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Title: The Case of Mrs. Ruhmkorff's Will Author: Percy Andreae * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1202031h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2012 Date most recently updated: June 2012 Produced by:Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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It was late one hot afternoon towards the middle of June when the matron, calling me into her sanctum at Guy's, placed the following telegram in my hands:—
"To the Matron, Guy's Hospital, London.
"Send immediately bright and capable nurse to Mrs. Francis Cunninghame, Glen Elc, Scadbury. Case of melancholia. Patient a gentleman. Wire time of arrival to Glen Elc, and carriage will be in waiting at Scadbury Junction. Urgent.
"DOCTOR JOSEPH CRACKENTHORPE."
"It is not your turn to go out, Nurse Forsyth," the matron remarked, when I had perused the message, "but you are at present the only one of the available staff who is suited for the case. There is a train to Scadbury at 7.45 p.m. Of course, you are not obliged to go, if you prefer not."
The last words had reference to the fact that I had but barely returned to the hospital from nursing a case of typhoid, and could by the rules of the establishment have claimed exemption from outside duties for a certain period.
But I loved my profession, and feeling no need of rest, I immediately signified my readiness to take charge of the case in question.
A nurse's life is a singular alternation of novelty and monotony. An hour after my interview with the matron I was seated in a cab en route for Liverpool-street station, and within another hour I had alighted at the small country platform dignified by the name of 'Scadbury Junction.' I was just enlisting the services of a porter to convey my trunk outside the station, where I expected to find the conveyance promised in the telegram, when a man in the livery of a footman stepped up to me.
"Leave that to me, miss," he said touching his hat. "The brougham is waiting at the gate. Just step in, and I'll attend to the trunk."
"You are from Glen Elc, I suppose?" I said, handing him my portmanteau and a small satchel which I had on my arm.
"Yes, miss," he answered. "From Mrs. Cunninghame's."
And having aided the porter to raise my trunk to his shoulder, he led the way to the station exit, where a handsome brougham drawn by a pair of well-groomed bays stood in waiting.
"How far is the drive to Glen Elc?" I asked, as it entered the carriage.
"About half-an-hour, miss," the footman said, pulling up the window on one side, and closing the carriage door. "It's likely to be a wet one, too, for there's a storm coming. The trunk is all you've got, I suppose, miss?"
"That is all, thank you," I said.
He climbed up to his seat, the coachman whipped up his horses, and we drove off at a rapid pace along a country road leading, as I supposed, to the village or townlet of Scadbury.
Owing to the thick thunderclouds that had meanwhile gathered overhead, it was too dark at that hour for me to distinguish much of the surroundings through which we passed. Only at intervals a vivid flash of lightning illumined for a moment the more immediate landscape, showing me that the road we were driving along was bounded on one side by a high hedge, beyond which one caught an occasional glimpse of meadows and trees, and on the other by a large green expanse like a common, which was dotted here and there with low shrubs, and looked through the rain that now peltered down in torrents very gloomy and desolate. But I saw no sign of a town or village. Apparently Glen Elc was a country residence in the full sense of the term.
The drive seemed to me interminable. Gradually, however, the horses fell into a slower pace, which presently changed from a trot to a walk, and I felt by the sloping position of the carriage that we were ascending a hill. Of a sudden we stopped. I heard footsteps on a gravel path, then the swinging of a gate, and a moment later we turned into what appeared to be the entrance to some private grounds.
We were at our destination at last, I thought to myself, with a sigh of relief. I peered through the carriage window, and saw lights twinkling in the distance. The storm had now burst in its full fury, and the noise of the thunder was so continuous that it drowned every other sound—even that of the rain which dashed against the carriage windows with a force that was apparent enough to the eye, though, as I have said, I could hear nothing but the crashing explosions overhead.
I am not a believer in omens, but I could not repress a shudder of dismay at the thought of arriving at my journey's end under such tempestuous conditions, and, when the carriage suddenly came to a stop under a kind of portico lighted by a huge lamp encased in red and blue glass, I experienced for the first time a feeling of regret at not having availed myself of my privilege to refuse this case and let one of the other nurses take my place.
With this feeling I alighted and passed into the hall, where a benevolent-looking old butler received me, and, after directing the footman to convey the 'young lady's' luggage to her room, informed me, in a tone of mild reproach, that Mrs. Cunninghame had been anxiously awaiting me for the last half-hour.
The house, I perceived, was large and old-fashioned, but comfortably and handsomely appointed. The room into which the old servitor now proceeded to usher me, leaving me there with the assurance that Mrs. Cunninghame would be downstairs in a few minutes, was a fine specimen of a gentleman's study, panelled in oak, thickly carpeted, with bookshelves all round, and with every indication of comfort and luxury. I had scarcely had time to look round me, however, when the door opened, and a little lady of motherly appearance entered.
As she approached me, an expression of surprise settled on her face, and she eyed me with an air of doubtful scrutiny.
"You are Nurse Forsyth?" she inquired, motioning me to a seat near the lamp. "You must excuse me if I look a little surprised," she added, with a kind, though rather melancholy, smile, "but I scarcely expected anyone quite so young. Pray take off your things. You must have had a very unpleasant drive through this thunderstorm."
I obeyed by divesting myself of my bonnet and dust-cloak. It was not the first time that my youth had been objected to; and although such objections are not of the pleasantest, there was something so distinguished and winning about this little lady that I took it as a compliment rather than otherwise.
"I desire to have a few words with you before I take you to my son," she continued when I had resumed my seat. "I presume Dr. Crackenthorpe has given you his instructions in a general way. But he may have omitted to state that my poor boy is quite unconscious of the gravity of his case, and that it has been thought advisable to keep him in ignorance of it."
I told her that I had so far received no instructions with regard to any patient, but had only been informed that he was suffering from melancholia.
Mrs. Cunninghame shook her head sadly.
"It has been a terrible blow to us," she said. "Three months ago no one dreamed of this dreadful affliction, and even now I cannot bring myself to believe in it. You see, accidents are sometimes so strange, and I have still hopes that our sombre conclusions regarding the cause of Clive's injury may prove to be erroneous."
This was the first intimation I had received that my prospective patient was suffering from an injury—a broken leg, in fact, as Mrs. Cunninghame proceeded to inform me—and I was naturally not a little anxious to ascertain what connection existed between his physical disablement and the melancholy condition into which he had lapsed.
The tears started into the poor lady's eyes as she answered my inquiry.
"We have every reason to fear that poor Clive broke his leg while attempting to destroy himself. Of course it may all have been an accident, and, as I have said, I still trust it may prove so. But," she added in a low, awed tone, "about a month ago he narrowly escaped shooting himself with a pistol. The wound he received, though fortunately slight, was of such a nature that in the doctor's opinion it could only have been inflicted with deliberate intent. It was on that occasion that we learned of a previous attempt of the poor boy to throw himself down a well in the grounds. The under-gardener, who happened most providentially to be at work near the spot, and who grappled with Clive at the critical moment, came forwards afterwards and related what had occurred."
I confess I felt not a little disturbed at these revelations. Under the circumstances, Mr. Clive Cunninghame appeared to be in far greater need of a male keeper than a female sick-nurse.
"Do you attribute your son's unhappy frame of mind to any known cause?" I asked.
Mrs. Cunninghame hesitated before she replied.
"We have our fears," she said evasively; "but we know nothing positively. I have merely entered into these details, nurse, to put you on your guard," she added. "My son has been given to understand that it is merely the condition of his injured limb which renders the presence of a skilled nurse in the house necessary. Nor does anyone else divine the real reason of your coming. You will understand that the nature of Mr. Cunninghame's affliction makes it desirable to avoid anything like publicity. Dr. Crackenthorpe is an old family friend, and I can rely upon him implicitly. Beyond him, however, and one other, no living soul knows the sad truth. Even our household has no inkling of the real state of affairs. If, as I fervently hope and pray, this dark cloud should once be removed from my poor boy's spirit, I desire that the knowledge of its ever having hung over him shall be limited to those only who are nearest and dearest to him."
She spoke so simply that I felt quite affected. Notwithstanding, I registered a mental vow to communicate at once the following morning with the hospital authorities, and request my immediate recall from the case, as I felt it was not one for which I was fitted either physically or otherwise.
"If you will come with me," Mrs. Cunninghame now said, rising, "I will introduce you to your patient."
She passed out of the study, and, conducting me across the hall, stopped in front of a door opposite the room we had left.
"My son's room is next to this one," she said in a whisper, pointing to another door a little further off; "but we pass in and out of it through the adjoining room, which I have had prepared for you. Until now some one has always sat there to be at hand in case of any new misfortune."
Indeed, when we entered I found that it was occupied by the old butler who had received me. He rose when he saw us, and retired upon a signal from Mrs. Cunninghame. From this room a door, partly open, led into another apartment, which we now entered. It had evidently been a reception-room, and was only temporarily fitted up as a sick-chamber. A reading-lamp stood upon a small table in the centre of the room, shedding a strong light on a couch immediately beside it, but so shaded that the rest of the apartment was only dimly lighted. The figure lying on the couch was that of a young man of about 26, who bore a striking resemblance to Mrs. Cunninghame herself. He was apparently deeply absorbed in the book he held before him, for he did not raise his eyes from it until Mrs. Cunninghame stood beside his couch. When he looked up I noticed that he had a singularly handsome face, and a pair of bright, blue-gray eyes, in whose expression there was something fearless and straightforward, which impressed me very agreeably.
"This is Nurse Forsyth, dear," Mrs. Cunninghame said, placing her hand caressingly upon his head.
"I'm sure I am extremely pleased to make the acquaintance of Nurse Forsyth, mother," he answered in a grave tone, which seemed to me to have a tinge of raillery about it. Then, with great deliberation, he laid down his book, reached over to the lamp on the table, turned the shade in such a manner as to throw the light full upon my face, and said: "You won't object to my having a good look at you, nurse? It naturally interests a fellow to see what kind of a tyrant he is going to knuckle under to."
If his tone before had appeared to me one of raillery, the bright, almost jocular manner in which he now spoke was so unmistakable that I looked fairly surprised. Before I could find a suitable reply, however, Mr. Clive Cunninghame suddenly raised himself on his couch, gazed at me with a comical expression of incredulity, then sank back again into his former recumbent position, and, turning to his mother, emitted a low whistle expressive of intense surprise.
"By Jove!" he ejaculated under his breath.
The words were no doubt not intended to reach my ears. They did reach them, however, and caused a temporary blush to mount to my cheeks. Probably Mr. Cunninghame noticed it, for I saw a smile of amusement pass over his features, and he lay there for a moment surveying me with an air of quiet satisfaction.
"Thank you, nurse," he then remarked, in the coolest fashion imaginable. "I'm perfectly satisfied. If we don't get along together very well, I bet it won't be my fault."
The whole situation, after all I had heard of the sad mental condition of my prospective charge, struck me as so ludicrous that I felt for a moment an irrepressible desire to laugh. The very idea of this athletic young gentleman of twenty-six suffering from melancholia seemed to me absurd. Certainly his whole appearance and bearing would have led one to believe him capable of any kind of mischief rather than that of destroying his own existence. Yet the fact remained that the doctor had distinctly stated the case to be one of melancholia; and though I had my grave doubts as to the dreadful conclusions mentioned to me by his mother, it could not be denied that they tallied with, and to a certain extent corroborated, Dr. Crackenthorpe's statement.
Mrs. Cunninghame was regarding her son all this while with an air of anxious solicitude, which I observed she was at pains to conceal from him; for the moment he turned his eyes in her direction her face brightened into a forced smile, and, smoothing his pillow, she said:
"We have not come to have a long conversation with you, dear boy. It is past 10 o'clock, and high time for invalids like you to be asleep. Let nurse make you comfortable for the night, and don't do any more reading this evening."
I fancy he saw me steal an inquisitive glance at the book which lay upon his coverlet, for he gave me a whimsical look, and remarked that his mother always interfered with his studies in this manner.
"I've been accustomed to do a good deal of hard reading, nurse," he said, with great solemnness, "and mother thinks it affects any constitution. But a fellow can't expect to get along in these times without a considerable dash of hard work. Besides, when the habit of study is born in you, there's no struggling against it."
I acquiesced with some remark about the desirability of doing all things in moderation, and, following Mrs. Cunninghame's hint, set about arranging my patient's bed and preparing the room generally for the night. I thought his allusion to his studious habits somewhat self-satisfied and vainglorious, until I happened to remove the book he had been so deeply absorbed in, and in doing so caught a glimpse of its title. It was one of Clark Russell's thrilling sea stories—scarcely the kind of book one would think of in connection with the term 'hard reading.'
"Either," I reflected to myself, "Mr. Clive Cunninghame is a most impudent fraud and a sham, or those about him are labouring under some strange misapprehension as to the real nature of his illness." That he had a broken leg, of this, as I soon convinced myself, there could be no doubt; but a person, I reasoned, may come by a broken leg without necessarily suffering from melancholia.
When I had accomplished all I could do for my patient that evening, Mrs. Cunninghame bade her son good-night, and having conducted me back to the room apportioned to me, left me to make my own arrangements for the night.
It was some time, however, before I could settle to rest. I recapitulated to myself again and again the strange story of Clive Cunninghame's doings as related to me by his mother, and endeavoured to reconcile it with the scene I had just witnessed; but the more I thought about it the more incomprehensible it seemed to me. At last I fell into a troubled slumber, and dreamed a heap of nonsensical things, in which Mrs. Cunninghame and her son and the old butler who had received me all played the part of suicides, whilst I and Dr. Crackenthorpe, who appeared in my dreams as a thin and bent old gentleman with the air of an Oriental magician, were continually occupied in bringing them back to life again by some strange process of sorcery, the secret of which, though exceedingly simple, passed entirely from my memory the moment I awoke.
The next morning, when I had had time to reflect more calmly upon the situation in which I was placed, I deeded to take no steps towards my recall until I had seen Dr. Crackenthorpe, and heard his version of Mr. Cunninghame's case. No doubt I was influenced in this decision by the agreeable impression which the household of Glen Elc and its surroundings produced upon me by daylight. The house was a large one, built in regular country-house style, and of somewhat rambling architecture. The grounds were extensive, and to all appearances well cared for. A magnificent lawn sloped down from the rear of the house to a distance of at least a couple of hundred yards, and was bordered at its lower end by a handsome piece of ornamental water. The front of the mansion was hidden from the roadway by clusters of trees, through which the carriage sweep led up in winding fashion from the lodge gates to the portico at which I had alighted the night before. Everything was well ordered, and generally indicative of wealth, if not of actual affluence, on the part of the occupiers. As for the family circle itself, I soon learned it was a very limited one; besides Clive Cunninghame and his mother it consisted merely of a young girl of about 19 or 20, Belle Staunton by name. She was a ward of Mrs. Cunninghame, and heiress to a considerable estate—at least, so I understood from the talkative chambermaid who brought me my breakfast, and who, in response to a few necessary questions of mine regarding the house and its surroundings, volunteered a heap of additional information about its inmates, of the correctness of which I was unable to judge.
I should find it difficult to describe exactly what kind of on impression Miss Staunton produced upon me when I first met her. She was a strikingly handsome girl, tall and queen-like in figure, and with a certain haughtiness in her speech and bearing that kept one at a distance, though it by no means detracted from her undoubted charms. Our mutual introduction was a curious one. I had ordered Mr. Cunninghame's breakfast to be brought up at half-past eight, and being uncustomed to superintend the meals of my patients, I was in readiness to receive the tray from the maid at the door and take it into the sick room; but to my surprise the preparations for the meal proved far more elaborate than I had anticipated. Instead of the chambermaid with a tray, the old butler appeared to lay a table with covers for two, and I learned that Miss Staunton had announced her intention of breakfasting with the invalid.
I was just occupied in propping up Mr. Cunninghame's pillows to enable him to assume a more comfortable position, when Miss Staunton entered. Whether she had not been prepared to find a stranger there, or had been left in ignorance of my arrival, it is certain that she looked surprised and not altogether pleased at seeing me. Mr. Cunninghame greeted her with a cheery "Good-morning."
"Awfully good of you, Belle, to come and take pity on me," he said, in his bright, careless way. "This is Nurse Forsyth, you know, my newly-engaged keeper."
I gave an involuntary start at hearing this ominous description, and glanced quickly at Miss Staunton to see what effect it produced upon her. But she seemed to take it in the spirit in which it was uttered—namely, as a jest, and answered it accordingly with some remark about the necessity of there being some one on the premises capable of keeping him out of mischief. She then turned to me, and I fancied she was going to shake hands with me. But if her intention had been such she quickly altered it, and merely signified her recognition of my presence by a slight inclination of her head and a smile which was as cold and distant as a smile can possibly be.
Whatever the reason might be, I could not but feel that I had not impressed her favourably; and during the conversation that followed, though Clive Cunninghame made several ineffectual efforts to draw me into it, she all but ignored me, and showed plainly that my presence was distasteful so to her that I sought a pretext after a while to retire and leave the two to themselves.
As I closed the door behind me, I heard Mr. Cunninghame remark:—
"Well, Belle, you don't seem to be yourself this morning. What do you say to my nurse? She's a deuced good-looking girl, isn't she?"
What answer he received I cannot say, for I did not hear it.
I would wish the reader to understand that in relating this history nothing is further from my desire than to obtrude my own personality unnecessarily upon his notice. Writing as I do in the first person, I am naturally debarred from entering upon a description of my personal appearance, nor does it possess any bearing upon the events I am about to relate; but since my youth has more than once, both directly and indirectly, been referred to in the foregoing pages, I may, perhaps, be permitted to state that I was at that time barely three-and-twenty, that my experience as a nurse did not extend over three years, that I was of gentle birth, more or less alone in the world, and that I had chosen the profession in which I present myself to the reader partly from predilection and partly from a conviction that it offered my ambition a scope that was denied it in any other direction. As for any personal attractions that I may have possessed or still possess, I am, as I have said, the last person in the world qualified to satisfy public curiosity on that score. All I may say is that over the sofa in the Matron's room at Guy Hospital there is still hanging a portrait of my humble self executed in water-colours by a well-known Royal Academician, whom I once nursed through a severe illness, and to this picture I beg to refer anyone who may desire further information on the subject. From the fact that my friends consider it 'a striking likeness, but rather a poor painting,' while my enemies think it 'a sweet painting, but such a wretched portrait,' I have arrived at the conclusion that my own estimate of my looks is a fairly correct one. What that estimate is, of course, does not concern the reader.
At 10 o'clock the doctor arrived, and, after remaining for some time in private consultation with Mrs. Cunninghame, paid his visit to the patient. He was a short, fussy little man of over sixty, very different from the Dr. Crackenthorpe of my dreams, and evidently no favourite of Mr. Cunninghame's. Indeed, the latter showed so much irritability at the multifarious questions the doctor put to him while he examined and readjusted the bandages on the injured limb that I grew quite uneasy, and felt not a little relieved when the examining process was over.
"There, there," the doctor said, as he covered the leg and took off his spectacles, "that's over. You must have a little patience my dear boy. It's no use fretting and fuming. Such things heat the blood and affect the brain, and we must avoid all that just now. What we are in need of is rest and repose, and no foolish worrying about things we cannot alter."
The only answer Clive gave to this admonition was a scowl and the half-smothered ejaculation "Oh, damn!" for which later he apologised to me forthwith in a side-whisper, explaining that he couldn't help himself; the old fellow always gave him fits.
I followed the doctor out of the room, and he took me into the library, where Mrs. Cunninghame had received me the night before.
"We have a very ticklish case here, nurse," he began with a pompous air, "a case that requires a vast deal of patient watching. Mrs. Cunninghame, I understand, has informed you of the main facts."
"Mrs. Cunninghame has told me a very strange story," I said, "from which I gather that her son is a victim of suicidal mania."
"Precisely," rejoined the doctor. "The unhappy young man has made three distinct attempts to do away with himself. It is the usual outcome of melancholia of the acute type."
"It seems almost incomprehensible," I remarked, "in one so young and apparently so full of life and vigour."
Possibly he detected a note of incredulity in what I said, for he raised his eyebrows reprovingly.
"My dear young lady," he said, "do not be misled by appearances. Nothing is more deceptive in cases of this kind. Mr. Cunninghame is young, it is true. But there are certain influences which affect the young even more than they do the old, and we have here, I fear, an instance in point. Now I am about to impart to you certain information of a—hem—delicate nature, which may serve for your guidance. You will, of course, be good enough to receive it in the strictest confidence."
"Before you proceed, Dr. Crackenthorpe," I said, "I would like to say that I fear my services in this case will be of little value. To be quite plain, I do not think I possess the physical courage requisite for the duties I may be called upon to perform. It seems to me, if you will excuse my saying so, that Mr. Cunninghame is more in need of a male attendant than a nurse."
"Perhaps so, perhaps so," the doctor replied. "But there are difficulties which—er—in short, Mrs. Cunninghame positively refuses to listen to any such proposal. Of course, if you entertain any fears——"
"I fear nothing," I broke in, "beyond the responsibility of a duty which I may prove incompetent to fulfil. I am merely a trained sick-nurse, remember, Dr. Crackenthorpe. I have absolutely no experience of mental cases, and in an emergency should be utterly at a loss how to act."
"You are worrying yourself without cause, my dear young lady," the doctor said, "though it is very much to your credit that you do, very much so indeed. There is, however, for the present, I think, no danger of a repetition of the unhappy occurrences of which Mrs. Cunninghame has made mention to you. This injury of the foolish lad's has come as a godsend, inasmuch as it renders him for the time being incapable of doing himself further harm, provided only a proper watch is kept upon him. Whether with his physical recovery his mind will once more regain its normal condition depends, in my opinion, chiefly upon the influences with which he is in the meantime surrounded. The boy is of a highly impulsive nature, easily influenced for the good as well as for the bad, and his ultimate rehabilitation is, I venture to assert, merely a question of judicious treatment. Indeed, if his poor mother would follow my advice and take steps to remove the irritant cause—if I may so call it—of all this folly, I would undertake to guarantee the successful result."
"There is, then, some known cause for this strange mania?" I remarked.
"There is," he replied. "The foolish boy has formed a certain attachment, which is unhappily quite hopeless. It is desirable, as I intimated before, that you should be fully warned of this fact, as the young lady in question is, I am sorry to say, an inmate of this house, and were you left in ignorance of the true state of affairs you might unwittingly foster the very folly which is at the root of all the evil."
"Indeed!" I said, growing interested. "I presume it is Miss Staunton to whom you are referring?"
The doctor nodded his head gravely.
"And this attachment is quite hopeless?"
"Totally," he replied. "Miss Staunton is practically betrothed to another."
"Practically?" I said, struck by the strangeness of the term.
"In the most literal sense of the word," the doctor replied, with a benignant smile. "It is a somewhat complicated history," he went on, "and one into which I need not enter into detail here. Suffice it to say that Miss Staunton is the legal heiress of a very large fortune, which she will forfeit in toto unless she marries the man designated for her by the person whose wealth she thus conditionally inherits. That man is not Mr. Clive Cunninghame, ergo Mr. Clive Cunninghame's attainment is hopeless."
He spoke in the uncompromising tone of a man reciting a pet article of faith. For my part, I was not yet sufficiently well acquainted with the parties concerned in this peculiar history to experience more than a passing sense of interest in the romantic side of it, and I pursued the matter no further.
Dr. Crackenthorpe's remarks, however, regarding the improbability of Mr. Cunninghame making any further attempt upon his life while in his present helpless condition reassured me to some extent. What he said was indeed plausible enough. Moreover, I could not get over the sense of incredulity with which the whole history of this strange case inspired me, and, taking all things into consideration, I consented at last to remain with the patient pending his recovery from his accident, reserving my future course for later deliberation.
The more I now saw of Mr. Cunninghame the more fully I became persuaded that some extraordinary misapprehension must prevail in the minds of his friends regarding his mental condition. If he was suffering from melancholia, it could only be a melancholia of a strangely intermittent type, for I never saw him otherwise than cheerful, talkative, and disposed to all kinds of fun and raillery. If he was a lover, he certainly appeared to be anything but a despondent one. His whole manner was natural and unaffected, and he had that peculiarly careless, offhand air which characterises the majority of young Englishmen of the present day, particularly that large section of them whose interest centres more or less exclusively in matters of sport and athletic exercises. His favourite topics of conversation were cricket and the latest achievements in the prize ring, and his interest in these and all kindred matters was so intense and absorbing that it appeared simply impossible to believe it could be feigned. In short, if there existed anybody in the household of Glen Elc upon whom, to all appearances, the cares of life weighed lightly, it was Mr. Clive Cunninghame himself.
It would be idle to pretend that the information conveyed to me by Dr. Crackenthorpe regarding the alleged attachment of Clive Cunninghame to Miss Staunton had left me quite indifferent. I own without a blush to the natural female curiosity which such a communication made under such circumstances awakened in me. But if I were to say that I saw anything during the first few days of my sojourn at Glen Elc that in the slightest degree confirmed the worthy doctor's statement, I should certainly be committing myself to a falsehood. That young Mr. Cunninghame liked Belle Staunton, and took pleasure in her society, of that there could be no doubt. But there, so far as appearances went, everything ended. Clive's tone and manner towards this beautiful girl were those of an intimate comrade, nothing more.
As for Belle herself, her position, so far as I was then acquainted with it, can be summed up in a few words. She was an orphan, and of the two guardians in whose charge she had been left, Clive's mother was the only one surviving. She was barely 6 years old when her parents died; and until the age of 18 she had lived under the immediate care of a Mrs. Ruhmkorff, who was her mother's eldest sister, and Mrs. Cunninghame's co-guardian. It was from this lady, the widow of a wealthy stockbroker, that Miss Staunton had inherited the large fortune alluded to by Dr. Crackenthorpe.
