, and I didn't exactly get the rights of it, he rambled on so, and mixed it all up with other things in telling."
"Yes?" I questioned.
"Well, I'm not a nervous man, nor I don't think you are, but I wouldn't care for the women-folk nor the lads to know" — He paused as if sorry to part with his news, and I had to draw him with questions.
"I'm not a nervous man," he repeated, continuing at length, " or I might feel a bit creepy with all the outdoor work I have to do after dark this time of year. Hedley let on there was a fellow down hiding in our parts, a desperate character, as the police are after!"
"Is that so?" I cried.
"Sure enough, he told me that, or I pieced it together from what he kept saying."
"Did you get hold of any particulars?"
"Well, not many ; it was hard to keep him to the point. But it seemed there's an inspector about here on the quiet, and has been a good while, trying to get hold of this man."
"What has he done?"
"I couldn't get Hedley to tell me. He said if I read the papers I'd have read of him already, and would see more by and bye when he was got. I should think from his manner it was nothing less than a hanging job!"
"And the fellow is hiding down here?"
"Hedley said the police was sure of it."
"Where could he conceal himself?"
"Well, I don't know, without it was in the potholes."
"That is not a bad idea," I said. The potholes were caves scattered about over the fells, dangerous places most of them. Some being great chasms in the ground, which unexpectedly you found yawning at your feet. Places that seemed almost bottomless, where you might hurl down a great stone and hear no sound of its coming to earth. Others it was possible to descend, others again were regular caves, with galleries and water-worn passages, running mesh-like in all directions underground.
"It seems to me quite possible," I remarked, " for a man to hide himself very successfully in some of those places ; with care I should think he might never be caught."
"There's his food though," Franklyn said, with his usual common sense. " I suppose he gets rabbits and the like in snares, if he's here at all, which he easy mayn't be ; those police make a deal of mistakes, like other men. If he is up yonder," and he jerked his head in the direction of the fells, " they could starve him out, if they could come on where he was hid."
"They would want a small army of men for the purpose," I said; and my companion assented, for most of the caves had numerous outlets.
"Likely they've sent down this one man on the quiet to see how things are," he said.
We discussed the subject for some time before going to bed. We were both inclined to think that if the fugitive were really in that neighbourhood, he could have concealed himself in no better place than upon the fells. Franklyn scouted the idea of his being hidden by any one in the district.
There was a weird fascination about the thought that a desperate criminal, had been in hiding near us for some time. I thought of it as soon as I woke up in the morning. Then there flashed into my mind the remembrance of the man I had seen, in the garden of the Moor Cottage! It was strange I had not thought of him before. Was it possible that I had seen the man of whom the police were in search? Quite possible. He might have come off the fell in the darkness, to prospect for food or clothing — the cottage was the only dwelling at hand. It was not pleasant to think of a criminal hovering round that unprotected house.
It might have been some harmless person whom I had seen, still I felt I could not let the matter rest on that supposition; so I immediately mentioned it to Franklyn. My idea was that I should warn the Clarkes and the police.
"Go steady about it," he said, "you see I don't want to bring any trouble to Hedley; so don't you let on you've heard a word of the tale he told me."
"I will only tell Mr. Clarke in confidence, I replied, " he must be warned. For the rest I can let Hedley himself know casually , that I saw a man near the cottage, and he can do what he likes about it."
"Very well," Franklyn agreed. "I should say that would work all right, but just make sure of Mr. Clarke about Hedley, so that he doesn't let on. I don't want to get the chap into a row, he's a likeable fellow, for all he's not much of a man for his job." I promised, and that afternoon I walked over, and asked to see Mr. Clarke.
He was at work in an upstairs room, which I understood he had arranged as a laboratory, but after a short delay he came down to me. I could see that I had brought him away unwillingly from his work. He was courteous; he was generally so, save perhaps sometimes in the heat of argument. He remarked, however, upon my afternoon visit, which was natural enough, as I always came in the evening.
"I wonder if you would mind coming upstairs with me," he said: "the fact is I have some chemical work in hand which I cannot leave for long." I followed him up the stair and into a long, low room literally heaped with beakers, bottles and chemical apparatus of every kind. He closed an open cupboard and some drawers; and turned his attention to a great affair upon the table, like a glass telescope, to one end of which a spirit lamp was applied.
"I have not come to stay, Mr. Clarke," I said, "but a piece of information has reached my ears — there is something I think I should tell you." I told him the whole story as I have set it down here, and my first words aroused his attention. I recalled to his mind the information I had given him about the man in the garden. As I did so his face became white, and he sat down heavily in a chair which stood near. "The man certainly is an awful coward," I thought, as I had thought before. I then went on to tell of the news of a fugitive from justice, being hidden in the neighbourhood- He looked so ghastly that I softened the story, and did not mention Franklyn's unpleasant suspicions, as to the nature of the ill-doing for which the man was sought by the police ; but I might have spared my pains.
Mr. Clarke sank back in his chair as I said my last words, and I never saw fear if it was not written on his face. I might have told the most terrible and harrowing tale, it could have had no more overpowering effect. He clutched at the table like a drowning man at a rope, and drew himself up ; but he sank back again without a word, and I saw that he had fainted. I called myself a fool as I bent over him. Perhaps the man was subject to attacks of the kind, brought about by any emotion ; in all probability this was the reason of the secluded life he led.
I looked about for water, but I dared not touch any of the liquids which looked like it, for fear I might do further mischief. Mr. Clarke lay in his chair like a dead man.
Chapter V: I Speak to the Constable
I did not want to call Miss Clarke whilst he was in that state, but there was nothing else for it ; all my efforts to restore him were useless. I was alarmed by his appearance too, I will confess. There was something awful in the ghastly bluish hue of his still face, with the clear afternoon sun streaming in upon it, and fear stamped in every feature.
I ran to the stair-head and called. There was no answer, so I went down to the dining-room, where Miss Clarke started up from writing, at my abrupt appearance.
"Your father is ill, I am afraid," I blurted out ; "he has fainted, and I cannot bring him round."
In a moment she had seized a bottle from a cupboard, and was flying upstairs ; I followed to find her bending over Mr. Clarke, holding to his face a handkerchief soaked from the liquid it contained.
"Help me to lay him on the floor, please," she said. I did so, and she knelt beside him to apply the restorative. "My poor father is liable to these attacks," she told me presently; "any excitement or emotion may bring them on. Were you having a scientific discussion?"
"No, Miss Clarke, it was, I fear, some news which I had just been telling your father. My only excuse is that I was unaware——"
"What was it?" she interrupted hastily, looking quickly up at me, where I stood leaning against the table, feeling useless and to blame.
"You remember my mentioning to you how I saw a man one night in your garden?"
"Yes." She was stooping over her patient again.
"Well, I have heard that there is some rascal hiding round here, whom the police are after. I thought it better to mention the matter; I thought perhaps,——" I stammered, hardly knowing what I wanted to say. The girl did not speak for a moment, and I could not see her face. When she replied she said quietly—
"My father is not strong, his heart has troubled him for years, and any excitement may make him ill. He is very nervous, extraordinarily so. I ought to have warned you: you must not blame yourself, it is my fault. We lead a very quiet life— that is because of his health — and he has been so well lately that I — one forgets to be careful." I again expressed my regret for what had happened, but she begged me not to reproach myself. In a while Mr. Clarke's eyelids quivered, and he showed signs of returning consciousness. "I think you had better not remain now, Mr. Ashton," the girl said; "if my father saw you he might become agitated, and he must be kept quiet."
I was not sorry to leave, for the situation was trying, especially as I could not help feeling myself to blame, innocently, but still to blame. Had I reflected I should have remembered, and understood, the scene on the moor, I told myself as I went home. I had expressed my intention of returning in the evening to see if Mr. Clarke was all right again. But before setting out I received a note from Miss Clarke brought by Milly, whom she had caught passing on her way from school. It stated that her father was much better, and begged me not to trouble to walk over. So I did not go.
I saw Miss Clarke's common sense in the open note she had sent me, it was merely folded in three, and had no envelope. She would leave no room for gossip! No suspicion of her intimacy with the vicar, seemed to have come to any one in the neighbourhood: they evidently wished it to remain a secret as yet. She was cautious in the matter, and in this little matter of my note as well. And yet — such are country places and country folk — her precautions went for little, as I was to learn from Milly. She was a frank child, frank almost to wildness, and yet she was so simple-hearted that one could hardly resent the things she sometimes said. She had no awe of me or of any one. Perhaps I spoilt her: her parents said so.
"Mr. Ashton," she remarked to me the following day — it was a Saturday and she was free to run about the farm after me. We had gone to a distant hen-house to feed the poultry, and she sat on the top of a low wall, while I leant against it, and smoked as we watched the birds feed awhile.
"Did you throw your letter in the pig-tub?"
"Pig-tub! What letter?"
"That letter what I brought you from Miss Clarke."
"No, Milly, I don't think so. Why? I was in the yard when you gave it to me ; I don't really remember what became of it."
"Oh, then I 'spect you did. You was near the pig-tub by the calf gate: I 'spect you dropped it in."
"Why are you so anxious about it? I was busy among the calves: I may have let the note fall ; but what do you want to know about it for?" The child laughed.
" 'Cause I heard our Ma'y Lizzie tellin' John——" She paused, and looked mischievous. I saw she was longing to be questioned, but I said nothing.
"I don't rightly know what she meant,"
Milly continued, though of course she did. "She said any one could see it was all on one side, and if you went yonder it was only for a bit of company." I could not restrain a smile. Poor Miss Clarke! Milly proceeded, encouraged, "Ma'y Lizzie told John, says she tisn't likely he's thinking anything about it, and throwing her letter in the pig-tub like dirt." '
"I did nothing of the kind," I found myself saying; "it was an accident if it came there."
"I'll tell Ma'y Lizzie," cried the awful child.
"You won't," I said sternly. I had not had the strength of mind to silence her in the beginning, but now that my idle curiosity was satisfied, I felt it my duty to admonish Milly.
"Well, I won't say nothing to no one if you don't wish," she answered when I had finished. "You know I won't if you say not." I felt I could trust her — she was a staunch little maid. "I like Miss Clarke," she announced presently, "but Ma'y Lizzie don't, for all she's never spoken to her, even. She says she's proud, and flighty,'cause she rides about on Job, and says her head's like a mop, and she's a mind to post her some Hinders to better her looks, only they're not worth it."
"Some what?" I asked, but I remembered as I did so. "No matter," I said, as she was about to reply, "and let us talk of something else, Milly ; I have had enough of this silly gossip."
Milly changed the subject at my desire, though she made a face at my words. The gossips little knew how far from the truth they were. What a boon it would have been to them to have something real to gossip about! How delighted would they have been had they known all that I knew, concerning their pastor and the lady at the Moor Cottage!
That day I turned over in my mind the occurrences of the preceding afternoon. There was a point which kept forcing itself upon my notice: the terrible agitation of Mr. Clarke. It seemed to me altogether out of proportion to its sense. The more I thought of the matter the more I was struck with the idea, that there was something I did not understand. A nervous man might be afraid, on hearing that a bad character was in his neighbourhood ; but that access of terror was incomprehensible to me, look at it as I would. And then suspicion began to be aroused in me. After all nothing was known of these Clarkes, they had only a few acquaintances about Stanton ; of whom I considered I had certainly become by far the most intimate. No one knew anything of their past history: did the explanation of Mr. Clarke's terror lie hidden in it? It might be so ; it seemed to me more easy to believe this, than to believe that the state of his nerves, as his daughter had said, accounted solely for the seizure. I went over that evening to the cottage, in an alert and suspicious frame of mind.
Miss Clarke came to the door for a moment, on my declining to go in. She gave me good news of her father's state. She said she had kept him in his room, but that he would be downstairs the next day, as he seemed to have quite recovered, and had no ill effects save a passing weakness.
I had not yet seen Hedley, but I was determined to do so. I knew where I could find him at a certain time, and a day or two later I arranged to meet him casually, and did so. He was a genial man, and we had often had a chat before. So it was easy to get into conversation, and easy to lead it where I wished. I spoke of poachers, a favourite topic with Hedley, though it was rumoured that poachers had little cause to fear him; and so I was able to bring in my information.
"They say there are plenty of poachers about," I remarked, "but I have lived here some time, and been about at all hours, without seeing one. Unless it be — yes, I did see a fellow hanging about Mr. darkens place, but I dare say he was the maid's sweetheart."
"Small fear," smiled the policeman; "we've plenty of pretty girls, there's no young man need go after Jane Ogden, as ugly as she's crabbed. Whereabouts was the chap you saw?" I described the occurrence; events had made it seem important, and I recalled every detail.
I do not think the constable remembered the revelation he had made to Franklyn, for I saw no suspicion of my motives in his face. He seemed keenly interested, however, and questioned me closely.
"I'll keep a look out up yonder," he said; "it might easy have been one of them plaguey poachers," but I saw he hoped it was some one else.
"Mr. Clarke is very nervous," I said, "the slightest agitation gives him terrible heart attacks, so I think it would be better if you did not let him know if you go up there, or let him see you."
"Right you are, Mr. Ashton, I'll attend to that. Good afternoon, and thank you."
Chapter VI: I Am Sorry for Miss Clarke
Events were certainly interesting to me, and I was curious to see how they would develop. Nothing further happened, however, for some days, in any way bearing upon the mystery, on the verge of which I seemed to feel myself. I called once or twice at the cottage and received good news of Mr. Clarke ; he appeared to have quite recovered from his late attack. So one night, drawn largely by curiosity, I went down to see him at about my usual time.
I generally found the maid gone on my arrival, and the door was opened to me by Mr. Clarke or his daughter.
There was a considerable delay to-night, however, before Miss Clarke answered my ring ; I feared that I had disturbed them, for I heard hurried sounds within, and a re-arranging of furniture.
Once or twice before, I had seemed to put them to trouble by my arrival. I mentally remarked to-night that it fitted in with Miss Clarke's character to desire each piece of furniture to be correctly placed, before the entry of a visitor ; but really all ladies are fussy about these things.
I found Mr. Clarke sitting by the fire, and looking quite himself. A rug was thrown upon the sofa, and I imagine he had been lying down before my arrival. He appeared pleased to see me, but was not very talkative; in fact the conversation seemed rather to flag. He did not in any way refer to the subject which had brought about his strange seizure. It was difficult to find anything to talk of that evening. I exhausted the topics of newspaper interest and so on; they were soon run through, for the Clarkes had so very little to say. Then I turned to local matters, and a mischievous idea came to my mind. Secure in the certainty that I had not been recognized in the Glen, I turned the conversation to the subject of the vicar. I knew him so little, and liked him so little, that I had never spoken of him before. Without appearing to do so, I was intending to watch the effect of the subject upon Miss Clarke — perhaps a rather unfair proceeding, though I did not think of it at the time. I was prepared to see some emotion in the girl for once, but I was not prepared for the emotion which became evident in her father at my first words.
I remarked upon meeting the vicar somewhere. "Do you know him?" I inquired. Mr. Clarke's colour faded, his lips moved, but he did not answer: it was his daughter who replied steadily, but with an averted face, that they did.
"He is no favourite of mine," I said ; "but I ought not to say so, perhaps he is a friend of yours?"
"No friend of mine," said my host through clenched teeth.
"Why do you dislike him?" the girl asked me.
I had come too far to draw back, and had expressed my opinion of her lover, almost before I was aware of the fact; perhaps it was as well that she should hear it. I continued:—
"I have no reason to do so, he has always been very polite to me, but——" I hesitated for words to express my feeling.
"Yes?" questioned Miss Clarke, with her eyes upon my face, and a smile — yes a smile — upon her lips. What an actress was there! I gazed at her in wonderment: who would believe that the man whom we were discussing was this woman's lover!
"I don't know why it is exactly," I went on, pulling myself together, " but sometimes one has a sort of instinctive aversion for a person. I confess I felt this at first sight for Mr. Denham. Then his face — don't you think there is something that repels one in it, I hardly know what, something——"
"Damnable!" broke in Mr. Clarke, with the strongest feeling in his quivering voice, and bringing his hand down heavily upon the table at his side. His eyes flashed, his chest heaved.
"Father!" said Miss Clarke in soft remonstrance, and I truly believe her calm firm voice averted a coming seizure, for her father was terribly excited.
From where she sat she gave me a warning glance, and I hastened to laugh the subject off, and change it for a less dangerous topic. Mr. Clarke became calmer after a while; though his hands were twitching nervously, and his eyes dilating still when I left. He hated the clergyman, or feared him — both perhaps — and his daughter, unhappy girl, she loved him. What did it all mean? What would it come to? How would it end?
If she met her lover at night in a lonely glen, the reason was plain, it seemed to me. She dared not have him openly to visit her in her home. What was the reason of her father's hatred for the man? That question was beyond answering; but perhaps they had merely had some theological dispute, and quarrelled. I tried to content myself with this simple explanation, for I felt I was rather in the mood to make mountains of molehills, where the Clarkes were concerned. It occurred to me also that possibly the man I had seen at the Cottage, and suspected of being the fugitive criminal, might be none other than Mr. Denham, waiting for a word with the lady of the house. I rather inclined to this idea, on reflection. The underhand, furtive proceeding seemed to me to fit in with the opinion I had, rightly or wrongly, formed of the man's character. It was all very puzzling, and there was ample scope for conjecture.
A further development of the situation was at hand. That evening in the course of conversation I had taken some papers from my pocket, and sorted them upon the table, to find a newspaper cutting which I thought would interest my host. I suppose it was in this way that a paper, never intended for my eyes, came into my possession. I remembered later that Miss Clarke had evidently been writing before I came in, for her writing materials were scattered upon the table. In gathering up my papers, I must have unconsciously taken a letter of hers, unnoticed by my companions. At all events, certain it is that that night on going up to my room, I put my hand in my pocket, drew out an unfamiliar sheet; opened it carelessly, and found myself reading what follows. I make no excuse for myself, in like circumstances I think any one would have read the paper to see what they had found. The handwriting I did not recognize, till I had read the words more than once in bewilderment. The paper contained only what was evidently but a part of a letter. It ran: "Will nothing move you? How can you drive to desperation the woman you profess to love? To love! But I do not write to reproach you, it is useless ; I write to implore you, to beg" The sentence was unfinished, and it bore a stain, which I believe was the stain of a tear. Something had interrupted the writer here, and left the letter unended. Perhaps the something was myself; for the writing was that of Miss Clarke, and she had probably broken off at this point on hearing my ring at the bell.
I stood bewildered, with the scrap of paper in my hand. It must have been part of a letter which the girl was in the act of writing to her lover. It could be nothing else. And here it was in my hands. Through no design or desire of my own its contents had come to my knowledge. I had not known what I was reading till it dawned upon me, as I scrutinized the writing later. This must mean that there had been some quarrel, a lover's quarrel no doubt ; lovers were always tragic, and took themselves so much in earnest.
And yet — there might be more in it. I remembered Mr. Clarke's strong feeling against the man, to whom the letter must be written. If he had quarrelled with her father, the girl might be attempting to bring him to seek a reconciliation, against his will. There seemed reason in this idea. I thought of it all for long, before I slept.
The possession of the letter troubled me: I could hardly decide what to do about it. My first impulse — to return it to its owner — I saw on a moment's consideration I should do ill to follow. How could she suppose that I had had the paper, identified her writing, and still not read it? It was not possible. Therefore, considering the nature of the contents, I could not give it back. I must destroy it. That was the only thing to do. Of course, she would miss it, had probably missed it long before this. Perhaps she would call to mind my having had papers upon the table, and suspect that I had inadvertently taken up hers with them? Well, that could not be avoided. If she guessed the real state of matters, I could not help it ; she would at any rate give me credit for some delicacy of feeling, if she understood the situation. I would destroy the letter, and let her think what she might. Possibly she would come to the conclusion that it had been accidentally burnt, or something of the kind. If she did, it would certainly be the best conclusion of the affair for all parties.
I pitied the girl, as I thought of what she had written: she was hardly the kind of person to be led into heroics over nothing. I felt that there was solid reason behind her words; it must be as I supposed, and the struggle between lover and parent hard enough to bear.
Chapter VII: The Cry in the Night
I felt rather apprehensive of my next meeting with Miss Clarke after what had happened, and I did not^o near the Cottage for a week. I was anxious to go, and yet I felt reluctance on account of the letter. I argued with myself that I had no cause to be ashamed of my actions, with regard to the matter; and so one night I laid hesitation aside and set off for the Clarkes' house. I had come to be a very regular visitor there: it was the only place I had to go to, and of late I had a special interest in these visits, since the beginning of the strange chain of events I have noted down here.
The Cottage looked as usual, but though it did so, with lights lit and blinds drawn, I could get no answer to my ring. I had almost thought I heard a sound within as I came up, but though I rang three times no one came to the door.
I was astonished. The Clarkes were out? But how could they be, and where? They went nowhere by day even — at least the father was seldom abroad — and this was night, and their house empty! There was something odd about it to me, knowing their habits as well as I knew them. However, there was nothing for me to do but to go my way again. This I did, taking a path across the fell, by which I often returned to the farm, when the nights were not too dark to see the track. There was sufficient light to-night, and I struck into the path by a short-cut through the Clarkes' yard, and continued over the fell, musing upon their strange absence. I could make nothing of it. Where could they be?
I was soon to know.
I was crossing the Glen, at a lower point than that at which I had come upon the vicar, and his companion. There was no bridge here, but a line of great stepping-stones ran from side to side, in shallow water. I was at about the middle of them when a terrible scream rang out near by. So startled was I that I found myself knee deep in the water, before I knew where I was ; the next instant I was upon the bank and speeding in the direction from which the sound had come. What was taking place there I had hardly time to conjecture, for it was but a few yards to a bend of the Glen. There I saw before me two men struggling madly together, and a woman wildly endeavouring to intervene. As my eyes fell on the group, I knew that I had found the missing occupants of the cottage, but I had no time for further thought. I came clattering over the stony ground, and my advent was heralded by the noise of my feet, and by the shout I instinctively gave at the sight before me. The effect was instantaneous: the men separated, and while one bounded up the side of the ravine and was gone, the other staggering from the effect of a final savage blow, fell prone upon the rocks. I was just too late to catch him in my arms, but I was kneeling beside him an instant later. It was Mr. Clarke.
Even in that half light I could see the working of the face, the beating of the hands upon the ground that showed extreme agitation. I raised his head, but it fell back upon my arm, his whole form became rigid. He lay as I had seen him in the laboratory.
I turned to his daughter, who had sunk upon a rock, her face covered by her hands ; she was sobbing like a child.
"Miss Clarke," I said gently, "you must help me ; your father has — I fear it is another attack. Have you any of that stuff with you? Or shall I try to get him home. What shall we do? I am ready for anything you suggest." The girl could find no voice to answer me. "We will do whatever you think best," I said to gain time.
She rose to her feet with a murmured word which I could not catch and with a gesture towards the cottage, as she went quickly from me down the Glen. I understood that she was going for the restorative I had mentioned, the poor girl could not control her voice to speak. Left alone I laid the old man down upon the ground, as well as I could among the rocks and stones, and spread my greatcoat over him. Only then, as I walked up and down in that lonely spot, and kept watch by his quiet form, did I have time to consider what I had just seen.
Was the man whom I had interrupted in his savage attack upon Mr. Clarke, the runaway criminal? It was my first vague thought ; but as soon as I had concentrated my ideas, I saw at once that he could be none other than Mr. Denham.