The proviso attaching to this inheritance was, I confess, the subject of much curious speculation on my part, for I cannot conceive of anything more cruel than a benefit conferred upon such tyrannical terms. All I could learn in reference to it, however, was that the person who was destined to become Belle Staunton's husband was a nephew of Mrs. Ruhmkorff's husband, and a college friend of Clive Cunninghame. In the ordinary course of events this young man would have inherited his uncle's fortune, but Mr. Ruhmkorff, it appeared, had strongly disapproved of his sister's marriage, and had carried his anger so far as to leave every penny he possessed to his widow. It was natural, perhaps, under these circumstances, that the latter, being absolute mistress of her wealth, should in disposing of it have preferred her own kith and kin to that of her husband. By stipulating that poor Belle should marry the nephew whom her husband had disinherited, Mrs. Ruhmkorff, it was supposed, had merely effected a kind of compromise with her own conscience.
Such were the meagre details concerning this strange will and its consequences, which I was able, during the first two or three days of my sojourn at Glen Elc, to glean from the various members of the household. Of their accuracy I was, of course, unable to judge. One thing, however, there could be no doubt of, and that was that Miss Belle Staunton, by accepting a fortune on the terms indicated, had foregone her right to choose a husband after her own heart, and I felt not a little curious to see the man she was destined to marry.
It was a curiosity which I was soon to see satisfied.
Mr. Richard Coxton, the affianced husband by tacit consent of Belle Staunton, was a frequent visitor at Glen Elc. He and Clive Cunninghame were, as I have said, old school chums, and the friendship formed between them on the school playground had been kept up in after life, as it appeared, with equal warmth on both sides. In addition to this, of course, Richard Coxton's relation to Mrs. Cunninghame's ward gave him in itself a claim upon her hospitality.
It so chanced, however, that I was fully a week at Glen Elc before I saw Mr. Coxton there, and his arrival at last caused quite a pleasant break in the monotony of our daily existence. Knowing what I did of the situation, I was somewhat anxious as to the effect it might produce upon my patient. But the restlessness he gave sign of was no greater than might have been caused by the expectation of any other visitor for whom he had a regard.
"Coxton is one of the finest fellows living," he said to me on the morning of his arrival. It was a Saturday, and the visitor was to stay over Sunday. "You know, I was his fag at college, nurse, and I owe him about all I know. He used to carry off all the prizes, and I have yet to see the man who can beat him in any field where the brain is concerned."
After this somewhat enthusiastic description I might have expected to be disappointed with the individual himself. But, to say the truth, I was not. Richard Coxton was one of those men who burst upon you at first sight. Somewhat dark in complexion, with remarkably fine eyes, tall and well-built, he was a figure that would have impressed anyone who first saw him as uncommon and striking. His manner was self-possessed—indeed, most gravely so for one of his years—and his mode of speaking refined and pleasing. Nevertheless, there was an air of decision about him that contrasted not disagreeably with the almost punctilious courtesy of his general bearing, and I put him down at once mentally, as one whom it would require some courage to cross in any serious matter.
I can hardly say at this distance of time whether the favourable impression created upon me by this man at my first meeting with him was due in some measure to the courteous attention he bestowed upon me personally or not. Maybe it was. I am frank to confess that I am not less susceptible to the fascination pertaining to polite manners than most of my sex, and Mr. Coxton's politeness was the most perfect thing one can imagine. Not that he bestowed more than ordinary notice upon me, or made the slightest effort to ingratiate himself with me. He merely had the knack of saying just the right thing in the right way, and at the right moment; and this is a gift that confers, I think, more than any other that peculiar power to please, which is the secret of so many social favourites' success.
Mrs. Cunninghame accompanied her guest into the sick-room; and while the two young men were exchanging greetings, I observed that she kept her eyes anxiously fixed upon her son's face, as if she felt apprehensive of the effect of their meeting. But no sign of any unusual emotion could be detected in Mr. Cunninghame's face or manner. Only for an instant I fancied that I saw a shade of embarrassment settle on his features as he grasped the hand of the friend whom, if all I had been told was true, he knew to be his successful rival. But it passed almost immediately, and the next moment he was welcoming him with so evident a sense of genuine pleasure that it was impossible to believe he could harbour any ill-feeling towards him.
"Let me introduce you to my nurse," he said, waving his hand in my direction. "Mother, you are growing absent-minded"—this in an aside to Mrs. Cunninghame. "If you ever happen to break your leg, Dick, which, I may tell you, isn't quite the funny thing you may think it, you can't do better than place yourself unreservedly in the hands of Nurse Forsyth. Nurse Forsyth, this is Mr. Richard Coxton, an old college chum of mine—a prince of scholars, and as wretched a sportsman as you may find within a radius of a hundred miles from anywhere you please."
Mr. Coxton passed round by the head of the couch and extended his hand to me.
"I am pleased to know you, Miss Forsyth," he said. "You are from Guy's, I see."
I wondered at his knowing my hospital dress, and said so.
"It would be something to wonder at if I had forgotten it," he answered with a smile. "I was a student at Guy's for close upon two years."
He entered into a short discussion about the hospital and its associations, and, after naming a whole string of people who had been on the hospital staff in his time, and of some of whom I was able to give him news, he adroitly turned the conversation to matters of more general interest, in the discussion of which Clive Cunninghame could take part.
The two presently fell into a talk about the ordinary topics of the day, and seeing them thus engrossed, Mrs. Cunninghame and I withdrew.
One thing struck me as strange. Although I knew Miss Staunton was at home, she had evidently entirely ignored the arrival of the man to whom she was, according to all reports, betrothed. It seemed impossible to suppose that she had not been informed of his presence in the house. Yet I was quite positive that she did not descend from her own room until the second gong had sounded for lunch, which was fully two hours after Mr. Coxton had arrived at Glen Elc.
That afternoon, however, I saw the two walking along together in the grounds. I had just wheeled Mr. Cunninghame's couch to the window, which commanded a full view of the slope of lawn at the back of the house, and where he was wont, at this time of the day, to pass an hour or two reading a novel or the daily journals, when I saw Richard Coxton and Miss Staunton emerge from the avenue of chestnuts on the left and cross the lawn slantwise towards the ornamental water at the foot of the slope. They were engaged in animated conversation, and did not glance once in the direction of the house, or they must have noticed Clive Cunninghame lying at the open window of his room. The latter, I observed, had dropped the book he had been reading, and lay, with both hands under his head, silently gazing out at the couple as they passed by. As I turned away to leave the room, I caught a glimpse of his face. There was a serious expression in it which I had never seen there before, and I noted it with an inward comment; but whether it was called forth by the sight of the two promenaders I could not determine.
I thought no more about the whole incident, in fact, until I returned to the room half-an-hour afterwards to bring Mr. Cunninghame the cup of cocoa he was accustomed to take in the course of the afternoon. To my surprise, I then found him still lying the same position as I had left him, with his book on his lap, gazing fixedly through the open window into the distance. I was almost beside him before he moved. When be turned his face to me I was startled at the pained look it bore. Thinking he was suffering physically, I was about to inquire if I could do anything to make his position more comfortable, when, with a sudden impetuous movement, he picked up the novel that lay in his lap and flung it passionately into the farthest corner of the room.
I believe he only then became aware of my presence, for he looked so taken aback when I quietly went to pick up the innocent volume and place it on the shelf that I could have laughed had I not felt a trifle too much frightened.
"Awfully sorry, nurse," he said, in a penitent tone. "I'm a confounded brute, and apologise most humbly. I'd kick myself on the spot if I could, but with this broken leg of mine it's a sheer impossibility."
He spoke in his usual rollicking manner. But, though he plainly endeavoured to pass this little act of passion off as the effect of an acute pain in his injured limb, I was not deceived as to its real cause. A glance out of the window had taught me that Belle Staunton and Mr. Coxton were still taking exercise together in the grounds, and that he had probably been engaged for the last half-hour in watching their movements. A feeling of pity for the poor fellow overcame me. There was so much manly vigour about him, so much pure unaftectedness and genuine, if somewhat rough, nature in all he said and did, that the ludicrous character which generally attaches to the antics of the unfortunate lover, and which so often robs him of the compassion that is, after all, his just due, seemed altogether absent in his case.
This little outburst of temper appeared to have relieved him; for he took up one of the daily papers, which I had placed on the table beside his couch, and was presently quite absorbed in its columns. As for myself, I pondered a good deal on this incident, which left me a certain sense of inquietude. I had grown so accustomed to see my patient bright and cheerful that I had almost ceased to regard him otherwise than as an ordinary invalid, whom a temporary disablement had rendered helpless. It was not long before I had occasion to congratulate myself upon having received this timely warning—if warning it was—of the graver responsibilities that rested upon me.
If the comparatively trifling incident which I have related in the foregoing chapter left an unpleasant impression upon me, the occurrence which followed it the very next day filled me with apprehensions of a far more serious kind.
It was Sunday, and I had retired, as I always did after the noon-day meal, to my own room to enjoy an hour's undisturbed quiet. Mr. Cunninghame was accustomed to take a nap immediately after lunch; for, though his nights were not disturbed by any feverish symptoms, the stiff position he was compelled to maintain, owing to the splints on his leg, interfered a good deal with his rest, and it required no persuasion on my part to induce him to indulge in the luxury of half-an-hour's doze during the daytime.
The morning had passed much as usual. Mrs. Cunninghame and Belle Staunton had attended divine service in the village church, and Mr. Coxton, after spending half-an-hour with Clive Cunninghame, had taken a solitary walk into the neighbouring country, whence he only returned at lunch-time. Clive himself was apparently in the best of spirits, and, save for a passing fit of irritability earlier in the day, which I attributed to the fact that Belle Staunton did not appear as usual to keep him company at breakfast, I had noticed no return of that depressed spirit which had overcome him the afternoon before.
It was an oppressively hot day, and, after several vain attempts to settle to some work which I was anxious to finish, I gave it up as hopeless, and, moving an easy-chair to the window, sat cooling myself as best I could in the faint breeze that now and then stirred in the rich foliage of the trees outside. I had not taken up this position for longer than a few minutes, when my attention was suddenly arrested by a noise in the next room, occupied, as the reader will remember, by Mr. Cunninghame. The door communicating between the two rooms was closed; but I was positive that I heard the sound of some one moving in the one adjoining mine, and, judging it to be impossible for Mr. Cunninghame to have risen from his couch in the condition he was in, I concluded that somebody must have entered. I was debating with myself whether it would not be wise to open the door softly, and sign to whomever it might be not to disturb the invalid, when a sound fell on my ear which sent an electric shock through me, and decided me to act promptly. It was the unmistakable noise of a window being lifted up or closed. I could not distinguish which; but I remembered that I had myself closed the lower sash, and pulled down the upper one of both windows in Mr. Cunninghame's room, in order to protect him from draught while he was sleeping, without depriving him of the fresh air. In an instant I was up from my seat, and, crossing the room, opened the door boldly and looked in.
The spectacle that met my view filled me with such consternation that, for the space of a second or two, I felt almost paralysed. What I saw was Clive Cunninghame himself seated on the ledge of one of the windows; his one leg was already outside the window, and he was in the act of lifting the other injured leg on to the sill. Divining his intention in the flash of an instant, I shook off the weakness that had overcome me with a strong effort, and, rushing across the apartment, reached the window just in time to seize and hold him back.
"Come away, Mr. Cunninghame!" I cried. "What folly is this?"
I tugged at him with all my might, quite forgetful for the moment of his crippled condition, and of the danger that must attend any hasty movement on his part. But, although he offered me no resistance, it would have required a stronger person than I am to move him without actual assistance on his own part, and such assistance was not forthcoming. He merely turned his head towards me, and stared at me with a curiously fixed and vacant expression.
"Let me help you back to your couch, Mr. Clive," I said, rather more gently. "Think how foolish it was of you to leave it in the condition you are in!"
He did not reply even now, but continued to gaze at me in the same dull, expressionless way. He suffered me now, however, to assist him into the rocking-chair that stood in the window recess, whence I thought I could easily move him back to his couch in the middle of the room. How he had managed to traverse the space between the couch and the window with his leg broken and in splints was a complete mystery to me; but he had unquestionably done so.
As I aided him with considerable difficulty to glide down from his seat on the window-sill into the rocking-chair, I imagined, from his subdued manner, that a sense of humiliation had overcome him, and felt emboldened to remonstrate with him once more about the folly of his act.
"You must promise me never to attempt such a thing again, Mr. Cunninghame," I said, in as severe a tone as I could command. "It is too dreadfully wicked."
He shot a quick glance up at my face, and tossed his head petulantly.
"Bosh!" he said, curtly.
Then, as I slowly pushed the rocking chair in which he now sat towards his couch, he muttered, in an impatient undertone:
"Great Scott! What a bally fuss about nothing!"
The tone and the words were strangely out of keeping with the matter to which they referred; but I was too anxious to get my charge once more safely deposited upon his couch, and ascertain the mischief which I felt sure must have resulted to the injured limb from his rash escapade, to dwell much upon the circumstance.
The transfer from the window-sill to the rocking-chair had been a comparatively, easy task; but to get the invalid off the rocking-chair on to his couch proved a very different matter, and almost despaired of accomplishing it without assistance. At last, however, after efforts which left me bathed in perspiration, I succeeded; and, while the poor fellow lay there groaning in evident pain, I hastily proceeded to undo the bandages on his leg, and carefully examine the splints. The latter had, of course, become displaced in consequence of his foolish adventure, yet, fortunately, not so badly that it proved beyond my skill to reset them, a fact which afforded me a great sense of relief, for I felt anxious, for many reasons, to avoid a commotion in the household.
After I had completed my task, to which Mr. Cunninghame submitted with a patience that almost bordered on absolute indifference, I inquired if he felt the need of a stimulant; and, upon his signifying to me that he would like some brandy, I fetched the decanter from the dining-room, and poured him out a glassful. He took it, drained it off with evident relish, and handed the glass back to me without a word. Then he lay perfectly still, only pressing his lips together ever and anon when the pain grew too much for him, and glancing curiously at me in the intervals as if he were bent upon reading my thoughts from my face.
Suddenly he exclaimed brusquely:
"If you don't mind, nurse, I would rather be left alone. This confounded leg of mine hurts me," he added, in a half apologetic tone, sending me one of his old quizzical looks. "To think of a fellow breaking his shins by merely vaulting over a common garden bench. It's a deuced contrary world, in all conscience. Another man will tumble out a third-story window and come off with a mere scratch."
It was the first time he had ever alluded in my presence to the cause of his accident. Of course I knew that this had not been brought about by his vaulting over a garden bench, as he apparently wished me to believe, but by a deliberate leap from a window, similar to that the attempt of which I had just witnessed.
I deemed it prudent, however, to hold my peace, and having satisfied myself that he could now safely be left alone, I withdrew from the room, as he desired.
It was a long while before I could compose myself to think calmly over what had occurred; nor, when I did so, could I arrive at any conclusion satisfactory to myself. The whole circumstances were, to my mind, extraordinary; and they could not but dispel the last lingering doubts I had harboured as to the alleged mental derangement from which my patient suffered. I recalled the incident of the previous afternoon, and could not help connecting it with my present thrilling experience. That one was the sequel of the other appeared almost certain. But where would it all end? I felt loth to quit duties to which I had already become attached, yet I was unpleasantly conscious that the more my patient improved in physical health the greater my responsibility must grow in other respects.
The sense of it weighed upon me already very heavily, and left me no rest. A kind of fascination drew me irresistibly back to the room where the object of my fears lay. The thought of what might be occurring there in the meantime pursued me incessantly, until I could bear it no longer. I had listened at intervals at the door to assure myself that all was well. But I had not heard a sound. At last I summoned courage to knock gently, and, receiving no response, opened the door softly and entered the room.
Clive Cunninghame was slumbering peacefully.
I stood for a while beside his couch, regarding him as he lay there, the picture of calm, graceful repose. His expression in his face was one of perfect content. A smile still lingered on his lips, as if he had passed from waking to sleep with same quaint thought in his mind. Not a trace of pain and suffering, either physical or mental, was to be seen in his countenance.
Reluctantly I tore myself away from the strange spectacle, strange at least to me with the knowledge I possessed, and left the room again as quietly as I had entered it.
I passed out into the hall, and was in the act of crossing it, with the intention of instructing Kingham, the old butler, not to bring up Mr. Cunninghame's usual afternoon cup of chocolate until I should ring for it, when I was accosted by Mr. Coxton, who just happened to enter the house from the grounds.
I can hardly say how it was, but the desire to talk and consult with some living soul on the matter that was engrossing my mind overcame me with such force, that before I knew it I was pouring forth to him an excited history of my experience that afternoon.
The moment I began, the expression of his face, which had been one of placid unconcern, became grave and anxious, and I was not half-way through my story when he interrupted me by suggesting that we should go to the dining-room, where we could converse without fear of being overheard. There he made me sit down in an armchair, while he stood beside me listening attentively to what I had to relate. When I had finished he remained silent for a moment, as if weighing all I had said in his mind. Then he shook his head sadly.
"Poor fellow!" he said softly. "It's a forlorn hope, I'm afraid. Poor fellow!"
"Mr Coxton," I exclaimed, "do you really believe he is tired of life?"
He looked at me in some surprise.
"I mean," I continued, "it seems incredible in one so bright and cheerful. If you were to see him at this moment, sleeping as peacefully as if he knew no care in the world, you would understand my doubt."
He laid his hand on my arm.
"Miss Forsyth," he said—he never called me Nurse, as everybody else did—"Clive's apparent cheerfulness is, in my opinion, the most alarming feature about the whole case. No doubt Dr. Crackenthorpe has given you all needful instructions. It may do no harm, however, if I point out to you that there is possibly danger of the poor fellow doing injury to others besides himself. I trust it may not prove so. But forewarned is forearmed. You have undertaken a task of great responsibility, Miss Forsyth, and I should be glad if I could do anything to lighten it."
What he said, or rather insinuated, was hardly calculated to lighten the sense of that responsibility to which he referred, and which I already felt so keenly. Yet there was something reassuring in his manner, and indeed in his very presence, which affected me pleasantly, and I remembered with regret that his stay at Glen Elc would not extend over another day.
He appeared to divine my thoughts, for he said:
"I shall make a point of running down here one day during the week, and I hope to make a longer stay later on. By the way, I don't know if you have decided to inform Mrs. Cunninghame of this latest attempt of poor Clive. It would be kinder, I think, to keep it from her. But it is, of course, entirely a matter of your own feeling. You are aware, I believe, that Miss Staunton is quite ignorant of Clive's unfortunate state. It is my desire that she should be left so. She is very nervous and excitable, and the knowledge of the truth could do her no good."
His reference to Miss Staunton was made in a very decisive tone, which admitted of no argument. Nor did he pursue the subject any further, but passing on to other topics engaged me for a while in general conversation, and then politely escorted me back to Mr. Cunninghame's door.
That night I slept wretchedly, not owing to any extraordinary inquietude that I felt on Mr. Cunninghame's account, but to a horrible dream that pursued me so persistently, and with such a weird semblance of reality, that I woke up at the finish time after time bathed in the perspiration of terror, only to fall asleep again at once and dream the same thing over again. It was a dream in which Mr. Coxton and another person, of whom I shall have more to say anon, were engaged in a life and death struggle, and I stood by with a crown of palms in my hand prepared to decorate the victor. Again and again I saw Mr. Richard Coxton, like some Roman gladiator of old, standing, sword in hand, triumphant over his vanquished foe, and upon a signal from me—the horror of the thing still overcomes me when I recall it—plunge the weapon up to the hilt into his breast.
And he whose doom I thus sealed with a motion of my hand was the man I loved.
My report to Dr. Crackenthorpe on the occurrence of Sunday afternoon filled that worthy gentleman with great concern. But he upheld Mr. Coxton's view that it would be wise, under the circumstances, to conceal the fact from Mrs. Cunninghame. To Clive himself he delivered a grave lecture upon the duties of human beings in general, and only sons in particular, which gave that excitable young gentleman, as he himself expressed it, 'fits,' and produced a war of words between the two, in which the good old doctor got so manifestly the worst of it that I had to withdraw from the scene to avoid aggravating his discomfiture by the laughter which Clive Cunninghame's droll repartee provoked in me.
"The confounded old idiot!" my patient exclaimed, still fuming, when the doctor had left the room. "You would think I had broken my leg for the mere pleasure of the thing. Hang him and all his tommyrot! Because he had a hand in bringing me into the world, he supposes I'm in duty bound to swallow his moral pills as long as I'm in it. Nurse," he added, with solemn emphasis, "if I ever commit a murder, my victim will be a goody-goody man. Mark my words."
A minute after he had forgotten his anger and was entertaining me with an account of a foolish boy's trick which he had once played on the old doctor, for whom, I believe, he really had a warm corner in his heart, in spite of his irritability towards him.
It would be difficult for me to describe the bewildering effect which Clive Cunninghame's apparently mirthful disposition produced upon me. While, on the one hand, it lulled to rest the anxiety I felt as to what he might do next, it rendered his case so mysterious to me that it seemed to baffle all hope of solution. And the mystery of it all grew deeper to me the more familiar I became with the everyday life of the little circle at Glen Elc.
In spite of the slight check which Mr. Cunninghame's progress towards recovery had received in consequence of the mad freak I have described in the previous chapter, his convalescence proved a remarkably rapid one, and within two weeks of that strange occurrence he was already in a condition to be wheeled in and out of the house on a perambulating chair. He now passed the greater part of the day in the open air, a circumstance which proved a source of some embarrassment to me, for it was infinitely more difficult to exercise that watchfulness over him which I felt was so needful under these conditions than it had been during his confinement indoors. I think he noticed my anxiety to keep within hearing distance, if not actually within sight, of him, for he more than once hinted that he considered my attendance upon him in the open air superfluous, and on one occasion jokingly remarked that any one seeing us day after day thus seated within a dozen yards' distance of one another might be liable to take us for a lunatic and his keeper. It was the second time he had made reference to me in this way as his keeper, and I retorted by observing that, after the experience I had undergone with him, he could scarcely wonder if I felt the necessity of keeping a close watch upon him.
He looked me full in the face for an instant without answering, then merely turned aside with the remark, "Well, you're a gem of a nurse, I must say," and said no more.
There was one, however, who not only noticed my reluctance to quit my patient's side, but who unmistakably resented it. This was Belle Staunton. Following the instructions of Dr. Crackenthorpe, and in a certain measure also the half-expressed desire of Mrs. Cunninghame, I had thought it my duty to discountenance, as far as lay in my power, anything in the nature of a lengthy interview between Clive Cunninghame and Miss Staunton. I had succeeded so far, no doubt, but I fear only at the sacrifice of the latter's friendship. Whether she had noticed my purpose, which I hardly believe, for I acted on all occasions with the greatest possible discretion, or whether she had conceived a spontaneous dislike of my humble person, it is certain that my entrance into Mr. Cunninghame's room would at all times be the signal for her immediate withdrawal. Since my arrival at Glen Elc she had not addressed a dozen words to me, and if it chanced that I met her about the house, she would merely respond to my greeting with a haughty inclination of her head and pass on without bestowing the slightest notice upon me.
Notwithstanding, I cannot say that I disliked her. She was strikingly beautiful, and there was a certain loftiness of bearing about her that impressed me in spite of myself. From the little I saw of her I should have judged her to be somewhat self-willed, but scarcely strong in actual character. She was passionately addicted to dress and finery, and the comforts and pleasures of life were, I think, more in her thoughts than one likes to observe in one of her age and position. Possibly this opinion of mine was coloured by what I had learned of her history and circumstances. But it proved to be in the main correct, as the reader will acknowledge as he proceeds.
One afternoon early in July I was sitting under a cluster of trees in the grounds of Glen Elc at a little distance from Mr. Cunninghame, who had had his couch wheeled into a kind of bower on the border of the big lawn, when he called to me, and requested me to fetch him a certain novel, the exact position of which on the library shelves he was careful to explain to me. Though I was loth to leave him alone, it was a request I could find no excuse to refuse, so I complied without further demur. As I crossed the lawn towards the house, I saw through the trees which girdled the lawn on one side the figure of Miss Staunton passing along the walk that led to the bower where Mr. Cunninghame lay. The circumstance made no particular impression upon me at the moment, though I afterwards concluded that Mr. Cunninghame had seen her approaching, and had used this means to rid himself of my presence for a while.
It took me some time to find the book I was sent for, and it must have been fully ten minutes before I issued from the house again. When I had arrived within about twenty yards of the bower, I heard the voices of Clive Cunninghame and Miss Staunton raised in what appeared to me to be an angry altercation, and, being reluctant to burst in upon them under such circumstances, I stopped and turned aside with the intention of proceeding to the spot where I had been sitting before, and where I could make my presence known to them without appearing to intrude upon their privacy.
As I did so I caught the following words, spoken by Mr. Cunninghame in a loud and petulant tone:
"I tell you, Belle, it's all a forlorn hope, and you had better give in with a good grace. Coxton will no more think of changing his mind than he will of flying; and by all that's honourable you ought to bring the matter to a finish."
Thereupon came some reply from Miss Staunton, which was inaudible to me, and was followed by a passionate outburst on Clive's part.
"You've heard what I have said," he exclaimed, "and it's my ultimatum, Belle. You have no right to fool a fellow like this. I ought never to have submitted to it. Call it cruel, if you like, or what not else, you won't alter my decision. I've been weak too long—damned weak, by Jove! and I won't stand it any longer, not for any man or woman alive."
There was a brief pause, and then Belle Staunton spoke in an agitated tone.
"Is this, then, the outcome of your promises? You dare to threaten me?"
"Threaten you?" exclaimed Clive, evidently half-rising from the lounge in his excitement. "Why, yes, I'll do anything in the world to bring you to a sense of your folly. Can't you see that this infatuation is unworthy of a girl with a spark of self-respect? Belle, on my word of honour, I'll cut my throat if you don't make an end of this."
What Miss Staunton answered, or whether she answered at all, I cannot say. I only heard a sound like a stifled sob, then a rustling of female garments, and a moment afterwards Belle hurried past me up the path towards the house. Her dress almost brushed my own as she swept by. But she had covered her face with her hands, and I do not think she noticed me.
When I stepped up to Mr. Cunninghame, he had thrown himself back full length upon his lounge, and lay staring with flushed face and knitted brows up at the sky above him. He bestowed no notice either upon me or upon the book which I placed at his side; and seeing that he was in no mood to be talked to, I withdrew silently to my seat near by, and resumed the occupation he had interrupted me in a quarter of an hour before.
What I had heard gave me much food for earnest thought. The impression I had harboured all along, that Clive Cunninghame's behaviour towards Miss Staunton was anything but that of a courting lover, appeared here to be confirmed in the most striking manner. Indeed, if I interpreted the scene I had just partially witnessed aright, it seemed to be rather Belle Staunton herself who occupied the position of the pleading party. And I confess that this circumstance filled me with mingled feelings of indignation and pity: with indignation against the man, without whose fault I felt certain she could never have fallen to such a level; for could anyone suppose that a girl of Belle Staunton's character and attractions would so far forget her womanly dignity as to plead with one whom she loved, unless he had given her cause to believe that her affection was returned? with pity for the girl; for how much must she not have endured before she could bring herself to stoop to such expedients?
One thing now appeared to me to be certain, and that was that Miss Staunton did not love Richard Coxton. Whether she had bestowed her affections on Clive Cunninghame, perhaps after having first rejected him, was a question upon which I was only left to conjecture. I received a certain light on the subject, however, shortly afterwards, which, while it left the main point that interested me unexplained—I refer to Mr. Cunninghame's affliction—again altered my view of the case in many respects very materially.
The world is wonderfully small. The afternoon after the conversation I had accidentally overheard between Clive Cunninghame and Miss Staunton I was again sitting near my patient in the grounds of Glen Elc, when I saw Mr. Coxton approach from the house, accompanied by a gentleman at the sight of whom I felt all my pulses quicken and my heart leap within me in sudden, overpowering surprise. And well it might; for the stranger was no other than the personage whom I had seen engaged in mortal conflict with Richard Coxton in my dreams that night after Clive Cunninghame's attempt to climb out of his window.
Lest the reader should imagine that I am making inroads upon his credulity by suggesting the working of some supernatural agency in this extraordinary coincidence, let me hasten to add that the person I saw in that painful dream was one whom I had known well, long before I dreamed of him, though I little suspected him to be one and the same with the old college chum whose visit I understood Clive Cunninghame expected that day. To be brief, he was a gentleman who, about a year before, had done me the honour to offer me his hand and fortune—or, at least, such fortune as he possessed, which was practically none at all. I was younger then, and so was he, and I declined the honour for two reasons; firstly, because I considered it folly for me to enter into an engagement the end of which it was impossible to foresee; and secondly, because I liked Mortimer Westley too well to permit him, at that stage of his career, to tie a millstone round his neck in the shape of a wife, as he would have done to a certainty had I given him the chance. We therefore agreed to retain each our liberty until such time as fortune might condescend to smile upon us. I had met him since then twice only, the first time at a hospital ball, where he of course knew I should be present, and the second time in the more sober atmosphere of a South-Eastern Railway compartment. It had been part of our compact, or I should more honestly say of mine, that we were not to correspond. My reason for imposing this stringent condition was simply that I deemed it wise to afford Mr. Westley an opportunity to apply as severe a test as possible to the permanence of his own feelings. He knew nothing of my family and relations, and I knew as little of his. We had merely met as nurse and patient, he having spent six weeks in the hospital under treatment for a rather dangerous fracture of the thigh-bone sustained by him in a street accident, whilst I had, during that time, performed such duties towards him as my profession called for. He had proposed to me the day before he left the hospital. Such was our entire history in a nutshell, cold and bare enough when you put it on paper, yet not without its dash of sweet romance if I liked to disclose its details, which, since I am not writing my history, but other people's, I have sense enough to avoid doing.
Having, as I sincerely trust, thoroughly earned the reader's gratitude by this timely reticence, let me only add that I possessed certain proofs, in the shape of a drawerful of letters, that my humble person had in the interval not faded from Mr. Mortimer Westley's memory. My curiosity, therefore, to witness the effect my presence at Glen Elc would produce upon him was considerable, and I took pains to assume such a position as would prevent too early a recognition of me on his part.
Circumstances favoured me; for Clive Cunninghame had that day chosen to have his lounge wheeled out on to the lawn under the shady branches of a fine old cedar tree, whilst I had seated myself at the entrance to the arbour a few yards off, where I could not easily be seen by anyone approaching from the house. From this coign of vantage I could follow all that passed among the little group under the cedar tree.
"Glad to see you, Westley, old fellow," I heard Clive Cunninghame exclaim in his bright, cordial way, as the party gathered round his couch. "It's a ghastly shame, though, to have let a wretched cripple like me lie here all this time without running down to see me once. If it hadn't been for Dick here, I should have been on the verge of committing suicide a dozen times from sheer weariness of flesh. But you fellows with sound limbs have no consciences."
What effect this speech, with its careless reference to suicidal tendencies, produced upon Mr. Mortimer Westley I cannot say, for I was not in a position to observe his face. But it struck me that his reply sounded a trifle embarrassed or constrained, which led me to infer that he was acquainted with the peculiar history attaching to Clive Cunninghame's accident.
"Awfully sorry I couldn't make it a bit sooner, Cunninghame," he said. "The fact is, I've been pretty well worked to death these last two months. But I've come to pitch my tent here for a week at least now, if Mrs. Cunninghame doesn't turn me out sooner."
I scarcely know whether the prospect of living for a whole week under the same roof with Mortimer Westley, in the peculiar circumstances in which we were both placed, was a welcome one to me or not. The thought of it, however, diverted my mind for the moment from the conversation I had been listening to, and I paid no further attention to it until a remark from Mr. Coxton reached my ear, and recalled me to a sense of my surroundings.
"By the way," he suddenly inquired, "where is the little nurse? You are a deuced lucky fellow, Clive, to be petted and pampered by——"
Fortunately, I am not in the awkward predicament of having to repeat the rest of the sentence; for Mr. Coxton, instead of concluding it, broke off at this point quite abruptly, from which fact I judged that Clive Cunninghame had interrupted him by a sign intimating the close proximity of the object of his remarks. The next moment Mr. Cunninghame called me. When I came forward, Mr. Coxton, in his usual polite and suave manner, advanced to meet me, and after shaking hands with me, turned to Mr. Westley, with the evident intention of introducing him. But before he could accomplish his purpose, the latter started forward with a look of blank astonishment.
"Mabel, by all that's holy!" he exclaimed, seizing my hand. "Why, who could have dreamed! Clive, my boy, you should have told me of this."
I think the foolish fellow grew conscious, all of an instant, that he had betrayed himself irretrievably in his excitement; for he flushed a purple red, and stammered something about 'extraordinary coincidences, which might startle any man,' and then relapsed into a state or formal stiffness towards me which was something laughable to behold.
"Mabel! Whew!" my patient ejaculated, uttering that peculiarly expressive low whistle of his, which I remembered so well from the occasion of my first interview with him on the night of my arrival at Glen Elc. "That sounds as if you had been introduced before."
"Mr. Westley and I are friends of old standing," I said quickly, fearing some impertinent remark. "We met——"
"Oh, don't apologise, pray! I understand perfectly, nurse," the irrepressible young fellow interposed. "I only wish I'd known of this before. What's the betting that we would have had our friend Mortimer down here weeks ago? Well, I'm glad you're acquainted," he added, addressing himself to Mr. Westley, who looked a trifle annoyed at the free-and-easy manner in which Clive treated the matter. "Miss Forsyth's a bit of a tyrant, I can tell you, Westley——cows a fellow with a mere glance of the eye, and stands no kind of nonsense, as I dare say you'll find out for yourself, if you happen to dislocate a limb or commit some other piece of imprudence calculated to bring you within the sphere of her influence."
And so he rattled on, in his bright, jocular style, while Richard Coxton stood eyeing me in his curiously searching manner, as if he were intent upon reading in my face what relations existed between me and Mortimer Westley.
Needless to say, I felt considerably embarrassed during all this banter, and I fear I should have ended by taking ignominious flight had it not been for the timely arrival of Mrs. Cunninghame, who came out to greet her two visitors, and, grasping the situation at once, took immediate measures to place Mr. Westley and myself at ease.
I have related this little scene from no egotistic motives. Mr. Westley's advent to Glen Elc altered my position in the household in a very perceptible manner, and I cannot help thinking that it was mainly instrumental on a subsequent occasion in bringing about a certain source of action on my part which, under ordinary circumstances, I should scarcely have felt warranted to pursue. Not that I had had anything to complain of in the treatment meted out to me prior to his arrival. I made no pretension to special consideration on account of my social equality with those I was called upon to serve, nor did I receive any. But I had been met on all hands with that courtesy and respect which every nurse who knows her duty can secure for herself, let her class be what it may.
One of the consequences of Mr. Westley's presence at Glen Elc was that I was asked to join the little house party in the drawing-room in the evenings, instead of retiring to my own apartment, which I had been accustomed to do since Mr. Cunninghame was able to leave his sick room. Under ordinary conditions, my further stay would have been entirely unnecessary, for, my patient now required no more nursing or attention than could have been bestowed upon him by any servant in the household. It was merely the strict injunctions of Dr. Crackenthorpe that he was never to be left alone which necessitated my remaining until he was at least so far recovered from his injury as to permit of his leaving home for a change or air and scenery.
I often thought it singular that Mr. Cunninghame did not become more suspicious of this constant watchfulness on the part of those around him. But partly, no doubt, the gradual habit which all invalids acquire of claiming attention, and partly his lively and careless disposition, rendered him blind to the unusual solicitude that was displayed in regard to his comfort and safety.
From the day of Mr. Westley's arrival he changed, however, in this respect towards myself, and began to exhibit a certain impatience at my constant attendance upon him.
"Great Scott, nurse," he would often say, "I believe you look upon me as a baby whom you daren't let out of your sight for a second. Of course, it's awfully good of you to take all this care of me. But you'll grow deuced sick of my society if you go on at this rate."
As I took no notice of these palpable hints that he desired to get rid of me, he adopted different tactics, and commenced to show a marked preference for the company of his mother and Mr. Coxton, telling me quite bluntly that he would call for me when he wanted me, the result of which was that I found a good deal more time upon my hands than I knew what to do with.
The drift of all this was perfectly plain to me. I do not think a more good-natured fellow ever breathed than was Clive Cunninghame, and in freeing me from my duties, he merely aimed to give his friend and old schoolfellow as many chances as possible of enjoying my company undisturbed.
Nor was Mr. Mortimer Westley slow to avail himself of the opportunities thus afforded him. It became, indeed, in time quite a little farce that was daily enacted between the two friends, and in which I perforce played a passive part. So, for instance, when Mr. Cunninghame and I had settled soon after 9 o'clock in the morning in our usual positions in the grounds, Mr. Westley would saunter up and sit for a while with his friend, whereupon the latter would say, with a deep yawn:
"By the way, Westley, old fellow, you'd do me a great favour if you would just step over to the kennels and see how Cleo is getting along. She's been off her feed for a day or so, and that numskull of a Robinson (the groom) understands as much about dogs as I do about logarithms. Perhaps you wouldn't mind giving the poor brute a bit of a run down in the meadows. Exercise is all she wants, and she hasn't had much of it since I was laid up."
Hardly had Mr. Westley departed on his mission when Mr. Cunninghame would turn to me with the request to call his mother or Mr. Coxton, if the latter happened to be at hand, and upon the arrival of either he would notify me coolly that I needn't bother 'to hang around.' He would have me called if he wanted me.
The sequel was invariably that Mortimer Westley and I were thrown upon each other's company for an hour or longer, which we usually spent in sauntering about the grounds and conversing upon matters that doubtless possessed a more absorbing interest for ourselves than they would for the reader of this story.
I took occasion, during these rumbles, to learn what I could of Clive Cunninghame's antecedents, and in particular of the history of the strange affliction from which he appeared to be suffering. Mr. Westley, like Richard Coxton, was an old school fellow of his, and, as I now learned with interest, an articled clerk in the firm of solicitors who had had the management of the late Mrs. Ruhmkorff's affairs. He was greatly attached to Clive, and had a profound admiration for Richard Coxton, whom he declared to be one of the 'cleverest fellows going.' He was unable, however, to throw much light upon the origin of his friend's strange derangement.
"It's the saddest case I've ever heard of," he said one afternoon, a day or two after his arrival, when I questioned him on the subject. "There's not a nicer fellow breathing than Clive Cunninghame, though he was always a headstrong, impulsive sort of chap, eternally in scrapes at school, and landing himself in out-of-the-way kinds of predicaments. If he had ruined himself by some thoughtless, hare-brained speculation, or got himself into hot water of any known or unknown description, I should never have felt over-much surprised. But how he should have come to develop this strange tendency to do away with himself is an absolute mystery to me. There's no earthly reason for it, unless it's a disorder of the brain."
I thought of all I had heard regarding Mr. Cunninghame's alleged affection for Belle Staunton, and said nothing. It was highly improbable, I argued to myself, that Mr. Westley knew anything of these things, for Mr. Coxton, though he had confided to him the sad facts concerning their mutual schoolfellow's mental condition, was scarcely likely to have enlightened him on a subject so closely touching his own most intimate affairs. To a certain extent I proved to be right in my conjecture. But I found later on, nevertheless, that Mortimer Westley possessed some very definite knowledge regarding the relations between Clive Cunninghame and Miss Staunton, and it interested me the more because it confirmed in a remarkable way the opinion I had already formed on that subject.
He broached the matter to me himself, on an occasion which I have only too good cause to remember, as will be seen hereafter. It was upon a sultry afternoon, when we were again strolling together in the grounds, Mrs. Cunninghame having taken my place, as she now frequently did, at her son's side. Mr. Westley had been questioning me a good deal about my profession and its experiences, with special reference to the footing on which I was accustomed to be received by 'the quality' who occasionally availed themselves of my services. His curiosity on the subject caused me some amusement, for I could see that, man-like, he was considerably exercised in his mind as to the propriety of my calling.
"There are such a lot of other vocations a girl can qualify for," he said, "without exposing herself to the overbearing insolence of every purse-proud Tom, Dick, and Harry."
As I did not feel disposed to enter into a discussion of the subject, I merely shrugged my shoulders, and we walked on for a while in silence. Suddenly he turned to me, and asked:
"By the way, what do you think of Belle Staunton, Mabel?"
I did not at once perceive the relevancy of the remark to the topic we had been conversing upon before, and answered somewhat unguardedly:
"I think she dislikes me."
"Then she's a fool," Mortimer Westley declared, very emphatically. "But what makes you imagine such a thing?"
I smiled, for I now saw the point of his question.
"Are you sure it is only my imagination?" I asked.
"I don't see why she should dislike you," he said. "But Belle is a girl no fellow can understand."
"Not even Clive Cunninghame?" I inquired, looking at him sideways.
He returned my look with a glance of surprise.
"Well," he said, "that's another matter. From what you say I suppose you are aware that Clive hasn't treated her very decently."
"On the contrary," I replied, surprised in my turn, "I was aware of nothing of the sort. I merely asked the question for reasons of my own."
"Well, it's rather a curious history all round," he said, "and perhaps I have no right to judge Clive's behaviour as I do. No man can know how he would act himself in similar circumstances. Still, speaking on broad principles, it was Clive's duty to have steered clear of the girl, knowing as he did the peculiar predicament in which she was placed."
"You refer, I suppose, to the conditions of her aunt's will," I said. "But how could he help himself, poor fellow! if he was so desperately in love with her?"
Mr. Westley shrugged his shoulders.
"The disease cannot have been so very bad," he said, "or he wouldn't have got over it so easily."
"You think he is cured of his disease, then?" I asked.
"I presume so. At any rate, when I compare his behaviour to her now with the way he went on with her twelve months ago, I cannot think otherwise. Whether Belle has taken the thing so quietly, however, is another question."
"Do you believe she cares for him?"
"That is more than I can say. Nobody who saw them together, however, can have doubted that she was very much attached to him at the time, and if Coxton hadn't received a timely tip from a friend—he happened to be away in India just then—I venture to say he would have returned home to find his chances gone. Whether his unexpected return about a year ago brought Clive to his senses, or whether other counsels prevailed, I don't know, but the fact is that Clive, to every one's surprise, suddenly veered round altogether, and left the field to his rival."
"Poor Belle!" I said. "If she really loved him, he certainly treated her very badly. Still, may he not have renounced his own hopes in order not to spoil her chances of fortune? For it is true, I presume, that her claim to her aunt's estate is really dependent upon her marriage with Mr. Coxton?"
He nodded affirmatively.
"I drew the old lady's will myself," he said; "it was the first work of the kind which I did at Cane, Bissom, and Cranbury's, so I remember it well. The curious part of the whole business is that Mrs. Ruhmkorff during her lifetime had the greatest possible dislike of Richard Coxton, her husband's nephew, and even went so far as to forbid him to enter her house. Coxton, I understand, was rather smitten with Belle Staunton at that time, and, if report is correct, the girl was not altogether indifferent to his attentions. She was scarcely 16 then, and possibly the old lady thought it desirable to stop his visits for that reason. Still, old Bissom, who was her friend as well as her lawyer, and whom she appointed sole trustee of her will, says that she had undoubtedly conceived a dislike of Richard Coxton for some personal reasons, and no one was more surprised than he when she made her niece's inheritance dependent upon her marrying Dick."
"It was cruel," I said, "whether she disliked him or not."
"It looks like a piece of infernal malice, doesn't it?" Mr. Westley answered. "It's a pity the whole thing cannot be knocked out in the courts."
"Is there no such chance?" I asked.
"I'm afraid not," he replied. "It could only be accomplished by proving the insanity of the testatrix at the time she made her will, and that would be a difficult job—in fact, old Bissom declares she was the sanest woman he ever met, in spite of all appearances to the contrary."
"But supposing," I asked, "Miss Staunton should refuse to marry Mr. Coxton, what will become of all the money?"
"If she refuses to marry him, or marries someone else in his stead, the money will go to certain charities which are specified in the will. The old lady has been extremely explicit in her dispositions. There is only one man who can free Belle Staunton from her dilemma, if it is one, and that is Richard Coxton. If he should decline to marry her, she would inherit absolutely. That eventuality is specially provided for, but it is not very likely to occur, I fancy."
"And is there no reason given in the will for these cruel conditions?" I asked.
"The will contains no explanation of any kind; it merely directs that in the event of Miss Staunton disregarding her guardian's wishes, the lawyer of her late husband, Mr. Ruhmkorff, is to be notified thereof forthwith, as she desires her estate to be wound up under his legal supervision, which is a rather nasty slap at poor old Bissom, who, I understand, had the deuce of a time with the gentleman in question when old Ruhmkorff died and left his widow everything he possessed."
"I wonder," I said, "that a man like Mr. Coxton allows himself to be made the instrument of such cruel tyranny. Knowing, as he must, that Belle Staunton does not love him, it would be more dignified——"
"Well, that's right enough, of course," Mr. Westley broke in, "only, you see, loss of dignity is one thing and poverty is another, and the latter is unquestionably the harder nut to crack of the two. The fact is, Coxton is as poor as a church mouse, while his tastes are of a rather expensive order. I don't mean that he lives fast, because that isn't in Dick's line; but he is passionately fond of travelling, and would pawn the very shirt off his back in order to buy a rare book or a scientific curio. I don't think he is likely to throw away the chance of marrying a couple of hundred thousand pounds."
I looked at him with feelings of righteous indignation.
"I am sorry to find," I said, "that such mercenary principles meet with a champion in you. To my mind——"
But I was not destined to disclose my mind on the subject to him then, for a succession of loud shrieks not far from where we were suddenly burst upon our ears, making the blood curdle in my veins. Mr. Westley and I stood regarding each other in mute astonishment.
"Great heavens!" I ejaculated, "something is wrong with Mr. Cunninghame."
And without waiting for him to reply I darted off across the lawn towards the spot where I had left Clive Cunninghame in company with his mother about an hour before.
I had hardly proceeded a dozen yards when I saw Mrs. Cunninghame come running towards me with a terrified face, wringing her hands and showing other signs of excessive agitation.
"Oh, quick, nurse, quick!" she cried when she saw me. "Poor Clive has gone mad. He is killing the unfortunate fellow."
I did not stop to ask for an explanation, but hurried on, followed by Mr. Westley, towards the big cedar-tree, where I could now discern a group of persons swaying to and fro, as if engaged in a violent struggle. I reached the spot a moment after Mr. Westley, who overtook me on the way, and stood aghast at the spectacle that presented itself there.
Clive Cunninghame was standing erect, holding a man by the throat, and apparently endeavouring to strangle him. The wretched fellow, in whom I recognised the under-gardener, was already growing black in the face, and quite powerless to resist his assailant. Behind Clive, with both his arms thrown round his neck, and striving with all his might to pull him off, stood Mr. Coxton. As the three swayed round in their joint struggle, I caught a glimpse of Clive Cunninghame's face. There was not a vestige of agitation in it, merely an expression of stern, almost rigid determination. In an instant Mortimer Westley had sprung to Mr. Coxton's assistance, and, grappling with the unfortunate young man, succeeded in wrenching his arms away from his victim's throat and pinioning them behind his back. While the two friends with united efforts dragged him aside, and forced him back into the lounge on which he had been lying, I hastened to the assistance of the under-gardener, who, upon being released from Clive's vice-like grip, had fallen with a heavy thud to the ground, and lay there gasping convulsively for breath. The unlucky fellow was in a deplorable state, and scarcely conscious. Indeed, had assistance arrived a moment or two later, I reflected with a shudder, it would have been all over with him.
I tore open the collar of his shirt, and placing a cushion, which had fallen from Mr. Cunninghame's lounge, under his head, rushed away to fetch some water from the house.
When I reached the spot again two minutes afterwards I found the scene somewhat altered. Mrs. Cunninghame had meanwhile returned, and now stood with Mortimer Westley beside her son, talking to him in soothing accents, while Mr. Coxton was engaged in helping the under-gardener on to his feet. The latter, though still somewhat dazed and very red in the face, appeared to have recovered his faculties, and was staggering about, and shaking himself like some big mastiff that has come off second best in a fight with one of its kind. He was a strapping young fellow, all sinew and muscle, and now that he stood on his feet again seemed scarcely much the worse for his thrilling experience. He resented the treatment he had received, nevertheless, and would have launched forth into elaborate explanations had not Richard Coxton cut him short and told him to keep quiet.
"We don't want this talked about, Collins," he said, in a confidential tone. "The fact is, Mr. Clive isn't quite himself yet. His long illness has pulled him down a good deal, and his temper sometimes gets the better of him. Of course you are not to blame."
"But to spring upon a man without a word of warning, just as if one were a mad dog," Collins grumbled, "when I was merely obeying orders, sir! And never a contrary word have I had with Mr. Clive to this day. It's my opinion, Mr. Richard——"
"Hush, my good fellow," Mr. Coxton broke in; "I'll have a talk with you later. You had better be off now, and keep yourself out of sight for a few hours. There, now, don't stop to argue the matter," he added, speaking with quiet determination, as Collins appeared intent on dwelling further upon his grievances. "Whatever satisfaction may be due to you I'll see that you get—you can rely upon that."
With these words he simply grasped the man by the arm, and sent him about his business.
My attention, while listening to this conversation, was rather divided, as I was trying at the same time to catch something of what was passing between Clive Cunninghame and those who were endeavouring to pacify him. I say endeavouring to pacify him; but in reality there appeared to be no need of anything of the kind, for the calmest person among all those present, if outward signs count for anything, was unquestionably Clive Cunninghame himself. He sat on his lounge, with his elbows on his knees, and his hands supporting his chin. The expression of his face was listless and indifferent, almost bored, and although he listened with some show of patience to what his mother was saying—I could not distinguish what it was, for she spoke in very low tones—it was evident to me that it irritated him. Suddenly he roused himself with a little burst of impetuosity, and, seizing his crutch-sticks, which lay upon the lounge beside him, and by the help of which he was now able to move about again, rose to his feet.
"Bless my soul, mother!" he said, repulsing Mr. Westley, who had advanced to assist him up, "what a bally fuss to make about nothing! You surely don't expect me to turn tail and run from a brute like that. I tell you he's dangerous, and I know what I'm talking about."
Just then, he caught sight of me as I approached, and exclaimed:
"Just in time, nurse! I'm afraid I've given this leg of mine a twist. If you don't mind, we'll go indoors. Don't you bother, mother."
He waved Mrs. Cunninghame back, and took a step or two forward on his crutches. But his gait was unsteady, and, fearing he would be faint, I beckoned to Mr. Coxton to place himself at his other side.
"Hallo, Dick!" he exclaimed as his friend came up, "you here?" He appeared to have forgotten that it was Richard Coxton who first sprang to poor Collins's assistance. "Perhaps you'll lend us a hand. It's strange where this infernal dizziness of mine comes from. It makes me feel as weak as a girl."
The crutches fell from his hands to the ground as he spoke, and had not Mr. Coxton caught him he would have fallen face forward to the earth. Mr. Westley was at my side in a twinkling, and, motioning me away, seized Clive under one arm, while Mr. Coxton grasped him by the other. In this fashion the two young men carried their half-conscious friend into the house.
As I hurried on in advance to make the needful preparations for the poor young fellow's reception, the remembrance of the warning words spoken to me by Mr. Coxton ten days before flashed across me. I had paid little heed to them at the time, for, in truth, the danger of Clive Cunninghame doing any injury to others besides himself had appeared to me wildly imaginary. In the light of what I had just seen, however, the warning struck me as prophetic. It was strange, I thought, that with so strong a conviction of Mr. Cunninghame's homicidal tendency, Mr. Coxton should have insisted all this while upon having Belle Staunton kept in ignorance of the true facts, for I know it was out of deference to his wishes that the matter had been concealed from her.