The father had, no doubt, followed Miss Clarke to a meeting with her lover; a quarrel had ensued, and the brute — I remembered with satisfaction how I had always disliked him — had attacked the old man. From what I knew of Mr. Clarke, I thought it possible that the first blow might have come from him ; but to think that the man should have struck him again — I myself had been witness of several heavy blows. Had I not been called to the spot by the horrified cry of the girl, there was no knowing what might have happened. It seemed a long time that Miss Clarke was away, though I dare say it was only a few minutes.
The clouds rolled across the face of the moon overhead, and the stream gurgled and chattered among its stones. The faint plaintive cry of plovers, far away over the fells, and the hooting of an owl in the valley, reached me as I kept watch in the Glen. But the time seemed long till I heard hurried steps coming up the path, and the quick breathing of the girl as she hastened to me.
She flung herself on her knees beside her father, and began her efforts to restore him to consciousness. When she had recovered breath she questioned me, as to whether he had moved or made any sound during her absence. She seemed herself again. Deliberate, resourceful, calm, I was thankful to observe it ; for in face of her father's state I should have felt helpless enough had she been unable to take the lead, and direct. She had brought a thick coat on her arm, and I helped her to slip it on the unconscious man. She thanked me for my thought in having lent him mine, but begged that I would now put it on again.
"I am so sorry to keep you here, Mr. Ashton."
"I am thankful to be here," I answered.
"You are very kind," the girl said, " indeed I am grateful. I do not know what I could do without you."
"Shall I not get some help and carry Mr. Clarke home?" I asked. "Or, there is no need of help," I added hastily, remembering the strange circumstances of the case, which the girl would not desire to be made public. "There is no need of help, I can carry him, I am sure, with your aid now and then. We will go a little way at a time."
"I think it will be all right," she said. "I am almost sure he will recover presently, and be able to walk between us: you see it is not a quarter of a mile, going straight down the Glen."
"You know best," I said. "We will wait and see, but I am sure that we could manage ; it does not seem right to have your father long upon the cold ground."
She thanked me again.
"His breathing is better," she said presently: "he will come round soon."
He did, in about a quarter of an hour, sitting up and muttering unintelligible words.
At a sign from Miss Clarke, I took his arm, and we got him upon his feet. She spoke gently and encouragingly to him, but he made no reply.
We went a few steps at a time, supporting him almost entirely between us, and resting upon the rocks continually. I thought he would never reach the cottage, but his daughter was quite hopeful, and she knew him better than I did. We arrived at last, and I was thankful to lay him upon the couch by the dining-room fire, where he seemed to sink into a doze.
Miss Clarke brought pillows and blankets, for he was to remain the night where he was.
"Should I not go for a doctor?" I asked.
"Oh, no, thank you," she said; "there is nothing to be done that I cannot do; you see I am, unfortunately, so used to these attacks." I looked at the resolute reliable face, from which every trace of the late emotion seemed to have gone, and I felt he was in good hands. I felt a confidence in Miss Clarke that I had not felt in any other woman — she had the presence of mind and the resource in emergency, more generally found in the opposite sex.
I don't say this because I am a man ; but women are easily agitated as a rule — it is wellknown — it is their nature. Miss Clarke's nature was different, she seemed so well balanced. She had given way in the Glen, but she had completely recovered herself and was as reliable as ever. I really admired the girl's character, so I must be pardoned for occasional digressions. Perhaps she was not my ideal of a woman, but she was my ideal of a real good sort ; and she had a head on her shoulders that most men would be glad of.
All that I have related took some time in the happening, especially our laborious return to the cottage. So it was after eleven o'clock when we had settled Mr. Clarke upon the sofa. Of what had taken place in the Glen before my arrival, Miss Clarke said not one word.
"It is late, Mr. Ashton," she remarked, rising from her kneeling position beside the couch. "I must not detain you any longer." I took my hat, and she went with me to the door, where I held out my hand.
"Good-night," I said, "I so hope Mr. Clarke will be all right soon."
"Thank you," she answered ; "I cannot say how much I thank you for all you have done."
"Oh, that is nothing," I stammered; "I am only too delighted to do anything."
"Then there is one thing more that I would ask you," she said steadily, but in a low voice. "It is to forget all you may have seen to-night, and mention it to no one."
"Rely on me," I said ; "be sure I shall do as you wish," and I left the cottage and started on my way home. I did not take the path over the fell this time: I had still in my ears the shock of the cry which had come down the Glen as I stood in mid-stream, upon the stepping-stones. The whole adventure had left a deep impression upon my mind.
Chapter VIII: The Man on the Wall
I got Milly to inquire for Mr. Clarke at the Cottage next day, to her great delight. She brought me good news of him, and was full of tales about the parrot, to whom she had been formally introduced. He had eaten sugar which she had given him, and Miss Clarke had told her that parsley was poison to parrots! So the child had plenty to tell me of her visit. Mr. Clarke was himself again in a few days, and wrote a note asking me to tea one afternoon. I could not get away at that time, but I went in the evening. He was very kind in asking me to his house, but I only allowed myself to pay visits, when I missed no work by my absence from the farm.
I found the old man very amiable, and not at all in a controversial mood. He seemed depressed, though, and I would rather have seen him less kind and more happy. His manner was strained ; I could see that he was making an effort to do his part.
He remembered what I had seen and knew: no doubt it troubled him to remember it, and he wondered what I must think of it all. I did not stay late — I thought it best not to remain longer than was necessary, on account of this. It was too great a strain upon my host. In time the effect would blow over. He came with me to the door, and held it open that the light from the hall might show me my path. It showed me more, something which almost made me give an exclamation. I restrained myself, however, said good-night to Mr. Clarke, and stepped out into the road. As he shut the door I turned back into the garden. At one side it had a ten-foot wall, thickly covered with ivy, travellers' joy, and other creepers; among the leaves of which I had seen the protruding heel of a man's boot!
There could be no doubt of it. The lamp-light had fallen upon a gleaming heel-iron. There was some one in hiding, stretched along the wide coping of the ivy-covered wall.
I crossed the path quietly, and stole over the grass towards the wall, trusting to be unobserved, but I was not in luck.
There was a movement, and a long rustling slide. My man was gone. I hurried round the wall by the orchard, but I had some way to go, and there was no sign whatever to be seen of living thing, when I reached the other side. Tom creepers marked the spot where the man had dropped down a moment before, but he was nowhere. I struck a match and examined the ground where he had lit. Two heavily marked footprints were there, very ordinary square-toed marks, with nothing remarkable save the semi-circular heel-irons. These are usual enough in country places, though the marks were not the marks of heavy countrymen's boots. There was one point remarkable about the irons, their semi-circle was not quite that of the heel — they did not come right round it, stopping short about a quarter of an inch. They were perhaps specially put on for a man who wore away the back of the heel in walking. There was nothing further to be seen. I hung about for some time, listening and watching, but I saw nothing and heard nothing, so that I finally went home. I had food for thought. Of the many strange events which had come to my knowledge in connexion with the Moor Cottage, this seeing of the man upon the wall was not the least strange.
Of late I had begun to incline to the idea that my suspicions, aroused by Mr. Clarke's extraordinary behaviour, were groundless. I had almost set aside the thought of the fugitive from justice, but now the idea of him returned forcibly to my mind. This man upon the wall, could it be he? I considered the possibility of its being Hedley, brought by my information, but he was a huge man with feet like beetle-crushers. These footprints were not his, nor were they those of Mr. Denham, whose pointed-toed boots I had often noticed; for I have an objection to see that kind of effeminate footgear on a man. It would have given me genuine satisfaction could I have concluded, that the clergyman was the skulker among the creepers; but I could hardly think so. If it were not he or Hedley who had left the footprints, who then was it?
Some one who desired to watch the cottage, or be within hail from it unseen. I conjectured many things. Had the man friends in the Cottage, or was he there with some evil purpose? If so, it was not pleasant to reflect upon the lonely woman's position within; with her frail companion, on whom she could hardly rely in case of need. This last thought disturbed my night's rest. I felt as if I ought to have gone back to the Cottage, and yet to speak to Mr. Clarke would have been impossible; to see his daughter alone, equally so. No doubt, when disturbed the fellow had really taken himself off. But I must have a word with Miss Clarke, I decided: she ought to know of my having seen him. She could be relied upon. The business was not my business, but surely something should be done.
Next day I wrote a note to Miss Clarke, considering on reflection that it was better to do so than to speak of the matter.
"Dear Miss Clarke," I wrote. "I think I ought to let you know that last evening on leaving the Moor Cottage, I saw a man hiding upon the wall in your garden. He took to his heels on my going up. You will remember that there is a rumour of some miscreant being concealed in our neighbourhood. I know you are not easily alarmed, or I would not write of this to you. I feel I must put you upon your guard. Should you not communicate with the police? I leave the matter in your hands to decide ; but if I can be of service pray rely upon me at any time. — Sincerely yours, Adrian Ashton."
I did not mention the man whom, as Miss Clarke was aware, I had seen before in her garden. I thought afterwards that for appearance' sake I should have done so, though I was convinced that I knew his identity as well as did Miss Clarke herself. I had made up my mind that the man was Mr. Denham, and yet on consideration it might well have been the fellow I had discovered upon the wall. What a puzzle it all was! Of course it was possible too that the vicar possessed some boots, of the type of those whose prints I had seen. Many things were possible.
Anyway, I concluded I had done well to write to Miss Clarke. From my letter she would see I left all action to her — she could do as she chose about the matter ; but if she did nothing I should be almost confirmed in my idea that all things were not exactly as they should be. However that was, the Clarkes had nothing to fear from me ; I liked them and had found them kind friends, I trusted that my suspicions wronged them. They had little enough ground, and I have, I am told, a lively imagination. I took myself to task often for my thoughts. I had no right to see more in the events I had witnessed than the affair with the vicar, and yet — I could not understand it.
I received no reply to my letter; but a couple of days later when I went to the Cottage, Miss Clarke spoke of it at once, and thanked me for my information. Her father was not in the room, so we could discuss the matter openly,
"I do not think we need alarm ourselves at all," said Miss Clarke, "I am convinced the man was a poacher, and harmless enough. You see, our wood is full of rabbits, and I have found 'gins' and snares there often. I expect he was just waiting to see what he could lay his hands on."
I did not press my views of the matter, for I saw she was determined to regard it lightly; as I had in my heart expected that she would. Was she dissembling, or truly indifferent, or what? I could not feel sure of anything. I was mystified and doubtful about a good many things. An incident which took place that night added to the doubts and questions which had lately risen up in my mind, with regard to these strange people whom I had come to know.
I remember I had stopped at the little shop post-office, on my way from the farm, and bought a supply of chocolate and sweets, for Franklyn's little girls. I carried my parcel with me to the Clarkes' house, because the shop would be closed later, and I must make my purchase before going there, or leave it till another day. The bulky packet was an inconvenience in my pocket, so that I placed it on the table beside me ; whilst I sat smoking and talking to my host. It was wrapped in newspaper — sheets torn from some illustrated periodical, to be correct.
Miss Clarke brought in some coffee, laid the tray upon the table, and in doing this her eyes fell on my parcel. I had turned to move it out of her way with an apology; but the words were checked upon my lips, as I saw a singular change pass over her face. It was not fear that I saw there, but a startled expression, followed almost by one of relief. Her eyes went rapidly to her father, who was unconsciously chatting about some congenial theme, then they fell again scrutinisingly to the packet. It all took place in a second. I recovered myself, and leant forward to remove my property.
"Oh, it is all right, thank you," she said ; "it is not in the way;" she moved it slightly to the side, and I remarked that she turned it over as she did so.
There was then something there, which she did not wish Mr. Clarke to see.
Chapter IX: I am Pursued
I was careful to show in no way, that I observed what had passed. I did not look at my parcel again, or touch it, till I rose to take leave; when I put it unconcernedly in my pocket, with some remark about Milly and Ada, and their devotion to sweets.
I never left the Cottage now, or approached it, without carefully watching for signs of anything unusual. To-night I did not fail to look about me, but without loitering; for I was anxious to examine into the cause of Miss Clarke's unusual behaviour.
When I was a good way from the house, I struck a match to see my packet, but it went out, and by ill-luck it was my last; so that I had to wait till I reached the farm. The Franklyns were in bed: no one ever waited for me.
I turned up the lamp, and took out the parcel, unrolling from it its outer wrappings; which I spread upon the table.
The sheet bore the portraits of several persons, but, as I had remarked at the Cottage, only one of these was uppermost when Miss Clarke brought in her tray. My attention was then all for it. The printed matter was too small for her to have read it at the distance, it was, I felt assured, the picture which had produced such a strange effect.
It represented the head and shoulders of a man of middle age, rather stout ; with a hard and unsympathetic face, puffy cheeks, cold eyes, and a thick crop of straight dark hair. Not a prepossessing picture. The man wore some kind of uniform, and there were decorations upon his breast. Beneath the portrait was printed "The late Count Mouroff." The name said nothing to me, I had never to my knowledge heard it before. But what was the late Count Mouroff to the Clarkes? The girl had concealed the portrait from her father's eyes. Perhaps it was merely that of some old friend, and she feared it might trouble him.
I could imagine simple explanations to most of the occurrences I have noted down here, but I felt a doubt of them all, and a disquieting misgiving that my darker imaginings, were nearer to the truth than any of them.
Strange things had happened: I reviewed them in my mind that night. There was the episode of the man at the window, Mr. Clarke's agitation on the moor and in the laboratory, the rumour that had come to my ears, the seeing of the fellow upon the wall. Then there was the intrigue with the vicar; I hardly knew whether to connect it with any of these incidents or not. They were all strange, and I could not be satisfied that they were disposed of, by any of the explanations which had come to my mind. I suppose this was partly because the Clarkes were mysterious people, and I was inclined to let the fact influence me, in my judgment of these matters. Anyway, my mind was not free from suspicion, though I often took myself to task for disloyalty to the Clarkes ; from whom I had received nothing but kindness. But one cannot help one's thoughts, or I couldn't help mine in this case at any rate. I puzzled my brain about Count Mouroff. The name sounded Russian, What had this dead Russian, if he was a Russian, to do with the people at the Moor Cottage? I confess I was curious to know. I was curious about all the strange events, with which it had been my lot to become connected. I wondered if the Clarkes had ever lived in Russia. It was an uncomfortable country ; I thought of political offences, and secret societies. One can imagine many extraordinary things, in connexion with such a barbarous country. I would speak of Russia to the Clarkes.
On the occasion of my next visit I skilfully introduced the subject, and boldly asked my host if he had ever been in Russia. "No, never," he replied. He looked rather hard at me though as he said the words, and passed his hands nervously over each other. Then there was something in connexion with Russia! Miss Clarke said nothing, she brought out the chess-board, however, and I was now so alert to remark and suspect, that I saw in her action a desire to change the conversation. I often played chess with Mr. Clarke; he was a very good player, and enjoyed the game keenly.
We sat playing late. Miss Clarke had left us some time, when at length I took my leave. The night was calm and fine, and I took my way homeward over the fell.
The lower slopes of the moorland rise and fall in little hills and valleys, on the way I had to go. In winter in times of flood, the valleys run with bubbling "becks," overflows of the streams that rush down from the mountains. I went along leisurely, for I was enjoying the walk. "A good night for poachers," I thought, for on the crest of several of the ridges I could see rabbits scudding along, faintly outlined against the sky. In watching them it came about, that I remarked a more important matter.
I was descending a glade, and looking back I saw an object on the high ground I had left. It was a living moving thing, and it was no rabbit. Though I saw it for but a second before its outline was lost against the grey hillside; I knew it for a slinking, creeping, human figure.
I stood still, watching and listening. Now that there was no sound from my own movements, the shuffling of footsteps was quite audible. Was the man — for man I could see it was — a poacher, or what was he? I determined to continue my way and observe him ; for it was evident that he followed on the track that I was pursuing. I went on quietly, and I kept a continual watch as I went. The man came behind as steadily as if he were my shadow. Tracks diverged this way and that, but still he adhered to mine. And now it began to strike me that there was a purpose and a reason, in what he did, I became convinced that the fellow was following me. He came steadily, he kept my pace exactly, never allowing the distance to widen between us, if I quickened my step.
I had no stick with me, but I tested my fist against my cheek, and reflected that I was not unarmed. What was this fellow, and why did he follow me? Was he the criminal? If so, I might possibly have a lively time, with a desperate man upon the deserted moor; supposing that he were contemplating an attack upon me,
Fugitives require money and clothes. The man must be following for some evil purpose, no good end was to be served in such a way. I was on the alert and ready for any sudden move on his part ; but he made none. He kept at the same distance from me, perhaps he did not realize that I was nearing my destination. I had watched him creep after me for more than a mile. I wondered where he had come from ; had he followed me from the Cottage? The farm lay just below me, I could distinguish the buildings ; it was now or never for my man, as he could hardly attack me in the yard. Probably he did not know that we were already within call of the house. I went on rapidly down the slope. The yard at the side of the farm next the fell, was walled in by a wall some six feet high. There was a doorway opening through it on to the moor. The door was never locked, but always on the latch. I reached it, and as I did so I looked back, and there was my pursuer bearing down silently towards me. He must see the farm and the wall now. What was he after, was the fellow bent on following me into the yard? If he did so, I had a right to know the reason why. The open fell was one thing, he was free to walk there ; but Franklyn's yard was another. It was private ground on which he had no right at such a time. If he came there, he should explain his business to me. I entered the yard, left the door ajar, and waited behind it. The footsteps advanced, down the path they came, while my pulses thumped with excitement. An instant later the man was through the door and gliding along the yard. I waited in my place, and when he had passed me I stepped from behind the door to watch him. I could easily discern his dark figure, and I could distinctly hear his cautious footsteps. He crossed to the house, walked stealthily round it in an aimless manner, and returned towards me at a quicker pace.
I stood my ground by the door, remaining perfectly still. The fellow could not see me against the black background of the wall. His head was bent, and he came on utterly unconscious of my presence; no doubt he thought me in the house. When he was within arm's length I put out my hand, and caught him by the front of his coat,
"Who are you, and what the devil are you doing here?" I demanded.
He gave no answer, save a cry and a curse, but he struggled violently, swung us both round, struck me a heavy blow on the chest, dislodged my hold; and bolted through the door and along the path like a hare. I followed with my blood up, but when I arrived panting at the head of the track, there was no sign whatever of my man. It was useless to pursue him over the fells ; he had escaped me, and I had no choice but to go home to the farm.
I banged the yard door to in a very ill-humour, but as I did so I heard a rustle of paper beneath my feet ; and stooping picked up a small package of papers from the ground. I remembered clinging to the breast-pocket of my antagonist, in the late struggle. These papers must have fallen in consequence. I carried them straight indoors, and turned up the lamp that was left for me in the hall. Perhaps I held some clue, to the identity of the fellow who had dogged me across the moor.
The package was rolled in a blue outer covering; I unwound it. Within I found another package, and a folded paper; which I opened with interest to find that it was only a map of the district. The second package now remained to be examined. I opened it, and there lay in my hands two carte-de-visite photographs. I held the upper one to the light. It was the portrait of a man in uniform, I had surely seen it before — yes, there was printed beneath it "The Late Count Mouroff." This is a statement of fact and my language must be pardoned.
"Damn the late Count Mouroff," I ejaculated with irritation. Who and what was this fellow whose portraits were always cropping up? There was something uncanny about it, something inexplicable. I was completely mystified, and stood staring aimlessly at the hard sinister face of the count. The second portrait slipped from the clasp of my left hand, and fell upon the table, waking me from my reverie. I had forgotten it, but now I held it to the light, and saw the picture of a young girl. The portrait formed an absolute contrast to its companion, it showed me one of the most lovely faces I had ever seen; laughing, girlish, sweet, beautiful beyond description. I glanced below the photograph, and upon the mount was printed, as in the other picture, the name: it was "The Countess Mouroff." Was this then the wife of the man? I asked myself, and if so, how came she to marry such a creature?
The two portraits and the map were all the contents of the packet. Who was the man upon the moor, what was his connexion with the Mouroffs? Who were the Clarkes, what was their connexion with the Mouroffs, and were they connected with the man on the moor? — was he the man I had seen in the garden, or the man I had seen on the wall? An idea occurred to me. It was a still night, and lowering the lamp, I took it with me out of the house, and proceeded to the door leading to the fells. I kept a good watch in case of attack, but there was no sign of the man who had followed me. The earth was soft about the doorway. I laid down the flickering lamp and examined it. There were a good many footprints, but I knew where the man had come into the path after leaving the house. His tracks were plain enough, and once found I could follow them to the spot where we had struggled, and beyond ; though there they were but toemarks, for he was running. The footprints were quite clear in several places, there was no mistaking them: these were the tracks of the man upon the wall. The heel-iron completely satisfied me of the fact. Having once seen its mark no one could mistake it.
I returned to the house and went to my room, carrying with me the property of this extraordinary man ; who followed me, concealed himself in the Clarkes' garden, and possessed the portraits of the Mouroffs. The picture of the countess kept me up a while longer. Late though it was, I delayed to examine again the girl's sweet face. She could not have been more than seventeen or eighteen when the portrait was taken; probably that was years ago. I felt fascinated by the picture. It was such a face as may be seen once in a lifetime. Dark hair clung in tender profusion about the dainty head, which rose flower-like from a slender graceful throat. It was thrown slightly back, allowing one to gaze full into the soft mesmeric depths, of the dark wide-opened eyes. The lips were slightly parted, the expression sweet and far away. It was a face which nevertheless impressed me as possessing infinite possibilities of varying humour; anger, joy, sorrow, they could all find place there. The girl was human, she was no lovely, insipid figure. She had a living, pulsating, human soul. I put the portrait aside at last, for it was about two o'clock in the morning; and went to bed, but it was dawn before I slept.
Chapter X: I Meet the Vicar
In the morning I turned over my prize again, and observed something which had escaped my notice in the lamp-light.
The map was marked in pencil at certain places, and these places were to my mind very significant.
A small cross indicated the position of the Clarkes' cottage, several lines showed the principal paths over the moor, running up to the mountains. Another cross stood over the situation of Franklyn's farm. The nearest town was marked, the station, and the small hamlet where the post-office, school, and church stood. The map was on a large scale, and I was able to see at a glance the intention of the crosses and lines. Presuming that the person who had marked this map, were the man from whom I obtained it; then the fellow was probably a stranger in the district. The criminal was that. A thought flashed into my mind: the inspector mentioned to Franklyn by the constable Hedley, he was probably a stranger to the neighbourhood. Could it be he? Who dogged me, and fled like a rabbit! I dismissed the thought; but it set me wondering. It was long since Franklyn had heard the tale from Hedley ; was the inspector still there? Or had the affair blown over?
Why was the farm marked upon the map, and a line drawn from it to the Cottage? What was the connexion? What did these things mean that kept cropping up on all sides of me? These strange things for which, puzzle as I might, I could find no satisfying explanation. There was no answer to the questions that continually arose in my mind. I could make nothing of it all. There was a mystery, and with all the keys I possessed I had not a key that would unlock it. I did not try to deceive myself any longer, or to explain away the extraordinary circumstances that I have related. There was something hidden behind them, I could not doubt it. One odd thing upon another had happened.
What did it all mean? I pieced together the episodes that had taken place ; it was like a child's puzzle arranging them this way and that, but no picture could I produce ; do as I might there was no result.
But further events were near at hand.
I was again at the Cottage a couple of days later. I may as well allow that I let no opportunity of going there escape me ; and of course I must have furnished endless material for the country folks to gossip about. I meant, if I could see Miss Clarke without her father — I feared to startle him — to tell her of the man who had followed me, and to show her the portraits.
I went over after tea, as I knew that Mr. Clarke often took a stroll in the twilight. I hoped to find Miss Clarke alone, and I did.
"Do you know there is an entertainment at the school?" she asked me, "it begins at six o'clock ; are you coming?" I had thought of looking in on my way home, for the Franklyns were to be there, and Milly and Ada were actually taking part in the affair. "I am going down in a little while," Miss Clarke continued; "I have to play something." I said I would go with her, if I might, and she agreed.
"Do you know, I had a funny experience the other night," I remarked.
"Had you? What was it?"
"I was followed over the moor by some fellow, after I left here. He even came into the farmyard." Miss Clarke was giving me her full attention, the music she held slipped from her knee to the floor.
"Yes?" she questioned.
"We had a bit of a tussle there," I continued ; "but my man made off, and I have no idea who he was. He left some property behind him in the struggle, but it does not give me a clue." The girl gathered up the music in silence, then she asked after a pause—
"He left something, what was it?"
I took the things from my pocket, and laid them before her on the table. Miss Clarke said nothing as her eyes fell upon them, but a swift flood of colour swept over her face, and left it pale and drawn. I was watching her keenly, and I knew her face well, or I might not have observed the change, so composed was her manner as she read aloud "the late Count Mouroff," and then again "the Countess Mouroff."
"Is she not beautiful?" I asked.
"Yes, very," she answered, and continued after a moment, "there does not, as you say, seem to be much to tell you who the man was."
"The map is curious," I said; "notice these marks and lines; the fellow must have been a stranger here, supposing he made them, and interested in these places." She looked at the map.
"Oh, yes, the fell paths are marked." She must have seen the intention of the crosses also, but she would not appear to notice.
"And your house, and Franklyn's farm. What can it mean. Miss Clarke?"
"I — don't — know," she answered slowly, but I felt convinced that she did.
"Nor I," I replied, "but I should like to; there seems to me to be something odd about it."
"I believe you are by nature a very suspicious person, Mr. Ashton," she said with a laugh that did not to my mind convey amusement.
"You think I am always finding a man in the garden, or on the wall, or on the fells; and attaching more importance to the matter than it deserves?" I spoke lightly and waited for no answer. "Well, perhaps I am suspicious," I went on, gathering up the photographs and the map, which I carefully replaced in an inner pocket. "But do you not think yourself that there is something very odd in these occurrences?"
"We must discuss them another time," she returned; "there is my father coming in now ; and I must get ready for the concert or I shall be late. If you want to have a game of chess, pray don't let me bring you away ; I can quite well go alone, and you could come later. I am sure you do not want to see the beginning, do you?" I could see she would not have been sorry to leave me behind, but I would not hear of it.
Miss Clarke left me with her father, and went to get on her hat and cloak, but she was a long time about it. There was ample time, she wished merely for an excuse to leave me; there was no need for haste, and she made none.
At length we started. Miss Clarke had little to say. Had she been another woman I should have thought her somewhat unnerved by what had taken place. Her answers and remarks were disjointed and lacked interest. I decided she was thinking of something else, and left her to do so, continuing in silence. She had given me some tea to carry, which she was taking to an old woman, who lived on the outskirts of the village. When we reached the door I had to recall the errand to her mind, or she would have passed on.
"I will wait outside," I said, and she went in alone. It was now dark, but the light from the cottage window streamed into the road. I leaned against the gatepost and waited for Miss Clarke. The gossip of the country-side was nothing to me, and evidently, though she had taken a precaution in the matter of her note, the lady had no thoughts of it to-night. She allowed me to escort her to the concert, at which we should find half the neighbourhood assembled. I was turning the little matter over in my mind, and should have paid small attention to a passer-by, had he not stopped before me.
It was the vicar ; he recognized me by the light from the window. I had noticed of late that my dislike of the man was mutual. His manner to me had become barely courteous, and then almost rude; he could hardly return my curt salutation if we met. I wondered if he had become aware that I knew of his connexion with Miss Clarke; or was he jealous!
Now he stood without a word, and looked evilly at me.
"Good-evening," I said, feeling that we could not stand gazing at each other in silence. But he was merely gathering himself together for a spring. I had always thought him feline. In habits and appearance he seemed to me strangely so.
"Well, Mr. — er — Ashton," he said after a pause, ignoring my salutation, "I am fortunate to meet you, for I have been desiring to see you for some little time." The tone was insolent.
"I am generally to be found at the farm," I replied.
"Or at Mr. Clarke's house," he added, with a sneer.
"May I ask what you intend to imply by that remark?" I inquired, and I was no longer leaning against the fence, but upright and facing him.
"Well, Mr. — er — Ashton is it? I——"
"You know my name perfectly," I interrupted," and as sure as it is Adrian Ashton you shall explain your insinuations, or I shall know the reason why."
"Is there any need for explanations?" he asked. "I fancy that you understand me pretty well."
"I understand some things about you pretty well," I answered sharply, "but it would be better for you to tell me what you mean by what you have said to-night, and be quick about it."
"You threaten me?" he remarked calmly, and with a sour smile.
"Hurry up," I said, "and have done with this foolery ; such beating about the bush is all very well in the pulpit, but I require plain answers to two questions. What do you mean by remarking upon my visits to Mr. Clarke, and what do you mean by affecting ignorance of my name?"
"To Mr. Clarke!" he laughed.
"You imply," I said, "that my visits are to the lady ; we will discuss that point, and your right to address me on the matter, in a moment. Please reply to my other question."
"As to your name," he answered, "I heard of you a while ago, as frequenting a gambling hell in Paris, where you were known as Everton."
"Mr. Denham," I began warningly, but he went on—
"It's no use at all, you don't deceive me, I ought to have known you from the first. They can lie as they like, and you can act till you're black. You are Gardner, alias Everton, who robbed the late Count Mouroff of five thousand pounds, fled to Paris; and crossed to England some months ago."
My blood was up, I could stand no more, and I took a step forward with a warning cry. In a second we should have come to blows, had not a party of villagers rounded the turn of the road, and at the same instant the door of the cottage opened. I glanced round and saw Miss Clarke taking leave of the old woman, then back to the road, and the clergyman was gone. He had been hailed by his parishioners, and was proceeding with them towards the schoolhouse where the entertainment was to be held.
I followed silently with Miss Clarke. The late Count Mouroff! Always the late Count Mouroff! And what was the mad tale that the vicar had got hold of?
I fear I paid little attention to the concert though I sat it out, from start to finish. I had not intended to remain, but I determined to do so after my interview with the vicar. I would walk home with Miss Clarke.
The matter had gone far enough ; she could, I felt, throw some light on it. To-morrow I would see Mr. Denham: such things as he had said could not be passed over in silence. As far as I was concerned, affairs had come to a head. In some inexplicable way I had become mixed up in them ; and now that I found myself nearly concerned, it was for me to act, but I should do nothing rashly. For the Clarkes' sake I should let them know what had taken place, how I stood, and what steps I meant to take. They might be affected. I was so completely in the dark, that I could not see anything clearly except what I, in self-defence, must do ; but I could imagine that they might be concerned in my actions. I had no desire to harm them in any way. On the contrary, every desire to serve them, were it in my power to do so.
Chapter XI: I Hear an Explanation
Miss Clarke had told me that her father meant to come to meet her, at a certain hour ; so that I determined to leave the school-room with her well before that time. I made my way to her side and, bending down, asked if I might not see her home. She thanked me, but said that as her father would meet her, the distance she would have to go alone was so trifling, that there was no necessity to bring me out of my way.
"I must speak to you," I answered ; "something has happened which makes it necessary." She gave me a quick, penetrating glance. "Could we not go now?" I asked; "you do not play any more, I think."
"No, I am free. If you are ready I will go with you. My wraps are in the class-room: if you will wait at the other door, I will join you in a few moments."
I thanked her, and passed quietly out. Miss Clarke was again studying appearances, I thought ; she had recovered herself.
I waited some little time before she came round from the side door. We started silently on our way.
"Well, Mr. Ashton?" she asked, when we had left the houses behind. Her tone was calm and concise.
"I hardly know how to put what I want to tell you," I said. "You believe me to be a friend, Miss Clarke?"
"I do," she replied readily.
"Then I trust you will understand. You saw those photographs of the Mouroffs this evening?"
"Yes." The word had no expression.
"Well," I continued, "while you were in that cottage to-night Mr. Denham came up. He accused me of stealing five thousand pounds from Count Mouroff, and of using a false name. He said my real name was Gardner. Now I am completely in the dark as to what all this means."
"And why do you come to me?" she asked quietly. I was puzzled for a moment how to answer this direct question, then I said—
"I mean to go to the vicarage to-morrow for an explanation, and if I do not receive one, I shall take means to make Mr. Denham speak out. Such accusations are not to be borne." And now Miss Clarke astonished me; she stopped in the road and asked—
"You are not Gardner?"
"Miss Clarke," I exclaimed with some heat, "on my honour, I never even heard of Gardner until to-night. There is some mystery in all this which I don't understand. I do not seek to know it, except in so far as it may concern myself. But as regards this matter it would, I think, be better if you could trust me to some extent, in order that I may see my way to act without causing you trouble." The words were hesitating and involved, but the girl grasped my meaning.
"Your intention is kind," she replied. "With regard to my question just now — I hope I have not hurt your feelings — it was not serious, I know we have every reason to believe that in you, we have a true friend, Mr. Ashton."
"Thank you" I said.
"I must trust you," she continued, and her voice betrayed a rare emotion, "in a rather painful matter. These Mouroffs — we — our family — has had a certain connexion with them. We never speak of it, my father cannot bear even to hear the name."
"Yes?" I questioned.
"Count Mouroff had a secretary named Gardner, who was accused — falsely I am convinced — of having taken money from him. Mr. Denham is aware of all this. From your coming to our house and being a stranger here, he has begun to imagine that you are Gardner. Will you tell me why you came to me about the matter, Mr. Ashton? What made you think I could explain it?"
"One night I observed you turn over a newspaper parcel which I had at your house," I replied frankly. "I saw you did not wish your father to notice the portrait there was upon it — a portrait of Count Mouroff."
"I see," she answered. "You are observant."
"Then I brought you the photographs which I found dropped by the fellow, the other night," I hazarded.
"I know," she returned shortly. There was a pause, and then she went on: "Mr. Ashton, may I ask you not to go to the vicarage, to let this matter rest? Would you do that?"
"If you wish it," I said, not without reluctance.
" I know it is asking a great deal, to ask you to put up with this insult ; but I will speak to the vicar again. You shall have no further trouble."
"Again?" I asked, "then you have spoken already?"
"Yes," she allowed. That "again" had evidently been said inadvertently. "Yes, I have, but Mr. Denham is very tenacious of his ideas. You will be so good as to leave the matter in my hands. For family reasons it is painful to us. Will you promise me to speak of it to no one? Were our connexion with these Mouroffs known generally about here, I will frankly tell you that it would be very unpleasant for us — and my poor father's health——"
"I will promise," I said, touched by the tremor which all the girl's self-control, could not banish from her voice. "You can trust me entirely." We were standing at the Cottage gate.
"It must all seem very strange to you," she said: "I wish that I could explain more fully. It is very good of you to be so considerate and kind. We have many troubles: it may repay you to know that your kindness relieves our anxiety. Good-night, Mr. Ashton, and thank you so much."
We shook hands and the girl left me. She did not ask me to go in, nor did I wish to do so. I went my way, and I went as puzzled as ever. What she had told me seemed little enough, sufficient only to make confusion worse confounded in my mind. My idea of a connexion with the Mouroffs was confirmed; it had hardly needed confirmation. What was the connexion, and who were the Mouroffs? If the connexion were known "it would be very unpleasant for us." I recalled the words. The secretary, Gardner, falsely suspected, as Miss Clarke had said, was he the criminal? It seemed unlikely. Yet the vicar suspected his presence, and mistook me for him. The vicar, the very man who should be in Miss Clarke's confidence! I could not understand it. She had evidently told him, though, that I was not Gardner, but he had not believed her. It was odd. And then she herself had begun to wonder if I were not the man! Or so it would almost seem from her question to me. Gardner must be some relative, whom Mr. Denham suspected of having taken refuge near the Clarkes ; whilst they themselves did not know that this might not be the case. Could this be it? I had gathered that the fugitive was sought for upon a graver charge than that of theft ; but, after all, my information had come from a very unreliable source. I almost decided that I had solved the problem this time, though there were a few points: for instance, why Gardner, if he were hiding in the neighbourhood, should carry those portraits and follow me, and one or two more, which I could not clearly see.
I felt rather regretful that I could not go and have my quarrel out with the vicar. It was a little feeling, but I so cordially disliked the man that it was natural enough perhaps.
Poor Miss Clarke! I was glad if I could in any way lighten her burden. Her life could not be of the happiest. It was plain that she was not at one with the man she loved. I remembered her letter to him, and then there were the occurrences of the evening, to show that he did not trust her. Some painful mystery lay about her and her father. Poor old man, I pitied him heartily also, with his precarious health, and the troubles of which his daughter had spoken. If I could in any way help the Clarkes, I was ready to forgo my passage of arms with the vicar. They had been very kind to me ; it was but a small return to make, yet I will allow that it galled me to give up the contest, and to leave him to suppose that I had meekly retired from it, and swallowed his insult. Miss Clarke would tell him I had mentioned the subject to her, and endeavour to convince him of his mistake. Still, this hardly satisfied me. I found that I had been looking forward to a quarrel with the man!
How Miss Clarke was to explain my having mentioned the subject to her I could not tell, nor how she would engineer the affair at all.
I should, I feared, come badly out of it as far as appearances went, but that could not be helped. Circumstances made it unavoidable, and I had just to make the best of it. It was the only thing I had to do: I recognized that, little as I liked the prospect. The part of inaction was rather hard to me. Still I took comfort in the thought of my good intentions, and tried to feel virtuous. I reflected that on the whole I had, without any desire to do so, returned evil for good to a large extent, during the time I had known the Clarkes. I had remarked, to their discomfort, the strange things that I have noted down here ; and I had little doubt that I had been the cause of a great deal of trouble, between Miss Clarke and her lover. He besides imagining me to be in some way connected with the family, was also, as he had taken no pains to conceal, extremely jealous of me. Happily, Miss Clarke did not know that I was aware, of how she had misplaced her affections. She was spared that worry, and therefore she could not guess that I was further aware of the friction I had, I made no doubt, been causing between her and her lover. Really I must have given her a lot of trouble. Yes, the quiescence she had asked of me was but a small return.
I say she did not know? There was the affair between the vicar and her father, in the Glen ; upon which I had broken in at such a critical point. She had explained nothing; she had left me to think what I might. She could not know that I had come to the conclusion that the brute who struck the old man was Mr. Denham, and her lover. Unless she knew that I had recognized him with her on that former occasion, and she could not tell that.
Of course I did not return to the concert-room. I made my way steadily home by the road, and I thought of things as I went. Before I reached the farm Franklyn overtook me with his party, and insisted on my climbing up into the gig, with himself, his wife, and the two sleepy children.
It was late when we reached the farm, but Franklyn detained me, when I would have taken my light to go to my room. We were alone: the others absent having gone upstairs.
"Sit you down a moment, Mr. Ashton," he said, and he drew the embers of the fire together.
"What's up, Franklyn?" I asked, leaning back in the great wooden armchair opposite him.
"I've bin talking with Hedley to-night," he returned: "he was set on knowing all about you. Such questions he asked!"
"Did he?" I said, with awakened interest.
"He did. 'I'm sure I don't know ; it's no business of mine,' I said to him. I got vexed with him, and then——"
"Well, what next?" I questioned.
"Then last of all I said, 'When you're done wanting to know more'n I know myself, I'll ask you a question;' and so I did."
"What was it?" I inquired.
"Asked if they'd found that chap yet, as the inspector was down after."
"And how did he take that?"
"He looked put out, and says he, 'Whatever are you talking about, Mr. Franklyn?' Then I just reminded him, 'You know well enough you told me yourself,' and I remembered him when and where. That paid him out. He looked silly enough. 'Oh yes, to be sure,' he said, and then 'You'll not be telling folks as I told you, I'd get into trouble.' 'Have no fears,' I says, 'I'm safe as a church; but tell me the end of the yam.' 'There's none yet,' he whispers, 'but like to be soon, and when there is I'll tell ye.' 'Thank you,' I answers. 'Now I'd like to know why you're so curious about my Mr. Ashton?' At that he looks very queer, and says nothing, and Green chancing to come up, they goes off together, and I heard no more."
"What do you think about it?" I asked when he had ended. "There's something in your head I can see."
"What do you think?" he said, returning my questions.
"Well," I answered, "I shouldn't be at all surprised if Hedley thought I was the man, who is said to be hiding down here." Franklyn guffawed in an ecstasy of merriment.
"The very thing that struck me after he'd gone off," he cried when he could speak. "The very thing, Mr. Ashton. You mark my words, he thinks he's on it!" and he collapsed again into helpless laughter, in which I heartily joined.
Franklyn was delighted with his piece of news, and my appreciation of it. I could easily believe that his surmise was correct. If the vicar thought I was this man, Gardner, and even Miss Clarke herself was doubtful, why, it seemed natural enough that others also should fall into error. There were some very amusing elements in my situation I
But poor Hedley, it seemed hard that his great idea should come to nothing! He must see honour, and glory, and promotion ahead ; and it was all a mirage.
Chapter XII: I Pass the Night on the Fells
Franklyn had bolted the door, and I was already on the way to my room, for it was nearly midnight ; when a loud knocking rang through the house.
The sound, so unusual at such an hour, brought me back to see who the nocturnal visitor might be, and I followed the farmer to the door, to which he had preceded me.
"Who's there?" he called, without undoing the bolts.
"It's me," cried a voice. " Jimmy. There's three sheep in the High Level pot-hole."
Franklyn threw open the door, and the light revealed the burly form of his fell shepherd, Jimmy Dodds.
"Whatever, Jimmy!" he said. "Come in, lad, and have a drop of something hot. You're late, man!"
"Aye, it's a good step from there away, as you know," he answered, " and I was at it from sundown, tryin' to get 'em out mysel', but no hope on it."
He sat holding his horny hands to the fire, while Franklyn brought a mug of ale, and a great pasty from the larder.
"You've something against me sleeping, Jimmy," he said with a smile, "only last week you fetched me to the Black Lot over that old ewe, and kept me at work till one in the morning. I wonder when you sleep yourself?"
Franklyn often said that Jimmy was more than his right hand. I certainly never knew of any man who worked so hard, early and late, as the shepherd. He threw his heart into his work. No sacrifice was too great to save the life of a sheep.
As he ate and drank, and warmed himself, he told us how, as often would happen on the fells, the three Scotch ewes had fallen into the cavern. There was the semblance of a path leading over a sheer drop: one sheep had trotted down, two others followed. The first had drawn up terror-struck at the sight of the precipice, but, impelled by the others, she had fallen, and they, unable to check their speed, had fallen also.
As luck would have it, however, they had not fallen far, but had lit upon a ledge of rock ; from which, with ropes and one or two helpers, Dodds declared they could be rescued. The only fear was that the foolish creatures would fall farther, in their useless struggles. So the shepherd declared he must go back, late though it was, and he must have two men, several lanterns and ropes.
I was not at all in a mood for sleep. "I'll go up with you," I said, and Franklyn, fired by my example, decided that instead of wakening the men, he would go also himself.
"It's a good six miles, you know, Mr. Ashton," he warned me, "and we mayn't be back to breakfast!"
I nodded. I knew the cave, which was one of the most dangerous upon the fells.
"I propose we take food," I suggested.
And so we set out with the indefatigable shepherd, half an hour later, bearing the lights and ropes, and carrying one lantern lit, with us.
I had been on some nocturnal expeditions before, and always enjoyed them. The night was misty and dark, but Dodds knew the fells as few men did, and proved an unerring guide. He took us by a direct route of his own, leaving all the tracks and paths, which I knew; so that I was quite at sea in the darkness as to our whereabouts. Franklyn himself was often at a loss, but Jimmy never faltered. He led us on and on, over miles of undulating slopes, through rock-girt passes, across rushing streams; and finally straight up the mountain side, and out into the wide plateau, where the High Level cave is situated.
The place is a great wide yawning rent in the earth, some fifty feet across. From the ledges and fissures, in its perpendicular sides, trees, ferns and varied vegetation grow, in striking contrast to the barren fell above. They are sheltered by their position, screened from the biting mountain winds; and in an even temperature.
The ferns and the mountain ashes, the thorns and the rest are beautiful: they spring in abundant wealth and gain beauty from their rugged surroundings. But the cave — it is a horrible, and a dangerous place. There is no wall or rail to check the unwary, and no sign of the dreadful gap in the earth is visible, as one advances towards it. Suddenly, without a moment's warning, it opens wide and gaping at one's feet. Looking down, below the trees and hanging plants, the black bottomless depths loom like the gate of hell. It is a dark and awful place, from which one is glad to turn away.
At one side sheer down it goes, a pitiless drop into the yawning, unfathomed void. There are no trees at that point — the solid grey limestone cliff gives them no hold; here and there ferns cling, waving their fragile shoots over the black depths below.
Only the shepherds and farmers go to these places: they are beyond the reach of sight-seers and tourists. Save those who have business there, none climb to the barren fastnesses of the fells. So there is no warning sign-board, no rail, no fence, to mark the High Level cavern. It, and the many others like it, are well known to those persons whose work brings them to their vicinity.
Strangers indeed must walk warily if they would walk safely; but, as I say, strangers do not go to these places. Were they accessible and were they known, people would flock to see them, for they are wonderful beyond description or belief.
I recall that just before I went to Stanton, the famous French explorer M——— tried to descend the High Level cave. He has explored more caves than any man. A fearful way down he went, but he came upon a rushing, overpowering torrent of water; coming from no one could tell where, and plunging in wild cascades down into the depths of the earth. M———. was drawn up fainting. "It is a wonderful place," he said, "wonderful and awful. Some very dry summer I will come again, but now I can do no more." He looked down and shivered. "It is awful," he repeated.
How Franklyn and I, with Dodds the shepherd, spent the night in recovering the sheep is no part of my story. We succeeded in getting them up, and Dodds was overjoyed to find their injuries slight. Such as they were, he smeared them with "salves" and "balsams," whilst we held the struggling creatures by the horns in a little walled-in "pen," one of many which are scattered about the fells for such purposes. It was hard upon the dawn when the weary and terrified sheep rushed up the slopes to join the flocks, whose bleating formed the only sound upon the fell; save the crying of the plovers, and the sough of the wind. The mist had deepened and thickened whilst we worked. We could scarcely see a yard before us.
"Let's have a bite," said Franklyn, and we seated ourselves on a low rock outside the pen, and ate with a will.
"Can ye find the road home?" the farmer asked presently. "It would beat me."
"I'll manage," returned Jimmy, as he munched his food. "We'll have to stick by the walls, though, and it'll take us a bit. It's a real bad 'un," he added, looking round at the banks of fog which swept by us like thick smoke.
These mountain mists are very frequent upon the Yorkshire fells, and entirely bewildering at times, even to the most expert shepherds, who are sometimes lost in them for days. The fog generally falls very rapidly, and if a man does not chance to reach a wall, he cannot guide himself. As it is unsafe to wander about, the only thing to do is to wait.
We had a wall close beside us, and Dodds was well used to walk for miles, tapping his stick upon the stones from time to time, as his only guide.
"He knows the walls," Franklyn said, "as well as I know the farmyard. I can't trust to them myself, not altogether, but you wait and watch how Jimmy 'll get us home! It'll be something for you to see, Mr. Ashton."
Jimmy grinned slowly.
"There's nought in it," he said, "I was born and reared in these parts. It'll be thirty year, come May-day, sin' I started shepherding on t' fells. A gowk 'ud surely know his way about."
Franklyn shook his head.