I confess Belle Staunton was almost as great a mystery to me as Clive Cunninghame himself. I have already said that she was much addicted to the pleasures of life. Her visits to town on shopping expeditions, or to garden parties and other social functions, were at all times frequent, and much of her leisure was consumed in discussing the newest fashions with milliners, or fitting on new gowns, of which she had a superabundance. But she seemed to make a point of plunging with additional zest into the whirl of social gaiety when Mr. Coxton was in the house, and from her invariable habit of only responding to those invitations in which he was not included, it must have been evident to the most obtuse mind that her main object was to escape his company.
That very afternoon she had refused at the last moment to drive to a tennis party in the neighbourhood, to which they had both been invited, on the plea that she had an appointment at her dressmaker's which would not bear putting off. Mr. Coxton, as usual, had acquiesced in her arrangements without a murmur, and had announced his intention of driving to the tennis party alone. Evidently he had changed his mind since and stayed at home—fortunately enough, I thought; for had he not been at hand that afternoon, who knows how differently everything might have ended?
Clive Cunninghame's fit of faintness lasted but a very short while, so that upon entering the house he was able to proceed to his room with my help alone. Arrived there, he curtly announced his desire to be left to himself, and knowing better than to oppose his wishes, I withdrew to the next room, where I remained on guard until Dr. Crackenthorpe came.
Who had sent for the doctor I do not know. His arrival was merely notified to me an hour later by a message from Mrs. Cunninghame, who requested my presence in the drawing-room. The conference that followed there was lengthy and agitated, and would scarcely be worth recording but for one incident, which impressed me very strongly, and caused me later on to adopt a course of action that some may think reprehensible.
Both Mr. Westley and Mr. Coxton were present, the latter, as usual, calm and self-controlled, but very determined in his manner. He made no secret of his opinion that Clive's case was hopeless, and that common prudence required that he should be put under restraint. I saw poor Mrs. Cunninghame wince painfully at the word, and shake her head in vehement opposition.
"No, no!" she cried, "not as long as I am alive to watch over and care for him."
"I feel for you with all my heart, my dear Mrs. Cunninghame," Mr. Coxton said. "But it is my bounden duty to speak as I do. Clive's state of mind, of which the poor fellow himself is evidently only too unconscious, is a permanent menace to the safety of those around him, whoever they may be. This is no random statement, for I know what I am talking of. There is no saying against whom he may turn in these fits of ungovernable passion, and they may not always end as fortunately as this one has to-day."
Mrs. Cunninghame only shook her head once more as resolutely as before. The expression of her face was so full of anguish as she sat there alone and apart at the window that my heart went out to her in compassion, and I crossed over to her to afford her such comfort as I was able. As I did so, I heard Mr. Coxton say the following words in a low tone to Dr. Crackenthorpe:
"It is well that you should know, doctor, that the poor fellow has, within the last few days, uttered threats of violence against Miss Staunton. I wish this to go no further, of course," he added, with a glance in the direction of Mrs. Cunninghame. "I merely mention it for your guidance."
I stood still in surprise. Was it possible that Belle Staunton could have informed Mr. Coxton of what passed between her and Clive Cunninghame that afternoon when I played the involuntary eavesdropper? It seemed incredible. Yet from what other source could he have derived his knowledge of that conversation? For I knew that he could refer to no other.
The thought pursued me so persistently that I barely listened to the conversation which followed, and which turned round the question as to whether anything should be said to Clive on the subject of the occurrence that afternoon.
Mr. Coxton was of opinion that it would be unwise to broach the matter to him, while Mr. Westley inclined to the opposite view. Both, however, were decided on one point, and that was that Mr. Cunninghame should have a male attendant.
This roused me, I scarcely knew why. Some weeks before I would have eagerly grasped at the suggestion, as affording me an easy means of escape from what was a very onerous task to me. Now I felt quite differently on the subject. I liked my patient, and I pitied him, while the mystery attaching to his case awakened my curious interest.
The subject was not discussed any further just then, for Dr. Crackenthorpe expressed his wish to see the patient for a few minutes alone, when he would be in a better position to judge of the necessities of the situation, and after he had left the room for that purpose Mrs. Cunninghame requested me to fetch her a flash of smelling-salts that stood on the dressing-table in her bedroom.
Although I had frequently been on the first floor, where the room in question was situated, having on recent occasions made use of a kind of retiring-room there when I wanted a quiet hour for study or letter writing, I was not acquainted with the locality of every room on that particular story, and, being slightly confused by all the events of the last hour or two, I missed my direction and entered the wrong room.
I noticed my mistake almost immediately, and was about to withdraw again when a sound of stifled sobbing caught my ear and arrested me. A glance sufficed to show me that I was in Belle Staunton's room. It was in a strange state of disorder. Gowns of every description lay strewn about on chairs and lounges in such profusion that it looked as if every wardrobe in the house had been emptied into the room. The drawers of the dressing table at the further end were open, and their contents, consisting of jewels and finery and dainty knick-knacks of all kinds, were piled up in a heap upon the table itself, whilst a huge mirror stood in position before the window, indicating pretty plainly that the occupant of the room had been recently employed in trying on some garments. But, the most curious feature of all, Belle Staunton herself was lying upon one of the lounges, face foremost, her head buried in the cushions, and sobbing as if her heart would break.
There was something so tragically pathetic in the contrast afforded by this picture of female distress amidst these gorgeous surroundings that I could not resist the impulse that seized me to advance further into the room and inquire if I could do anything for the poor girl.
Evidently she had not observed my entrance, and it was not until I was close beside her, and almost touched her with my hand, that she started up and recognised me. She rose from her recumbent position at once, and confronted me with an expression of so much haughty displeasure in her face that the words of sympathy which I had been about to utter died on my lips.
"What are you doing here?" she asked abruptly.
"I entered your room by mistake, Miss Staunton," I said. "But, seeing you in such distress, I felt loth to retire again without asking if I could be of any service to you."
Her face did not relax while I spoke, and when I had finished she stood regarding me for a moment with a look so searching and full of strange suspicion that the blood rose to my cheeks as I met it.
"You were spying," she said at last sternly.
"I am sorry you think so, Miss Staunton," I answered. "It only remains for me to assure you that you overrate both the depth of my curiosity and your power to excite it."
With these words I turned my back upon her, and left the room. As I passed out, I fancied she made a movement as if she meant to follow and detain me; but, whether she did so or not, I took no further heed of her, but hastened on, with a mingled feeling of perplexity and indignation, and, having accomplished my errand, made my way downstairs again.
When I re-entered the drawing-room I found Dr. Crackenthorpe back again from his visit to the patient.
From the sudden cessation of the conversation upon my appearance, and the expression of Mortimer Westley's face, I could see at once that I had been the subject of their talk, and I was not surprised when the doctor, after a moment's pause, addressed me as follows:
"We have been discussing the condition of our patient, Miss Forsyth, with especial reference to yourself; for we understand, of course, that, after the occurrence this afternoon, you will naturally feel reluctant to continue your duties. This being the case——"
"Pardon me, Dr. Crackenthorpe," I broke in. "If Mr. Cunninghame has no more need of my services, I am ready to leave here at any moment. As for any reluctance or fear, however, I have no such feeling, for I believe Mr. Cunninghame to be as harmless as anyone here present. Moreover, knowing him as I do, I am convinced that a change in treatment, such as has been suggested, would prove in the highest degree detrimental to the poor fellow."
"Very probably, very probably," the doctor said. "You speak very much to the point, Miss Forsyth—very much so, indeed. But——"
"The doctor means, Mabel," Mr. Westley hastily interposed, "that, while your services have been most valuable, he cannot disguise the fact that their continuance might be attended with grave danger to yourself, and under such circumstances——"
"If I go," I exclaimed, interrupting him with an impulse of anger, for I saw that the whole thing had been concocted beforehand, "let it be understood that I shall consider myself summarily dismissed. Of course, Dr. Crackenthorpe is the best judge of my competence to attend to the case, and if he no longer reposes enough confidence in my ability——
"My dear young lady," the doctor said soothingly, "you have done admirably—most admirably. But it would be a serious dereliction of duty on my part as a medical man were I to conceal from you that your further attendance upon the unfortunate young man in whom we are all so deeply interested would be fraught with a certain element of risk, which—er—in short——"
He hesitated, and rubbed his hands together uneasily. It was evident that the idea of dispensing with my services had not originated in his head, and the suspicion that it was Mr. Westley, whose exaggerated fears for my safety were at the bottom of it all, rendered me stubborn and fractious.
"I am subject to your orders, Dr. Crackenthorpe," I remarked shortly, "and have nothing more to say."
Up to this time Mrs. Cunninghame had not spoken a word. Now she rose, and, approaching the doctor, said:
"If nurse is willing to remain, it would be a great comfort to me were she to stay here. Clive likes and trusts her, and I am sure he would no more think of harming her than he would his own mother."
"Possibly so—very possibly so, indeed," the doctor said. "The fact is, I am myself not in favour of any radical change at this juncture, and, were it not for the suggestion that Miss Forsyth herself may not feel inclined——"
"Pray disabuse your mind of any such notion, Dr. Crackenthorpe," I said. "Whoever suggested it did so most unwarrantably, and with very little regard for my feelings and my professional reputation."
I felt that Mr. Coxton's eyes were fixed upon me as I spoke, and, turning instinctively to face him, I saw that he was regarding me with a smile of good-humoured indulgence. He said nothing, however, and I withdrew shortly afterwards, feeling that I had done all I could to vindicate my own position, and prevent a step which I believed would prove fatal to the interests of any unhappy patient.
It was perhaps a bold thing for one in my situation to take up so determined an attitude in a matter which concerned, not only my own safety, but that of every one else in the household of Glen Elc. Nor was I insensible of the additional responsibility I had thereby incurred. But I had no fear of Clive Cunninghame myself, and I was moreover fully convinced that, if anything could save him from complete insanity, it was not coercion and restraint, but patient nursing and gentle and sympathetic treatment, both of which I felt competent to afford him.
During that day and the next I caught myself frequently pondering over the strange scene which had followed my unintentional intrusion upon Belle Staunton's privacy, when I went to fetch Mrs. Cunninghame's smelling-salts. What could have been the nature of the extraordinary suspicion which my entry into her room aroused her? She had accused me of spying upon her. But what was there to spy? Frankly speaking, she was to me a very unaccountable and not altogether sympathetic person; but I was certainly innocent of any desire, either to foist myself upon her confidence, or to penetrate such secrets as she might possess by any other means.
To my no small surprise I was soon to learn that Miss Staunton herself regretted the violent impulse to which she had yielded; so much so, indeed, that she went out of her way during the next day or two to reconcile me and smooth over any ill-feeling that her roughness might have produced in me. Could I have felt that her overtures were prompted by a sense of justice towards a person to whom she had done a palpable wrong, I would have received them more cordially than I did. But the reverse was the case. I was painfully conscious that her sudden friendliness towards me was the result, not of any generous impulse, but of some suspicious fear that she might have made me a dangerous enemy, whom it was necessary to pacify and conciliate.
One morning, as I happened to pass by her room, she called me in to her and surprised me by making what was practically an apology for her recent rudeness.
"I feel I owe you some explanation, Nurse Forsyth, for my behaviour to you the other day," she began, with an evident effort to appear gracious. "The fact is, I was very much upset at the moment you came in, and hardly knew what I was saying. I trust you will forget the occurrence."
I assured her, somewhat coldly, that the matter had not troubled my thoughts at all.
"We nurses," I added, noticing the dismay my chilly reception of her apology caused her, "are accustomed to bear such little ebullitions of temper with equanimity. Were it not so, our life would scarcely be worth living."
I would have left her without saying more, but she detained me with a kind of nervous eagerness to be pleasant and hospitable.
"I am afraid you are having a rather trying time with poor Clive," she said. "People of his lively and excitable disposition make troublesome patients, and I fancy he must be very difficult to manage. You know, we are very old and intimate friends, he and I. We were playmates as children, and have almost grown up side by side."
I wondered inwardly what object she had in volunteering this information to me. It was so plainly conveyed with a purpose. Was she, after all, not so ignorant of Mr. Cunninghame's true condition as I had been led to suppose? I thought it could do no harm to test her on the subject.
"I have had many worse patients to deal with than Mr. Cunninghame," I said. "He is impulsive and quick-tempered, but at bottom kindheartedness itself, and I don't think he would willingly harm a fly. For myself, I prefer an excitable patient, with all the watchfulness he requires, to one who is morose and melancholy."
"I suppose so," she said, absently.
It was evident that my sentiments on the subject interested her very little.
"Since you happen to have broached the subject, Miss Staunton," I went on, determined to bring her to the point, "may I ask if you have noticed of late any unusual symptoms of excitability in Mr. Cunninghame?"
She looked at me with surprise.
"I hardly understand you," she said. "I am not aware that I possess better opportunities for observing such things than you do."
Again there was the note of suspicion in her voice which I had noticed the afternoon when I unexpectedly entered her room.
"To put it quite plainly, Miss Staunton," I said, "I mean, has anything in Mr. Clive's recent manner led you to apprehend that he might lay violent hands on some one upon very slight provocation?"
She stepped back now with an expression of such complete astonishment at my question, that I felt instinctively there was some mystery here which required solving.
"Violence?" she exclaimed. "Clive? What do you mean? Has anything happened?"
"It has been asserted," I answered, venturing to blurt out the truth without further circumlocution, "that he has even used threats towards you yourself, Miss Staunton."
She turned a trifle pale, and for an instant her startled looks led me to fear that there was after all some truth in the statement.
"Threats?" she echoed again. "What kind of threats? You are talking in riddles."
"If this is a riddle to you, Miss Staunton," I said, "the sooner it is cleared up the better, I think, for every one concerned. It is for this reason alone that I have spoken, at the risk, perhaps, of seeming meddlesome and officious."
"You certainly appear to be playing a somewhat strange part in this house, Miss Forsyth," she said, eyeing me haughtily. "Pray, what is your authority for the extraordinary statement that Clive has threatened me?"
"I will tell you," I replied. "I chanced to overhear Mr. Coxton state the fact to Dr. Crackenthorpe three days ago."
If she had been astonished before, there was now blank terror depicted in every feature of her face.
"Mr. Coxton?" she exclaimed in a hoarse whisper. "Richard Coxton said that?"
"He appeared concerned for your safety, Miss Staunton," I said. "If his fears are justified, I think you should be the first to learn of them."
Her whole manner changed instantly. She drew a step nearer to me, and glanced down at me with searching eyes.
"What is your purpose in telling me of this?" she asked abruptly. "You are concealing something; I can see it."
"My purpose," I answered, "is merely to serve Mr. Cunninghame, to whom I have become sincerely attached. As for the matter of concealment, if certain events in this house are being concealed from you, Miss Staunton, it is not I who am to blame for it. I have merely obeyed the instructions of those who, I presume, have the right to dictate what you shall know and not know."
"I deny such a right to any one," she said proudly. "You will tell me instantly what is being kept from me, or I shall know where to go for the information."
She spoke in an imperative tone, which left no room for counter-argument. I wavered an instant, weighing in my mind the possible consequences of confiding the whole truth to her, and then spoke out with a bold resolve.
"I am betraying no one's confidence in telling you," I said. "On the contrary, I believe it to be my duty towards Mr. Cunninghame himself to speak of the matter to one who may be able to influence him more effectually than perhaps anyone I know. There are those, Miss Staunton, who, whether, rightly or wrongly, believe him to be suffering from some mental derangement, and I fear with only too good cause."
"Suffering from a mental derangement?" she ejaculated, struck all of a heap. "Do you mean that he is insane?"
"Practically yes, that is the belief. I am risking a good deal in speaking thus openly to you, and I rely upon your honouring the confidence I am showing you."
"Who has set this absurd story afloat?" she asked, ignoring my last words.
"It is the doctor's opinion," I answered, "and there are, unfortunately, certain undeniable indications that seem to support it."
"Indications? What indications?" she said with brusque impatience. "All this is totally new to me. But it is absurd, utterly absurd."
It was not part of my purpose to mention anything concerning the incident of Clive's unaccountable attack upon the under-gardener. But the opportunity to ascertain whether Miss Staunton could throw any light upon the dark subject of the unhappy fellow's attempts at self-destruction was too valuable to be lost.
"May I ask," I said, "if you have any knowledge which would lead you to believe that Mr. Cunninghame is tired of life?"
She gave a perceptible start, and the pallor I had noticed in her face a few moments before returned again.
"Tired of life?" she exclaimed with a catch in her breath. "Has Clive ever hinted at such a thing?"
"In words, never," I replied. "Every nerve in his body, if I read him aright, is full of life, and of the love and the joy of life. For that very reason I cannot bring myself to believe——"
"Believe what?" she broke in with the same impatience as before.
"In the sombre conclusions those around him have arrived at. You are aware, of course, that Mr. Cunninghame has recently met with a curious series of accidents."
"Well?" she asked breathlessly.
"The persistency of these strange accidents has led to the assumption that he himself may be responsible for their occurrence. In other words——"
"That he has made attempts to do away with himself?" Miss Staunton concluded for me, with blanched lips. "How horrible! how horrible!"
Now that it was out, the shock of it all seemed to be much greater to her than I had anticipated it would be, and the suspicion flashed across me that after all the likelihood of a really suicidal intent on Clive Cunninghame's part was not so remote in Belle Staunton's mind.
"Do you believe such a thing possible, Miss Staunton?" I asked her.
"No, no, a thousand times no," she cried with sudden energy. "It would be too cruel, too——" She checked herself with an effort to conceal her agitation. "These are very extraordinary things you have been telling me, Nurse Forsyth," she went on more calmly. "Does Mrs. Cunninghame share in this strange view of her son's case?"
"I think she fears it may be only too true," I answered.
"And she never breathed a word of this to me!" she murmured, half to herself.
"May there not be a good reason for her reticence?" I ventured to suggest.
Miss Staunton turned upon me with a quick flash of suspicion in her eye.
"What do you mean?" she said. "What reason do you know of?"
"I mean," I said evasively, thinking of no better answer on the spur of the moment. "Mrs. Cunninghame may have thought it desirable, for her son's sake, that strict silence should be maintained on so sad a subject. In a case like this cheerfulness on the part of those who surround the patient is of the first and most vital importance. I would impress this very earnestly upon you, Miss Staunton. Mr. Cunninghame has not the least inkling of the fears his condition has given rise to, and any suspicion of the kind might produce disastrous results."
Miss Staunton merely nodded in an absent way, but made no further reply. I could see that what I had told her had affected her in the strongest possible manner, and I left her with a mingled feeling of compassion and distrust.
I do not pretend to be a reader of character, or to be able to judge of the secret thoughts of a person by the emotions expressed in their words and actions. But if I was ever impressed with the certainty of a thing, it was that Miss Staunton had some strange burden upon her mind which she feared to see disclosed to the view of others. What it could be was beyond my power to guess. That it bore some relation to Clive Cunninghame seemed to me more than probable, and the thought puzzled and disquieted me. Had she spurned his love for the sake of the wealth bequeathed to her, as Dr. Crackenthorpe had led me to understand? Or had Clive Cunninghame really jilted her so shamefully as Mr. Westley asserted.
As near as I can remember, it was three days after the incident with the man Collins when Mr. Cunninghame startled me one morning with the sudden question:
"Do you think, nurse, that a man is always aware of it himself when he goes crazy?"
In my consternation I nearly dropped the jug of lemon-water which I was just about to place upon the table next to his couch, and it was some time before I could trust myself to reply:
"I should say it depended upon the man," I said at last, speaking in as offhand a tone as I could command. "As a rule, however, I should think no man admits to himself that he is crazy."
"I suppose so," he said, thoughtfully. "In his opinion it is usually the other fellow." He was silent for a while, and I thought the matter had passed from his mind, when he presently remarked, gravely: "If I ever go mad, I hope some good friend of mine will have the humanity to give me the happy despatch. I would do the same for anyone I cared for."
I made no reply, and he took up a book, in which he soon became absorbed.
That same afternoon, having taken my usual hour's rest in the room placed at my disposal upstairs, while Mrs. Cunninghame relieved me at her son's side, I was just about to re-enter the sick-room when the door was flung open, and Miss Staunton stalked out. Her eyes showed traces of tears, and she was evidently deeply agitated. But she swept by me quickly, without acknowledging my greeting, and mounted the stairs to the upper floor.
Hastily entering Mr. Cunninghame's room, I found him alone, Mrs. Cunninghame having apparently yielded her place during my absence to Belle Staunton. His face was flushed a deep red, and there was an angry light in his eyes, clear indications of the occurrence of some scene similar to the one I had witnessed once before in the garden. He took no notice of my presence, but lay twirling a paper-cutter impatiently between his fingers and gazing with stern, set look up at the ceiling.
Presently he turned to me abruptly, and, as if the thought has just flashed across him, he asked, brusquely:
"What are you here for, anyway, nurse?"
I wasn't quite sure at the first moment whether he was merely referring to my presence in his room, or to my stay at Glen Elc generally, and I replied, rising from my chair:
"If you would rather be alone, Mr. Clive, I will go and sit in the next room."
"Nonsense!" he said. "I did not mean that. You're awfully good to me, of course; but, hang it! I suppose I am able to take care of myself! It is loathsome to be fussed and fretted over as if I were an hysterical girl."
I saw he was in a state of great irritation, and endeavoured to laugh off the subject by some jocular remark about his delicate constitution. But he was not so easily diverted, and continued to dwell upon the absurdity of a man in his robust health being waited on and fed by a batch of women.
I let him rail on, and he gradually grew quieter. Suddenly he raised himself on his elbow, and looking at me with a half-desperate, half-comical expression, said gravely:
"Do you know, nurse, if it were not for this leg of mine, which is still in a deuced rotten condition, I would like to go out and give the first fellow I met a jolly good licking. It would be an immeasurable relief to me."
"Why, to be sure," I rejoined, imitating his grave tone. "I have often heard that a good licking contains, in some cases, more effective curative properties than the best medicine in the world, only it depends, I believe, upon which fellow gets it."
This set him laughing, and his ill-humour vanished immediately.
"That's pretty good," he said. "You're smart, nurse. I've had one or two thundering lickings in my time, I may tell you, and can testify myself to the marvellous efficacy of the remedy, more especially in cases of 'swelled head,' vulgo 'cockiness.'"
And he forthwith rattled off a couple of stories of his school life with so much raciness and boyish humour that no one who heard him could have believed him capable of harbouring a melancholy thought.
Nor was there any recurrence of these little outbursts of irritability during the next few days, and I was beginning to congratulate myself inwardly on the firm stand I had taken against the engagement of a male nurse, when a thunderbolt fell, and threw the whole house into a state of consternation.
Shall I ever cease to be haunted by the memory of that fearful night of 12th August? Clive Cunninghame had been particularly bright and cheerful during the evening, and had played billiards with Mr. Coxton and Belle Staunton until past 10 o'clock. I had walked until late in the moonlight with Mortimer Westley, who had gone back to town during the week, and returned at the strong solicitation of Mrs. Cunninghame and her son to spend another Saturday and Sunday at Glen Elc. The invitation, I knew, was intended as a kindness to me, and I appreciated it as such. Somehow I felt as if Mr. Westley, who had a more detailed knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the betrothal of Richard Coxton and Miss Staunton than anyone else, could, if he liked, throw a fuller light upon the part which Clive Cunninghame had played in Belle Staunton's history.
But he had been very reticent in his answers to my questions on the subject, and as I revolved the details of our conversation that night in my mind after retiring to bed, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Westley had, for some reason or other, a strong bias against poor Clive Cunninghame. Perhaps it was not difficult to guess the nature of this reason. I have often observed that the very qualities in a man which exercise a fascinating influence over us women are sometimes productive of the opposite effect upon those of his own sex. A man is apt to judge harshly of the careless, irresponsible, light-heartedness of his fellow-man, possibly the more so because it often captivates the feminine heart where more solid qualities and sterling merit fail to charm. It may be a strange fact, but it is certainly born in many of us to love what our sober judgment tells us we should condemn. And I yield no superiority in this regard to the lords of creation. For, indeed, is it not only too frequently the little frailties of a woman that bring men, ay, and even the gravest of them, to her feet?
It was not easy to gainsay the opinion expressed by Mortimer Westley that Clive Cunninghame, in making love to Miss Staunton, if he ever did make love to her, had acted as no thoughtful man would have acted who had a true affection for the girl.
"He knew he could never marry her," Mr. Westley said, "for he will never inherit a penny, nor make a penny himself, either, for the matter of that, unless he becomes a professional cricketer, which is about his only chance of ever earning a living. Clive is a good fellow, of course, full of dash and spirit, and all that sort of thing," he added, a little self-apologetically, "and I wouldn't have said what I have about him to anyone else in the world but you, Mabel. But there it ends. He has no more judgment or forethought, or regard for consequences, than a youngster or 10, and he is just as irresponsible. It's a marvel that a girl like Belle Staunton should have come within an ace of throwing away her claim to a huge fortune for the sake of such a harum-scarum. But that's the way with the girls."
I felt a little ruffled at his severe judgement of Clive, sharpened though I fancy it was by his sense of my partiality to the poor fellow; nor did I believe that Miss Staunton was the girl to sacrifice the goods of this world easily for any man. At any rate, she had not done it so far, whether through Clive's fault or her own, and the fact, I thought, was one that rather spoke in Clive's favour.
I had now learned one thing, however, which I had not been aware of before, and that was that Clive Cunninghame had nothing to expect from his mother. Old Mr. Cunninghame, from whom Clive had perhaps inherited his egotistic qualities, had, upon retiring from business, invested his means in the purchase of a joint annuity for himself and his wife, which would cease at the death of the latter. Glen Elc was merely a leasehold property, and the only inheritance Clive Cunninghame could expect was whatever his mother might contrive to lay by out of her annuity while she lived. His father, a man of somewhat peculiar views, had maintained that a man's duty towards his male offspring ended when he had bestowed upon him the best education his means would afford. Every man's future, he said, should be of his own shaping and making.