"I've been up and down reg'lar for as long a time," he said, " and it's my opinion I don't know my way about of a clear summer's day, as well as you do in a black fog." Jimmy grunted a negative to this statement. He and his employer were fast friends.
We were weary from our strenuous night's work, and we sat resting still, after the food was devoured to the last scrap.
"We'll have to be going," said Franklyn at last.
"Aye, I could do with a spell of bed," replied the tough Jimmy, with a yawn; as we rose to our feet.
"I reckon you'd take no harm from it," Franklyn said, with his quick, humorous glance. "And as for Mr. Ashton and me, we'll not be sorry to turn in either. It's been a long journey and a hard job, but it's ended well."
He was still speaking, when the shepherd leant forward with his head bent, to listen.
"Do you hear something?" I asked. He made a gesture for silence, and we stood without a sound, by the rock from which we had that instant risen. I strained my ears and heard nothing, but Franklyn stooped with his hand to his head, and in a moment he nodded.
"What is it?" he whispered to the shepherd.
"I could near say it were a shod horse," he replied — "a shod horse with a cast shoe. D'ye hear now, Mr. Ashton?" I shook my head. We were still a moment, and then a sudden sharp metallic sound reached me. "Struck of a stone," whispered Jimmy. "Comin' by us ; be still and you'll see him. Hark!"
Distinct sounds now came to us, dull but quite audible. Soon I could recognize that they were the footfalls of a horse. How Jimmy arrived at the cast shoe was beyond me. I could distinguish no difference in the beat of the hoofs.
"There are no horses up as high as this, are there?" Franklyn questioned. Jimmy shook his head.
"No; it's queer," he said, "there none nearer nor two miles; yer own three-year-olds in the Black Lot."
The horse was quite near us now, though, of course, we could see nothing: It must be crossing us at right angles. We leant forward with interest, striving to distinguish the animal through the mist, which rolled on in heavy, wet clouds: often breaking a moment only to thicken up more densely than before.
Chapter XIII: The Face of the Dead
And now as we strained our eyes to pierce the mist, suddenly the bank of fog parted. Only those who have seen these effects can realize them — the fog parted, and we saw in front a strange sight. A brown horse was passing before us, about twenty yards away: he carried a lady wrapped in some kind of a cape. She seemed drooping with fatigue, for her head was sunk upon her breast, and the reins hung loose upon the horse's neck. It plunged along through the rank grass and over the rocks and boulders ; wearily hanging its head to the ground. Horse and rider looked spent, exhausted.
The shepherd started forward involuntarily as the fog opened, and clang — the great tin lantern which he carried crashed upon the rock at his side.
The sudden sound, breaking the awful stillness of the fell, terrified the horse. He half reared in his fright, and then gathering his tired limbs together, he precipitated himself headlong in the only direction in which he could see his way down 2 the pathway through the fog before us.
Franklyn gave an inarticulate exclamation ; flinging down his burden of ropes, he ran wildly in pursuit, followed by the shepherd.
For a moment I did not understand. Then a flash of understanding lit my brain, and I was rushing madly after them with all my speed. There was the horse before us, flying in the mad hurry of his senseless flight.
In my horror I know that I shouted aloud as I ran. It was only a few yards, but it seemed a mile.
We could do nothing. There was the horrible chasm behind that rising ground! Franklyn's voice rings in my mind still. "Stop, stop, for God's sake — the pot-hole."
The girl upon the horse seemed to hear, or understand that something was wrong. I saw her straighten in her saddle, I saw her grasp at the reins.
They were over the rise, and we were above them. The horse could see! Snorting, it struggled to stay its pace, it turned aside — the wrong way. Ah Heaven! and then that awful thing happened. I can still see the animal's frantic effort upon the brink, still see the girl's arms thrown wildly upwards, the horrible final struggle for life. Still hear the shrill echoing scream of the horse, the faint despairing cry of the woman.
I sank upon the grass ; there was a horrible stifling at my heart. I could not breathe, I could not think. The sight had been enough to stun the strongest man.
The shepherd leant upon his great stick, and his face was ashen grey. I heard Franklyn's breath gasping to a sob.
It was minutes before we spoke or moved. At last I raised myself.
"You saw?" I asked with chattering teeth. "It was Miss Clarke."
"Miss Clarke!" cried Franklyn hoarsely, and the other echoed the name.
"Did you not recognize the horse?" I said. "I did."
"Ah deary, deary," groaned Jimmy, and he brushed his red handkerchief across his face, where the honest tears were shining.
Franklyn gathered himself together and advanced to the brink of the cave. Down on his knees he went.
"I can't stand," he said. "Have a care, Mr. Ashton." He looked below, and he drew back with a shudder, holding his hand to his face.
I summoned all my strength, and, advancing, stood beside him, and looked down. It was a moment before my eyes penetrated the gloom. I expected to see no sign of the ill-fated woman or the horse ; but my blood froze as my eyes lit upon a jutting rock seventy or eighty feet below.
They lay there — the woman upon her side, her face hidden upon an outstretched arm. Her unloosed cloak was some yards away. She lay absolutely still, but the horse rolled at the edge of the rock, fighting the air with frantic hoofs, writhing in its last agony. As I looked, with a plunge it turned from its back to its side, writhed again upon the verge, and fell—
We heard no sound of its fall ; it was never seen again. Its bones must lie beneath the rushing waters, in the black unexplored depths of the High Level cave. I drew back shuddering, from the dreadful sight.
"Can she be alive?" Franklyn questioned, pointing downwards. The words awakened me from a stupor.
"The ropes!" I cried.
The fog had closed again, but Jimmy knew his way to the rock where we had been standing. He darted from us, and was back in a moment with the long coils of rope which we had brought to draw up the sheep.
"I think I am the lightest man," I said. "Can you two hold me? See, there is that rock."
"Aye, aye," Dodds answered, "we'll manage." He wound the ropes round me, under the arms, with an expert hand.
I hardly remember the descent. What would generally be remarkable, even dreadful, passes unnoticed at such a time as that.
I slid down, catching at the plants and bushes, tearing my clothes and my skin.
I was beside her, my knees trembling so that I could hardly keep my feet.
I touched her hand. I gathered myself together and moved her. I laid her back upon the moss and ferns. There was no pulse, no breath, she was quite dead.
Reverently I moved the woollen cap which had fallen over the face of the dead lady, she whom I had walked with, and spoken to in life and health ; only a few hours before. Poor Miss Clarke.
The face was quite uninjured. I started and drew back. It was the face of a stranger. A stranger whom I had never seen before. Lovely ; and composed in spite of all. It was the most beautiful face I had ever looked upon, the face of this unknown woman, who lay before me in the calm serenity of death.
Colour still lingered on the cheeks, the brown hair curled in beautiful disarray, about the dainty head.
I heard questioning voices from above, but I paid no heed. I knelt and laid the cloak over her bruised form, and then a recollection flashed into my brain, a name rose to my lips — "The Countess Mouroff."
I signalled to the men above, and a moment later I stood beside them.
"Is she dead?" I bowed my head; for a second I could not speak, and then—
"It is not Miss Clarke," I gasped.
"Not Miss Clarke! Who is it?" They asked in awed voices.
"A young lady I have never seen before." Even in that moment I remembered the Clarkes' embarrassments, and I did not speak the name that meant so much to them.
"It was the Clarkes' horse," said both the men together.
"No doubt of it," continued Franklyn, "I saw the poor brute, before he went over below there."
"It'll be some visitor," suggested the shepherd. "We should get down to the house about it."
"Yes, that's so," agreed Franklyn. "I'll take off to the Black Lot. The bay stag's been ridden bare-backed tune and again ; he knows me, I can catch him. You two'd better stop here." He turned to go, but the fog confronted him.
"You'll not get down without Jimmy," I said, "leave me here, and you both go."
"If the poor lady is dead," said Dodds, "there's no call for any one to stop."
"I think one of us should stay," I said. "Let me down before you go." I had no hope that there was any life left in the still form upon the rock ; but I felt we could not leave it alone in its desolation.
They did as I asked. They went, and they made all speed on their way, so that in about two hours help came ; by that time the fog had cleared, and progress was easy.
My vigil was not one to be forgotten.
Alone I sat, beside the quiet dead, in the early hours of that dark and misty morning ; while the light grew little by little, and the breeze sifted the fog away overhead. Looking up, I saw the mist clouds flying and breaking, as they eddied across over the cave, and presently I saw the sky. It was so quiet.
Listening intently I could hear a faint murmuring sound, the only indication of those raging waters beneath.
A rabbit sprang out from its burrow, and stood a moment upon the rock, gazing at me in bewilderment; then with a quick turn it disappeared precipitately. The bushes higher up, nearer the surface, stirred occasionally as a gust of swirling wind sank into the pot-hole, and caught at their branches. I sat still, beside the dead lady, and looked at her face with the same fascination that I had felt when I gazed at her picture, but increased, many times.
Who was she, this Countess Mouroff. Her expression was sad, her face seemed worn ; but it was also calm, composed. I looked at her, half expecting to see her smile, forgetting that in this life she could never smile again.
She was young, about twenty-five, I imagined. Was this the wife of the man, from whom Gardner was said to have stolen five thousand pounds? The late Count Mouroff, with whom the Clarkes were concerned? She had ridden the Clarkes' horse, had she been staying with them?
What would the result of her tragic death be, to my friends at the Moor Cottage? It seemed another link in the chain of incomprehensible events which had so drawn my attention, and my interest. I had thought much of them lately, but that morning as I kept my watch by the dead, they did not occupy me greatly. There was no room for curiosity and conjecture in the calm, still presence of death.
The dead girl lay among the green clustering ferns, and I sat by and kept my vigil, watching her sweet face whiten. "Till the day break and the shadows flee away," her spirit waited for its second birth.
My thoughts drifted among the mysteries of life and death, and the hereafter, that day. I considered them more earnestly than I had ever done before. How little we think of these things, how much of our daily affairs ; gain, and worldly consideration, and pleasure, which so soon will matter nothing, and less than nothing.
Yes! I thought that morning, these things are all very well in their way, but we are too engrossed in them ; they are not final, there is something beyond. We all feel it and know it. Apart from religions and creeds we know it. By instinct we know it. Yet we put the thought away, and away. "To-morrow and to-morrow."
Chapter XIV: Hedley Acts
It was, as I said, about two hours before I heard sounds overhead, and looking up saw Hedley, Franklyn; and a lot of others gazing down at me. They shouted and made signs, from which I gathered that some one was going to descend. I had loosed the ropes from about me after lighting on the rock. They were rapidly drawn up, and in a few minutes I saw the great unwieldy constable scramble over the edge of the cliff. It was well for him that there was plenty of strength, at the other end of the ropes. Each instant I expected an accident. A dead weight he hung, swinging and bumping against the precipice as he was lowered down ; frantically clutching at objects he had already passed, never with a hand or a foot in the right place.
Purple-faced, lichen-stained, torn and bleeding, at length he set foot in safety beside me.
"Well done," I said softly, for it had been a courageous if not a skilful feat.
He was evidently overcome by the descent, or the solemnity of the occasion, for he made an inaudible reply, as he bent over the dead lady. He looked at her, and he nodded to himself as he did so.
The men were busy above, and in a moment boards were lowered, strongly attached to the ropes they had brought.
Reverently, we lifted the young countess from her resting-place, and laid her upon the litter, which was secure and well planned.
The constable made a signal and it was drawn slowly and steadily up. Instinctively I raised my cap, and the man also uncovered. Up and up it went, till strong hands grasped the boards, and it disappeared over the edge.
The ropes were then lowered for us.
"Shall I go first?" I asked.
"I will," Hedley answered; his manner was abrupt, and odd in a man of his genial temperament. Suddenly, I remembered the conversation I had had with Franklyn. Of course the man suspected me! His conduct was accounted for. I had always been on very friendly terms with him: it was a strange turn of affairs. The man felt the situation, I could see.
He went up better than he had come down, and soon my turn came and I followed him. Above I found a number of people. It is very remarkable how such an occurrence as had taken place, will collect a crowd, in the most isolated and sparsely populated neighbourhood.
Franklyn was there with his bay three-year-old "stag," for which he had somewhere obtained a halter. The creature was docile as a sheep, and stood behind its master, round whose arm the halter shank was wound. Franklyn was at the edge of the crowd, and I made my way towards him, but before I could reach him I felt a hand grasp my arm. I turned, and found myself face to face with Hedley.
The man was flushed and confused.
"Sorry, sir," he said in a low voice, "but don't you be makin' off. I want you. It is my duty, sir," he proceeded in an official voice, "my duty to tell you that you must consider yourself under arrest." I smiled.
"I have been expecting this," I said.
"Likely," he replied; "go down quietly alongside o' me, and there won't be no call for nobody to know about it." He was beginning to look satisfied and important.
"I'll go all right," I said. "You needn't be afraid of my running away, but I'm sorry for you, Hedley, you're on the wrong tack." He grunted. "You think I'm Gardner," I went on. "I may as well prepare you for disappointment: I am not he." He nodded unheeding.
"Keep alongside me," he said again.
"Very good," I replied. Franklyn had pushed his way towards us. Hedley returned to the Utter. He had to make arrangements for suitable persons to remain beside it, till the vehicle ordered for the removal of the dead lady, could arrive.
He could not remain, I heard him say ; he was "wanted below."
"Franklyn," I said, "I've been arrested, and requested to keep 'alongside' Hedley, that no one may know, to avoid fuss!" At another time I should have laughed heartily at the announcement. Franklyn did not even smile. He exclaimed in anger—
"It's too silly," he said ; "that chap's a darned silly fellow. I'll give him a talking to."
"No, no," I said detaining him, "it's all right ; he'll soon find out his mistake."
"There are strange doings below, Mr. Ashton," he broke out. "I was just for telling you when you spoke. I can't get the rights of it, it isn't known yet, but——" he paused and looked across at the litter, "she — so far as I can make out — is somewhat related to Mr. Clarke. He's fallen down dead at the ill news, and they say Miss Clarke's off in a fever and nigh mazed."
"Good God," I cried in horror.
"Yes, and there's the police in it," he went on, " and no one to tend the poor lady ; so when I heard, I off home, and sent the Missus down right away — and bless me if I hadn't forgot to tell you, Mr. Ashton, your mother's come." I stared at him.
"Really, Franklyn, it seems too good to get a piece of pleasant news like that, among all this trouble. I had no idea she was coming, I am glad." The thought of my dear mother warmed my heart, and drove the chills away.
"She came on the night train," he explained, "for a surprise to you: said she couldn't bide not to see you for so long. I told her how we'd been up and seen the poor lady fall down yonder, and how you was there yet. She said I was to make haste and send you to her. Meanwhile she's lying down a bit in your room. She said she was going to stop at the Bear^ but it isn't likely we'd hear of that."
I thanked the kindly, hospitable fellow.
"If I have to go on to the police station, you must explain," I said. He looked grave.
"That's not a nice job," he answered, knitting his forehead. "Ladies take on so."
"Oh, my mother will understand," I said, "I can write to her too." Hedley now returned towards us, and at a sign we joined the group of men who were going down with him.
I was extremely tired, and the long walk seemed very long indeed.
"Hedley," I said when we neared the verge of the fells, "I suppose I must go at once to the police station with you?" I could not resist a smile, "but it is very inconvenient," I continued, "because Franklyn has just brought word that my mother has arrived at his house this morning, and I have not seen her for some time. However, he can explain the reason of my delay."
The constable flushed. I think he began to have misgivings as to my identity.
"Well, sir," he said awkwardly, "the farm's like on our way. IVe nothing against calling there with you. It's unpleasant for you. Course duty is duty, you'll understand ; 'tisn't alius what we'd like to do."
Franklyn overheard the last words. Up till now he had, at my request, refrained from any discussion with the policeman, but now discretion was forgotten.
"You've been making a darned silly fool of yourself, Hedley," he burst out. "We three were together, apart from the rest. The colt had been left in the Lot, and Franklyn walked with us."
"You don't know the rights of the case," returned the constable sheepishly. Franklyn was a great power in the district, and he had no desire to offend him.
"Rights be hanged! D'ye think I'm such a gowk that I should keep a murderer or thief, or whatever sort of a rascal it is you're after, in my house? You'll be making me out a party to it next!"
"No, no, Mr. Franklyn, for sure there never was no such a thought."
"I should hope not," returned the peppery farmer; "but it's nigh as bad when you goes and takes up Mr. Ashton. D'ye think I'm a fool, Joss Hedley?"
"Not likely," said the other hastily.
"I'd be one if I took any sort of a man into my house anyhow. Now Mr. Ashton and me we had references exchanged, as was right and proper for him to know what kind of a chap he was coming to, and me to know who I was having down as well."
The constable nodded: he did not adventure a reply.
"You've made a darned silly fool of yourself this time," my advocate continued. "It's an old saying, 'A man that can't keep off beer can't keep off blunders.'"
The policeman flushed very red, and I intervened to turn aside Franklyn's wrath.
"It will be all right," I said, " I shall have only a temporary inconvenience, as Hedley says. You see, it is a matter of his duty, no doubt."
"Duty be hanged," cried Franklyn, " he's not always so set on it!"
I changed my position so as to come between the two, and put an end to the discussion — if one can call it so.
"The man I am taken for," I explained to Franklyn, "is, so far as I can make out, a person called Gardner, suspected of having stolen a large sum of money."
"Indeed?" said he. " Well, you take it all very quietly, Mr. Ashton, and likely it's the best way. Now, if it had been me, I doubt I should have given a bit of trouble." I laughed.
"Oh, it's all in the day's work, Franklyn," I said, using a favourite expression of his own. "The stupid mistake will soon be put to rights, and it won't do me much harm."
Still, I was worried on account of my mother. She would accept the situation philosophically enough ; all the same it was not pleasant for her to come down and find her son under arrest for theft! We were approaching the farm and I should soon see her.
Chapter XV: I am Released
We all entered the house together, and my mother heard us at once, and was running down the stairs, as I went up to meet her.
We had a little chat in the parlour before I broke the news.
"You have been having a very trying time, Adrian," my mother said? "they told me about the dreadful accident. And you have been up all night. I shall have to send you off now to have a good rest."
"Mother," I said, "something strange has happened. I must just explain to you about it."
"Surely," she cried, starting up, "you don't mean — it isn't — you haven't fallen in love, my boy?"
My mother lived in dread that I should one day marry the wrong woman!
"No, no," I said, smiling ; " it is not anything of the kind. It is this — that through an idiotic mistake, I have just been arrested!"
"Arrested! How — but why?"
"The local policeman thinks I am a man he has been on the lookout for some time. He, the constable, is waiting outside for me now. He brought me here to see you as a special favour!"
"Good gracious, Adrian, but what are we to do? Tell me more about it." I told her all I knew in a few words, and she was very puzzled and astonished at the story. "What can it all mean," she mused. "Yes, I think I agree with you the best thing you can do is to go on to Stanton with this man. I shall go to the right quarter and have the matter put straight."
So I left that admirable little woman, and went off with Hedley to the police station, where, need it be said? I immediately fell fast asleep after having some food, and slept for hours.
When I was awakened by a sound in the room, it was evening. I sprang up from the rough horse-hair sofa, and stared about me, forgetting for the moment where I was.
The sight of Mrs. Hedley standing by the door, recalled past events to my memory. The woman held her apron to her eyes and was evidently in trouble.
"Well, Mrs. Hedley," I said, "what is the matter?"
"Oh, sir," she sobbed, "it's about yourself ; poor Joss is that sorry and put out, he couldn't offer for to come near you."
"Has he found out his mistake?" I inquired, now thoroughly awakened.
"Yes, sir, he has, sir; he wouldn't have done so, not whatever. He's been over hasty. It's a great trouble he's got in, sir ; I hope you understand and excuse him, sir ; and maybe speak a kind word for him. That there White, he be awful mad."
"Who is White?" I asked.
"Th' inspector, sir, as came from London a good while back after this dreadful case. He didn't trust poor Hedley as he should have done. Only hintin' and droppin' words here and there, and tellin' part. 'Twas him as suspicioned you, and now he turns round and says Joss acted without authorizing; and as he had told him they was to do nothing, afore he'd heard from where you live at. This afternoon there's word from there and all, and how you owns as much land as——"
"Well, well," I interrupted smiling, "I suppose I may go now ; and about Hedley ; if you want me to speak a word to the inspector, I shall be very glad to do so." The woman thanked me with tears, assuring me of the great respect in which Hedley had always held me, his regret, etc.
I could well understand how his zeal had led him to exceed his orders, and as easily pardon him.
"I am none the worse for the mistake," I told Mrs. Hedley ; "you gave me a capital lunch, and I have had an excellent sleep."
"There's no one around will know," she said, "only yourself, and me and Mr. Franklyn, that's one good job."
I left her comforted, and took my way towards the farm.
In the yard I saw the antiquated brougham from the Bear, and connected its appearance with my mother. She met me in the hall.
"I'm so glad you have come," she said, "I was just expecting you."
"You knew," I began, but she interrupted —
"Come in," she said, "but go softly. Poor Miss Clarke is here. Mrs. Franklyn and I have just brought her. We are going to nurse her ; she will, I fear, be very ill, and no wonder."
Miss Clarke was ill at the farm for weeks, well cared for by kind Mrs. Franklyn and my mother, who came to be very fond of her. When she was able to be moved, we carried her off to our home ; where she stayed for some months.
Eventually she wrote a statement for me, and I give it hereafter in her own words, but first, in order to make past events clearer, I must return to Hedley for a moment.
The day after I left his house I was talking to Franklyn of all that had happened, as we busied ourselves with some work in the great barn which faced the house.
The story had spread like wildfire, every paper was full of it, every person spoke of it ; and we at the farm could think of little else, we had been too nearly concerned.
I fed the hay-chopper, whilst Franklyn turned the wheel, and in every pause of work we returned to the all-important theme.
"That there Hedley," said Franklyn emphatically, "is a darned silly fool, as I told him. It seems he's got into trouble, and he deserved it."
"Look out," I warned him, "there's the very man at the gate." Franklyn craned his neck to see.
"Sure enough," he grumbled; "well, I never!"
The constable was on his way to the house, but I stepped to the door and hailed him.
"Afternoon, Mr. Ashton," he said as he approached; his face was very red, and he looked extremely ill at ease. "Can I speak with you?" he asked. "I was just going forward to the farm to seek you."
"Come in here," I said, "we're hard at work with some hay." Franklyn stood gazing at the man with his humorous smile, and the sandy head a little on one side.
"Come in, lad," he said, "I hope you're ashamed of yourself."
"Now then, Franklyn," I laughed, "let 'bygones be bygones,' as I have heard you say yourself."
"I'm right sorry, sir," said the constable ; "the missus told you ; I'm right sorry and sadly put out."
"Don't say another word about it," I answered.
"You're very good, sir, but I comed here to tell you how put out I was, and to ask if you could do anything for me."
"Is it about that inspector?" I inquired. "Your wife said he'd cut up rusty; I was meaning to see him. What's he up to?"
"He's took on like a mad thing," cried the policeman ; "I never saw the like, and him a deal more to blame than me, Mr. Ashton, though I says it." Hedley was purple with indignation.
"Don't bust, man," said Franklyn, as he seated himself on the chopper, and contemplatively bit a long straw he picked up from the floor. "Let's have the story — your side of it."
"It's what I come to tell," he replied ; "you hear it, and see if I wasn't ill tretted ; and now that there fellow rounds, and is like to get me turned off me job——"
"Out with it," urged the farmer.
"'Tisn't White I'd call him," went on Hedley, "not I, if I had to stand godfather at a fresh christening!"
"Fresh!" murmured Franklyn with a wink aside at me. " On you go, Joss Hedley," he observed aloud, " family names â€¢ aren't come by at christenings."