I was lying awake pondering over all these things, when I suddenly remembered that I had left my writing-case on the table of the room on the first floor, where I usually spent an hour or two to myself in the middle of the day. Mr. Westley's arrival that afternoon had disturbed me in the middle of a letter to the matron of my hospital, and recollecting that the matters touched upon in it were of a rather private nature, I got out of bed, put on a loose gown, and went upstairs to fetch it.
The house was already dark, and I took a candle with me to light me on my way. Unfortunately, a window had been left open on the stairway, and the draught, catching the flame as I passed, blew it out. I wavered a moment in doubt whether I should return to my room and relight the candle. But I knew the house now so well that I concluded it would be unnecessary, and so proceeded on my errand in the dark. There was little fear of my mistaking the doors, for I knew the locality of the room, it being the one immediately adjoining Miss Staunton's, and the last on the passage leading from the main landing to the servant's quarters in the left wing.
As I passed along this passage I fancied I heard a door on the landing I had just left open softly. But I took no notice of it, and went on. A second or two later, however, my heart gave a great leap, for I heard the distinct sound of stealthy footsteps following me in the dark passage. I believe I am not more of a coward than the majority of my sex, but I confess that at that moment a vision of all possible horror rose up before me, and I stopped short, nearly letting the candlestick drop in my fright. The instant I stopped the footsteps behind me ceased also, proving conclusively, as I thought, that I was being pursued with some purpose. Again I went a few steps forward, and the footsteps followed. By this time I had reached the height of terror. The passage was a long one, and there was no means of escape, unless I entered and locked myself in one of the rooms at the end. But before I could do this I should have had to pass through a streak of moonlight that fell across the passage from a skylight at its further end, and I feared to give my pursuer a full view of my person. In my fright I was about to cry out for help, when a sudden idea struck me, and I quickly groped my way forward once more until I reached a spot where I remembered having observed a niche in the wall, used by the housemaid for general storage purposes. Into this niche I stepped, making myself as small as possible, and awaited developments with a palpitating heart.
If my pursuer followed on and passed me in the dark, as I hoped, I should have a chance of slipping back again the same way that I had come, and giving the alarm to the man-servant below. For some moments after I had crept into this hiding place everything remained still. Presently, however, the footsteps came on again, first slowly and hesitatingly, and then with increasing swiftness, as if the person moving had been seized with a sudden alarm. I saw the indistinct outline of a man pass by the niche and an instant later emerge into the streak of moonlight that fell aslant the passage a few yards further on. It was but a moment before the person vanished again into the darkness beyond, but in that moment I had recognised the figure as that of Mr. Richard Coxton, and a thrill, partly of relief, partly of astonishment, passed through me. He was only half-dressed, having apparently risen hastily and thrown on the garments that had come to his hand. At once the ludicrous idea shot across my mind that he had mistaken me for a burglar, and, waiting until the sound of his footsteps was lost in the distance, I slipped quickly out of my recess, and hurried as fast as my legs would carry me in the direction from which I had come.
The fear of meeting Richard Coxton under these circumstances lent me wings, and I fled across the first-floor landing and down the staircase in a twinkling. Pausing at the foot of the stairs to listen, I heard Mr. Coxton retrace his steps and walk hastily backwards and forwards on the landing above, as if he were still in search of some one. But, though he continued to pace the corridor upstairs in this fashion for some while, it apparently never occurred to him to descend the stairs, and after waiting a few moments with the intention of calling to him and explaining matters should he extend the sphere of his investigations, I returned softly to my room and went back to bed.
I do not know how long I may have slept, when I awoke once more with a curious feeling of unrest. Whether it was the effect of a dream, or whether it had really occurred, I certainly had the distinct impression of having heard a door near by creak on its hinges, and shuffling footsteps moving along in the hall outside my room. Consciousness sometimes returns by very slow degrees after one awakes from a deep sleep, and I struggled for some while in vain with the hazy memory of what had disturbed me. Of a sudden, however, I started up in bed, seized with a hideous fancy. The peculiar whining noise of the door I had heard turn on its hinges was only too familiar to me. It was just the kind of sound made by the door leading from Mr. Cunninghame's room to the hall outside. He had complained of it somewhat irritably that very afternoon when I entered after his midday nap.
The thought caused me to fly out of bed with a leap. In an instant I was at the door communicating from my room to his, and, opening it, looked in. The night-light was burning brightly on the mantel-shelf, and the room looked exactly as I had left it the last thing before Mr. Cunninghame retired to rest. But the bed was empty, and Clive himself was not in the room. I shot one quick glance at the door which led into the hall. It stood wide open. There was now no longer any doubt in my mind; the noise I had heard a few minutes before, between waking and sleeping, had been caused by Clive Cunninghame leaving his bedroom.
Perhaps, under ordinary conditions, I should have felt no particular occasion to be alarmed at this circumstance. Clive was now well enough to move about the house at will, and it was out of the question for me, or anyone else, to follow his movements so closely as to prevent him from taking any step unaccompanied. But, conscious as I was of the suspicion that attached to everything the poor fellow did, and being furthermore somewhat wrought up by my recent adventure in the passage upstairs, my heart misgave me at the sight of the empty room, and hastily lighting a candle, I rushed into the hall and listened in the hope of hearing some sound that would indicate to me into what part of the house he had gone. But, although I stood there fully a minute, I heard nothing to enlighten me. Only once I fancied that I could distinguish a sound like the careful opening of a door, followed by the quick tread of slippered feet in the story above, and it appeared to me to proceed from the same passage I had traversed once before that night. But the noise, whatever it was, lasted only an instant, and as it was not repeated, I concluded on second thoughts that my imagination, inflamed, perhaps, by my previous experience that night, had played me a trick. To make sure, I crept half-way up the staircase, and stood listening for some further sign. But everything remained still, save for an occasional rattle of the staircase window, and the creaking of the woodwork in various parts of the house.
I felt a weird sensation as I stood there at dead of night, alone, candle in hand, on the stairs of this great dark house, straining my ears to detect some human sound, which I rather feared to hear than not. To heighten my sense of dread the big hall clock below suddenly struck the hour with deep reverberating tones. I counted the strokes until they reached twelve when a creeping shudder passed through me, and an irresistible desire to get back within the four walls of my bedroom beset me. After all, I argued to myself, what was I to do? I couldn't follow Clive Cunninghame as one would a little child. And, moreover, strong man as he was, how should I act towards him in case of a real emergency? I trembled at the prospect, and almost wished——
But the thought remained unfinished, for at that moment, with a suddenness that sent a shock of horror through me, a piercing shriek sounded in the distance, vibrating throughout the whole house. It proceeded from above stairs, and was followed by a prolonged scuffle, plainly in some remoter portion of the first story. The blood curdled in my veins, but I now hesitated no longer. Holding the candle aloft, I rushed upstairs. There was now movement in every part of the house. Doors were opened, muffled voices could be heard, and as I reached the landing of the first story I saw a half-dressed figure descending the staircase from the floor above. It was Mortimer Westley. He leaped down the stairs, taking three or four steps at a bound, and was at my side almost before I had recognised him.
"Go back, Mabel!" he exclaimed, seizing me by the arm. "This is no matter for you."
"For God's sake," I cried, "don't stop me! Something dreadful is happening. Mr. Cunninghame has left his room. Come quick."
And I darted off down the passage I had passed through once before that night. It required no one to guide me to the spot where the mischief, of whatever nature it might be, was occurring, for a series of loud, hysterical cries were now to be heard coming from one of the rooms at the end of the passage. Though it was impossible to recognise the voice, I felt sure it was that of Belle Staunton, and, indeed, I could see by the light of the candle I held that her bedroom door stood wide open. Without an instant's hesitation I darted towards it, and stood transfixed with horror on the threshold.
Miss Staunton was sitting up in bed, wringing her hands and battling with a violent fit of hysterics. At the foot of the bed two men were wrestling, In one of whom I recognised Clive Cunninghame, and in the other Richard Coxton. Clive had a large open hunting-knife in his hand, which he was evidently struggling violently to retain, while Mr. Coxton, holding both his arms in a vice-like grip, was endeavouring to pin him against the wood-work of the four-post bed in which Belle Staunton lay. It was a gruesome sight, which almost made me turn sick and faint after all the excitement I had already gone through that night. A mist gathered before my eyes, through which I presently saw the figure of another man enter the room with a bound. It was Mortimer Westley. Grasping the situation at a glance, he sprang to Mr. Coxton's assistance, and after a short tussle succeeded in wrenching the knife from poor Clive's hand.
Once his weapon gone, the unfortunate fellow offered no further resistance, but suffered himself to be held captive by the two friends. Mr. Coxton forced him gently into a sitting posture on a chair beside the bed, and said in a kindly, soothing voice:
"Why, Clive, old fellow, come to your senses; we are all friends here."
Something like a spasm shot across the poor fellow's countenance, and he gazed from one to the other of us with the air of a man awaking from a dream. It was a pitiful spectacle. Mr. Westley still held the hunting-knife in his hand, and as Clive's eyes fell upon it a tremor passed through him, and a look of unspeakable horror settled upon his face.
While I was taking in all these details with a feeling of bewilderment which I should find it difficult to describe, I suddenly felt my arm clutched from behind, and heard the voice of Miss Staunton, whose hysterical fit had meanwhile subsided, exclaim in petulant accents:
"Tell them to leave my room instantly. Have they no sense of what is due to a lady? This is outrageous—outrageous!"
I hastily threw a dressing-gown over her shoulders, and did my best to calm her. But she would listen to no reason. The danger from which she had apparently just escaped seemed to affect her now far less than the presence of these men in her bedroom, and she continued to insist in an excited tone that they should withdraw at once. I saw Clive rise with an effort from the chair and take a step towards her, but he stopped short and stood irresolute as Mr. Westley quickly intervened between him and the bed. There was something piteously deprecatory in the gesture with which the poor fellow turned away and fixed his gaze once more upon the hunting knife in Mortimer Westley's hand, but he never uttered a word.
"Take him away," I whispered to Mr. Westley. "Don't you see that this is no place for you all to remain?"
Belle Staunton's position evoked my sympathy. To lie in bed surrounded by a trio of more or less strange men was indeed a particularly trying ordeal, and I saw that she felt it acutely. Following my suggestion, Mr. Westley approached Clive, and was about to grasp his arm, when the latter shook him off with an impatient gesture, and, turning on his heel, walked with a firm step to the door. Mr. Coxton followed him like a shadow, and the two passed out into the passage, while Mortimer Westley stayed behind to whisper to me:
"Don't think of coming down again, Mabel; Dick and I will pass the rest of the night with him. You had better see to Miss Staunton; I expect she needs it." Thereupon he left the room also, and Belle and I remained alone.
The whole scene had passed so quickly that I scarcely realised all its details until it was over, nor could I even then grasp the full significance of what I had seen. Clive's face, and the look of piteous appeal I had seen in it when his eyes fell for the second time upon the knife in Mr. Westley's hand, haunted me. There was something weirdly mysterious about it all which made me shudder.
I now turned my attention to Belle Staunton. She had thrown herself back upon her pillows, and lay there sobbing again hysterically. I took her hand in mine, and, drawing a chair up to the bed, sat stroking her arm and head soothingly. Gradually she grew calmer, and presently, raising herself up on her elbows, gazed around her with a startled look.
"Has he gone?" she whispered, clutching my hand nervously.
"They have taken him downstairs," I answered; "there is nothing more to fear. If you like, I will lock the door."
She nodded affirmatively, and I rose and turned the key in the lock.
"It was like a horrible nightmare seeing his face peer in at the door," she said, when I returned to her side. "How dared he!"
"Poor fellow!" I said; "I am afraid he is not responsible for his actions. How providential that Mr. Coxton chanced to arrive so opportunely!"
She looked at me with a curiously puzzled expression, but said nothing.
As I did not think it desirable to encourage her to talk in her present excited condition, I remained silent, too, and quietly set about preparing a temporary bed for myself upon the couch that stood near the fireplace. She watched my movements with an evident sense of comfort, but though she lay with eyes wide open, and apparently plunged in deep thought, she did not open her lips again, and I lay down at last, and endeavoured to go to sleep.
But it was a useless struggle, for sleep shunned me entirely. A thousand wild thoughts were careering in my brain, and I lay tossing myself about on the couch until long after the day had dawned, when I fell into a troubled slumber, in which the scenes of that night passed before me once more with all the additional terrors which dreams lend to reality.
I awoke with a start, to find the hot sun shining through the window into the room, and Miss Staunton standing beside my couch. She was fully dressed, and looked pale and distressed.
"I should like to have a few words with you before we go down, nurse," she said.
I assented silently, and, rising, made room for her to seat herself beside me on the couch.
"You gave me to understand a few days ago," she began, "that Clive Cunninghame was supposed to have uttered threats of violence against me. Will, you, please, repeat from whom you heard this assertion?"
"I heard it from Mr. Coxton," I replied.
"From no one else?"
I answered in the negative.
"It was a base falsehood!" she exclaimed, with a flash of anger in her eyes.
I said nothing; her words and manner puzzled me.
"You do not believe me?" she went on.
"Why should I not believe you?" I answered. "I only fear you will find it difficult to convince others of the fact."
"Ask yourself, Miss Staunton," I said. "Think of the event of last night. Can there be any doubt as to the conclusion it must inevitably lead to?"
She turned pale as death.
"The conclusion?" she gasped. "What conclusion?"
"Plainly, Miss Staunton, that this bad affliction which had clouded poor Mr. Cunninghame's mind has become a source of danger to those who are around him."
She gazed at me as if I had propounded some quite new idea, and the blood that had left her cheeks a moment before returned again with a rush.
"My God!" she exclaimed, "do they think he would have willingly harmed me?"
There was something so strange in the question, and in the tone in which it was put, that I was at a loss how to answer it.
"Have you yourself no fear of him?" I asked.
A little shudder passed through her, as if the memory of last night's scene recurred to her mind. But she shook her head directly afterwards, with a faint smile.
"Are you aware, nurse," she said, suddenly, fixing me with the curiously searching look I had often observed in her face before, "that Clive has from his infancy upward been an incorrigible sleep-walker?"
The fact was, indeed, quite new to me, and took me greatly by surprise.
"A sleep-walker!" I exclaimed. "Then you think all these strange and unaccountable doings of his may be traceable to a mere habit of somnambulism?"
At the first blush this explanation seemed so plausible that a thrill of relief passed through me as I dwelt upon it.
"Does Dr. Crackenthorpe know of this habit of his?" I asked.
"I have no doubt he does?" she replied.
I reflected a moment. There was a peculiar hesitancy in her tone which seemed to belie her words, though I was at a loss to conceive what object she could have in deceiving me. Had she been under the impression the night before that Mr. Cunninghame's presence in her bedroom with an open knife in his hand was merely due to his sleep-walking tendencies, it seemed to me that she would have acted and spoken differently.
"It is strange," I said, "that I should have never heard of this. What a shock it must have been to you to awake suddenly and see him standing at your bedside!"
"I hardly realised it all until—until the struggle began," she said dreamily. "He was bending over me, when I opened my eyes, and I saw the knife gleaming in his hand. He was speaking softly to himself about garden-flowers—roses, I think—and I touched his arm gently to awake him. Had I only had time to call him by his name he would have returned to his senses, and all would have been well. But before I could utter a word I saw the face peering in at the open door, and I shrieked out in terror. Then he bounded into the room, and all the fuss and trouble commenced."
"He?—who?" I asked, bewildered by the indefiniteness of her speech. "Do you mean Mr. Coxton?"
She nodded affirmatively.
"He seized Clive by the throat and pulled him back," she said. "It was sheer madness. If blood had flowed it would have been his fault, not Clive's."
All this surprised me beyond measure. I had taken it completely as a matter of course that it was Belle Staunton's cry for help which had aroused Mr. Coxton, and brought him so opportunely to her aid. Nor did it seem quite credible to me that a girl who was capable of remaining unmoved under circumstances such as I had just heard described would be frightened into a fit of hysterics by the mere appearance at her bedroom door of the man to whom she was betrothed. And yet, again, why should she lie to me? If it was from a generous impulse to shield Clive Cunninghame from the fresh terrible suspicion which she knew he had incurred, might she not have accomplished her purpose without involving Mr. Coxton in blame, which was evidently her intention? I thought of my meeting with Richard Coxton earlier in the night, and came to the conclusion that he had heard Clive pass his door, as he had apparently heard me and had followed him to Belle Staunton's room. Had he, perhaps, purposely, waited until she awoke to the reality of the thing before intervening in order to bring Clive's unhappy condition more forcibly to her notice? It would have been a cruel and dangerous proceeding, and, moreover, it was scarcely in keeping with the often-expressed anxiety on Mr. Coxton's part that Belle Staunton should not learn the true nature of poor Clive's complaint.
While I was absorbed in these reflections, Miss Staunton walked restlessly to and fro between the window and the couch. Suddenly she came to a halt beside me, and touched me on the shoulder, as if to awaken me from my reverie.
"You believe there is some plan afoot against Mr. Cunninghame," she said abruptly. "What is it?"
"Indeed," I said, "I never intended to convey such a thing. I fear, however, from casual remarks which I have overheard, that, unless a decided change for the better sets in, it may be found necessary to place him under restraint."
My words produced a strong effect. The girl's bosom heaved as if it were struggling with some oppressive weight.
"Tell me," she said, lowering her voice, "in whose head did this plan arise?"
"In whose head?" I asked, not immediately following her meaning.
"Yes," she answered simply. "Was it Mr. Coxton who proposed it?"
"So far as I know, no one as yet proposed it," I replied. "Do you imagine that Mr. Coxton——"
"No, no," she said hastily, as if regretting her words. "I know nothing. It is a mere supposition. All this is so new to me, so surprising. I have been left so entirely in the dark. Nurse," she exclaimed, with a sudden outburst, clasping her hands together, "you'll stand by him if it should come to that? You will not permit it? Promise me!"
The supplicating note in her voice touched me strangely. I had never seen her in this mood before, and for the first time I felt a softening sympathy for her stir in my heart.
"I trust to heaven there will he no need, Miss Staunton," I said earnestly. "But you overrate my power to interfere. It is a question for the physicians to decide." I paused an instant, and continued, looking straight into her eyes: "If you know of anything that might influence them in their decision, Miss Staunton, I would advise you not to delay communicating it."
I felt that there was a mystery here, to which some one held the key, and the possibility that this some one might be Belle Staunton herself seemed to me far from remote. Nor was my suspicion weakened by the manner in which she received my suggestion. A look of fear crept into her eyes, such as I had observed there on more than one previous occasion, and she drew back from me with an impetuous movement.
"I!" she exclaimed, falling again into her distant, haughty tone. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," I said firmly, "that, whatever light it is possible to shed upon this strange matter, however faint it may be. It would be little short of a crime to withhold it."
"And pray," she said loftily, "Why do you choose to address this remark to me?"
"Because," I replied, "from what you have been good enough to tell me, I gather that Mr. Cunninghame's fate is a subject of some interest to you—as it must be," I hastened to add, seeing the look of suspicion return to her eyes, "to everyone who knows him."
She turned away and made no reply. I rose, and, approaching the mirror, adjusted my hair, preparatory to descending to my own room.
"I shall take breakfast upstairs," Miss Staunton said curtly, when I had finished, and stood waiting for her to join me. "You need not wait for me."
She remained at the window, with her face still averted and her fingers drumming nervously upon the window panes. Evidently our conversation had gone as far as she intended it to go, and I left the room in silence.
It was already close upon eight o'clock, and hurrying downstairs I completed my toilet hastily in my own room, it being my intention, before going into Mr. Cunninghame, to seek out Mortimer Westley and, if possible, forestall any rash action on his and Mr. Coxton's part. I don't know what caused me to alter my plan, but something—curiosity, perhaps, perhaps sympathy—impelled me first to take a look at my patient and assure myself that he was safe and well. I found the door, however, which communicated between his room and mine locked, apparently from his side, and was obliged to go round by way of the hall. On trying the door there, I found, to my no small surprise, that it was locked too, and for an instant the apprehension seized me that the poor fellow had already been removed.
Fearing to alarm Mr. Cunninghame if I knocked, I made my way with all speed to the dining-room, where I found Mortimer Westley alone, pacing up and down with his hands at his back, and a look of anxiety on his face. He came quickly towards me.
"Where is Mr. Cunninghame?" I asked.
"He is asleep in his room," he answered, giving me an uneasy glance.
"Why are the doors of his room locked?" I said. "Has he done this?"
"Well, no," he replied in a hesitating manner. "It was—that is to say—we thought it best, you see, under the circumstances——"
"To lock me out?" I concluded for him, my indignation bubbling over at this unwarranted interference with my rights and privileges—"me, his responsible nurse? Are you aware that this is a deadly insult?"
"My dear Mabel," he said soothingly, "I do hope you will be reasonable about this unhappy affair. You will surely understand——"
"Where is Mr. Coxton?" I asked peremptorily.
"Coxton? He has gone to town," he said.
"To town?" I exclaimed, incredulously. "On a Sunday? There are no trains until noon."
"He drove to Wrexham and caught the 5.30 morning express."
"He must have urgent business, then," I said. "What is it?"
"If you will sit down for a few moments, Mabel, and let us have a quiet talk," he said evasively, "I am sure I can explain everything perfectly satisfactorily."
"On what business has Mr. Coxton gone to town?" I repeated, ignoring his appeal. "If you do not choose to answer my question, I shall draw my own conclusions."
He took me by both my hands, and forced me gently into a chair.
"Listen to me, Mabel," he said. "This thing has gone as far as we dare let it go. Old Crackenthorpe is well enough in an every-day case. But this one is beyond him. We have considered everything most carefully and conscientiously and have decided that a second opinion is necessary. To avoid all delay, Dick has run up to town himself, and will bring a specialist back with him."
"A specialist of Mr. Coxton's choosing," I said, with a gesture of contempt. "Then it is not difficult to guess the verdict that will be arrived at."
Mr. Westley looked at me in surprise.
"I don't understand you," he said. "You surely don't suppose that Coxton has any bias in this matter?"
"I reserve the liberty to form my own opinions," I said, rising from the chair. "You will now be good enough to deliver me the key of Mr. Cunninghame's room."
He stood irresolute.
"I beg of you, Mabel," he said, "to concede something to my own feelings in this matter. After all, I have some right——"
"I deny any such right to you, Mr. Westley," I answered angrily. "I am my own mistress, and," I added, a little maliciously, "I am likely to remain so, after the very instructive lesson I have just received. The key, if you please."
"Are you serious, Mabel?" he stammered. "You don't really mean——"
"Mr. Westley," I said firmly, "I mean to have the key to Mr. Cunninghame's room. Unless you instantly hand it to me, I shall go straight from here to Mrs. Cunninghame, and demand of her the means of access to my patient. You have your choice."
He drew forth the key at last with considerable reluctance.
"It seems to me," he remarked, flushing a little, "that you take a deuced lively interest in young Cunninghame."
I suppose I am spitefully inclined. The unmistakable note of jealousy in his voice, while it took me by surprise, was far from evoking my sympathy, and I replied with emphasis:
"A far more lively interest, at any rate, than I take in any other inmate of this house, his mother, alone excepted."
He drew himself up stiffly at this, and handed me the key.
"Indeed?" he said. "Then I have no more to say. It only remains for me to beg your pardon, Miss Forsyth, for my impertinence in interfering with your pleasure. If I have made an ass of myself, I can at least plead in extenuation that the provocation was somewhat strong. Rest assured that it shall not occur again." With these words he made me a stately bow, and left the room with indignant strides. Will the reader be shocked to hear that I laughed? But perhaps, if he is a male, he is ignorant of the fact that sometimes when men come to the conclusion that they have made asses of themselves, to use Mr. Westley's elegant expression, they are in reality only just starting on the process.
Unfortunately, my anxiety to learn how poor Clive Cunninghame was faring, and whether he had become alive to the fact that he had been made a prisoner in his room, was just then too keen to permit of my enjoying to the full the victory I had acquired over Mortimer Westley, whose participation in what is now regarded as a direct conspiracy against my humble person had really hurt me more deeply than I cared to admit, even to myself. I therefore repressed my mirth, and, hurrying across the hall to Mr. Cunninghame's door, inserted the key as softly as I could in the lock. Having turned it cautiously, I knocked in my usual manner and entered.
The blinds were all drawn up, letting the full daylight stream through the open windows into the room. On his couch, fully dressed, and with his eyes wide open, lay Clive Cunninghame. Slowly turning his head in my direction, as I softly closed the door behind me, he greeted me dryly with these words:
"You are a plucky little woman, and no mistake, to venture alone and unprotected into the tiger's lair."
I cannot describe the sad effect which the ironical tone of the words produced upon me. Irony from the ever bright, mirthful lips of Clive Cunninghame was something so totally new to me, and indicated that a change had come over him which augured ill.
"Hadn't you better have the windows nailed down, or perhaps boarded up?" he went on, in the same dry strain. "I might escape through them and murder somebody. Damn it all, nurse! why don't they make an end of it at once, and have me locked up in a lunatic asylum?"
What could I say? It would have been useless for me to feign ignorance of what he now evidently knew himself—the fact that his condition was considered dangerous to those around him; but the desire to learn the truth concerning his strange affliction was, I confess, even stronger than my compassion, and I determined to question him boldly about the alarming incident the night before.
"Mr. Cunninghame," I said, approaching him resolutely, and ignoring his little outburst of wrath. "I wish you could tell me something that would enable me to help you. There must be some cause for these strange fits to which you are subject. Does nothing occur to you that might account for your presence in Miss Staunton's room last night?"
He looked at me sharply.
"Poor old Belle," he said, with a peculiar intonation. "I am afraid they scared the wits out of her."
The pronoun struck me as odd. Could he be unconscious of the part he had taken in thus scaring her?
"She was a good deal upset, of course," I said. "But she wishes, as I do, that you could give some satisfactory explanation of your appearance at dead of night at her bedside. Have you none to offer?"
Again he shot a keen glance at me. Then his face assumed the quizzical expression I had often seen it wear when he was about to utter one of his saucy quips.
"I suppose I must have walked there in my sleep," he said.
I thought of Miss Staunton's remark, and grasped eagerly at the suggestion.
"You are subject to these fits of somnambulism, I believe?" I said.
"Subject to what?" he asked, with a puzzled look.
"I mean, you have always suffered from this tendency to walk in your sleep, have you not?"
He shook his head and smiled.
"Never walked in my sleep in my life, nurse," he said.
This was a shock to me.
"But I understood——" I stammered.
"You're a little brick, nurse," he said kindly. "But I'm afraid it won't work. Who put that clever notion into your head?"
I was too much surprised to reply.
"Was it Belle?" he asked in a low tone, and, reading an affirmative answer from my face, he whistled softly.
"Mr. Clive," I exclaimed, "can you do nothing to account for all this mystery? For a mystery it is, let them say what they like."
"You don't believe I am mad, then?" he asked, fixing me curiously.
"God help me, no, I do not!" I replied, with an involuntary impulse.
"I am greatly obliged to you, I am sure," he said, gravely. "I don't incline to the belief myself, but I'm afraid it's going to be a deuced hard matter to prove the contrary."
I was silent for a few moments. All sorts of strange thoughts were running riot in my brain.
"Tell me, Mr. Cunninghame," I said at last, "have you ever had a quarrel with Mr. Coxton?"
"A quarrel with Dick? Why, no," he answered, in a surprised tone.
"You are sure," I pursued, "that you have never given him cause of offence of any kind?"
He started up from his recumbent position and stared at me blankly.
"What do you mean?" he exclaimed. "How should I have offended Richard Coxton?"
There was a curiously uncertain ring in his voice, and in spite of his apparent surprise at my question, I could see that it had caused him some agitation.
"I don't know, Mr. Cunninghame," I replied. "It was I who questioned you."
"But you had some reason for asking that particular question, I suppose," he said, eyeing me narrowly. "What was it?"
I could not very well tell him that Miss Staunton's reference to Mr. Coxton had prompted my inquiry, so I evaded a direct answer.
"I am afraid I cannot plead guilty to any particular motive," I rejoined. "I spoke on the spur of the moment. A man in your position, it seems to me, requires to know who are his friends and who are not."
He made no immediate reply, but, throwing himself back into his original position lay for a while staring up at the ceiling above him.
"I have never quarrelled with Dick in my life," he remarked presently. "Not that it's anything for me to boast about, for I've had shindies now and then with most men I'm intimate with. But not with Dick Coxton—no, not with Dick," he repeated pensively. "He's not a fellow to quarrel; it isn't in him."
He relapsed into a moody silence, and took no further notice of me. I watched him closely; for his evident state of despondency made me feel uneasy, and I feared that the shock he had sustained the night before had deprived him of his nerve and spirit.
Presently there came a knock at the door, and Kingham, the butler, appeared to summon me to Mrs. Cunninghame. Clive turned to me quickly as I prepared to go.
"I'd rather you didn't say anything to mother of last night's business," he said. "She'd only fret."
I assured him that he could trust me to be discreet, and having directed Kingham to remain within call, I made my way upstairs to Mrs. Cunninghame's room.
Amid all the bustle and excitement consequent upon the incident of the night I had given but little thought to the poor lady who was, after all, nearest concerned in the welfare of my patient. From her non-appearance upon the scene of the occurrence, I had inferred that she had not been awakened by Belle Staunton's screams. But seeing that the servants had been aroused by the hubbub, and must have learned its cause, I could hardly expect that she had been left in entire ignorance of what had occurred, and indeed her first words dispelled any doubts I may have had on the subject.
"I have sent for you, Miss Forsyth," she said, when I entered her room, "in order to consult with you about my poor son. It is, I fear, useless to battle any longer against the conviction that his mind has become affected. The only question now is, what is to be done? If there is any means of procuring a treatment for him which will not necessitate my parting from him, I will arrange for it at whatever sacrifice. I have but Clive to live for, nurse. If I lose him, I lose the light of my old age."
The simplicity and calmness with which she spoke added to the pathos of her words, and I felt deeply for her.
"Have you spoken with Miss Staunton, Mrs. Cunninghame?" I asked.
"She has just left me," she answered. "Poor girl! her chief anxiety is to exonerate Clive. But she has not known the whole truth, you see. It has been kept from her all these months."
"Excuse me for venturing to say so," I remarked, "but I think this was a mistake."
"It is perhaps natural that you should think so," the old lady said. "But we judged it to be for the best, and acted accordingly. I have come to regard you as one of us, my dear child, and need no longer conceal from you what I unhappily know to be the root of all this sad trouble. Clive has recently suffered a very grievous disappointment. There was a time when I hoped he would get over it, for I know his bright, careless nature, and thought it would triumph in the end over his unhappy passion. But love sometimes proves stronger than character. While I fondly imagined that my poor boy had resigned himself to the inevitable, the canker had been gnawing at his heart and brain until all hope of cure has vanished."
"It would be idle for me to pretend that I had heard nothing of this, Mrs. Cunninghame," I said, "and since you honour me with your confidence, I should like to say that the story, as I know it, has been a source of some perplexity to me. I have gained but a very superficial acquaintance with your ward, Miss Staunton, yet from what I have seen of her in her intercourse with Mr. Cunninghame, it would surprise me to hear that your son's passion for her had been entirely unreciprocated."
"It was not so once, I think," Mrs. Cunninghame replied in a low tone, "and there is the saddest part of the sad history. God forbid," she went on earnestly, "that I should attribute undeserved blame to any one! But Belle is a strange girl. She was always impulsive, and wayward, and headstrong to the point of wilfulness. In her earliest childhood, immediately after her poor mother's death, she was left to my care, and I did my best to understand and guide her. But I failed. It was then that she was transferred to the charge of Mrs. Ruhmkorff, who, I think, understood her better than anyone else. Curiously enough, Clive and she never agreed as children, perhaps because they were too much alike in one respect. But there came a time when their antagonism ceased, and then this unhappy affection on Clive's part sprang up. Had Mrs. Ruhmkorff lived, all might have ended well; for Clive had a weak corner in her heart, and her influence, I cannot help thinking, would have been exerted in his favour. But it was not to be."
She sighed deeply and was silent.
"It is true, I presume," I said, "that Mrs. Ruhmkorff's large fortune was left to Miss Staunton on condition that she married Mr. Coxton."
"Unhappily it is," she replied. "Mrs. Ruhmkorff held very decided views on all matters, and, though I have reason to think that Richard Coxton was no favourite of hers, he was her deceased husband's next of kin, and while she regarded Belle as her daughter, by adoption, she felt, perhaps, that Richard Coxton had a title to his uncle's estate which she could not entirely ignore. Hence this unhappy will, of which I am afraid no good will come to anyone whom it concerns."
I feared we were about to drift from the subject which interested me most, the part Clive Cunninghame had played in Miss Staunton's history, and I led back to it as delicately as possible.
"It is a long story," Mrs. Cunninghame said, "and at this distance of time it is perhaps difficult to trace all its details with perfect accuracy. Besides, so far as Belle is concerned, I confess that I have never fathomed her true feelings. When she was 16 Mr. Coxton began to pay her very decided attentions, which I have no doubt flattered her youthful vanity, for he was then spoken of as a young man of quite exceptional promise, of whom great things were expected. But Mrs. Ruhmkorff, very rightly I think, disapproved highly of his courtship at this stage. Belle being in her opinion, and in mine also, far too young to know her own mind, and, peremptory as she was, she forbade Richard Coxton the house. The girl's resentment at this interference with what she considered her liberty was for a time very pronounced, and there occurred several painful scenes between her and her guardian. A year later Mrs. Ruhmkorff died, and her will, in view of what had passed before, caused many people great surprise. Mr. Coxton was then in India, and Miss Staunton came to live with me, her surviving guardian. It was only then that I discovered, alas! too late, that my poor boy had long nourished a secret love for the girl. Within a few months I observed, with growing dismay, that he was paying her assiduous attentions, which, if she did not exactly encourage, she certainly received with unfeigned pleasure. It is the only reproach I have to make against poor Belle that she, unwittingly perhaps, fanned the disastrous fire that was to consume him. I went so far as to remonstrate with Clive, warning him of the danger he ran in letting his heart dwell upon a girl who could never become his wife without bringing such a sacrifice as few women were capable of incurring, and alas! I was only too well aware that Belle was not of these. But you know him. In his heedless, dashing way he scouted my fears, and put me off with some laughing pleasantry. And so it went on, until one day the news came that Richard Coxton was on his way home from India. Then gradually everything changed, as if by magic. Belle grew restless and petulant, and Clive became morose and irritable. Some explanation must have passed between them, and though I have never learned its nature, it was, I am sure, terribly galling to poor Clive, for he went about for days like one distracted, and the day before Mr. Coxton arrived he left for the North of England, whence he returned three weeks afterwards, to find his friend the acknowledged suitor of the girl he loved."
I was surprised in spite of myself by this brief history of Clive Cunninghame's courtship, though it left me no wiser than I had been before. Indeed, I felt more at a loss than ever to reconcile its circumstance with my own experiences of the two people who were concerned in it. How difficult it is to judge of the motives underlying other folk's actions from the hearsay evidence produced by third parties! The story I had just listened to was, with slight and immaterial exceptions of detail, practically the same that had been told me by Mortimer Westley. Yet the conclusion to be derived from it was an almost diametrically opposite one.
"I have spoken so freely to you, nurse," Mrs. Cunninghame now resumed, breaking into the thoughts which her story had called up in me, "so that you may be the better able to judge of my poor son's condition, for the time has come when I feel that some decisive step must he taken. Yet the thought of placing my unhappy boy in an asylum is too terrible for me to contemplate. I would almost rather see him die."
I started up in dismay.
"Who dares to suggest such a thing?" I exclaimed, forgetting myself in my indignation. "I trust, indeed, that no such project is in contemplation. It would mean, I am sure, moral death, to one of your son's temperament."
"Doctor Crackenthorpe has urged its necessity for some time," she answered; "and how dare I disregard his advice after all that has occurred?"
It was not for me, of course, to venture any criticism of the physician's opinions, though I had my own thoughts on the subject. My mind, moreover, was just then running in other grooves.
"May I ask, Mrs. Cunninghame," I said, "whether Mr. Coxton has any knowledge of the unfortunate passion of his friend?"
She shook her head.
"I think not," she said. "Those who may have observed what went on during Richard Coxton's absence are not likely to have broached so delicate a matter to him, and I am convinced that Belle herself has maintained silence on the subject."
"But since his return," I said, "do you not think that one so clever and observant as he is, must have guessed the truth?"
"Not necessarily," answered Mrs. Cunninghame. "You see, Clive and Belle were intimate from their childhood, and their intercourse has always been of the closest. If it has remained so since Mr. Coxton's return, the circumstance is more likely to have allayed his suspicions than to have aroused them. But tell me," she continued, "why you asked this question. Have you observed anything that leads you to believe——"
"On the contrary," I broke in quickly, "I have noticed nothing at all. Only," I added, with some deliberation, "I think it of paramount importance, when considering advice of the terrible kind you mentioned before, to be quite sure that he who gives or endorses it is not biased against the person whom it concerns, nor likely to benefit, either directly or indirectly, by his removal."
I cannot say what impelled me to speak as I did. It was imprudent, perhaps, and uncalled for, and certainly the effect of my words proved far greater than I had anticipated.
"Miss Forsyth," the old lady exclaimed, literally springing to her feet, and gazing at me in blank astonishment, "you surely cannot seriously mean this!"
"I mean nothing derogatory to anyone, Mrs. Cunninghame," I said. "Pray do not think so. But there are no cases where one should be more careful to exclude the possibility of prejudice than in one of this particular kind. Since you have thought fit to consult me in this matter, I have deemed it to be my duty to state my opinion without any reserve. Mr. Coxton, acting, I presume, with your consent, has gone to London to secure the attendance of a specialist in brain diseases. I have had some experience of so called second opinions of this description, and am tolerably certain that the consultation will result in a simple confirmation of Dr. Crackenthorpe's view of the case. Indeed, how can it result otherwise? The consulting physician himself has no means of observing the symptoms of the patient, and must base his judgment upon his colleague's version of them. If this version is erroneous, his judgment will necessarily be at fault."
"But what is to be done?" Mrs. Cunninghame said in a tone of desperation. "Can you offer any explanation for that which, if your opinion is correct, appears to be inexplicable?"
"I can offer none," I replied. "Yet there is one, perhaps," I added pensively, "who could enlighten us if she would."
"One? Who?" Mrs. Cunninghame said with a startled air.
"I am merely hazarding a guess when I say so, Mrs. Cunninghame," I rejoined. "But I cannot help thinking that whatever may be the mystery of your poor son's affliction, Miss Staunton possesses the key to it."
"Belle? Do you think so?"
"It may seem strange to you," I said, "in view of the opinion I expressed before. But if you will not think I am taking a liberty, Mrs. Cunninghame, I would say that, while I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Cunninghame once cherished an affection for Miss Staunton, and perhaps still does so, I am absolutely certain that Miss Staunton loves your son."
The old lady smiled dubiously, and shook her head.
"It is a singular view, certainly," she said. "For my part, I fear poor Belle's heart has not yet been touched by any love save that of ease and luxury. I thought differently once, but that is past, for I have learned my mistake."
She rose wearily and extended her hand to me.
"You have been very kind and sympathetic through all this trouble," she said, "and it is a relief to me to talk with you. Let us hope some light will still come to us. Perhaps when we have heard a second professional opinion we shall see a little clearer."
"I trust so most fervently," I said, pressing the frail little hand that lay in mine. "Only," I added, "it will take more than a second professional opinion to convince me that my view of your son's case is wrong."
She smiled mournfully.
"Heaven grant it may not prove so!" she said.
As I was hurrying downstairs, I was met and stopped by Miss Staunton.
"I have been looking for you everywhere, nurse," she said. "Can you spare me a few minutes?"
"To be candid, Miss Staunton," I replied, "I am rather anxious to get back to Mr. Cunninghame. He has been alone for some time."
"Mr. Westley is now with him," she said. "I will not detain you long."
And scarcely waiting for my assent, she led the way to her room.
"You have been with Mrs. Cunninghame, I presume?" she said, after we had entered, and she had closed the door.
I nodded an affirmative.
"You know, then, that I learned from her lips this morning for the first time all the details of the terrible occurrences of these last months?" she asked in a tone of great bitterness.
"I do, Miss Staunton," I replied. "And I may say that I think the concealment of these facts from you, however well intended, has been a great mistake."
"Indeed! And why?" she returned.
"Really, Miss Staunton," I said, with some surprise, "that is a curious question, coming from you. If I must answer it, I will say that in a case like this I dislike secrecy and concealment on general principles. They are apt to brood more mischief than that which they are intended to prevent."
"Had I known of these dreadful happenings," she said in a low voice, "Clive would not be here now. He must leave Glen Elc, nurse," she went on agitatedly, "without a day's delay. It was this I wished to speak to you about. You need not ask me why. There are reasons, most imperative reasons, of which only I know. If you wish him well, you will use your influence over him to bring this about."
"I?" I said, astonished. "It seems to me, Miss Staunton, that if anyone possesses influence over Mr. Cunninghame, it is you, or," I added, seeing her flush, "his mother."
"You are mistaken," she answered. "Had I the influence you are good enough to credit me with, Clive would have left Glen Elc six months ago."
"When Mr. Coxton returned from India, you mean?" I said, dryly.
The words seemed to strike her like a blow, and a mingled expression of anger and terror came into her eyes.
"How dare you!" she exclaimed. "How dare you say that to me?"
"Miss Staunton," I said, "if my words offend you, let us break off this conversation at once. I cannot feign to be ignorant of what I know, nor do I see how I can render you any service if I am to conceal my own thoughts and opinions from you."
"You are remarkably observant," she answered, eyeing me sharply. "If I only knew that you were to be trusted——"
"You can trust me at least to be open and frank with you," I said. "It is for you to decide whether you will be the same with me."
"You are presuming upon my kindness," she answered, haughtily. "I have no occasion to confide to you what concerns myself alone."
"I have no call to ask you for any confidence at all, Miss Staunton," I replied, in the same tone, "nor do I aspire to such a thing. You forget, I think, that it was you who insisted upon this conversation. If its only object was to ask me to urge Mr. Cunninghame to leave his home, you may consider it accomplished, for I will gladly do so. I am inclined to believe, as you do, that a complete separation from his present surroundings is a condition precedent to his recovery."
"It is his only hope," she said, falling once more into the agitated tone she had assumed before. "You may believe me, for I know. You must bear with my little vagaries of temper," she went on, with a faint attempt to smile graciously. "I have been sorely tried of late, and am not quite myself."
"I wish I could be of assistance to you, Miss Staunton," I said, touched by her softened tone.
"You can," she said, eagerly, "by doing what I have requested you. Whatever happens, Mr. Cunninghame must not be declared mad. He is not mad—I swear it. He will recover. But let him leave Glen Elc quickly. If they remove him to an asylum I shall kill myself."
She uttered these last words with a vehemence that fairly startled me, and I almost feared that her own mind had become unhinged.
"Miss Staunton," I said, "at the risk of offending you again, let me implore you to confide what you know to someone who can advise you. There is a mystery hanging over this house of which you know, for you have admitted it in plain words. I assure you I have no desire to penetrate this secret. All I ask of you is to take counsel with someone who can relieve you of the burden you bear. Let it be whom you will—Clive's mother, Mr. Coxton, anyone. But do not delay this thing until it is too late."
Once more she startled me with an outburst of uncontrollable anger.
"Why do you mention Mr. Coxton's name to me again?" she cried. "What is your motive for doing this?"
"My motive?" I said, astonished. "You wrong me, indeed. If his name occurred to me, it was merely because I thought that, as your destined husband, he would be the most likely——"
"My destined husband!" she broke in, with an indescribable tone of scorn. "Has he told you this?"
"I have never had occasion to discuss such a subject with Mr. Coxton," I replied. "But it is a matter of general knowledge, I understand, that you are betrothed to him."
"I am betrothed to him—yes, but by another's will, not mine," she said, sadly.
"Then I pity you from the bottom of my heart, Miss Staunton," I said impulsively—"not for the fate that awaits you, but, for your confessed want of will to avert it."
I fully expected to see her fly into another passion at these somewhat presumptuous words. But the effect this time was a different, and, to me, surprising one.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, "what would I not give for one moment's will-power to break the horrible chain I have forged for myself!"
"But is it not possible, even yet?" I said eagerly. "If not for your sake, then for another's. If you marry Mr. Richard Coxton——"
She raised her hand to check me.
"You do not understand me," she said, in a cold, firm voice. "I shall never marry Mr. Richard Coxton."
I stared at her in bewilderment. The seeming contradictoriness of the whole thing passed my understanding. All I grasped for the moment was what her statement, if true, might mean for poor Clive Cunninghame.
"Have I your permission," I said hastily, "to acquaint Mr. Cunninghame with this fact?"
She gazed at me for a moment, as if she scarcely comprehended me.
"You may please yourself," she then said coldly. "You will acquaint him with nothing he does not know."
And before I could realise the full meaning of her words, she had stepped quickly to the window, through which the sound of carriage wheels could now be heard on the gravel drive rapidly approaching the house.
"It is the physician," she ejaculated as the carriage apparently drew up abruptly at the front porch. "Dr. Crackenthorpe is with him."
"Then I must go at once," I said. "They will proceed directly to the sick-room."
I was about to hasten away, when she laid her hand on my arm and detained me.
"Promise me," she said, "that you will do your utmost to prevent the worst from happening?"
"Miss Staunton," I answered, "you forget that I am only a nurse. My influence is infinitesimal. It is you who hold Mr. Cunninghame's fate in your hands—you and his mother, without whose consent nothing can be done."
With these words I shot through the door, and hurrying downstairs, reached the ground floor just in time to see the two medical gentlemen pass through the hall and disappear into Mr. Cunninghame's room. I was about to follow them, when the door opened, and Mr. Westley came out.
"The physicians wish to see the patient alone, Mabel," said Mr. Westley, "Dr. Crackenthorpe wishes you to remain within call, in case you should be required. On my honour, Mabel," he added, reading my thoughts from my face, "this is not my doing. I am merely conveying the man's message."
I turned on my heel without answering him, and went into my own room. He followed me, and closed the door behind him.
"I am sorry you are angry with me, Mabel," he said appealingly. "But you know, surely, that I would not willingly offend you."
"Then let me tell you, Mr. Westley," I rejoined hotly, "that you have managed, willingly or not, to offend me very deeply. What do you know, pray, of nurses and their duties that you presume to interfere between me and my patient? You think Clive Cunninghame is insane and what not, because Mr. Coxton has told you so, and you are weak enough to allow him to use you as a tool to accomplish his own ends."
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "I think I have seen enough with mine own eyes to convince me, without Dick Coxton's help. But you are mistaken in Dick, Mabel. He is as cut up about young Cunninghame's misfortune as a man can be."
"And proves his deep sympathy," I remarked, "by planning to have his friend confined in a lunatic asylum."
"You do him an injustice," Mr. Westley said. "The idea of having Clive put under restraint is Dr. Crackenthorpe's. Coxton, on the contrary, has, until now, always opposed it. I speak from my own knowledge, for I have heard him argue the question more than once with the old doctor himself."
"You say he has opposed it until now," I said. "What has caused him to change his mind?"
"I think," Mr. Westley replied, "if you reflect a moment, Mabel, the answer must be obvious to you. After the narrow shave Belle Staunton had last night it would be hardly human if Dick consented to take further risks."
"You think, then, that Mr. Cunninghame intended to murder his friend's bride?"
"I don't think anything about it. A man doesn't break into a girl's bedroom at dead of night with a Castillan knife in his hand for the mere sake of taking a little exercise."
"Ah! where did he get that knife?" I exclaimed. The thought had never occurred to me.
"I can enlighten you on that point," Mr Westley remarked. "The knife happens to be my property."
"Your property!" I ejaculated.
"Yes; I brought it down with me yesterday to show to Clive. He has a collection of old weapons, as you know, and this dagger is a particularly fine specimen of Castillan art. Unfortunately, I left it yesterday evening on the mantelshelf in the library, where he no doubt fetched it."
"How foolish of you!" I said.
"I own it was," he replied, "I don't know why it didn't occur to me. But I happened to show it to Coxton when he called for me at my rooms, and well, hang it! one doesn't usually think of murder when one goes to stay at a friend's country place from Saturday till Monday!"
"Mr. Coxton should have warned you," I said.
"Dick knew nothing about it," he answered. "The notion seized me as I was packing my portmanteau, and I threw the confounded thing in without mentioning it. Of course, I am wise enough after the event to see that I acted like a fool."
"It was very, very imprudent," I said.
"And yet you believe that Clive Cunninghame is harmless!" he observed, with a touch of irony.
I shrugged my shoulders and made no reply, for I held it useless to argue the question any further. Moreover, I felt anxious that my visitor should go before some one came to summon me to the two doctors. He was tactful enough to observe the uneasiness which his presence caused me, and after repeating his request that I would forget what had passed between us in the breakfast-room he took his leave.
A few moments later I heard the two physicians issue from Mr. Cunninghame's room and cross the hall to the library. Judging it more than likely that they could remain closeted for some time in conference, I waited until I heard the library door close, and then slipped quietly in to Mr. Cunninghame.
He was lying on his couch in almost the same attitude in which I had left him that morning. But his face was deeply flushed, and there was an angry gleam in his eye.
"What's up now?" he said irritably, as I approached his couch.
"Nothing is up, Mr. Cunninghame," I replied. "I only want you to give me a few moments' attention."
"Well," he said, impatiently, "that old fool of a Crackenthorpe has been setting my teeth on edge for the last half-hour with his imbecile talk—thought I was idiot enough not to see through his damned play-acting. I got my innings with the other fellow, though, at the finish—told him I hoped, if he'd brought a strait-jacket with him, that he had not forgotten to provide for a crew of chaps to get me into it, for I'd guarantee it couldn't take less than six men to do the job. He looked pretty sheepish when I said so and bid me good-bye in a hurry. Well, what are they going to do—lock me up, strap me down, or what?"
"Send you away, I hope," I said, imitating his off-hand tone. "In my opinion, a change of scene and surroundings is all you require to make you well again. That is what I wanted to talk to you about. Will you go?"
He raised himself on his elbow, and regarded me with a steady, searching expression.
"No, I will not," he said slowly and determinedly.
"I am sorry to hear you say that," I said. "I had hoped——"
"Whose scheme is this?" he asked, interrupting me abruptly. "Not Belle's, is it?"
There was a tone of almost wistful anxiety in his last words which took me by surprise.
"I am not prepared to say," I answered, with affected nonchalance, "that it is anybody's scheme in particular. For the present it is merely a suggestion of mine, and I think you would do well to consider it."
"Put it out of your head, then, once and for all," he said curtly, "for I won't go. You are a good little soul," he added, in a softer tone, "and I dare say mean it well. But you don't understand—it is impossible for me to leave Glen Elc just now, above all. There are reasons which I can't explain—imperative reasons, which place my going out of the question."
"Reasons of which Miss Staunton knows?" I asked.
"Reasons of which Miss Staunton knows?" he answered slowly. "But why do you ask? What is it to you what Belle Staunton knows and what she doesn't? There is something behind this. Tell me."
"You are exciting yourself quite needlessly, Mr. Cunninghame," I replied. "There is no cause for any such suspicion."
"Great powers! preserve me from suspicion," he exclaimed, throwing himself back upon the cushions. "Let's talk about something else."