"No matter," said the man, "I'm tellm' you 'tisn't white he is, to come down here and muddle and make as he has done."
"We can see you've no high opinion of him," laughed Franklyn, "but let us hear for why."
"It's no joke for me, Mr. Franklyn," the constable answered with more composure. "Listen, it's this way: down comes this chap a long while back, and terrible highhanded, and above the likes of me ; or so he seemed to reckon. He says as how there was a criminal hiding about nigh sure, and, of course, I asked him this and that, but he was as close as a dead rat. Tell me? Not he ; but I must tell him all sorts, I'm sure you wouldn't believe the questions he kept askin', there wasn't no one as lived within ten mile as he didn't want to know all about." I nodded, and the man continued: "All I could get from him was it was a big job, and if I'd read the papers I'd seen about it a good bit back, and he had it in hand, and meant to see it through. I could tell he didn't mean my havin' a look in, nor a chance to better myself along of it. He didn't trust me, he meant to have it all to himself. I was vexed, I can tell you."
"Like enough, and natural," remarked Franklyn.
"Well," he went on encouraged, "I don't know but what most men wouldn't have been the same ; it was nat'ral as you say. There was me with my missus and young uns, and this here chance comes along and I not to have a hand in it. Him bein' over me, and a hard man, I kept quiet ; but I says to myself as I shouldn't be shoved out if I could help it. 'Twasn't long afore I knew a bit, with his questions, and one thing and another. I knew soon, nigh certain, the Clarkes was in it; for all he was artful, and didn't ask special much about them. But they bein' odd folk, and not belongin' these parts, I could see for myself." He paused for breath,
"I watched them," he proceeded after a moment.
"I know," said I, "I suggested that to you, didn't I? I wonder how you could have suspected me after that, Hedley?"
"Well, well," he said, twisting the helmet which he held in his hands, "there's queer turns in such jobs, you see. I watched that there house first of all, and kept spectin' to come on the chap you'd seen, but I didn't. Last of all it slipped my mind altogether did that bit, along of White."
"How was that," I asked.
"Well, I kept my eyes on him, and ears open as the sayin' is; and after a while, when he got suspectin' you, I knew in a minute."
"Likely he told you," remarked Franklyn, with a glance at me.
"Not right out," proceeded the unconscious policeman, "not till I puts it to him direct, and then he allows it ; says he, 'I'll take no steps at present, I'm not sure, but I shall be.'"
"So then," said the farmer, "you start and question away at me, to know more'n he did."
"That's so," the man allowed. "White had sent and had down another chap from London to help him, and I could see they meant to manage the job without me, if I let them, so I thought I'd best be movin' — though sorry I was, sir——"
"I am sure of it," I said hastily. "I quite understand."
"Yes, I was quite upset when first it come to me about suspectin' you. I was that, but if the job was to be done, it was duty, and I meant to take the lead of them. I says to White right at the start, as I could see he was after you. He looks vexed enough, but couldn't deny it. 'You reckon he's the feller you're wantin'?' I says. 'The feller?' he says. 'Oh yes, well, what o' that?'
"'It's never a hangin' job you want him for?' I asks. 'No, no,' says he, 'fact is — well, I may as well tell you; I fancy his real name is Gardner, and if so he's the chap as stole a pot of money from a Russian nobleman he was secretary to a while back.'
"Well, there I thought I had it all, Mr. Ashton, I did indeed ; I thought he'd finished by tellin' me, and that was all the story. I thought you was the man he'd been sent for, for all I believed at the beginnin' it was a worse charge. Seemed to me you must * be this Gardner, somewhat kin to the Clarkes, and keepin' quiet here alongside them. White allowed it was like that; he was glad, as I can see now, to make me think I got the whole story. But he kept tellin' me he meant to lie low till the right time, nothing must be done for a while. It was keepin' me quiet he had in mind." Hedley sniffed, and waited a moment to collect his thoughts.
"Last of all," he went on, "a man comes running, and gets me out of bed yesterday morning; says he, you'd sent him, Mr. Franklyn, and there was a lady fallen down the Dowk cave, and Mr. Ashton was there ; and she was dead. I set off right away, you may be sure. It seems you'd sent word to the Clarkes 'cause of the horse ; and afore I was well dressed there was tales all over.
"When I gets up near to the Clarkes' house, together with the men I'd got to help, who should I meet plump, early as it was, but White. 'Hullo,' says he, and didn't look over pleased, 'they've been to you, have they?' 'Why not?' I asks sharp enough ; 'is there anything against it?' 'Not that I know of, constable,' says he — he fairly did always raise me with his 'constable.' 'You're stirring early,' I says. 'I chanced to be up yonder,' he answers with a nasty grin, 'on the spot, that's where one has to be if one's to do any good. But don't let me delay you from your duty, I see you've plenty of help,' and off he goes, sayin' he'd a deal on hand, when I asks him if he wouldn't like to come. I was surprised he didn't want, I'd have liked him to; he'd have had to be under me if he had; I meant that, among our own folks and all. Now I heard say Mr. Clarke was gone, and Miss Clarke off her head. I didn't believe it was as bad, but I thought likely they were upset over what had happened. How I explained it to myself was this (I hadn't heard you'd gone up with Mr. Franklyn then): I thinks that poor young lady was your wife, or sister, or sweetheart, and had come to the Moor Cottage to see you. You two had gone up the fell — perhaps to make over the mountain to Halham Station to get off, guessing you was suspected (and I blames myself for all I'd asked Mr, Franklyn, giving the show away). Anyway, you'd gone up, and she'd fallen down the pothole. That was the way of it, to my mind.
"Now, thinks I, the lady's death '11 make an inquiry, and all'U come out about Gardner. He'll guess that, so he's sure to make off right away if he can. So up I went and thought I was doing right and proper and only my duty, in arresting, you, sir. As is a thing I'll regret long enough, you may be sure. But now you see how it was, I hope you'll understand, and see as it wasn't altogether my fault. If I didn't take you, I thought you'd make off, p'raps escape, or p'raps be took by that feller White. I thought it was my chance, same thing to you it bein' me or him, and nothing but duty. I hope you understand, sir, and you, Mr. Franklyn, as has always stood a friend to me."
We both assured him that we understood.
"I see a deal plainer than I did," said my companion ; "you were took in, Joss. I understand how it came about, but you should have thought I would have more sense, than have a runaway vagabond in my house."
Hedley again expressed his regret for all that had taken place, and then he continued his story:—
"When I went and told White as I had you under lock and key, at my place, he was fit to rive the roof off. He fairly foamed. Such names he called me, he was a deal more like a wild beast nor a man. 'You great thunder-headed fool,' he cried, 'what in the name of — did you interfere for? A nice mess you've made. I've just heard this Mr. Ashton is one of the largest landowners in Surrey, like to be Lord-Lieutenant — nothing to do with this job at all. And I tellin' them in London I had all in my hands, and was workin' so quietly and well. Four years and more, I've been at this case, and carried it on bit by bit, with my whole heart in it. You idiot, you — now you come blundering in — but they shall know, they shall know. A disgrace to the force you are. I'll report you, I'll let them know! It's you and the likes of you get such a name for the police, as would be the finest force in the world if they'd chuck you all out. Intelligence! Art! you don't know what they mean. You great hippotamus! 'Yes, he called me that — but there, I can't tell half he said then and since.
"Long and short of it is, Mr. Ashton," concluded poor Hedley, "if you can't do something for me I'm like to be discharged. He's hated me from the first, and he means to do me all the harm he can."
I hastened to assure him of my very genuine sympathy. I would go and see the inspector at once ; and so at last he left us, somewhat reassured.
My interview with White I will describe in another place. I had little doubt of success in the matter, and arranged to take Franklyn with me to beard the Hon. He could speak for the constable.
"I'm sorry for Hedley," I said, when he had gone ; "he was not so much to blame after all."
"I'm sorry for him too," said the farmer ; "he's a likeable fellow, as I've always allowed, but he'll be all right ; we'll set things straight, I don't doubt, White'll have got over it now a bit, it was rather hard on him too. My, but he seems to have said some straight things! I nearly laughed out, when Hedley got to the 'Hippotamus.'"
"So did I," I confessed, "it seemed to suit the man."
"Didn't it?" chuckled Franklyn, as we left the barn . "My, it did so!"
I give here Miss Clarke's narrative
Book II: Miss Clarke's Narrative
Chapter XVI: Count Mouroff
I hardly know where to begin telling the story of our family ; I suppose I should go back to early days. When I was a child my father was a solicitor in a dear old Devonshire town. He was never a strong man, and had little taste for his profession, but until he was left a comfortable income by the death of a relative, his means were not such as to allow him to follow his own inclinations, or consider sufficiently the requirements of his health.
The addition to our means came when I was in my early teens. My mother had been dead a year or more, and the force of circumstances rendered me, I think, old for my years. The care of my sister Monica devolved almost entirely upon me, when we were left motherless. She was several years younger than I, and so I found myself the mistress of my father's house, while I was still little more than a child.
When we had the means, we left Devonshire and England, and after roaming about for a while we finally settled near Dieppe ; where we lived in a pretty villa overlooking the sea. We made many friends, principally, of course, among the English residents. We were well-educated by an excellent governess, and we went a good deal into society when we arrived at a suitable age.
Monica was more than pretty as a child, and she grew up into a most lovely girl. Never have I seen any girl so sweet, so charming and so beautiful as my sister was when at sixteen she began to go out with me to the parties, and entertainments, got up in our English colony. She had been in England at school for a year at that time, and she came as quite a surprise to our friends on her return.
A neighbour of ours, Mme. Henri, always acted as our chaperon ; she was a great favourite with all the English people at Dieppe, and went everywhere. She was a very kind, good woman, but an inveterate matchmaker, as most French women are.
When she saw Monica, on her return from England, she held up her hands. "Ah, child, how you have changed," she said ; "you are quite a demoiselle." She took great delight in helping to choose my sister's dresses; and in introducing her as a charming debutante, to our friends, who had last seen her as a pretty, but awkward child. In the year she had been away she had developed, like a rose, from dainty bud to glorious flower. Monica had a regular ovation. She went everywhere, dances and parties were got up expressly that she might be present. I grew weary of the round of gaieties, but she was differently made; and she, I was glad to see, enjoyed them thoroughly.
The following summer Mme. Henri took Monica to Switzerland; they joined a conducted tour, and found themselves with a very pleasant party, consisting principally of English people, and here it was — but I must leave that till the proper time comes.
The following autumn, when Monica was just seventeen, we met the wealthy Russian, Count Mouroff, at the house of friends. On account of his great wealth he was quite lionized at Dieppe. I hated the man from the first: there was to me something odious in him. Father went about very little, he never cared for society. Chemistry was his occupation, and he had no time to spare from his scientific researches. People often came to our house, however, and I well remember the first time the count visited us, and how father disliked him as soon as they met.
Monica was of our opinion at first, I know, but she was young, and there is no need to deny it, she was at that time vain and silly. Her head had been turned; it was hardly possible it should be otherwise with such a young girl, so lovely, so sought after, and so admired.
Count Mouroff was old enough to have been her father easily ; he was not handsome, not even pleasant to look at ; further, he was a hard, cold-hearted man. One had only to see him to know it. Yet when it became evident that he admired my sister, the glamour of his wealth and position blinded her, and she shut her eyes to his disadvantages and defects. She had many suitors, but Count Mouroff, with his thousands and his Russian palaces, eclipsed them all in Monica's eyes. Poor girl, she was only a child of seventeen! Never shall I forget the day when my father's eyes, were opened to the state of matters.
I remember it so well. We had just finished breakfast, and Monica was standing at the window looking down at the sea. Father stood by the fireplace reading his newspaper. We had been to an evening "At Home" the night before, and Count Mouroff had hardly left Monica's side. I was tired of speaking to her about it, and of warning her against the man. She would not listen, and the only result was a quarrel ; so that we had ceased to speak of the count, and therefore I was not prepared for what was to come.
Monica by nature, was a sweet and good-tempered girl, but of late she had been strangely unlike herself. For the time being she was spoiled, blinded by vanity and ambition.
She looked down at the sea for a few moments, and then she turned and spoke ; the words were not those that she would have used had she been herself.
"Dad," she said, "I expect you'll make a fuss, but you needn't, because I mean to have my own way ; and you will only waste your time."
"What's that?" said my father, hardly hearing what she said, and looking up dreamily from his paper. A certainty of the truth rushed over me, as I looked at her set, determined face. I knew in a moment what she was going to say. This was not a question of dresses, or balls, or a projected holiday. I grew cold at the thought of what was at stake.
My sister would waste her young life, her happiness, for the wealth and position of that odious man. Happiness — for inevitably she would find that money and a lofty position could not give her that. She would sell herself, and when the bargain was made she would find that she had given all, and received less than nothing.
"What's that, Monica?" my father asked.
She threw back her head, and gazed defiantly at him, at me, and then back to him again.
"I am going to be married!" she said.
"Indeed," cried father, thoroughly roused ; "and who do you intend to honour, or is it too much for me to ask?" He was justly angered at her tone, and always rather an irritable man at the best of times.
"I am going to marry Count Mouroff."
"What!" he roared, and he flung the paper from him to the farthest comer of the room. " I will see you in your coffin before you shall marry that man." I had never known him so roused.
"And why?" she inquired calmly.
"First and foremost, because I forbid it. You are under age, a mere child ; were it the best man in the world you desired to marry, I should say wait, and that——"
"Have you anything against him?" she asked.
"I have. He is not a good man. Were he not Count Mouroff and the owner of so many thousands, he would not be received by people in our class. Did I not give you to understand some time ago, that the less you saw of him the better? I disliked him as soon as I met him ; and since I have made inquiries — did I not tell you?" he looked at me.
"Yes, I understood you disliked him ; unfortunately he goes everywhere ; it has been impossible to avoid him," I temporized, anxious to shield Monica. She had refused to listen to my warnings, had declined to give up the man's society. I had done all that I could. But Mme. Henri had supported her. I saw it all now: she had desired the match. She had pushed matters on, and the match had come ; it was almost as great a shock to me as to my father.
"Count Mouroff has asked you to marry him?" he inquired.
"Yes," she said, "or I should not be telling you that I intend to do so."
"You speak rudely, Monica!" he answered. "You know that you do wrong. Now understand me. I refuse to give my consent to your marriage with Count Mouroff. Let the matter not be mentioned again. It is ended; my word is final. If this rudeness and rebellion is the outcome of your gay life here, I must consider whether it would not be better for you to return to school, for another year. You have left too early. My desire to have my children at home has led me into error. I fear that you are not yet old enough for independence."
Without another word he left the room ; I could see that he was greatly shaken. Monica was everything to him ; she could make him happy or miserable. He was devoted to her and often said how much she reminded him of our mother, whom he had adored.
"He may say what he likes," cried my sister, when the door was closed, "but I am not a child, and you shall both learn that I am not to be treated like a baby."
"But Monica consider — for your own sake you surely can't mean it. You can't mean you really would marry the count?"
"Can't mean it? Of course I mean it. What do you take me for? If you were in my place you would be only too glad to marry him. There isn't a girl in France who would refuse the count ; unless in a lunatic asylum."
"You have got strange ideas of marriage from Mme. Henri," I said. "French marriage customs are loathsome. Monica, there are other things to be thought of besides the count's wealth. You cannot love him!"
"You always talk such nonsense about marriage," she cried impatiently. "You know nothing of it; as to Mme. Henri, she should know; she has been married long enough."
"Father said," I went on, unheeding, "he said the count was not a good man."
"Stuff and nonsense," she returned angrily: "What does he know ; he's a regular fossil, and the only people he sees are fossils too, and gossips into the bargain. He's prejudiced, and, besides, he has such old-fashioned ideas, so stodgy and English. Mme. Henri says——"
"No matter what she says," I interrupted ; "you must think of what father said, and try and see the matter as he does. In a few years' time you will look back, and be thankful, dear, that he did not let you marry the count."
"Let me! I shall marry Count Mouroff, and that whether he lets me or no. Do you think I am a fool?"
"Something near it," I burst out in anger, and hot words followed.
A few minutes later Monica banged the door behind her, and went up to her room, which she hardly left that day.
Chapter XVII: Monica Has Her Desire
The next afternoon Mme. Henri and Count Mouroff, came to our house. Father refused to see the count, but he had a long interview with Mme. Henri. I saw her leave his study, white-faced and furious, tears of rage in her eyes, and their traces upon her carefully arranged, good-natured face.
I did not dare to go near her, but I watched her as she went down the garden with the count ; she was gesticulating greatly, and much excited. Later I heard from her an account of the interview in the study. Father never mentioned it till long afterwards.
She said he had refused to hear any of her arguments in favour of the count, and absolutely and entirely declined to give his consent to the match. Further he had requested that the count should hold no communication with my sister. He would not, he said, allow her to speak to him again. They must not meet. If they did so, Monica must be sent away. He desired Mme. Henri to tell her, and the count, of what he had said ; and begged she would understand that for the present Monica was to remain at home. He left it to her to make what excuses she thought fit, for my sister's absence from the entertainments and gaieties, to which she usually took us.
Had my father been less severe at this time, I think he might have served his purpose better: or had he taken Monica away at once. He forbade her to see her lover, and forbade her the distractions of society, for fear that she might meet him. She was suddenly deprived of all that she valued most. She was a very spirited girl, and he did not consider her character. Gentle methods might have brought her to do as he wished, but now she was, as it were, dared to disobey him. Poor Monica.
Time dragged on miserably for about a week, and then one morning we waited breakfast in vain for my sister. She was always an early riser.
"Mademoiselle not down?" father inquired.
"I will see, sir," said the servant, and I heard her go upstairs and tap at Monica's door. Receiving no answer, I suppose she opened it and looked in.
A moment later she sprang breathless into the dining-room ; she rightly guessed what had occurred, for by this time many people knew what had been going on.
"Mademoiselle is not there," she gasped: "her bed — it has not been slept in!"
The cup that father held, crashed unheeded to the floor ; with an inarticulate exclamation he pushed the woman aside, and hurried up the stair.
I stood transfixed, with my hand upon the coffee-urn, but a moment later a heavy fall overhead aroused me. I rushed upstairs to find my poor father lying at Monica's door, in a pool of blood. It was one of those terrible attacks, and in the fall he seriously injured his head. For weeks he lay ill, and he was never so well after that dreadful time.
For many days he was unconscious ; while I did what I could both with regard to him, and to my wretched sister.
At first I appealed to Mme. Henri for help ; she was our most intimate friend, but she shrugged her shoulders.
"What should you do? Do nothing, dear child. I regret your father's illness, but really in one way it is fortunate. Monica is all right. By now she is, no doubt, married. She will have a peaceful honeymoon. When your father is better he will have considered ; he will forgive her ; all will be couleur de rose."
An English friend, Mrs. Roberts, was more helpful ; by her aid I discovered where Monica had gone. She had crossed to England by the night boat, with Count Mouroff and his sister, a widow who had been staying with him at Dieppe, By the advice of Mrs. Roberts, I telegraphed at once to a relation in London, who left no stone unturned to discover Monica. It was some days before he could trace her, but at last he was successful, and sent me word immediately that she had married Count Mouroff the day before; and was already on her way to Russia. He had been too late to see her.
Obtaining the count's address at St. Petersburg, he wrote immediately, telling my sister of her father's serious condition. It was only on receiving this letter that Monica wrote to me. She was truly sorry about father, though she did not seem in any way to recognize the connexion between his illness, and her flight from home. She wrote a very affectionate letter, but it angered me, it was so full of the pleasures of her new life, and of the delights of her high position.
In time father recovered, and I told him all I had learned of Monica's marriage, and life in Russia. He listened, asked a few questions, and then he said, "We will not speak of her, dear," audit was long before we did so again.
At times she wrote to me, but it was rarely, and the notes were short and unsatisfying. I fear I answered them curtly ; it was not natural that we should forget at once what she had done. Yet had I known how bitterly, and how soon, poor Monica's repentance had come, I should have treated her differently.
Long afterwards I learned from her how soon she had been disillusioned ; how soon her husband had showed himself in his true colours, the tyrant and the brute. When the novelty of the runaway match, and the society of his lovely bride began to pall, then she saw him as he was. Continual battles and recriminations took place between them. Continual ill-usage and insult she had to bear. Hate rapidly replaced the feeling of tolerance with which she had married the man. She was not the woman to be bullied and to suffer calmly. She had spirit, and a bitter war went on between her and the brute to whom she had tied herself. She was wretched: money and high position could not make her other than most miserable ; but worse was to come. When she had been married about a year, Count Mouroff engaged as secretary, a young Englishman named Allan Gardner. He was about twenty-eight or thirty years old, good-looking, and many other things that Count Mouroff was not.
Monica saw much of him. It was almost inevitable that they should be drawn to each other. He saw her unhappiness and her husband's brutality, and sympathy drew him to her. She was even more beautiful now than she had been before her marriage ; he could not help himself. He loved her, and though he said nothing she knew it.
He said nothing, and meant to say nothing, but one night circumstances were too strong for him.
My father had heard evil of Count Mouroff ; the man was bad through and through. His excesses were beyond all bounds, and Monica was driven to desperation by the insults and affronts heaped upon her. The climax came, in a quarrel even more violent than the many which had preceded it.
In his insane rage the brute struck my sister a heavy blow, and her cry reached the ears of the secretary, at work in an adjoining room. Guessing the truth, he flung down his papers, and rushed to intervene.
When he reached the boudoir where the quarrel had taken place, he found the count had left the room ; but his unhappy wife lay, dazed and weeping upon a couch.
As I said, such circumstances were too strong for Allan Gardner. I fully believe him to be all that Monica had assured me he was, all that an honourable man should be. I can understand and pardon him, when I consider how it was that he came to tell my sister he loved her. The substance of that interview I heard from her before her death ; its final words she told me.
In his agony at her misery and pain, he had soothed and comforted her like a child. He had spoken words that could never be unsaid or forgotten ; he had opened his heart to her. And she? Poor child, unnerved, strained to the breaking point, she had forgotten for the moment all save that this man was the man she loved. The being whose existence made life still possible to her ; whose presence, in spite of all, made it desirable, whose love made its misery sweet.
For the moment she forgot, a moment whose memory she was to cherish till her death. And then — she remembered that she was another man's wife, and that, however little honour might be to him, it was not for her to forget it.
Monica had married Count Mouroff from motives of vanity and folly, she had been foolish to madness ; but the insanity passed, when she realized the straits into which she had brought herself. By nature she was right-minded, and she had high principles. She was not the woman to stoop to dishonour.
So now when a consciousness of her position forced itself upon her, and she understood what she did, she was terrified at it, "Mr. Gardner," she cried, starting up, "we forget — I — oh, we have done wrong! I was dazed with my misery, you were sorry for me — we must forget all this — we must never speak of it again."
He stood before her, with a white, strained face.
"You are right," he said, "God forgive me! God help us! How can I forget? You are right ; yet how can I forget? How can I see your martyrdom, and bear it silently ; how can I? Not speak of it again? I think of it every moment. I curse him — how happy we could have been," his voice broke.
"Ah, hush," she implored.
"I curse him," he cried ; "I could kill him when I hear the way he speaks to you ; I could kill him a hundred times for the way he treats you. Yet I have remained polite, and have tried to please him, that I may stay here for you, to be near you."
"More than this you must do for me," she answered ; "you must be strong for me, to help me to be strong. We must never again forget what is due to ourselves, and to each other. You must help me to do right."
"I am ashamed of my weakness," he said, "if you can, forgive me. Only let me see you, let me be your friend, let me help and cheer you. Let me be near, and I will deserve your confidence."