But before I could think of another topic there came a knock at the door, and I was summoned to attend in the library.
I found, besides Dr. Crackenthorpe and the consulting physician, only Mrs. Cunninghame and Mr. Coxton present. Mr. Westley, for reasons of prudence or delicacy, had this time apparently judged it best to absent himself from the conference.
"We have desired your presence, nurse," Dr. Crackenthorpe addressed me fussily the moment I had entered, "in order that you may answer a few questions which Sir Winton Forbes wishes to put to you. This, Sir Winton," he added, turning to his colleague, who was meanwhile surveying me with a scrutinising glance, "is the nurse who has had charge of our patient for the last seven or eight weeks."
Sir Winton held out his hand for me to shake.
"I know your face well, young lady, though I cannot recall your name," he said. "Are you not the nurse who attended the Fitzgerald case in Park-lane last year?"
"Quite right, Sir Winton," I replied.
"Humph!" he said musingly, "a very singular case, and a still more remarkable man."
"Do you mean Mr. Fitzgerald, Sir Winton?" I asked, with a little touch of malice, for the patient in question, the most accomplished fraud I have ever encountered, had succeeded in completely deceiving the famous brain specialist.
He shook his finger at me.
"No, no," he answered. "I refer to that extraordinary personage whom the family called in, and who subsequently landed my case in the law courts. Let me see, what was his name?"
"Mr. Lauder Caine, Sir Winton," I said.
"True, Mr. Lauder Caine—a sort of confessor and general philanthropist, I am told. He made some strange discoveries, I believe, and unravelled all sorts of curious family troubles. Well, well, we doctors cannot always surmise these things. Now, I am given to understand, nurse," he went on, breaking off into the ordinary professional tone of the physician, "that you have been present at most of the paroxysms of our afflicted young friend yonder. Will you give me briefly, from your own observation, some account of the patient's demeanour immediately before and after those outbreaks? State only the general symptoms."
"I have none to state, Sir Winton," I replied. "Mr. Cunninghame, until quite recently, when I believe he first became alive to his own extraordinary actions, has always been distinguished by a spirit of particular cheerfulness. His disposition is of the brightest and sunniest, and his demeanour, allowing for occasional outbursts of quick temper, has always been correspondingly cheerful and pleasant."
"Ha, indeed! You have noticed no melancholy fits, no attacks of depression or restlessness?"
"And when the paroxysms are over, I suppose the usual apathy sets in?"
"Scarcely. As a rule he goes to sleep, apparently quite unconscious of what has occurred."
The great man rested his chin on his hand, and thought for a while profoundly. Then he turned to Doctor Crackenthorpe, and, taking him aside, conversed with him for a while in an undertone, after which he approached Mrs. Cunninghame, who had been standing all the while with Mr. Coxton in the embrasure of the window, and, placing his finger-tips together, delivered himself as follows:
"My dear lady, I regret exceedingly that I am not able to give you a more reassuring account of your son. He is suffering from a cerebral affection of a peculiar nature, the issue of which is very uncertain. He may or he may not recover from it entirely in time, but while it lasts I am bound to say that his condition is a very dangerous one—dangerous, I mean, to those who surround him, and in particular, I may add—for this is, unfortunately, as strange, but invariable features of these cases—to his nearest and dearest belongings."
Mrs. Cunninghame was silent for a moment.
"And your advice, doctor?" she asked at length, in a strangled tone.
"I advise, madam," Sir Winton replied, "his immediate removal to an asylum, where he can be closely watched and may benefit by such medical treatment as his case calls for. It is a painful step, my dear lady," he went on, in a sympathising tone. "But the circumstances render it in my opinion imperative, not for the patient's sake alone, but for that of others. If I am rightly informed, your son has recently suffered a disappointment of a tender nature, which may account for his present troubles. Let us hope this view is correct, for it increases his chances of ultimate recovery a hundredfold. As long as no organic disturbance is at the root of the evil, there is no reason why in course of time his mental equilibrium should not be restored. But for the present all we can do is to remove him from all possible contact with the irritant source of his trouble."
I glanced instinctively across at Richard Coxton, wondering what effect the worthy man's somewhat indelicate reference to poor Clive's love trouble would produce upon him. But all that his face showed was a mild expression of surprise, which vanished as quickly as it came, making room again for the grave, solicitous air it had worn before. Whether he had fully understood the allusion or not I was unable to say.
"Doctor Crackenthorpe," Sir Winton continued, drawing on his gloves preparatory to taking his leave, "will advise you as to the necessary formalities that must precede a patient's removal to a private asylum. Meanwhile I have drawn up and signed the required certificate, and nothing is now needed but the signature of his next friend or relative—in this case yourself, madam."
He advanced towards the old lady, and extended his hand to her. She took it mechanically and murmured a few words of thanks, whereupon the great authority bowed and withdrew, followed by Dr. Crackenthorpe and Richard Coxton.
I stepped to the window, which looked on to the carriage sweep, and saw Sir Winton Forbes drive off alone at a rapid pace to catch the noon train back to London. Then the hall door slammed, and a few moments afterwards Mr. Coxton and the old doctor re-entered the room. The latter was the first to break the silence.
"I fear, my dear Mrs. Cunninghame," he said, approaching Clive's mother and gravely wagging his gray head, "you must make up your mind to act. Hard and painful as it is, in the face of so authoritative an opinion it would be criminal to neglect the ordinary precautions which these distressing cases call for, really very criminal indeed."
"I cannot do it," Mrs. Cunninghame exclaimed, with a gesture of despair. "He is my only child, doctor, the sole tie I have in this world. I cannot part with him."
"But, my dear madam," Dr. Crackenthorpe expostulated, "my very respected friend——"
"Doctor," Richard Coxton here broke in, "is this most painful step really necessary? Restraint, I suppose, is imperative. But if Clive could be induced to travel, properly attended of course, the change and distraction might accomplish what I believe nothing else will, his ultimate recovery. Mrs. Cunninghame, I am sure, will raise no objection to part with him for a time on such terms."
"Oh no, no," the old lady cried. "It is my own wish. Whatever is for his best I will cheerfully submit to."
"Then let us lose no time," Mr. Coxton said, with animation, "in suggesting this course to the poor fellow. If Doctor Crackenthorpe will undertake to engage an experienced attendant, I will see to the rest, provided always that Clive consents to go."
"I think," I said quietly, "I can save you all trouble on that score, for I happen to know that Mr. Cunninghame will not be induced to leave Glen Elc."
"How do you know that?" Mr. Coxton inquired, turning to me sharply.
"Because I have asked him," I replied. "Mr. Cunninghame has some very strong reason for declining to leave home at present. I am not acquainted with its nature, but I shall be very much mistaken if his decision does not prove unshakable."
"If that is so," Mr. Coxton said, after a moment's silence, turning to Mrs. Cunninghame, "there is nothing more to be said. I had certainly not reckoned that the plan would meet with Clive's opposition."
"It is only one indication more," Dr. Crackenthorpe remarked, "of the gravity of his condition. If you will accept my advice, my dear Mrs. Cunninghame, you will place your son without delay in hands competent to treat his case methodically."
Mrs. Cunninghame rose from her seat agitatedly.
"It is too cruel, too cruel!" she exclaimed. "I cannot believe in this dreadful necessity. Have you nothing to suggest, nurse? You have always spoken hopefully of my poor boy's recovery."
Dr. Crackenthorpe lowered his head and gazed at me over his spectacles.
"Nurse will scarcely venture to question the opinion of an authority like Sir Winton Forbes," he said, in a tone of severity.
"I have the greatest possible respect for Sir Winton Forbes, Doctor Crackenthorpe," I rejoined. "But the highest authority is not always infallible."
"Ah! do you say so?" the doctor ejaculated. "Then you mean——"
"I mean," I said, "that, if I were Mrs. Cunninghame, I would take another opinion before confining my son in an asylum. What one physician pronounces hopeless another may succeed in curing."
"But whom would you recommend, nurse?" Mrs. Cunninghame asked.
"One who would devote more than a cursory study to the case," I replied, "and, above all, apply his mind to discovering the cause why a perfectly sane person should act like one who is mentally deranged."
"Ah!" Doctor Crackenthorpe exclaimed. "You still adhere to the belief that your patient is playing the fool with us?"
"I have never expressed such a belief," I answered. "All I am convinced of—and to-day more strongly than ever—is that Mr. Cunninghame's mind is as well balanced as yours or mine. What prompts him to act as he does is a secret, the key to which has yet to be found."
Dr. Crackenthorpe tossed his head with a snort of contempt.
"Upon my soul," he cried, "this is a very fantastic theory—really, very fantastic indeed. And whom should we intrust with the discovery of this most important secret?" he added, squinting meaningly across at Mrs. Cunninghame.
"Are you acquainted with Lauder Caine, Doctor Crackenthorpe?" I asked.
"Never heard of such a man," he answered gruffly.
"I am sorry," I said, "for I know of no one whose opinion in this particular case I would rather consult, and if Mrs. Cunninghame will permit me——"
"This gentleman is a qualified physician, I suppose?" Mr. Coxton asked.
"I cannot say whether his name figures on the medical register or not," I replied.
"A quack, then?" he said, with the faintest trace of contempt.
"Possibly there are some who may consider him so," I answered. "But quack or no quack, Mr. Coxton, I have myself seen him successfully diagnose a case which had utterly baffled the wisdom of our greatest specialists, Sir Winton Forbes among the number."
"It is a pity," Mr. Coxton observed, "that Miss Forsyth did not think of mentioning this while Sir Winton was here, since he must be well acquainted with this gifted oracle."
"Very true," Dr. Crackenthorpe said, with an approving chuckle, "very true, indeed."
"I regret now that I did not do so," I said. "It was, in fact, Sir Winton who recalled the case mentioned to my memory, as I should not have thought of it. I have merely ventured this suggestion," I added, "for what it is worth. If it meets with your objection, Mr. Coxton——"
"I see no objection whatever," he interrupted me politely, "save the responsibility of disregarding the very grave warning we have just received, a warning issued by one whom we must after all admit to be the highest authority in the land. It is, however, not a question for me to decide. If Mrs. Cunninghame sees fit to consult another opinion, let it be done, by all means. I believe you are deceiving yourself with false hopes, Miss Forsyth. But that is merely my judgment, and no one will be happier than I if it should prove to be wrong."
Mrs. Cunninghame, thus indirectly appealed to, looked irresolutely, first at Richard Coxton and then at Dr. Crackenthorpe. Whether her indecision arose from a fear of offending one or the other of them I know not, but there was something curiously constrained in her manner, which impressed me unpleasantly.
"It is hard to know what is right," she said, with a painful effort to speak calmly. "Perhaps——" She stopped, and turned to me with a forced smile. "If you don't mind, nurse, I should like to have a few words alone with Dr. Crackenthorpe. I must take time to consider the matter from all points of view, you see."
Mr. Coxton, who had seated himself at the table, rose instantly before I could reply.
"Nurse and I will retire at once," he said, moving to the door, which he courteously held open for me.
I passed out, and he followed me into the hall.
"I wish I could share your hopes concerning Clive, Miss Forsyth," he said, as he closed the door; "but, frankly, I do not. Insane people are very deceitful, and I trust you will not find it out too late. I admire your courage, but I think Westley is right. This case is not one for a girl like you. It requires a stronger hand than yours, and, excuse me, a mind less trustful than I believe yours to be."
I do not remember what answer I made to him. All I can recall is the feeling of reawakening anger that welled up in me at his reference to Mortimer Westley's opinion, mingled with a sense of mild wonder at the soft, kindly expression with which his fine dark eyes rested upon mine as he spoke, an expression I had never observed in them before. Involuntarily I caught myself a few minutes later, when I had regained the privacy of my own room, dwelling upon their extraordinary depth, and comparing them with another pair of eyes which I had once regarded as the essence of all that was manly and handsome. I thought with a smile of Mr. Westley's display of absurd jealousy that morning, when he twitted me with my partiality to poor Clive Cunninghame. Perhaps it was well that he had not been present to see that depth of expression in Richard Coxton's eyes.
And now I come to the relation of a personal experience for which I venture to think there is not a parallel to be found in all the annals of sick-nursing.
It may have been a foreboding, or merely the outcome of a general sense of unrest produced in me by excitement and fatigue, but I experienced in the course of that day for the first time a feeling of inquietude with regard to Mr. Cunninghame which kept me watchful and ill at ease. Since the visit of Sir Winton Forbes that morning I had found him unusually depressed and taciturn. Although I entered his room several times and moved about there under various pretexts, he apparently scarcely noticed my presence, and replied in almost sullen monosyllables to the cheering remarks I purposely addressed to him. Heaven knows there was reason enough for him to be sad and downcast, poor fellow! But it was so unlike him to sulk and brood that the effect upon me was more than ordinarily disturbing. I fancied, too, once or twice, that I could discern a look of suspicion or distrust in his eyes as they followed my movements in the room, and the doubt flashed momentarily across my brain that someone might have poisoned his mind against me, or that he bore me some secret unaccountable grudge. But, as I have said, I was nervous and overwrought, and my imagination may have played me a trick.
Late in the afternoon Mr. Cunninghame rose at last from his couch, on which he had lain without intermission ever since the early morning, and, settling down in a chair at the window, took up a book and commenced to read. It was then 5 o'clock—I remember the exact hour, for I happened to comment to myself at the time upon the unusual stillness that reigned throughout the house—and seeing him thus employed, I stretched myself upon my sofa with the intention of resting for half-an-hour.
Whether I really went to sleep or not I cannot say. All I know is that I lay for a considerable while in that curious state between wakefulness and sleep which forms the borderland, as it were, between dream and reality. An acute sense of impending danger pervaded my whole being, and accompanying it a feeling of physical numbness which deprived me of the power of movement. My eyes remained closed, in spite of all my efforts to open them, and yet I knew as positively as if I could see that the door leading from Clive Cunninghame's room into mine had opened, and that someone was stealthily approaching the spot where I lay. Was it the effect of a nightmare? I tried to cry out, but could not. Every nerve in my body seemed paralysed. Slowly I felt the presence creep nearer. A sudden stinging sensation shot through my head, as if a sharp needle had been pierced through my brain. With a wild, almost superhuman, effort I cast off the spell that bound me, started to my feet, and opened my eyes.
Before me stood Clive Cunninghame, his eyes dilated and fierce, and an expression of such terrible insanity on his face that I shrieked aloud in an agony of fear. With a rapid movement he raised his clenched hand aloft to strike me, and I threw myself forward with all my weight to escape the blow. Clutching wildly at his uplifted arm, I attempted to grapple with him, but he evaded me with the quickness of lightning, and, striding swiftly to the door, passed out into the hall without uttering a sound.
Released from the fearful tension, I felt for one instant as if my physical powers would give way. But I regained my determination almost immediately, and, rushing after him, was just in time to see him whisk round the corner of the hall leading to the servants' staircase, which I heard him mount with great rapidity. Without hesitating a moment, I followed; but, though I leaped up the stairs in half-a-dozen bounds, reaching the first landing within scarcely as many seconds, I saw no further trace of him, either in the small vestibule into which the staircase led, or in the passage which connected it with the main building beyond. In considerable bewilderment I sped headlong down this passage, the scene of my adventure the night before, and at its end stumbled violently into the arms of Belle Staunton.
"For God's' sake!" I exclaimed, breathlessly, "have you seen him?"
"Seen whom, Miss Forsyth?" said a quiet voice at my elbow.
It was Richard Coxton's.
I seized his arm in a frenzy of excitement.
"Clive!" I cried. "He just came up the small staircase. Quick, for Heaven's sake! I fear——"
"What do you fear, Miss Forsyth?" he asked, in a quick, imperative voice, eyeing me with a searching look. "You are excited. Is Mr. Cunninghame not in his room?"
"I don't know," I exclaimed. "He just came into—I mean—I thought—are you sure he did not pass by here a minute ago?"
Mr. Coxton darted a swift look of inquiry at Belle Staunton, who shook her head and grew strangely pale. Then he turned again to me.
"It would be as well, perhaps," he said calmly, "if we first ascertained whether Clive has left his room or not. Come!" And without waiting for me to acquiesce he started off towards the main stairway.
I followed at his heels, and, quietly descending the stairs, we reached the ground floor together. At Mr. Cunninghame's door Mr. Coxton paused for a moment and listened. As he did so, a quiet smile stole over his features, and, softly opening the door, he motioned me to enter. I obeyed mechanically, and stood upon the threshold agape with astonishment.
In the embrasure of the window, book in hand, sat Clive Cunninghame, in the identical position I had left him an hour or more ago. He was not reading, but gazing dreamily out of the window with a look of such utter despondency upon his face that I felt a pang of pity shoot through my heart at the sight of him. Apparently he was so deeply absorbed in his thoughts that we advanced almost into the middle of the room before he became aware of our presence.
"Clive, old man," Mr. Coxton said, without further preamble, as he looked up and recognised us, "have you left your room within the last few minutes?"
Mr. Cunninghame sprang up like one electrified.
"What! Again!" he exclaimed. "Do you mean to tell me——"
"Don't get excited, my dear fellow," Mr. Coxton interrupted him, in a soothing tone. "Miss Forsyth fancied a few minutes ago that she had seen you go upstairs. No doubt she has now convinced herself that she was labouring under a misapprehension, so there is no need to discuss the thing any further."
There was a look of inexpressible dread and horror in Clive's eyes as he gazed first at Richard Coxton and then at me, which proved that he realised only too well the drift of our visit.
"What is the meaning of these questions?" he exclaimed with a passionate outburst. "I demand to know the reason. By God! if I have become a raving maniac, lock me in a padded-room at once and have done with it. I'd rather take poison than live on like this."
His growing excitement filled me with alarm, and giving Mr. Coxton by a sign to understand that he had better leave us, I endeavoured to pacify the poor fellow by such means as occurred to me. But his manner was full of mistrust and suspicion, and he continued to pace the room angrily without feeling his friend's repeated assurance that he was making a mountain out of a molehill, and that the whole incident arose from some misunderstanding on my part, which was not worth talking about.
At last, when, at my renewed request, Mr. Coxton had withdrawn, he turned to me with a stern and determined air.
"Now I want the truth, nurse," he said. "What is this new business? For your face tells me there is something more behind it. Why are you here?"
What could I answer? There was something so incongruous in the idea that this man, who stood before me like a stern young Judge preparing to cross-question some refractory offender, could possibly be the madman all his actions appeared to prove him, that I felt once more entirely nonplussed.
"Do you understand me, nurse?" he repeated, as I hesitated. "I want to know the truth. You have led me to believe on more than one occasion that I may look for a friend in you. I trust you will not disappoint me now."
The wistfulness of his tone and manner touched me to the quick.
"Mr. Cunninghame," I said, "there is really nothing in what has occurred to make so much of. I mean, nothing to one who knows what I know. Had I learned sooner that you suffer from the habit of walking in your sleep, I think I could have saved you and those you love much anxiety and distress."
He shot a quick glance of distrust at me as I spoke. But I had determined on my line of speech, and went on before he could interrupt me:
"Ten minutes ago you entered my room by this door, and passed through it into the hall—for what purpose I do not know. But your sudden, unexpected appearance and your attitude happened to startle me greatly, for I was sleeping when you came in, and—and thinking you might harm yourself, as I firmly believe you have done on similar occasions before, I followed you into the hall. I was under the mistaken impression that I saw you mount the servants' staircase, and consequently followed you, as I thought, upstairs, where I happened to stumble upon Miss Staunton and Mr. Coxton, the latter of whom, assuring me that no one had passed that way, accompanied me downstairs to ascertain if you had returned to your room, a question which you see has been very simply settled in the affirmative. That is the whole story, and I hope you won't think any more about it."
He had listened to me with the closest attention. When I finished, he remained silent for a moment, seemingly absorbed in earnest thought.
"Do you believe," he said, with great deliberation, "that people can suddenly take to walking in their sleep without having any knowledge of the fact—that is, I mean, without even the recollection of some dream to fix the circumstances in their mind?"
"Why not?" I replied promptly. "Is not the present case a striking instance in point? You passed through my room within the last half hour, and are evidently as unconscious of the fact as if it had never occurred."
"I am certainly unconscious of the fact," he rejoined very coolly, "and, indeed, unless people can walk in their sleep while they are awake—to use a hibernicism—I am afraid it will take a good deal to convince me that it ever occurred."
"Do you mean to say——" I stammered, gazing at him incredulously.
"I mean to say that I have not been asleep since—since the shindy last night," he said, dropping into slang with a kind of devil-may-care air. "As for the last three-quarters of an hour at least, I have been occupied in trying to ease my mind by reading this vile shilling shocker here." He lifted the book in question from the table, and let it fall back into its place again with a bang. "So that disposes of the sleep-walking act in this instance at any rate. As regards my alleged appearance in your room, nurse——"
"Well?" I asked, expectantly, seeing him pause and scan me curiously.
He flung himself into a chair.
"Well," he went on, "if you yourself believe what you have just told me—and I have no reason to doubt that you do—all I can say is that there is more than one person in this house ripe for a lunatic asylum. You needn't flare up. I repeat, and I am prepared to state it upon oath, that I have not left this room within the last hour, that I have been all the while in full possession of my faculties, and that I can account for every minute of the time I have spent here. Now what have you to say?"
The question was put in sharp, stern accents, and I looked at him, torn between doubt and belief. Was it possible that this was the same man I had seen but a few minutes ago, as I, too, could have affirmed upon oath, standing before me in a threatening attitude, with every evidence of the worst form of insanity upon his face? Either he was the most consummate actor and hypocrite, or—but I could conceive of no alternative. All my notions and theories had been completely overthrown, all but the one firm conviction, to which I clung more tenaciously than ever, that Clive Cunninghame was no madman in the ordinary sense of the term. It impressed itself upon me at that instant with overpowering force, and, yielding to the impulse of the moment, I acted upon it with a sudden bold resolve.
"Mr. Cunninghame," I said, ignoring his own question, "do you know for what purpose there has been a consultation of physicians at Glen Elc to-day?"
"Why, yes," he answered calmly; "the purpose is not difficult to guess. They have been pretty frank with me. Even my poor mother appears to be convinced that I require some kind of medical treatment, rest and repose in a quiet retreat. It's a euphemistic way of talking of a madhouse. I remember a case where some poor devil was cajoled away from his home with similar talk. Well, what of it?"
His calm, indifferent way of speaking agitated me.
"But have you no explanation to offer?" I exclaimed. "I mean, is there nothing known to you which might account for all these strange things that have happened to you? There are worries and anxieties which may affect one's health, even to the extent of producing a temporary derangement of one's faculties. Possibly, if the cause were known, the trouble could be removed."
"The cause of what?" he asked. "Do you mean of my waking up occasionally and finding myself in strange places, doing God knows what? Great Scott! it is a wonder, I think, that I do not begin to doubt my own senses. I step off a garden bench and break my leg. I am attacked by a brute of a dog, and am to believe the dog was an under-gardener. I am seized with the notion of pruning an overgrown rose bush, and find that I have narrowly escaped murdering——" He broke off abruptly, with an involuntary shudder. Then, noticing my wondering look, he burst out laughing. "There's proof of insanity for you, nurse," he went on. "Yet it's a fact. I could hold my peace, and say nothing about it. But perhaps I have not yet reached that stage of insanity where cunning begins. It's all an enigma to me, if that's any consolation, and until it ceases to be so I shall take leave to consider myself as mentally sound as anybody of my acquaintance."
"But meanwhile," I persisted, "what is to happen? If you recognise all these extraordinary symptoms, you will surely neglect no effort to remove their cause."
"What do you mean?" he asked, turning to me sharply.
"I mean," I said, "that you should listen to the advice of those who have your interest at heart, and——"
"And quit Glen Elc, eh?" he broke in. "That's the scheme, is it? But it won't work." He paced up and down again, evidently lashing himself into a state of fresh excitement. "Now listen to me, nurse," he burst out at last. "If there were as many devils at Glen Elc as there are tiles on the roof, as some other fellow once said, I'd stay here in spite of them. There, you needn't ask me any more questions, for I shan't answer them. My mind is fully made up on the point, and there's no earthly use arguing it. As for your doctors, you may bring the whole College of Physicians here for all I care. If they can make head or tail of this confounded business, they'll do a jolly sight more than I can."
With these words he turned away from me, and, taking up his book, resumed his seat again at the window and commenced to read. It was an unmistakable hint that he had no desire for further conversation, and, feeling that it would be imprudent to ignore it, I retired once more to my room.
I had scarcely settled down in my favourite corner to think over this last and most puzzling experience, when there came a knock at the door, and Mr. Westley entered.
"What has happened, Mabel?" he said.
"Nothing has happened," I answered, rather shortly. His intrusion annoyed me.
"But something has alarmed you," he persisted. "I have just left Belle Staunton, and she told me——"
"What did Miss Staunton tell you?" I asked quickly.
"There is something uncommonly strange about that girl, Mabel," he said, ignoring my question. "I have never seen her so excited. She has just been imploring me to prevail upon young Cunninghame to leave Glen Elc at once. She declares that something terrible will happen if he stays. I am afraid last night's shock has unhinged her nerves. Do you think she fears that Clive may attack her again?"
"Nonsense!" I said sharply. "My own opinion is that no one has less to fear from poor Clive Cunninghame than Miss Staunton, and she is well aware of it."
"Well, at any rate," he answered, "she appears to have some very cogent reason for wishing him to leave the house."
"Probably as cogent a reason as Mr. Cunninghame has for insisting upon remaining here."
"He won't go, then?"
"No, he won't."
Mr. Westley was silent for a moment.
"Do you still think there is nothing wrong with him, Mabel?" he asked quietly.
"I think," I replied, "there is something very radically wrong with some one in this house, and that some one is Miss Belle Staunton."
"Belle!" he exclaimed. "But what has she to do with Clive's madness, or whatever you like to call it?"