"You speak as if you only were to blame," Monica answered ; "it is not so ; I do forgive you, but I cannot forgive myself. God bless you for what you have just said. We will never speak of all this again." She held out her hand, and he clasped it in silence ; but as he looked into her set face his fortitude gave way, and tears filled his eyes. "Ah go — leave me!" she cried in agony, for she was not strong enough to control herself. "Go, for Heaven's sake."
She remembered that the door shut behind him, and then no more till long afterwards. She did not faint, but she was stunned by what had occurred. She sat as one in a dream, till she was roused by the entrance of some one. It was her husband.
Chapter XVIII: The Fate of Count Mouroff
Count Mouroff strode over to Monica, and leered at her ; he had a sinister look habitually, but my sister said that he gazed down at her that night with the face of a devil. Every nerve in her body thrilled with repulsion.
"Well, madame," he snarled between his teeth. She made no answer and he continued to look at her a moment in silence, then with a sudden movement he caught her wrists, and dragged her to her feet. "We have accounts to settle," he cried, "you pattern of virtue — I am all that is most to be despised. Oh, yes, I am not fit to be spoken to ; you soil yourself by remaining in the same house ; we know all that." He laughed aloud. "And you, unsullied, much-abused martyr — oh, damn you," he broke out, " you did not think I saw you with your lover to-night!" The girl was speechless.
"Answer me," he hissed ; "what have you to say?"
"He is not my lover," she said bravely, though she trembled in every limb. It was very late, not a soul was within call. My sister was never a coward, but she knew her husband. They were quite alone, there was no soul to help her, and he was mad with passion, and more dangerous than a savage beast. In his rage he knew neither pity nor reason. Still she took courage in her helplessness, and answered, "He is not my lover."
I can hardly write all this, but I do it to defend the memory of the poor dead girl.
"You tell me that," screamed the count, and releasing her left wrist, he struck her with all his force. The blow, aimed at her face, fell upon her upraised arm. She gave no cry, she endured in silence. " You tell me that when I saw you together to-night. Liar!"
"He loves me," she answered, and the words gave her strength, "but he is not my lover. If you heard all that passed to-night, you must know that what happened was the madness of a moment, repented even before it passed. It was the beginning and the end of all — between us."
"You are deep, my lady," he sneered ; "as you are doubtless aware, I did not remain to witness the whole of the touching scene. I had other and more important business on hand."
Monica was silent.
"Do you hear?" he cried, wrenching at her wrists, and thrusting his face forward. "I had more important business, it might interest you. My dear and loyal countess is so deeply concerned in all that is of importance to her husband. Listen" — and his tone altered, — "early to-morrow morning the police are instructed to make an arrest in this house." He paused and watched her.
They were at Nice, not in Russia, or Monica would have believed that in some way, he intended to deprive her of her liberty. At Nice she had surely nothing to fear. The count proceeded: —
"They will arrest," he said slowly, "a member of my household, upon the charge of having within the past week, stolen from me the sum of five thousand pounds ; placed in his charge." The girl's heart stood still, she looked at her husband without a word: he no longer held her. "Five thousand pounds," he repeated. "Mr. Gardner will be arrested, because he has stolen from me five thousand pounds."
"It is not true," cried Monica wildly ; "you have invented this ; it is a lie — a lie, I say: you have invented this to ruin an innocent man." Count Mouroff stood enjoying her indignation and her agony ; he threw back his head and laughed.
"Take it as you like," he said, "it is all en regle; the charge can be substantiated. Your innocent cannot escape, the money is in his possession; there is only the word of a beggarly nobody, against that of Count Mouroff."
"You devil!" cried Monica, and he laughed again in satisfaction, as he threw himself lazily into a comfortable chair.
My sister was quick to note his attitude ; she must reach Gardner. He must have warning, he might yet escape. With a sudden movement she darted towards the door, and seized the handle.
The door was locked. The count grinned ; he had not moved. Taking the key from his pocket he held it derisively towards her.
"The key is here, my love," he said ; "you have only to take it from me. Do you think," he snarled, changing his tone, " that I am fool enough to allow you to go and tell him? No, no, madame, you stay here till it is all over; I shall see to that."
"He is innocent," she cried, "and he is an honourable man ; to-night he asked my forgiveness. He was ashamed of his weakness, he promised that never again — oh, for the love of God," she implored, " have mercy as you hope for mercy! Do not ruin the life of an innocent man. I will never see him again, I will do anything you please." She pleaded with him, offering any concession, any sacrifice ; appealing to every feeling that she thought could touch him most. But he returned only sneers, recriminations, and insults.
Monica was driven to desperation, half mad with rage at his brutal purpose, his amused indifference to her agony, and the fate of the man he meant to ruin.
Something seemed to give way at her heart, and she sank upon a chair. The count rose and crossed to her, as she lay back half unconscious. He held the key in front of her eyes, taunting her with her inability to save the man she loved.
And then — then that terrible thing happened. The wretched girl sprang up, seized an Indian knife from a table of curiosities at her side, and plunged it into the heart of the man before her.
With a deep groan he fell to the floor, pressing his hands to his breast. Once he clenched and unclenched them, then he lay still, as only the dead lie still.
Monica stood and watched him dully ; she saw the red stain spread and spread upon the white front of the shirt. She saw the shade of death fall upon the ruddy face, the glazing of the wide open staring eyes. She saw it all, before she understood, and a wild horror seized her. She rushed to the door forgetting that she could not open it. Then she remembered, found the key, where it had fallen from the hand of the dead man, unlocked the door, and fled from the room. She could not recall later what she thought, or the exact sequence of after events. She knew that she went to Gardner, whom she found up, in his sitting-room on another floor ; that she told him all. That he tried to calm her, and that, with wonderful presence of mind, he took over the direction of their subsequent actions.
He roused her to the knowledge of her position. "I do not care," she said, "I do not mind. I will die gladly." But as he put the matter before her, making her see his situation also, all that was likely to arise, imploring her attention ; she began to realize more fully how they were placed. While they lived and loved each other, life must still be sweet to her, poor child.
"Where is your maid?" Gardner asked. She told him she had long since sent the woman to bed. "Go to her," he directed ; "say you are tired, that you are not to be disturbed till ten o'clock in the morning. Take these things, put them on, and come back to me ; bring all your money and valuables." He had gone to his room, and now placed in her hands a plain suit of his own clothes. Monica was about his size.
She obeyed him like a child, discussing nothing. When she returned she found him prepared for a journey. With great care he arranged the details of her dress, cutting off her lovely hair without a word. Some locks she saw he kept, destroying the rest with the utmost precaution. When everything was done he took her hands in his.
"Dear, you must be brave," he said earnestly. "In a few minutes we shall be away from this place, but first — you must help me — he must be moved to your room. It is horrible, but it must be done. God give you strength."
"I will do whatever you wish," she said with a shudder. "You are so brave, I will not be a coward," and she followed him out of the room.
At times I am haunted, by the thought of those two poor victims of an adverse fate. I can see it all. Shrinking with their horror, I help to raise that awful burden. With trembling and terror I bear it along the silent passage, and lay it in that other room.
I return and battle with that terrible stain. With loathing I see its traces upon my hands, striving with all the power that is in me, to stifle the cry that is wrung from my soul. At last it is over, and with Monica and the man she loves, I fly from the house, and am lost among the deep shadows of the night. When morning dawns I see the flying train, the weary unnerved travellers. The man, self-forgetful, comforting and encouraging the exhausted girl. Monica has told me of it all.
To my last hour I shall bless and honour the name of Allan Gardner. He who, from the resources of his great heart and quick brain, that night saved my sister from a terrible, undeserved — yes, I say undeserved, and shameful fate. Was she not more sinned against than sinning? I take it so.
He saved her life, and I fully believe he saved her reason.
For fear of detection they dared not remain together. They parted, trusting to the future that one day they should meet again. No plans were made for the time to come, but as he held her hands for the last tune, he said,—
"Remember that your life is my life. If you die, I cannot face life. If you live, I live, and we shall meet again. While there is life, dear, there is hope. Be strong, be prudent. We may have long to wait, but we shall meet again." This that he said is all that I know of their parting. My sister told me no more.
They separated and took different routes, travelling for some time. Her funds exhausted, weary, and with failing courage, Monica at length ventured over to England ; where she knew my father and I had been staying for some time. After hearing of the tragedy, we could no longer remain at Dieppe, and had gone to London. Monica learned this from the papers, and guessed where we should be found; though she had not dared to write to us for fear that her communication might fall into wrong hands, or be ill received. Gardner had warned her that we should be watched and followed ; as there is little doubt that we were.
Before leaving Dieppe, and for weeks after our arrival in London, I went in daily fear that my poor father would lose his reason. I shudder to think of that awful time. By degrees he became better, but never from that time was his mental balance what it had been. The worst effects of the shock passed, but it left him greatly altered. He shunned all friends, and shrank from observation: he would hardly give his name in a shop. "People will guess, they will know," he said ; "I feel I must change my name. All the world knows from the papers" I soothed him as best I could; I reminded him that few papers had mentioned the maiden name of the Countess Mouroff. I begged him to remember that a change of name would certainly call attention to us. If our poor girl were ever to seek refuge with her people, it was better that all suspicion should be avoided.
We both prayed that some day we might at any rate see her once more. From our hearts we pitied her. We understood her terrible trials. The official inquiry into the death of Count Mouroff had revealed him as he was ; and had shown what the existence of his wretched wife must have been.
The police had no doubt as to how the man had come by his death. The secretary was a thief: they had no cause to doubt the word of the dead count. He was missing. But the countess was missing also. The servants knew of the quarrel the evening the count was found murdered in his wife's room. The inference was that she had killed him, and had then fled, together with Gardner ; whom the gossip of the house pronounced to be her lover.
Poor Monica. We felt the truth of it all. We did not doubt that she had struck the blow which caused Count Mouroff's death; we knew her nature. But we had no other misgivings.
Chapter XIX: The Fugitive
It was more than a year after the events that I have related, that I saw it would be better for my father to leave London.
Through the chance conversation of some people in a train, we heard of Stanton ; of its loneliness and beauty; of its remoteness. It seemed just the place in which we could lose ourselves and be at peace. My father needed peace to follow his own pursuits, to pass his life quietly, unobserved, unknown. A quiet home in that quiet district would, I hoped, do much towards restoring his health and spirits, and tranquilising his mind.
So it came about that we went down, and saw and took the Moor Cottage — the only suitable house to be found.
We had a servant in London whom I intended to bring down, and I engaged the girl, Jane Ogden, to come in each day also. There was not sleeping accommodation for two maids in the house, without depriving ourselves of a good room ; which we wished to keep for our own use, as an extra sitting-room.
The cottage proved a great interest to my father; it quite lifted him out of himself. Whilst it was being repaired and decorated for us, we spent our time in town in picking up quaint furniture for it, and getting the necessary things ready by degrees.
Father would come in with some carved shelf, or piece of pottery, as delighted as a child with a toy. It made me happy and thankful to see him so pleased and interested. In a few weeks he improved wonderfully. The occupation was just what he had required, and there was so much to do, between the selecting of things for his laboratory and the furniture for the house.
Two or three days before our departure for the north, I had spent a busy afternoon shopping and returned home late, walking across the quiet Kensington Square where we lived. It was almost deserted, and full of shadows.
I was thinking of my sister as I went. Where was she, the poor outcast? My sweet and beautiful sister, her fair hands stained with blood, a hunted fugitive. Where was she? My heart ached always for her. The child whom it seemed to me I had brought up. Poor Monica.
My hand was on our gate. A shadow stirred, but I did not heed it: a hand fell on mine, and I started back: a woman stood beside me, a voice murmured my name. It was my sister. In the deserted square I took her in my arms. "Thank God!" I cried. "Oh, Monica, is it you? Thank God!"
For an hour we paced about the square, and in that time she told me much of what I have already related. For nights she had watched our house, hoping to see me: she had not dared to go to us. She had not known how she would be received, what we believed of all that had been rumoured. Poor child, poor child.
How I prepared my father, how I brought them together, to his unspeakable joy, it would take too long to tell. We took every precaution, and we kept Monica with us those last few days in London, and arranged that she should follow us to the north. We could not lose her again. It would be unsafe at present, perhaps, to try to leave England. We must avoid all risks. I could see my way to an arrangement, by which she could live with us quietly for a year or so at our country cottage. It would be the life of a nun, of a prisoner, still she would be with us ; loved and cared for. To her the prospect was a delight. No more flying from place to place, imagining in every newcomer a danger to be faced, a police official come to drag her to a shameful end. She would be at rest with us, hunted and driven hither and thither no more, by her maddening anxieties.
My plan was simple: we would have no servant living in the house. The country girl, was already engaged and we could hardly without comment dispense with her. She should come to the cottage in the day-time and do the work. I wrote to her explaining that I had changed my mind about bringing another maid, as the house was so small. The extra sitting-room should be Monica's room. I would call it my studio, as I paint a little: no one should go there but myself. The evenings we could all spend together.
And so it all came about, and despite the inconveniences of our life, we led a very happy existence for some time.
Only once a week the maid was allowed to sweep out my studio. During the cleaning Monica would go into a tiny ante-room which led from it, and which I always kept locked.
My sister and I were both horsewomen — we had been taught to ride when we were quite young. The horse. Job, was a great pleasure now to Monica. At night she could ride him on the fells, and she came to know the principal tracks well.
We felt secure in our little home, but nevertheless we made plans in case of an alarm. Monica was to escape to the fells, and conceal herself in a certain cave, or series of caves. There she would be almost certainly secure from pursuit till we could see our way further.
Every few weeks a letter arrived from Allan Gardner. These letters came through a trusted friend, who had his entire confidence. They cheered and strengthened my sister, as nothing else could. Not that she was often in bad spirits: the calm, regular life had a wonderfully good effect upon her. We spent even in the day a good deal of our time together. Monica's room was distant from the others. I was supposed to be painting there, and father's laboratory had a door opening into it, so that Monica could be with him often. Thus she was not entirely shut in one room. But we were very careful not to do anything imprudent, and the maid never for one moment, suspected the presence of a third member of the family.
By slow degrees we watched my sister becoming more and more her old self. One day she told me it was hard for her to keep from singing. As a girl she used to run about the house constantly singing bright snatches of airs, in her sweet childish voice. Barely twenty, only a girl still, she had suffered so much, endured so much. It was indeed a delight to us to see her gradually throwing off the effect, of what she had been through.
And now came the time when an accident made me acquainted with you, Mr. Ashton.
You know how you became a regular visitor at our house.
Your visits were very welcome to my father. You did him a great deal of good, relieving the strain which, at times, the knowledge of Monica's precarious position would bring.
I will not deny that your coming in the evening was an inconvenience. 1 hope and think that you did not learn the fact from our manner. For every reason we endeavoured not to appear too anxious, that you should choose an earlier hour. You recall how often I left you and father alone? I was with Monica. But to return to the early days of our acquaintance with you. Do you remember how you told us of the man whom you saw in the garden, looking through the window? What folly on my part not to have fully lowered the blind I
Your information was a serious shock to us. We said nothing to Monica. We hoped the man was some poacher, and that he had not seen her, or that if he had he would attach no importance to the matter. We hoped for the best. But we feared.
The next night we knew what we had to fear. Our peace was ended, and a period of torment which lasted till the end came — began. Oh, the unspeakable brute — but I must write it all as it happened. The evening, then, after you told us what you had seen, our maid, just before she left, ushered in the vicar ; with whom we had a slight acquaintance. I saw him at church, and elsewhere from time to time ; and he had called upon my father, who had taken an immediate dislike to him.
That night we greeted him politely, and for a few minutes we talked together of ordinary subjects.
"You have a quiet retreat here," he remarked presently. We agreed. "Do not be alarmed," he continued, "I think I should tell you that your story is known to me. Your younger daughter, Mr. Clarke, once travelled in Switzerland, with a party of which I was a member."
My poor father was speechless ; he sat helplessly gazing at our visitor. I have always been considered a very stolid person. I am hard to surprise, or startle into losing presence of mind, I know. My stolidity has stood me in good stead many a time. It did so that night.
I answered the man, as I poured out a tumbler of brandy and water, and gave it to my father. I asked him quietly why he thought it needful to say what he had said.
"Because," he replied, "I must see your sister, and I know she is here." My heart stood still. His tone was assured ; there was no room for prevarication or subterfuge. He knew. I looked at his sinister face, and I shivered.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"No matter ; I know most things which occur in my parish. I know that she is here ; it is enough."
"No, it is not enough," roared my father, springing from his chair. "How have you learned this? By peering and prying, by lurking and hiding, listening and watching. You cur, I know you and all the sort of you—"
"Father, father," I begged, clinging to his arm, and forcing him away from Mr. Denham. He had completely lost control of himself. He had made bad worse. At all costs I saw we must not make an enemy of this man. "Be calm, dear," I whispered, bending over him as he sank exhausted into his seat. "Be prudent ; for her sake say no more." He groaned aloud, already he realized his mistake.
"You must excuse me, sir," he forced himself to say ; "I am somewhat overwrought. I beg you will forget what I have said."
The vicar bowed his head with an evil smile.
"I think it would be better," he said, "if you left me to discuss this matter with Miss Clarke: it is too much for you." My father wisely made no answer, and the man turned to me. "Let us understand each other," he said ; "you have nothing to fear from me, under certain conditions."
"What are they?" I inquired.
"The only one with which I need deal at present is this, I must see your sister. Treat me openly and reasonably, as I treat you, and you will find in me a friend ; but I must see your sister."
"Why?" I asked shortly.
"I used to know her," he said, and there was a strange look in his eyes. "I wish to see her again: it is simple enough. Kindly go and tell her that I am here."
I felt a sickening apprehension steal over me. This man loved her, and he was not, I felt, a man in whom we could place any trust. She had no love for him. How would it end? We were in his power. I stood silently before him.
"Please go and tell her," he repeated, and I went — there was nothing else to be done.
I found Monica contentedly working away at some of father's clothes.
"Is that tiresome visitor gone?" she inquired, for she had heard the servant leave as usual, and was waiting to come downstairs and have supper with us.
"No, dear," I said, "he is still there. It is the clergyman, Mr. Denham. He has — Monica, be brave, dear, there is nothing to fear, but he knows who we are "She sprang up white and trembling ; I caught her by the hand. "It is all right, he will keep the secret. He is an old friend of yours, he knows you are here."
"How, how?" she cried, but I went on—
"He met you in Switzerland, when you went that tour, you know, with Mme. Henri. Do you not remember him? Denham: don't you remember the name? I think he must have cared for you, Monica." She gazed at me open-eyed.
"I remember a clergyman quite well," she said slowly ; "yes, and that was the name. Strange, I never thought of the man when you spoke of the vicar here. I — I — don't want to see him. Must I? I suppose I must." Her hands shook in mine.
"Is he an old lover, Monica?"
"I don't know, he — that is he was. I — I behaved ill to him, I know I did. I was such a child, and so silly. He is one of the last people I wish to see." The brightness had gone from her face: it looked as it had looked in London. I said all I could to cheer her ; I persuaded her that everything would turn out well, and I took her down to meet him. On the stair we met my father.
"I could not stay there," he said, "come to me when he is gone, in the laboratory. My poor child." He laid his hand a moment upon her shoulder, and then without more words, passed on.
Chapter XX: How the Persecution Began
When we entered the room Mr. Denham was standing by the fire-place, and I had shut the door before he turned. From his face I could see at once, that he was striving against an overpowering agitation. His eyes fell upon my sister with a piercing gaze: they never left her as he crossed the room to meet us. My hand was on Monica's arm, and I felt her shrink from him as he approached.
"How do you do?" she faltered, but he paid no heed to the words. Both her hands he took, and held them ; devouring her face with his searching, masterful gaze. She would have drawn back but she could not. A moment he was silent, then he said slowly—
"So we meet again. What did I tell you at Geneva?"
I do not know. I forget." He had released her hands, and placed a chair for her.
"Pray be seated yourself, Mr. Denham," I said, but he did not appear to hear me. He continued to stand, and to watch my sister. Her colour came and went ; she pressed her hands together continually ; she felt the interview, I saw, very deeply.
"You forget?" he went on, replying to what she had said. "No doubt, but I remember. Can you recall the last evening?" She bent her head. "You said good-bye to me, and you remarked that it was not probable that we should meet again. I told you that, nevertheless, we should meet. I said the meeting would not be of my seeking, but that we should meet, that my time would come."
Monica was silent a moment, and then she raised her head and spoke defiantly.
"Mr. Denham," she said, "I fail to see the reason of these reminiscences, they are not agreeable to me. You find me here in a very painful, a very terrible position. I rely upon you to remember how I am placed. I am sure that you would not wish to appear, for a moment, to take any advantage of my situation."
His colour changed, and an unpleasant light shone for an instant from his keen eyes.
"These are not considerate words," he returned." I find you still unchanged, Miss Monica."
"No, you do not," she said earnestly; "I am much changed. All that I have been through has made me another being: for that I thank God. When you knew me I was vain, frivolous, heartless. I acknowledge it freely. If I could live my life again I should act very differently. How is it that we see our mistakes too late? So often too late." She seemed to be almost talking to herself. He made no reply. She paused, and then looking down she said slowly. "I ask your pardon if I — if once I — was unkind."
"If?" he repeated. It was his only reply to her words, but turning to me he said imperatively, "Miss Clarke, would you kindly leave us for a few moments?" I looked at Monica.
"No, no," she cried; "no, Margaret, I do not wish it." I thought she was imprudent to offend the man, but I could not leave her against her will.
"You will excuse my remaining," I said. "My sister is far from strong, her nerves are unable to support agitation, and she is tired to-night."
"Very well," he replied ; "I shall return to-morrow at the same time, or stay — I will come later, and Miss Monica — I forget, I should say the countess — will do me the honour to meet me in the Glen by the foot-bridge, at half past nine."
She opened her lips to refuse, but at a sign from me she bent her head.
"Very well," she consented, and he passed from the room without more words. He said nothing ; he did not even touch her hands, but triumph shone in his eyes, as he paused a moment at the door and fixed them upon my sister.
I showed him out: in the hall he bade me good-night and was gone.
Returning to the room, I found Monica sitting as I had left her, but she lay back exhausted in her chair.
"Dear," I said, kneeling beside her. She put her hands to her face, and sobbed like a child. I held her in my arms, and she cried upon my shoulder, as she had done often when a little girl.
"Oh, Margaret," she faltered presently, "I am afraid of that man."
"Why, Monica?" I asked. "You surely do not think that he would betray us?"
"I do not know," she said ; "it's not that exactly, but — I — I made sport of him in the old days. I feel as if it was his turn now."
"He asked you to marry him?" I questioned.
"Yes, and it was my fault. I disliked him from the first, but I encouraged him. Yes, I did all I could to make him care, and all the time I was laughing at him behind his back. I told him so later. I was cruel, callous. Oh, I know I behaved abominably. You know what I was then, Margaret, and Mme. Henri was no check upon me. I often think if she had been different — but I don't want to blame any one but myself. Margaret, you will come with me to-morrow?"
"I think I had better not," I said. "You see it would anger him: we should be foolish to do that;"
"I suppose so," she replied. "How did he find out I was here?" I evaded the question, for I had no wish to prejudice her against Mr. Denham at this time.
I had little doubt — remembering the man whom you saw at the window — as to how he came to know Monica was with us.
Our name had attracted him; he had waited and watched till he had seen her. I had, from first meeting him, formed an unfavourable opinion of the man. That he should use such mean methods did not seem unlikely to me. I despised him for them, but I feared him for his knowledge of my sister's refuge. We were in his power ; there was no doubt of that.
We joined my father upstairs, and to him and to Monica I tried my best to show a brave spirit, and point out the brightest view of the case. We sat up late discussing it. To my father the revelation of the evening had come as a great shock, and Monica also was completely unnerved.
We had been so happy, so secure and at peace, and now this man had broken into our life, with the power to wreck it. We were afraid, we were shaken, we felt no faith in him. The future looked dark to us: his part in it we could not see, but our instincts misled us if it was not to be a dangerous, and an evil one. I could not see what we could do. Our only course was to wait, watch how events turned out, and to avoid giving offence to this man, who had so much in his power.
On my father and sister I tried to impress the fact that we must, at whatever cost, be polite and give no cause for bad feeling. We all disliked the vicar. It would be hard to avoid showing our feelings, resenting his power; but it must be done.
I looked at Monica ; one word from him, and she would be torn from us, a sacrifice perhaps to our want of self-control — it should never be.
When she had long gone to her room, father and I still sat together and faced the situation. He bitterly regretted his imprudent outburst.
"I will be more careful," he groaned ; "but what a cur the man is. What I said was true.
To think that we should be reduced to cringing to a creature like that, an eavesdropper and a bully. Yes, a bully ; it makes me sick to think of it. Oh, my poor girl, there is no rest for her. We were so happy, and now that this has happened, who knows what may come of it."
"We must not make up our minds to the worst," I urged, though my heart misgave me, and I felt the truth of my father's words.
"Why does he want to see her?" he continued unheeding — "to force himself upon her? She injured him, and he will not return good for evil, he is not the man. He will persecute her, Margaret, and if she resents it, there are no lengths to which that man might not go."
My father was not generally a reader of character; he troubled himself little about other people, but his attention had been keenly aroused, and I felt that though his judgment might be prejudiced, it was substantially just and correct.
Few faces utterly belie the character they mask. The soul is reflected in the face. The inner life will trace its lines there. We may read them if it is given us to do so, and learn something of the thoughts and aspirations, the strivings, the aims and objects that go to make up that inner life, that soul. Some faces are a mask indeed, revealing nothing, but they are few.
In Mr. Denham's face I saw many things — great power, first of all ; and it was a dangerous power. The man possessed attraction, personal magnetism, will-force — call it what you like. By this he swayed the simple country folk, and was, undoubtedly, the master of his parish, ordering everything according to his wishes. Bringing the people to mould their wishes to his. I had seen this force at once, but all the power that was in me awoke in opposition. So it was with my father, so also with you, Mr. Ashton.
Possibly it was our education and sphere of life, that lifted us above the country people, and gave us a further insight into the man. We disliked him, we resented his masterful mental attitude; our natures instinctively rose in opposition to his.
Besides this power in the man, I recognized many elements in his face. Fierce passion, relentless purpose, and others which combined to form a character to be dreaded, by any one doomed to close association with its owner.
We had fallen into a snare, from which we could see no way out. An evil fate pursued us. Who would have imagined, that in that isolated place we should have come upon an old lover of Monica's? A man whom she had bitterly offended, in those old careless, foolish days. A man who had forgotten nothing, I could see, and forgiven nothing. A man who loved her still, with a fierce, terrible passion, that would not be gainsaid.
I thought of it all. and my heart misgave me.
Chapter XXI: My sister's misery
A shadow had fallen upon our quiet life, a shadow of doubts and fears, heartaches and oppression. It was never to leave us while poor Monica lived. Her punishment was indeed heavy. Think of it, recall the terrible ordeal at Nice, the flight from justice, the separation. The fear-haunted wanderings of the fugitive, who could find no rest ; pursued by terrors that drove her on and on relentlessly. Think of how she was cut off from all help, all sympathy. How, at last, she was driven back to her own people, dreading to approach them, lest they should shrink from her, and repulse her.
The blessed interlude of peace came, and she gathered strength and raised her head: hope stirred her to a new life. And then came the beginning of the end, the dark shadow. Strength failed: hope was lost, the new life died. Yes, the poor trampled flower had lifted its head, only to be ground down again under the heel of Fate.
From the night of Mr, Denham's coming till the end, the time was a time upon which I can hardly bear to look back. It maddens me to think of it. To remember my dear girl as she had been, and then to recall how day by day all that she had regained, was taken from her. How she wasted away in mind and body, sinking in misery to her terrible end.
From the thought of her relentless persecutor I turn, sick and shuddering. Was he human? How could he know and see what he did, and persist in his course? Soulless, coldly brutal, pitiless — he was this and more. Oh, far more. I cannot write it all, there is too much, and I have not the heart or the strength for the task. To go into all the occurrences of the next few months would be more than I could bear ; more than you would desire to know. I must go on, however, and tell you the substance of what took place.
Monica was most unwilling to keep that first appointment. She had a presentiment of evil. Yet there was no choice. Go she must, and she went.
I can see her now, as she was when she left us that night, to obey the order of the man whom in the old days,she had made her sport.
A thin Shetland shawl was thrown round her head and shoulders ; it was her only wrap, enveloping her face, and slight form, like a white cobweb. How lovely she was! It seemed to us — we spoke of it when she had gone, that all that she had endured only increased her beauty. It was deepened, strengthened, spiritualized.
The triumphant loveliness that had delighted the eye and stirred the pulse, was changed in character. Now it touched the heart to sympathy, reverence, worship — to all the deeper, higher feelings, that are our best gifts in this life.
Monica's nature had been purified of all that was little and unworthy. She was so gentle, so thoughtful for us, so self-forgetful. Ah, I can hardly think without tears, of all that she was to us, in those last days at the Moor Cottage.
Monica was absent more than an hour. We became uneasy and anxious, at her being so long away. So that at last I took my hat and set off towards the Glen. In the little wood not far from the house^ I met my sister and her companion ; she had, I afterwards found, returned so far towards home; but he had detained her there, in spite of her endeavours to leave him.
At my approach, however, he went at once, taking a side path, with a very curt "Good-evening." The night was dark, but my sister had recognized me as soon as I appeared, and with an impatient exclamation the man left her.
I found Monica leaning against a tree.
"Dear, you were so long," I said, "I thought I had better come." I laid my hand on her arm, but she did not reply, and she was crying.
"We mustn't let father know," she said, when she could speak; "but, Margaret! oh, I hate that man, I hate him, I am afraid of him, he is horrible."
"What has he been saying, Monica; what has happened?"
"I hardly know. I can't speak of it. Let us go home."
"Not till you are calmer, dear."
"Oh, I shall be all right. I don't want to grieve father ; I will be calm. But let us go in. I feel as if he was about here still." We went on, but stayed a while in the garden till Monica was more composed. She did not speak of what had taken place, and I did not question her further.
When we went indoors she bravely concealed her agitation. Mr. Denham was a disagreeable man, but she did not think he meant any harm to us ; they had talked of old times. She made the best of it all, then and later ; but though father was at first deceived it was not for long. Very soon he knew — it was impossible that he should not — though poor Monica would have suffered anything, rather than trouble him. She often said to me that she had been the wreck of his life. She knew how he had loved her, and she recognized how ill she had repaid him for his love.
Late that night when he was asleep, I went to Monica's room. She was wide awake, though she had left us soon after she came in.
"Monica," I said, "you must not endure this alone. I am strong, but I cannot bear to know that you are unhappy, and not help you."
"No one can help me, dear. I deserve it all."
"No matter, I must know. What happened to-night?" She was silent. "Tell me," I said.
"It is strange, but I can't remember it all. He was there in the Glen before me." She hid her face.
"Go on, dear."
"Yes, yes, Margaret, I will. I did not hold out my hand, but he took it, and looked at me — It was dreadful, though it was dark, worse than last night. I dragged my hand from him, and he laughed. Then he made me sit on that great rock there."
"He told me that he loved me, that he had always loved me, and known that one day I should be in his power ; that he should have his revenge. He told me how he had heard of my marriage, and — what happened afterwards, and that he had loved me just the same. He reminded me of all the injuries I had done to him. It was dreadful — he seemed to rejoice at my miserable, defenceless position.
"'Now,' he said, 'now you must hear me. Now you must listen, and know, and feel what I felt four years ago. I was your sport, you made a mock of me and a pastime. Now it is changed. You must feel my humiliation and bitterness: our places are altered. I was your slave and your fool, and now I am your master. I hold you in the hollow of my hand. Your fate — and that of another depends upon me. You start? Yes, that of another! The hiding-place of Gardner is known to me, and if I will, he shall be dragged from it tomorrow.'" Monica's words failed her.
"My poor, poor girl," I said. "How did he know?"
"The papers, I suppose," she answered, dully.
The position of Allan Gardner was in one sense worse than her own, it was so entirely undeserved. The count's money had been found in his desk, after the flight from Nice. Who was ever to know that he had not stolen it? There was the dead man's word against him ; and who was to know that he had laid a fiendish plot to ruin his secretary? Had Gardner thought of placing the money among the count's things before leaving Nice, it might have been supposed that some mistake had been made by his employer ; but he had other things to occupy him.
Should he be discovered now, he would almost certainly be condemned to penal servitude for some years. Sometimes he wished to give himself up, and get it over ; to take his chance. But the thought of Monica, and all that might happen to her whilst he lay helpless in prison, restrained him.
His position was hard indeed; and now Monica had learned that the vicar knew where he was, and had it in his power to drag him to dishonour! Was it true, or a threat to intimidate her? We could not tell. He said that he had an agent, who had followed Gardner from place to place, who would never lose sight of him. The thought was over-powering to Monica. Were he to be found and condemned, I feared for her reason ; so deep was her feeling upon this point. "I can live and hope while he is free," she had often said, "whilst I think that we can still go to each other if we will."
Were Gardner to be captured, his name again dragged before the world, to be publicly dishonoured, her life or her reason would be involved. I knew it.
Mr. Denham held indeed a powerful hand against us. He played a deep, and a dangerous game. My poor sister was no match for him.
He had only had the rumours of the newspapers to go upon. He could not know surely how much concerned she was, in the fate of the man he named. It was, I took it, guesswork. Had she been cool, indifferent to his threat, had she made light of it, the matter would probably have ended there. But she had let him see into her heart: she had given him a terrible weapon against her.
"What is his object in telling you this?" I questioned. "What does he want?"
"To terrify me," she said, " to make me suffer, to make me feel his power. He says he loves me. I suppose that is what he calls love! Love! Oh Margaret, I hate him, I shrink from him, and I have to meet him there again on Wednesday."
"Why, what more does he wish?" I cried, protestingly.
"Oh, the same thing. I do not expect anything from him but recriminations, threats, and — all that took place to-night, over and over again." She sighed and fell back upon the pillows. Her face looked haggard and pale, against the white background.
I said all that I could think of to comfort her, but it was little enough, though having told me what was on her mind was certainly a relief. I sat beside her for some time — I often did so — and at last she fell asleep.
So it began — the persecution — and so it continued. You, yourself, I understand, were witness of one of my sister's first meetings with the vicar. She told me of some one passing near her and her companion, in the Glen. She came back to me that night in sore trouble.
"Some man went past," she said, "he was almost upon us before we noticed him. I could have gone to him, Margaret, and begged his protection." I asked nothing. "Before he came," she continued presently, with a weary sigh and an averted face, "we were standing by the bridge — and, how can I tell you — Mr. Denham — he dared — to take me in his arms. I broke from him and a cry half escaped me, but he seized me by the shoulder. 'Hush,' he said, 'there is some one coming,' and he drew me with him farther up the Glen, stopping again round the turn, which is only a few yards away. We heard the man come down the path, his feet sounded distinctly on the foot-bridge, we were quite near him." Monica was leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, her face hidden in her hands.
"Yes," I said gently, "and then—"
Her hands sank down and I saw her face colour deeply, and her eyes fall, as she slipped to her knees beside me.
"Then, Margaret, when I dared make no resistance, no sound — Oh, how could he — he flung his arms about me — and kissed me. I wished I could have died. The footsteps passed over the bridge, and then I tried to free myself, with all my might, but I could not. It was horrible.
"'Call for help,' he said, 'call for some one to save you from the man who has loved you all these years, and received payment in insults and mockery. Ah, my lady, am I always to give all and receive nothing? I think not.'" Monica was silent, she looked at me, and misery and despair were in her face.
"I did cry aloud," she went on after a while, " I knew there was no help, but I could not be silent. He ground his teeth with rage and almost flung me from him. Free from his grasp I turned and ran. I ran without stopping till I had left the Glen, and I could run no more. He did not follow me," she ended.
What could I say? I said all that love could suggest, but how could I console her.
"I feel bitterly humiliated, ashamed," she said wearily ; "were it not for Allan — I should — kill myself ; I cannot bear this life, how long shall I be able to endure it?
Her question echoed in my heart.
Chapter XXII: Much is Explained
And now I come to the time, which you will readily recall — the time when you brought the evil tidings to my poor father. It must have been all so inexplicable to you. Could you have looked through the wall, seen there the fugitive of whom you spoke, and realized our position ; you would have understood the reason of my father's dreadful agitation, and the attack which followed it.
Your information was a terrible blow to us. We could not but feel that the person for whom the police were seeking, was my poor sister, and we could do nothing. We were powerless ; if it were really so, if we were watched, it would be fatal to attempt to take her away. We could only wait and see whether our fears had any ground ; the suspense was terrible.
We told Monica nothings she had enough to bear; what we went through is beyond words, I will not attempt to tell you of it.
When you read this, many incidents which must have surprised you at the time will be made clear to you. You remember the night when you spoke of the vicar, and my poor father lost control of himself and became so emphatic?
I recall many things which I know appeared strange to you. You seemed destined about this time to be involved in our affairs.
Believe me, I am truly grateful for the consideration, loyalty and kindness, which you showed through all.
Did a letter of mine to Mr. Denham fall into your hands? I often wondered. If it did so, I knew it was safe with you ; but I often asked myself about it, if you had read it, and what you must think. The letter was one of many. I both spoke to him and wrote to him again and again; we did all we could, but it was useless.
I suppose the explanation of that terrible incident in the Glen is quite clear to you now?
Half mad with misery at her relentless persecution, father had followed Monica that night. I was alone in the house when you rang the door bell. I had just discovered father's absence, and was hastening to follow him, guessing where he had gone, and fearing trouble. I did not answer your ring. I was unable to account for his not being there to see you, and feared that if I went to the door with some excuse, father and Monica might arrive while we talked. Of course, they would have come in by the back, but you would have heard them.
After you had been gone some minutes I slipped out, and was half way to the Glen when Monica met me. I had to return for what was required, and then I made all haste to join you. I had never thought of your going home by the fells. Monica was terribly agitated by all that had happened that night. Poor child. But to return:—
Father came upon her and Mr. Denham. Overhearing what passed, he rushed down and fell upon the vicar with all his strength, and he — brute that he was — he turned savagely upon the old man. Poor Monica's cries brought you to the spot.
Realizing her position when she became calm, she fled from you, and sent me back in her place. You remember all that we did together, our return to the Cottage with my poor father ; and my appeal to you not to speak of what you had seen that night.
I felt I could trust in you to keep it secret, and I was right. I may say how great a relief to us it was that you, in whom we felt from the first an instinctive confidence, should have been the one to come upon the scene in the Glen. What must you think? We conjectured sometimes. Well, there was no help for it, you must think what you might.
Event followed event closely about that time. You wrote to me of the man upon the wall. My blood ran cold when I read your letter. Were the toils closing round us? I strove hard to believe that you had seen a poacher. I did not tell the others. Nothing could be done, but I went about with a burden of fear upon me, like a leaden weight. Night after night I watched and saw nothing, but I was little reassured.
When you came, and unconsciously brought the portrait of Count Mouroff to the house, the sight of it seemed an evil omen to me, though I am not superstitious.
I wonder that, seeing my action that night, you did not recall the story of the count's murder. At the time you must have read it, and seen the portraits of him and his wretched wife; which appeared in several illustrated papers. However, unhappily, so many of these terrible tragedies take place, that they are soon forgotten, and a murder of four years ago is difficult to recall to mind.
It seemed an extraordinary coincidence to you, when you found the photographs dropped by the inspector, who had charge of the pursuit of my unhappy sister. The marked map; which he had doubtless had to guide him, when he first came to the neighbourhood, also attracted your attention.
You know now that it was this man you saw upon the wall, and that, made suspicious by your frequent visits to our house, he had become convinced that you were Allan Gardner. He followed and watched you, in this belief, hoping in time to see his way to a double arrest. The man was a clever detective; later I learned how he had never lost sight of us, after the crime and the disappearance of Monica. His agents had seen her in London, and traced her to the north. He felt sure that she was with us^ but he did nothing hurriedly. He waited and watched till he made conjecture certainty. Well, he did his duty, that was all.
With regard to Allan Gardner, the man was not the only one to be suspicious. The vicar also, as you know from your interview with him ; had begun to imagine that you were not what you appeared to be. You were often at our house, our only visitor practically ; you were a stranger ; it is easy to see how suspicion was excited.
In his first meetings with my sister, though indeed he used Gardner at times as a weapon against her, and a threat to intimidate her ; the vicar was too occupied with her herself to give way to jealousy. He had enough material also, in going back to the time in Switzerland, to torment her, and satisfy himself.
But the time came when your visits attracted his attention, and the idea was aroused that he had a rival at hand.
Monica, as she truly told him, had never even seen you. Then came the encounter in the Glen. Seeing some man approach, Mr. Denham had gone at once, leaving my father and sister to arrange the matter as they might. Later, in a stormy interview with Monica, she told him what had taken place after he left. Her version of it all he utterly refused to believe. "The man is Gardner, your lover," he cried, beside himself with passion.
"As I have said before many a time," she replied steadily, "were Mr. Gardner here, your agents would have informed you of it."
Of late we had become convinced that his threat was an empty one. Some things he had learned, of the unfortunate young man's wanderings. The name under which he had passed some time in Paris after the crime, was known to him. But that he knew of all his movements, and his last place of concealment, was unlikely. Had he been so well informed, he would not have imagined that he was now in the district. Also you had been in the neighborhood for some time, to his knowledge. Therefore he had lost sight of Gardner for a good while, or he could not have imagined you to be he.
So we rightly concluded, and the conclusion brought considerable comfort to Monica. Say what we might to the vicar he was not persuaded as to your identity. He returned an enigmatical answer to our continual reply that he would, of course, know if Gardner were here, since he followed all his movements so closely. He harped upon the subject continually, and was deaf to every argument. By force of dwelling upon the thought it grew to a mania with him. We had begged him again and again not to approach you on the subject. There was every reason against it, but he believed nothing that we said, and heeded nothing. So there came your interview with him on the night of the concert j and our interview resulting from it.
As you spoke, the mad idea came to my mind, that you were really the man for whom Mr. Denham and the police took you. The words that I spoke came to my lips before I realized it, and I would have given anything to recall them. I was half mad that night, barely sensible of what took place around me ; only conscious that at all costs I must betray nothing of my feelings.
Consider the terrible effect of your information. There was no longer any room for hope or doubt ; I had hoped against hope, I had tried to explain away the man's presence upon the wall. But now— now I knew there could be no doubt as to who this man was. Who would carry those photographs, mark those marks upon the map, and follow you. Only a man sent to track down my sister. To drag her from our arms, from the shelter of our home — to destruction. He suspected you as the vicar suspected you.
I say I was half mad. What could be done? I racked my brain for any idea which could save her, but there was only the precarious plan of an escape to the fells. It must be tried; it was the only chance of safety that I could see.
I said nothing ; no step could be taken till later, and nothing remarkable must be done. I went to the concert as you know. Shall I ever forget the agony and suspense of that night? There was no use to hurry home ; she could not leave the cottage till very late.
I sat in my place and thought and thought ; every chance must be considered. It was easier to think there than at home, where I had to break the dreadful news ; to encourage and strengthen my poor sister and father, to act for her preservation.
I scarcely recall what I said to you as we walked home. My brain reeled and could hardly grasp the situation.
I remember you told me what Mr. Denham had said ; you came to me to explain his accusation. Knowing that I must be able to give some explanation, because you had seen me conceal the portrait of Count Mouroff, from my father.
Something I had to tell you ; I did the best I could. It was in my heart to tell you all, for I seemed at the end of my forces ; to ask your help and your advice, though what you could have done Heaven only knows. But, of course, it was impossible to implicate you in such a matter ; though I had perfect faith that at whatever cost, you would not have betrayed us. I felt grateful for your consideration in telling me, before going to the vicarage.
It would not do for you to go there ; there was no knowing what the vicar might say or do in his mad passion ; or what might be the result of an interview with him. So I obtained your promise to let the matter rest. I know it cost you much to give it, and it was very good of you to do so.
I told you what I could ; but, of course, it was a very unconvincing and unsatisfactory story. I had no thoughts to give to its details, and I am sure there was much that it left unexplained. I hardly remember what I said, but I am sure I did not account for the man who followed you, and dropped the photographs. I must have left you to suppose that it might be Gardner, but I have only a hazy recollection of my own words.
I know that you came to that conclusion, by your own inference or my suggestion. You thought Gardner was some relation of ours in hiding, and that it was he for whom the police were seeking. You know now that your information as to the fugitive was very slight indeed; because the higher authorities had not thought it well to entrust the story to the local constable. He had heard little, but imagined a good deal. The fugitive was, he never doubted, a man, and from his conviction many perplexities arose for you.
Have I explained all the points which were not clear, up to the night of the concert? That dreadful night! When I have finished this sad record, I shall read it to make sure that I have omitted nothing essential. And now I must write the end.
Chapter XXIII: Monica's Flight
It is sad writing for me, and I will not write more than need be of what followed.
My dear girl ran out into the hall to meet me, a glad light of welcome on her sweet, worn face. I tell you, Mr. Ashton, the woman who in the madness of her agony, struck Count Mouroff to the heart, was as sweet a woman as ever walked this earth. I do not excuse her act ; but I say read all that I have written, and be yourself the judge. A little I have tried to tell you of what she endured, but it should be magnified a thousand-fold, before it could approach the truth. No words could tell it, such misery must be felt to be understood.
"You are early," she said, taking off my wraps ; "father was only just thinking of starting, but I have your supper all ready. I must just make the cocoa," and she went to the kitchen^ returning in a moment with her tray.
I forced myself to eat the little supper that her loving hands had prepared; it nearly choked me. How could I tell her?
After a few words on my entrance, father had become absorbed in a book ; but she sat before me, and she quickly saw that I was not myself.
"What is it?" she questioned in a low voice, and her face grew troubled ; "something has happened. Mr. Denham — he has said or done something? Tell me."
"I did not even speak to him."
The time had come, and though I knew that every second might weigh in the balance of Fate, I could not speak. I had wasted ten minutes already. I must tell her. Good God, even now they might be at the gate! I gazed at her in despair, and saw the colour come and go, for she knew me too well not to understand that I was stirred to the heart.
"Don't be afraid to tell me," she said slowly, and father catching the words, turned in his chair.
"What is it?" he questioned.
I looked from one to the other, I saw their anxious faces through a mist. I tried to speak, but I could not. With all my might I fought against myself: it was no time for my strength to fail.
"It is," I said, "that — Monica is no longer safe here ; she must leave this house to-night. Father — oh, for her sake bear up——" he had sprung from his seat, and reeled against the mantlepiece.
My words steadied him as nothing else could. Monica sat with wide-opened staring eyes ; she said nothing, she gave no sign, but as we looked at her she fell forward fainting, and would have fallen to the floor had I not caught her in my arms.
So white and still she was, that for one horrible second the thought came to me that she was dead. It would have been better so, but ignorant of the future, I thanked God to see her breathe, and feel her heart beat beneath my hand. I think the necessity of attending to my poor sister, saved father from the worst results of the shock he had received.
I had told the bad news in the worst possible way, without preparation or forethought ; unnerved and despairing, I had forgotten all caution. Thank God the effect was no worse. In my folly / might have caused his death then. Poor father I We laid my sister down, we did everything in our power to restore her. Without a question or a word father helped me, but it was long before she opened her eyes, and looked unseeingly at us. A few seconds she was conscious, and then with a deep sigh she relapsed into oblivion.
Again and again she partially recovered, only to faint once more. What could be done ; time pressed? In agony I watched the clock. It was impossible to say that we were safe for the night. I could not tell when the man who had tracked us might take action. He might wait days, or he might come at any moment. I marvelled that he had not come before.
More than an hour we strove to restore Monica, and all in vain. Across her still form I looked up at last, and met my father's eyes.
"Will she be able to go to-night?" he asked.
"If not, we must carry her away somewhere rather than run the risk of her being arrested ; they may come to-night."
"Tell me what you heard, how you know," he said ; and I told him everything.
"Could the man not be Gardner?" he questioned curiously. "Is it not possible he might be here, and fear to risk seeing her, and letting her know?" I shook my head.
"I thought of it," I answered ; "but she heard from him at Yarmouth a few days ago. This man has been here longer, and then he would not carry the count's picture, or follow Mr. Ashton. No, there is every reason against it ; this is the last place he would come to. He has often written that he would not go near her, till she could get to some safe place out of the country." My father nodded.
"One grasps at any hope," he said. "My brain is quite confused."
"And mine," I answered ; "to-night for a moment I even doubted whether Mr. Ashton were not Allan Gardner." He hardly seemed to hear. Holding my sister's cold hand in his, he looked sadly at her unconscious face, and the tears ran silently down his cheeks.
"I will go, and make some preparation, dear," I said, and I went out and left him. No words could comfort him, nothing that I could do would console him in this terrible grief. Alone with his beloved child, he stayed ; it was best so. As I left the room he fell on his knees beside her, and our mother's name was on his Ups.
Slipping out to the stable, I saddled the horse. Job ; I was well used to the work. I had practised and become an expert at it purposely. Everything stood ready. The stable window blocked, that my light might not be seen. It was not unusual for father to sit up late, so that the lights in the house would not be remarkable ; but outside I took every precaution that I might be neither seen nor heard at my work. It was but a few minutes before the horse stood ready, with muffled feet. He had often been out at night and was to be trusted. A parcel with food and a flask I fastened on the off side, and then crept back to the house, determined to take my sister away, were she conscious or unconscious. Though how I could have managed in the latter case I cannot tell. I burned with impatience to remove her from the house.
The night had become dark and misty, it was a favourable night for us. In the hall I glanced at the clock; it was now between one and two in the morning. Surely we were safe till daylight, but there was no knowing. In my apprehension I strained my ears for the sound of feet upon the garden path, and seemed to hear them coming, coming.
In the dining-room I found Monica sitting up and fully conscious ; she had been talking to father, she knew where I had been.
"I am tired of fighting against Fate," she said ; "I will stay here, Margaret. Let us spend what time there is left together."
"Monica," I cried, "after all that has been done and endured will you give in now I Father, speak to her!"
"Child, he said, "if you are taken it will kill me. I could never see your mother's——" he broke off,
"For our sakes," I urged, " and for — his sake " but my father's words had already brought her to her feet.
"I will go," she had said resolutely, and she threw her arms about us both as we stood beside her, and laid her head a moment upon father's breast.
"Come, Monica," I said, and I gently drew her to the door. "When we are sure it is safe, he will come up and see you." I wrapped a warm cape about her, and put a soft woollen cap upon her head ; for the spring nights were cold.
My plans had all been made long before, and the hiding-place chosen. Monica had been to it with me several times ; at night in the first peaceful period of our stay at the Moor Cottage. Once on the fell, I hoped she would be safe, till we could see our way further. The cave was very difficult of access, though I had arranged a method of descent. Surely she would be secure there for a little while? It was miles from civilization and known to few people. One of hundreds of caves which honeycombed the fells.
Through the back door I crept, holding my sister by the hand, whilst father followed. My heart beat wildly ; I should never know a moment's relief till Monica was safely away. Would she have strength for the journey? I noted with joy that she walked firmly, and seemed wonderfully composed. She was a very fine horsewoman, and if her strength held out the ride would be nothing to her.
It was impossible for most of the way to go beyond a walking pace: I was strong, I could keep up with her, and be back with the horse by daylight. I led Job out, and a moment later Monica stooped from his back and kissed father ; as he held open the yard gate. We passed softly through, leaving him behind, and so on up the wood path. Not a word was spoken, and I could barely see father, but I knew the silent agony in his heart ; and I felt the brave fortitude with which my sister accepted her part unquestioningly. Through the darkness of the wood we passed quickly, to the part where the track crosses over the rocks. You know the soft damp path, and you know how suddenly one comes upon those rocks?
How, I cannot tell, unless he pulled it loose with his teeth whilst he waited in the stable ; but one of the pads had slipped from Job's feet since we left the yard, though I did not know it. And now the sharp crash of his shoe upon the rock, rang through the wood. I am convinced that it was this sound only that betrayed us. My hand was on the horse's rein, for I was leading him, and I instantly drew him up, tearing the muffler from my throat. But, good God I at that moment came a tearing of brushwood, and a breaking of branches; a shout and a curse.
"Monica! oh, Monica, go, for God's sake I" I cried wildly, and I struck the horse upon the neck with all my might. He darted forward, startled by the suddenness of the blow. Monica called out something to me, I know not what, and they were gone ; as a shot whistled past me, and crashed into the bushes at my side. I think I screamed, the tension of my nerves was more than I could bear. Would she escape? Would she escape?
And then a blessed thing happened. Two men rushed upon me as I stood, and I caused them a moment's delay; for they took me for my sister. It was a couple of minutes before a dark lantern flashed in my face, revealed their mistake; and I was flung aside as they rushed on.
I was helpless — impotent; I could do nothing. Partially recovering my senses, I staggered back towards home. There was father, I must go to him. I prayed aloud for her safety as I went, forgetting the well-known road, and striking against the trees at every turn. Down the path to the yard gate ; and there I stumbled and fell upon the body of my poor father, and for the first time in my life I fainted and knew no more.
Chapter XXIV: The End of the Narrative
IT has cost me much to write of all these things, and I fear I have done it so badly, that you will form a faint idea of the events I have tried to describe. You know how I came to myself in our house, and that I opened my eyes to see my father's corpse borne into the room.
I heard she was not taken, but I scarcely understood. I looked at his dead face, and I touched his cold hand, and the coldness sent a shudder, like the chill of death, to my heart.
I remember next an opening of doors, and some one saying outside in the hall: "She has fallen down a pothole — a, man's just brought word. Alive? Not likely! It's a fifty-foot drop ; she's dead, and the horse too. Who ever heard of such a thing!"
A fifty-foot drop — dead — and the horse too.
It was, as you know, weeks before I recovered from the illness, which resulted from the horror of that night.
I woke one fine morning. I did not know who I was, or where I was.
In time I knew that I lay in Mrs. Franklyn's guest-room, and that the sweet-faced lady who sat by me was your dear mother.
God bless her for all she did for me. Shall I ever forget how in your lovely Surrey home she nursed me back to strength, and health of mind and body?
Through the influence of your family, and through humanity in high places, I escaped unpunished for my share in the concealment of our poor fugitive.
I had few friends and no home, and you and your mother gave me a home, and made your friends my friends. To you I owe the happiness which came to blot out the dreadful past. I can never repay you. But I thank you with all my heart.
Time has softened my grief, and I am able to write of these dreadful events which left me alone in the world. Even in my first agony I could thank God, that my sister did not live to become the wife of Mr. Denham. Had she lived, I cannot see how she could have avoided a second loveless, soulless marriage.
He had begun to press it very urgently upon her, his idea being that she should leave the country, and marry him abroad.
He would return to Stanton with his wife, and some plausible explanation, and no one would even be led to suspect her identity.
She refused, deferred, implored consideration ; my poor father and I also tried by every possible means to move him. But he was firm. It must be.
She would have married him, or she would have taken her own life. It was better as fate ordained. Yes, better the sharp and sudden agony of her tragic death, than the bitterness of a lifetime with a man she abhorred ; or the sin which should thrust her still farther from God's mercy.
Of him — the man whose sinister influence overshadowed her last days on earth — of him I try to think less hardly than I used. Yet I cannot ; no, I can never forgive him. I consider it all; I realize how the great passion of his life overmastered him, how in it he lost sight of his better self. He had a better self. I have heard of good actions of his, and kind words.
Into his hard and cold nature came the great overwhelming, pitiless emotion of which only such a nature is capable — a love without a soul ; cruel, over-bearing, akin to hate. It had gathered strength with the brooding of those four years, and resentment had grown with it, till it formed a part of it.
I can understand how the man was carried away, but yet I cannot forgive. I remember the suffering of my sister's last days, and I feel it too keenly to forgive the man who broke in upon her peace ; and turned it to misery and bitterness. The heart-burning and anxiety that she, my father, and myself endured before the end, ate into my life, and left a mark which will remain until the day of my death.
Of all the dreadful tragedy, it seems to me the most pitiable part, that cruel surprise that came to us in our time of peace and quietness. He came — that man — like some evil spirit, or beast of prey. Ah, but I must not write of it ; I should not write like this, it is useless and worse than useless. Monica did not — she the sufferer — she did not speak or think so bitterly. Let me say, God forgive him, and write no more.
Book III: Arian Ashton Resumes
Chapter XXV: I Interview White
I Think that this narrative of Miss Clarke's makes clear the whole story, of the sad and terrible family disaster, which led up to the events I have recorded earlier in these notes.
There is little left for me to tell of the occurrences at Stanton-on-Sudley, save the interview which I had with White, the inspector, after Hedley's visit to the farm. My mysterious experiences are explained by the story which Miss Clarke has given ; and all that appeared so puzzling and strange to me before the death of the poor young countess, is made clear and comprehensible.
Franklyn and I started to interview White, immediately after the constable left us, only pausing, as the farmer put it, "to clean ourselves." We did not find White at the place to which we were directed. He was, we were informed, at the Moor Cottage, and there we followed him.
It was sad to me to stand again in the Clarkes' pretty sitting-room, where I had so often chatted and played chess, with the dead man, who lay so still in the darkened room overhead. The blinds were down, the house gloomy and chill. Jane Ogden and her mother, with scared faces, went quietly to and fro. The inspector was there, they would send him to us if we would wait.
Every one now knew White in his real character. The man had lived in the neighbourhood for some time, unsuspected, concealing his purpose by an assumed occupation. But now all concealments were at an end ; they had served their purpose. Short though the time was, that had elapsed since his mission became known ; not only the immediate neighbourhood, but every newspaper-reader in England, was aware that since Count Mouroff's death, Inspector White had been engaged in the pursuit of his murderer. Yes, for more than four years this man had concentrated all his thoughts and powers, upon the hunting of the unhappy girl who had met her death before my eyes. Well, as Miss Clarke has written, it was his duty.
Death had intervened between him and the attainment of his purpose. It was very well that it should be so. From my heart I pitied the poor fugitive ; surely, indeed, she had been more sinned against than sinning! Already at that period, I had learned enough of her story to feel convinced of this. Death, that had seemed so cruel, was really merciful to the young countess, and to those who loved her. Better too it was, that her father had not outlived her. The terrible events which had occurred, were in fact less dreadful than what might have been.
White — Jane Ogden told us — was "throng" (busy) "writing in the laboratory," but it was not long before he joined us in the room below.
He was a thick-set, clean-shaven man of middle age and average height. It was already clear to me that this was the hero of some of the episodes, which had seemed so odd to me a few days before. The outline of the man upon the moor came back to my mind, as I remarked the figure of the inspector.
"Good-day, gentlemen," he said, advancing. "Mr. Ashton, and Mr. Franklyn of the Gill farm, I believe?"
"That's so," replied my companion, nodding his sandy head.
"I was coming to see you, Mr. Ashton," the other proceeded. "I am glad to have this opportunity of expressing my regret for — "he frowned, and hesitated for fitting words.
"For my having been arrested?" I returned. "It is about that matter that I wish to see you. Mr. Franklyn and myself came here because——"
"I do assure you, gentlemen," he broke in excitedly; "I do assure you it was none of my doing, it was a piece of arrant folly on the part of the local constable. I was never more annoyed in my life than over this business. I wouldn't have had it happen for a great deal."
"I have just seen Hedley," I replied. "He gave me to understand that you were considerably annoyed." The man was drumming on the table, with nervous excitement.
"He did, did he? It was the least he could do."
"It's like this," said Franklyn, "Hedley's to blame, no doubt, but not over much, and he can't help if he isn't as quick at the uptake, as he might be. He's terrible put out over this job, and a family man that has little uns to fend for, as should be considered. Now, me and Mr. Ashton here, as is most concerned ; have come to tell you what we think, hearing you were for reporting Hedley, poor chap. Don't you be after such a thing, Mr. White: you'd do an ill deed."
"I am, I think, the chief sufferer," I said, as the inspector stood before us without replying, "so I feel I have some right to a word in the matter."
"Most certainly, sir," replied he, as I paused for an answer.
"Well, then my word must be in favour of Hedley. I should be sorry to see him suffer for this unfortunate affair."
"He acted without authorisation," said White, between his teeth.
"Quite true," I said ; "but there are many excuses for him. I am content to recognize them, and let the matter rest ; it would be a satisfaction to me if you will do the same."
"The fellow has been a sore trial to me," he replied, pacing the room ; "but sit down, gentlemen, sit down. I should be glad of a little explanation with you."
We sat down. In that very same chair I had passed the evening so often, while Mr. Clarke discussed his favourite topics with me, and his daughter sat by with her work!
It was sad to look round the room, and see it unchanged, with their little possessions lying here and there, as they had been left. The chess-board, the pipes, the work-basket ; and there before the fireless hearth the little dog mournfully sat; gazing at us with wondering and resentful eyes. He did not understand it all, he did not like the changes that had come.
"You want to tell me how it was that you came to suspect me of being Gardner," I said to the inspector, " but I think I can see it all. I understand he was attached to the Countess Mouroff. You suspect her presence here. They had been together at one time, you conclude that I am he from many reasons. I am a stranger ; it was not unnatural. It is all over now, it does not matter at all I beg you won't in any way trouble about it," I ended hastily, in an attempt to ward off a further dose of apologies. I had had enough already from Hedley.
"You are very good," said White, "but I must say how sincerely I regret the unfortunate mistake. It was of course my duty to leave no stone unturned in the Mouroff case, and every possibility had to be considered. I have, however, been too long in my profession to act on possibilities, and had it not been for the officious interference of the constable, you would have suffered no inconvenience, I assure you."
"We allow he's to blame," Franklyn said ; "but you see we've all a liking for him round here, and there isn't one would wish him harm. Now about the reporting?"
The inspector smiled. "Set your minds at rest," he replied. "I had almost thought better of it before you came, and now I have seen you, and heard what you have to say, I am decided to do nothing in the matter."
"That's grand," cried Franklyn; and he slapped his thigh, and shook White by the hand, while I also expressed my satisfaction in my own way.
"Glad to do anything for you, gentlemen," White said, "and pleased especially, Mr. Ashton, to accommodate you, after the inconvenience you have had over this case. It wasn't my wish, sir, as I think you must see. I did think you might be Gardner, and I set to work to find out about you. I watched, and followed you, and obtained the address of the place you were said to come from. After some trouble, I discovered at last that you were what you purported to be ; but before the news came, that wretched Hedley must chip in and spoil everything. There seems to be no method, no sense, and no art in these country constables. I've had trouble before, but this man——"
He was off again, but I had heard enough of his subject.
"Tell me," I said, as he paused a moment to choose his terms, "it was with you that I had a struggle in the yard at the farm?" He assented with a laugh.
"You tore my coat!" he said. Franklyn had heard the whole story from me, and he chimed in eagerly—
"And you let fall——"
"Photographs of the late Count Mouroff and his wife, also a map of the country? I missed them later, and thought that I must have lost them when Mr. Ashton fell upon me, in your yard."
"You did," I replied, and I laid them on the table ; "let me restore them. May I ask if I disturbed you one night upon the garden wall, outside here?"
"You did," he answered. "I was watching the house to discover if that poor lady were really there ; also you, to see if you would give me a clue to her whereabouts."
"I am afraid I gave you a lot of unnecessary trouble!" He smiled.
"And I you," he said, "without the least intention to do so. You are interested in the Mouroff case, Mr. Ashton? There is no need now to make any mystery about it. If there is anything you would like to know, I shall be happy to do anything I can."
"Thanks very much," I replied. "It is a sad case, sadder to me because I knew Mr. Clarke^ and his elder daughter^ well. You have been, I understand, following it up from the first?"
"I have, sir," he answered, "and a long and weary business it has been, but a case of interest and importance. I, and my men, traced the poor lady bit by bit, from place to place. One of my fellows tracked her down here, but it was some while after she'd come, and we couldn't be sure if she was in the place still or no. I always hoped to make the arrest through keeping an eye on her relatives, so it wasn't my policy to alarm them in any way, or let them guess they were watched."
"I see," said Franklyn, "so that was why you stopped about, and ferreted round, as it were."
"Yes, to make sure."
"And how did you make sure?" I inquired.
"You'd hear the voices, likely enough," said the farmer.
"No, I could not distinguish the countess's voice, but I was nearly sure a week or so ago, from some footprints I found in the wood. Of course, I couldn't always be about, and the poor lady had been on the fells ; no doubt she often was, but I was not certain till"
"Till she tried to escape. Finding myself unable to manage the matter alone, I got down one of my men, and we could keep a better watch. I had worked single-handed, I prefer it, and, besides, I particularly wished to attract no attention."
"Yes; and you and he were both here together, we heard say," remarked Franklyn.
"That was so. We heard the horse's feet upon the stones in the wood, and I knew in a moment what was happening. We rushed up, and dimly saw horse and rider. Then we came upon Miss Clarke, and for a moment I hoped I had got my prisoner. I was confused, you see. We made all speed after the countess, but pursuit was impossible."
"Poor Mr. Clarke," I said. "I know what the state of his health was ; no doubt the noise of the encounter in the wood "
"I fear so," White replied gravely. "I fear the shock was too much for him." Franklyn shook his head sadly.
"You'll be aware," he said, "me, and Mr. Ashton, and my shepherd, Jimmy — Dodds by the family name — was up yonder when the poor young thing was killed." He turned a thumb in the direction of the fells.
"Yes," said White, "a sad affair, a very sad affair, but better than——"
"You are right," I interrupted, unwilling to hear more.
"It was a sight that none of us three'll ever forget," the farmer said slowly. "Likely the poor girl was lost in the fog, however should she have come to the pothole else? It would be the caves at the south side she'd be making for, to hide in ; or else she was for crossing the hills to take the rail."
"The caves would be a good hiding-place," the inspector said. "I have little doubt she hoped to reach them ; that the fog misled her, and she wandered here and there, till she met her death. Well, well."
I recalled the weary figure upon the spent horse, as he spoke ; and I stood up and looked through the window in silence a moment. Then a thought occurred to me.
"Did I ever disturb you, watching at this window?" I asked. He shook his head.
"It must have been a poacher," I said. "I saw a man once in the garden," but I said to myself that it was most certainly Miss Clarke's lover. I would be careful to keep her secret. At that time I did not connect the vicar's visits to the place with the unfortunate countess. In my mind he was still "Miss Clarke's lover."
Passing to another matter, I mentioned to the inspector that I had showed the photographs he had let fall, to Miss Clarke ; and we rightly surmised how my action had hastened the end.
The end was near in any case, unavoidable ; still I grieved at the part I had played.
Chapter XXVI: I Bring my Tale to an End
When, after some further conversation with the inspector, we left the Moor Cottage, I brought away Miss Clarke's little dog with me.
In the months that followed, the poor lady recovered her health and strength. Still, for all my mother could do it was a sad face that she bore about, and I cannot but think that she would never have been the same again but for the happy events ; in telling which I must draw this record to a close.
One day as we sat at tea, a card was brought to Miss Clarke, and she read aloud the name upon it.
"Sherwood," she mused, and then suddenly a light broke upon her face, and she leant forward, and said a few words to my mother. When the servant had gone she told me that the name of poor Allan Gardner's friend, was Sherwood. She recalled it now for the first time. "I do not doubt this is he," she said, and her face was flushed with excitement.
"We will leave you to talk to him," I said.
"No, no, stay," she answered, but we thought it best to leave Mr. Sherwood, to state his errand in private.
Half an hour later we knew what the errand was, for Miss Clarke came to tell us.
Since the tragedy at Stanton, nothing whatever had been heard of Gardner. Our guest, since her recovery, had thought a great deal of him. But owing to her ignorance of his whereabouts, and having no means of ascertaining the address of the friend, who had forwarded his letters to her sister, she was unable to hear anything.
And now she had received news that was sad news indeed. Mr. Sherwood had heard by chance where she was to be found. He felt that she would take an interest in one who was so deeply attached to the sister, she had sheltered with such unremitting care and love.
He therefore sought her out to tell her that Gardner had survived the countess, by a few days only.
He was buried, before his friend heard of his death; so that he wisely refrained from coming forward, and the dead man's memory was undisturbed.
It seemed, poor Gardner's body was cast up upon the sea shore, near Yarmouth, where he had been staying. It was supposed that he had fallen from the cliffs. No relatives or friends presenting themselves, the unfortunate man was quietly buried in a little churchyard hard by. Enough money was found at his lodgings to pay the expenses, and the few debts.
And so his story was ended.
"Allan Gardner's memory will always be honoured by me," said Miss Clarke, when she had told us all she had heard ; and she turned away, and stood looking silently out of the window for a few moments.
"I should like you to meet this Mr. Sherwood," she said presently. "Will you come in and see him, Mrs. Ashton?"
My mother went at once ; and presently I followed, to find her deep in conversation with a big, fair, good-looking and kindly-faced man.
Mr. Sherwood was a bank manager from the Midlands, a man of some means, and considerable education. I liked him at once, and on our proposing that he should stay and dine, he was glad to accept the invitation.
It seemed he was putting up in the town, and intended to spend a fortnight's holiday in the neighbourhood. My mother told him we should be glad to see him at any time ; and we saw a great deal of him in the three weeks that followed. He was so delighted with the country that he prolonged his holiday — so he said. But we saw through his excuse. There was another, and far greater attraction. He was an excellent fellow. My mother thanked the kind Providence that had sent him, to bring back brightness and happiness, to the poor lady who had endured so greatly, and suffered so much.
They were married from our house, and they are the happiest couple of my acquaintance.
So I finish the story that I set out to tell. I am afraid I have told it extremely ill, and I fear I may have left many points unexplained, among the strange events of the mystery of Stanton. However, if it be so, I fancy they are such as the reader can himself explain, without much difficulty.
This has been a sad story, but it is well to know that Miss Clarke, after all her troubles, is happier than she ever hoped to be.
One word more: I never saw Mr. Denham again, but he continued vicar of Stanton for many years. He took his annual holiday after the dreadful occurrence, which must have touched him so nearly. I do not doubt that he was justly punished for the part he had played. Word came to Stanton, after he had been away a few weeks, to the effect that he was in bad health, and intended to travel for some months.
So a locum tenens reigned in his stead during the remainder of my stay at the Gill farm, which I left, with sincere regret, at the end of my year. As I say, I never met the strange man again, nor do I ever desire to do so. The Franklyns I still see from time to time. It is always a pleasure to me to meet these true-hearted, simple people, with whom I spent such an adventurous, and memorable visit.