"Directly, perhaps nothing," I answered. "But indirectly, I am much mistaken if she is not at the bottom of this whole trouble. It does not take a genius to guess that the reason Miss Staunton is so anxious to drive Clive Cunninghame from his home is identical with the reason Clive Cunninghame has for persisting in staying here. That reason, whatever it may be, is the clue to all this fearful mystery, and I intend to find it out."
"But how?" he asked, his face falling ominously. "Isn't it rather a delicate thing to go and mix yourself up with these people's private affairs?"
"When so much is at stake, no," I answered emphatically. "It is this cruel infamous will that has caused all the mischief; for, tell me what you please, Miss Staunton does not love Richard Coxton, and if she marries him it will be at the sacrifice of her whole life's happiness."
Mr. Westley shook his head and smiled a superior smile.
"Belle isn't the girl to throw away a fortune, Mabel," he said. "Believe me, I've known her since she was so high, and I speak with some experience. Her tastes are all of an expensive order, and she likes to gratify them. She has a will of her own, too, and isn't easily balked of her desires."
"A will of her own, indeed!" I ejaculated contemptuously. "A girl of true spirit would not allow a husband to be foisted upon her as Miss Staunton has, however high the consideration."
"I don't know about foisting," Mr. Westley remarked. "It can't be denied that Belle had set her heart upon having Richard Coxton, and I believe went on a pretty tidy rampage when old Mrs. Ruhmkorff put a stop to his courtship. As for Clive's flirtation," he added, "that was a later affair. It can't have been a very deep one either, for within a fortnight of Coxton's return from India the fact of his engagement to Belle Staunton was made public."
"And Clive Cunninghame?" I asked.
"Oh, Clive was all right," he answered. "Of course, he didn't exactly go into ecstacies when the thing was talked about. But he was the same as ever, light-hearted and easy-going, and rushing from one cricket match to the other."
"Can you procure me a copy of Mrs. Ruhmkorff's will?" I asked, a little irrelevantly.
"Easily," he answered. "How soon?"
"If you only want it to read," he said, "and will return it to me, I can let you have my own copy. Will it do if I send it you to-morrow?"
"I may fetch it myself," I answered.
He looked surprised.
"I suppose you intend doing a little attorney's work on your own account Mabel," he said. "I am afraid the chance of driving with the proverbial coach and four through that will is a forlorn one. Its conditions are ironclad."
"I have no such thoughts," I said. "My belief is——"
But my sentence was suddenly cut short by the loud report of a gun or pistol, followed by a short, sharp cry in the immediate vicinity of the house.
Instinctively we both rushed to the door, and out into the hall. There the old butler stood with a lighted taper in hand, leaning against the wall and trembling like an aspen leaf. Dusk was setting in, and he had evidently been about to light the hall lamps, when the sound of the shot startled him.
"Quick, sir," he exclaimed to Mr. Westley. "There's murder been done. I saw the flash of the gun not fifty yards from the house, behind the long shrubbery."
Mr. Westley dashed out of the door into the garden without awaiting to hear further particulars, whilst I, seized with a horrible fear, turned quickly aside, and softly opened the door of Mr. Cunninghame's room.
To my intense relief, I saw him standing at the window. He had apparently heard the report of the gun, though it had been fired at the other side of the house, and was peering out curiously into the semi-darkness of the garden. Seeing that he had not observed my entry, I withdrew again softly, and closing the door, hurried across the hall towards the outlet to the garden.
I had scarcely reached it when I caught sight of a white figure running at full speed between the trees that flanked the broad lawn on the left. It was making direct for the house, and before I could recognise who it was—for the twilight had already deepened into the shades of night beneath the huge canopy formed by the trees—it had stumbled up the few steps that led into the house, and the next instant Belle Staunton clutched me convulsively by both arms.
"They have killed him!" she cried, in quick, gasping tones. "They have killed him."
"Killed whom?" I asked, clasping the frightened girl round the waist, for she would have sunk to the ground had I not supported her.
"Him, him!" she answered, looking behind her with a horrified expression. "Mr. Coxton, I mean—there, in the shrubbery—I was with him but a moment before, and——"
She stopped short, arrested by the sound of voices in the distance. I laid my hand on her arm, and listened. I could now hear footsteps on the gravel between the trees slowly approaching the house, and presently two figures emerged from the darkness and came towards us. One was Mr. Westley and the other Richard Coxton.
"Don't make a fuss, Westley," the latter said, in a subdued but somewhat petulant tone. "I tell you, it is nothing to speak of—a mere scratch, in fact."
"But you were shot at, Dick," Mr. Westley rejoined. "Can't you give me some clue to the fellow's whereabouts? If we lose track of him, he may escape scot-free."
They had reached the steps, while he spoke, and I hurried down to meet them.
"Leave Mr. Coxton to me, Mr. Westley," I cried. "The assassin fired from the other side of the long shrubbery, Miss Staunton saw it all. Run, quick! I will see that one of the men joins you."
"No, no," Mr. Coxton exclaimed. "Stay, Westley. You don't understand. It is all a mistake. No one fired at me. I was toying with my pistol, and it accidentally went off and grazed my arm. For Heaven's sake; don't rouse the whole neighbourhood for such a trifle."
There was an inarticulate sound between a sob and a groan, behind me, and I turned round just in time to prevent Belle Staunton from falling headlong down the flight of stone steps. She had fainted.
Together Mr. Westley and I carried her into the house, and laid her upon the couch in the library, where she revived after a few minutes, and sitting up looked wildly around her.
"Belle," said Mr. Coxton, who had followed us into the room, and stood beside the couch, anxiously waiting to see the unconscious girl return to life, "you must not excite yourself in this way. The shock has unstrung your nerves and made you see visions. But I repeat, no one is to blame but myself. See," he added, drawing forth a small pocket pistol, "it was my own pistol that did the mischief, so think no more about it."
He bent over her as he spoke, and uttering a long-drawn sigh, she sank back on the cushions and closed her eyes.
"She will be herself again presently," I said. "But your wound must be attended to at once, Mr. Coxton. I will send for Doctor Crackenthorpe."
"You will do no such thing," he said sharply. "I want no physician. I am something of a doctor myself—at least, sufficiently so for this occasion."
"But you cannot dress you own wound," I exclaimed, pointing to his right arm, round which I saw that an handkerchief had been tightly bound. "And you must know that it needs dressing, however slight it may be. If you will not have the doctor sent for, at least permit me to do the needful."
There was just a shade of hesitation in the manner in which he acquiesced in my suggestion, and it recurred to my mind rather forcibly later on when all the excitement was over, and I was able to reflect at leisure upon the various contradictory circumstances that seemed to surround this peculiar mishap of Clive Cunninghame's friend.
"You are very kind, I am sure," he said, in his habitual courtly tone. "I accept your offer gratefully. Will you mind coming to my room? I have all the necessary paraphernalia in my portmanteau. I contracted the habit of carrying bandages and stuff with me while I was at the hospital, and have found it come in handy at times, more particularly during my travels in India."
I signified my willingness, and leaving Mr. Westley to watch over Belle Staunton, I hurried to my room, ostensibly to fetch some sewing materials of my own, but in reality to gain an opportunity of slipping once more into Mr. Cunninghame's room.
He had rung for his lamp in the interval, and now I found him sitting upon his couch, still seemingly absorbed in his novel. When I entered he raised his head, and looked inquiringly at me.
"Anyone been shooting near the house?" he asked.
I thought it best to tell him the truth, and answered in an off-hand way:
"Mr. Coxton has had a slight accident with his pistol, which went off in his hand, and grazed his arm. I am just going to dress it for him."
"Dick!" he said, in a tone of surprise. "Never knew he owned a pistol. He wasn't ever much of a sportsman, anyway."
"Possibly that explains his present little mishap." I suggested.
"Probably," he remarked, in a tone of unconcern, and, taking up his book again, he resumed his reading.
When I entered Mr. Coxton's room he had divested himself of his coat and vest, and stood with his right arm bared up to the shoulder at the washbasin. The wound, as I soon perceived, was a very slight one, the bullet having scarcely more than grazed the skin of the arm about four inches above the elbow. I washed and dressed it, however, carefully, though Mr. Coxton showed signs of unusual impatience during the process. All the time, though he never uttered a word, I felt that his eyes were watching me intently, as if he expected me to express some comment. But I was determined to keep my own counsel, and, the preliminaries accomplished, I proceeded to bandage the arm after the most approved fashion. While I was thus occupied he broke the silence at last.
"A highly interesting case, this, nurse, is it not?" said Mr. Coxton jocularly. "What do you think of the injury?"
"Do you want to hear my real opinion?" I asked.
"Why not?" he returned, casting an uneasy glance at my face, but still speaking in the same forced tone of raillery. "Tell me the worst. I can bear it."
"I think," I said, endeavouring to speak in my ordinary manner, "that for a self-inflicted wound it can claim to be the most remarkable one on record."
"Indeed?" he replied. "And why so?"
"Have you ever known a man shoot himself from behind, Mr. Coxton?" I asked, looking him full in the face.
"Oh, oh!" he answered, returning my look with the utmost coolness. "Do you mean to say——"
"That the bullet which struck your arm struck it from behind, yes," I rejoined. "It does not require a physician to recognise that fact, Mr. Coxton. Even an ignorant nurse can detect it at a glance."
He paused just the fraction of an instant before he replied, with grave urbanity:
"You will greatly oblige me by discarding this peculiar view of yours, Miss Forsyth. I should be sorry to leave you under so serious a misapprehension. This wound—if the mere scratch it is deserves such a name—was caused by a pure accident, for which I alone am responsible. There can be no doubt about this, since I am here to vouch for it. Do you fully understand me?"
"Perfectly," I answered. "But you seem to forget that I have expressed no doubt whatever about the accidental nature of your injury, nor do I contemplate doing so. You have asked me a question, and I have answered it; there the matter rests. I am rejoiced at least to know that poor Mr. Cunninghame cannot be held responsible for this accident."
I had finished my task, and was preparing to go.
"You are a zealous friend, Miss Forsyth," he said, fixing me with his dark, expressive eyes. "Clive is to be envied for having such a champion."
"I trust," I said, "I have no greater claim to the title than his own friends, though my views and theirs may be different."
"You still persist, then, in the belief that his condition is a harmless one?"
"Still," I said, giving him a quick glance. "What should have caused me to alter my opinion since this forenoon?"
"That," he replied promptly, "is a question which you alone can answer. I merely conjectured from your agitated manner this afternoon that something had occurred to modify your opinion."
"Nothing of the kind has occurred," I answered steadily. "I am still most anxious that Mr. Cunninghame should be seen by another specialist, if possible, without the presence of Dr. Crackenthorpe."
"You distrust the old doctor?" he said, in a tone of surprise.
"Not in the least," I answered. "I think he is biassed, that is all, and is consequently liable to prejudice the mind of his consulting colleague, which, in a case like this, should, in my opinion, be carefully avoided."
"You intend, I suppose, to advise Mrs. Cunninghame accordingly?" he remarked.
"In spite of your objections, Mr. Coxton," I affirmed with a smile.
"I object to further delay, certainly," he answered gravely, "because I have reason to fear it; and I own that I have a rooted abhorrence of all quacks."
"But are you so sure that I intend to recommend a quack?" I observed.
"I am sure," he replied, "that no physician of any standing in the profession would consent to be consulted in the absence of a patient's regular adviser, unless, indeed, it were particularly so desired and stipulated by the patient and his friends."
"Which, in this instance, might be the case," I said.
"It does not occur to you, I presume," he asked blandly, "that by taking this very unusual course you are somewhat overstepping the limit of your duties as sick nurse?"
"If you think so, Mr. Coxton," I said, gathering up my sewing materials, and moving towards the door, "you are at liberty to bring a complaint against me at headquarters."
I suppose he detected a note of defiance in my voice, for he followed me with a deprecatory smile.
"I am the last one likely to do such a thing," he said. "By all means bring us your oracle, Miss Forsyth. If I can lend any assistance, I will give it willingly, even to the extent of smoothing matters over with old Dr. Crackenthorpe, who may be more liable to resent a breach of professional etiquette than I am."
He opened the door for me with his usual air of courtesy, and in some wonderment at what appeared to me his sudden change of front I left him and went down stairs.
I found Miss Staunton awaiting me in my room. She looked pale and haggard, but had quite recovered her composure.
"Is it true, nurse," she asked, "that you have persuaded Mrs. Cunninghame to consult another opinion about Clive?"
"I hope to convince her that it is desirable," I answered
She reflected an instant.
"If I tell you that it is not only not desirable," she said, "but may be actually dangerous, will that deter you from your purpose?"
"I will be frank with you, Miss Staunton," I replied. "Your mere statement to this effect, without any reasons, will not be sufficient to deter me."
A slight flush overspread her features.
"I can give you no reasons," she said, "save my conviction that Clive's state of health renders it imperative for him to leave Glen Elc."
"But if he is determined not to leave Glen Elc?" I queried.
"Have you urged him to go?" she asked quickly.
"And he refuses?" she said, in a low tone.
I nodded an affirmative.
"It appears, Miss Staunton," I said, "that Mr. Cunninghame has as strong a reason for insisting upon remaining at Glen Elc as you have for insisting upon his going."
She did not answer, but she bit her lip with a vexed air.
"It is no business of mine," I went on, "to inquire the nature of those reasons. But it is only natural that I should form my own conclusions, and if these conclusions should be wrong——"
"What conclusions?" she interrupted me with a touch of her old haughtiness. "I do not follow you."
"Miss Staunton," I said, "let us understand each other at the outset. It is you who have sought this conversation, not I. If it is to be continued, I claim the right to speak my thoughts without reserve, whether they displease you or not. I have no desire to question you about matters upon which you may prefer to be silent. But if you possess any knowledge touching the cause of Mr. Cunninghame's trouble, as all you say leads me to infer, it will be criminal if you withhold that knowledge from those upon whose decision his fate now rests."
"I presume," she said coldly, "I am the best judge of what is right and proper for me to do."
"You are the only judge, undoubtedly," I replied, "whether it is to your interest or not to see Mr. Cunninghame consigned to a living death."
"My God!" she burst out in despair, "it is that which must be prevented—prevented at all hazards. Will nothing make you understand me?"
She threw herself passionately, with her face forward on the sofa, and silent sobs shook her whole frame. I approached her and touched her arm gently.
"You are overwrought and excited, Miss Staunton," I said. "Believe me, there is one thing which I do understand. It is that you yourself stand as much in need of aid and counsel as Clive Cunninghame himself. Pardon my frankness. I say again that I have no curiosity to learn what you desire to keep secret. But I cannot pretend to be blind to the fact that you are on the eve of committing a great wrong against yourself and another. Pray rest assured," I added, seeing her start up again with a sudden return to her former resentful mood, "that I would not presume to touch upon so delicate a matter were I not convinced that it is in some manner unknown to me intimately connected with poor Mr. Cunninghame's illness."
She shook her head vigorously, but made no reply.
"Your own words have told me this, Miss Staunton," I pursued, "and all your actions confirm what you have said."
She rose to her feet, and confronted me with head erect.
"What are my actions to you?" she exclaimed. "And what right have you to watch and pry upon them? Do not answer me, pray," she went on, rather inconsistently. "I have been a fool to plead with you, a total stranger, in a matter with which you have no more concern than that fly upon the wall. But I have acted for the best. Call it fancy, presentiment, what you will, I believe that no good will come of this new consultation. There is a danger hanging over Clive Cunninghame's head, of which you have no suspicion, and no doctor can shield him from it. You have heard my warning. Take it."
Before I could answer she had passed by me, and swept out of the room.
I sat for fully an hour musing upon this strange interview and the mysterious event that had preceded it. With all her professed solicitude for Clive Cunninghame, there was something in Belle Staunton's behaviour which aroused my distrust. It was difficult to doubt that she was sincere in her anxiety for his welfare. Yet I could not rid myself of the impression that there was some selfish motive actuating her, and that the fears she expressed concerned her own person at least as much as that of poor Clive. I recalled my conversation with Mrs. Cunninghame that morning, and her reference to the sudden breaking off of the relations between her son and Belle Staunton prior to the return of Mr. Coxton. She had implied that something in the nature of a terrible revelation had driven her son from the house. Could it be the effects of the shock he had then sustained which were now affecting his brain? Or was there some deeper mystery behind it all?
I could not bring myself to believe that Richard Coxton's so-called accident that afternoon was entirely unconnected with all the rest of the thrilling incidents which had marked my sojourn at Glen Elc. Who was responsible for that accident, and what had prompted Mr. Coxton to conceal the true facts connected with it? Dared I believe that the girl he was betrothed to had fired the shot that so narrowly missed proving fatal? My mind had become accustomed to dwell upon extraordinary occurrences, but it shrank from such a conception as this and the terrible conclusions which it led to. If it was really an accident, what motive could Belle Staunton have had for concocting the story she told me on the garden steps. The old butler, who had given a similar version of the occurrence, might have been mistaken, but scarcely Miss Staunton, who was on the very spot where it befell. Her pale, horrified face, as she fell fainting into my arms when Mr. Coxton appeared at the side of Mortimer Westley, recurred to me, and I shuddered at the thought of all that it had expressed.
That evening I sought Mrs. Cunninghame in her room fully determined not to leave her until I had obtained her consent to submit her son's case to Mr. Lauder Caine. To my agreeable surprise, though I felt that she considered the step futile, she exhibited none of the strange hesitation and indecision which had characterised her reception of my proposal that morning.
"I must leave you to make your own peace with Doctor Crackenthorpe, nurse," she said, in giving her consent to my calling upon Lauder Caine in person and, if necessary, bringing him to Glen Elc. "He has written me a note this afternoon, categorically refusing to meet any one but a qualified physician, and washing his hands of the whole matter in the event of our consulting what he calls a quack and an outsider. I am afraid you have offended him deeply by your suggestion."
I was not much affected by this possible contingency; for, after all, I thought, it was better to give offence to a family physician than allow a sane man to be confined in a lunatic asylum.
"I don't think Doctor Crackenthorpe's attitude will cause any inconvenience to Mr. Lauder Caine," I said. "He has peculiar methods of his own, and, prefers to use his own unaided intelligence in diagnosing a case. Of one thing you can rest assured: unless he concludes that he can benefit your son, he will not set his foot in the house."
And so ended this eventful Sunday, and with it what I may call the first section of my experiences at Glen Elc. The next morning I proceeded on an early train to London in quest of the man whom I believed capable as no other of helping poor Clive Cunninghame in his extremity, if indeed human help could still avail him.
Mr. Mortimer Westley accompanied me to London. But although he manifested great interest in my mission, of which he had doubtless heard from Richard Coxton, I could guess from the tone of his many questions on the subject that he secretly disapproved of it.
"I trust you may succeed, Mabel," he said to me, among other things. "But I can't conceal from you that I believe it is a forlorn hope. By the way, what do you know about this man Lauder Caine? If he is the fellow they call the Confessor, he has a mighty strange reputation, and I would advise you to be careful."
"Do you know him?" I asked.
"Not personally," he answered. "The man was mixed up rather suspiciously in a nasty case of murder in Paris which Bissoms had placed before them a year or two ago, and we made some searching inquiries into his antecedents."
"With what result?" I asked.
"Oh, we could find nothing tangible against the man, except that he was undoubtedly shielding the criminal. Old Bissom had a couple of interviews with him at the time, after which, for some reason or other, the firm dropped the case. He was brought up among the Jesuits, I believe. But I never heard that he was a qualified physician."
"I do not know that he is," I said. "But that he possesses medical knowledge, of this fact I have had personal experience. Moreover, as I have seen myself, he has a gift which is little short of marvellous. It is that of reading a person's mind as if it were an open book."
Mr. Westley smiled.
"And whose mind do you intend him to read, Mabel?" he inquired dryly.
"I am sorry," I rejoined stiffly, "that you regard it as a laughing matter. For one person at least, if not for two, it is a question of life and death."
He was penitent at once.
"Why are you so hard on me these last days?" he said presently. "Because we differ on a certain subject, is that a reason why you should snub me? No one will be happier than I, should you prove to be right about poor old Clive. And Coxton too, I can at least testify to the fact that he admires your courage and persistency in this matter. He told me last night that he considered you a dangerous person to thwart."
I looked at him in surprise. The thought of the strange shooting incident of the previous night occurred to me, and I wondered if my subsequent interview with Richard Coxton had influenced him in withdrawing his opposition to my plans. But I was not disposed to discuss the matter with Mortimer Westley, so I kept silent, and a few minutes later our train drew up at the platform of the Liverpool-street station.
I drove first with Mr. Westley to the offices of Cane, Bissom, and Cranbury, where I obtained the promised copy of Mrs. Ruhmkorff's will. It was not a long document, and Mortimer Westley read it over to me, explaining its terms and clauses. They seemed to me terribly distinct and uncompromising, and my courage received a shock as I listened to their recital.
As I sat in the bus ten minutes afterwards recapitulating all the events I was to set in order before the man whose advice I sought, a general sense of misgiving befell me as to the success of my mission. On sober reflection I had to admit to myself that there were many chances against it. Indeed, could I still honestly assert my belief that Clive Cunninghame was mentally sound? The incident of the previous day, the distorted face, and the look of insane cruelty upon it, as I saw it bend over my couch, haunted my thoughts incessantly. But for this one terrible remembrance I should have felt more confident of my cause.
It was considerably past 10 o'clock when I at last reached Mr. Lauder Caine's residence, near Kensington Gardens. I had visited the house on two occasions about a year before, during my attendance upon Mr. Fitzgerald, when I had been called upon to make a detailed report upon certain peculiar symptoms which had manifested themselves in the condition of my charge. For all I then knew to the contrary, Lauder Caine was merely a specialist in brain diseases, nor was it until many weeks afterwards, when I read of the extraordinary Fitzgerald case in the 'Court News,' that I discovered how completely I and others had been 'turned inside out,' as the slang phrase has it, by this remarkable man. Would he remember me, I wondered? and would he interest himself in a strange case presented to him by one in my humble capacity?
The servant who opened the door, a staid-looking man of about fifty, was the same who had received me on those two previous occasions, and he recognised me instantly.
"Miss Forsyth, I believe?" he said, with a benignant smile, in response to my anxious inquiry whether his master was within and could receive me. "Mr. Lauder Caine is in the library. If you will step this way for a few minutes, Miss," ushering me into a small reception-room on the ground floor, "I have no doubt he will see you. The matter is important, I suppose?"
"It is very urgent," I said. And, bowing gravely, he left me.
Within a minute or two he returned and conducted me to a capacious apartment fitted up in simple but tasteful style as a library and study. As I entered Mr. Lauder Caine rose from the seat he had been occupying before a reading desk, and advanced a few steps to receive me.
I see his tall, slim figure before me now, and recollect the thrill of relief that passed through me as his eyes rested with an expression of friendly recognition upon me.
"You are not in trouble, I trust?" he said, scrutinising me with a kindly glance, as he led me to a seat near the window.
I shook my head.
"I have no personal trouble," I said. "But I come for help and advice for others, Mr. Lauder Caine, and I have been so bold as to promise that you will give it them."
"If it is in my power, most assuredly," he answered. "Pray tell me your story."
"It is rather a long one," I said doubtfully.
"I have two hours to place at your disposal," he returned. "Perhaps if we work together we may get through in that time."
And settling himself in a chair opposite to me, he gave me an encouraging nod, and I plunged at once into a recital of the strange and unaccountable things I had seen and heard during my seven weeks' stay at Glen Elc.
How long it took me to relate the facts which I have set down in the foregoing pages I cannot say. But I may state, by way of a frank confession, that the story I unfolded to Mr. Lauder Caine was but the mere skeleton of that which I have now placed before the reader. I have heard it asserted that no one knows the whole truth about himself until he has passed through the hands of a skilful cross-examiner. Whether the saying be generally true or not, I can aver most positively that until I related my story to Lauder Caine, I was practically ignorant of one-half of it myself. It was he who, with his marvellous intuition, detected its gaps and its flaws in the telling, is it were, and drew from me as I proceeded, those numberless apparently minor details which, without its aid, I should never have recorded, though I had unconsciously observed them.
When I had finished he sat for a while silent and engrossed in thought. The look upon his face, indeed, was so grave that I feared my story had left him unconvinced on the one point which had gradually become a fixed idea with me—poor Clive Cunninghame's sanity.
"I see you can give me no hope for him," I exclaimed at last dejectedly. "And yet, in spite of the evidence of my own senses, I still believe him to be as sane as you or I. There is some strange spell hanging over him, and that wretched girl is at the bottom of it."
"My dear young lady," Lauder Caine said in a tone of quiet rebuke, "hasty judgments are apt to lead to false conclusions. If I read your story aright, the girl you speak of deserves rather your pity than your contempt."
"And I do pity her," I said earnestly, "I pity her for her miserable weakness, for her sordid love of the wealth which is her life's curse. But I confess that with my pity there mingles a feeling of repugnance which I cannot overcome. Were it not that I am sure Clive Cunninghame loves her, and that his love is at the root of his terrible affliction, I would not waste another thought upon her."
I spoke with some warmth, for I felt angered by his sympathising reference to Belle Staunton.
He rose, and paced the room for a few moments in silence. Presently he resumed his seat beside me.
"You have done well to come to me," he said. "I think I may prove of some service to the poor girl in spite of herself."
"To the girl!" I exclaimed.
He placed his hand lightly upon my arm.
"You have presented your case exceedingly well," he said, "and unless you have omitted some vital point, which I scarcely think you have, it may not be too late to remedy the evil that has been done."
"Then you know of a remedy at least?" I exclaimed, my mind running on nothing but my own patient. "Thank heaven!"
"There is but one remedy for all evil," he rejoined earnestly. "It is the truth."
I looked at him bewildered.
"The truth? Do you mean that you suspect something the knowledge of which will bring light to these unhappy people?"
"My dear child," he replied, "how many of us know the truth, and are either too weak or too obstinate to help ourselves by admitting it! Believe me, a single word, boldly spoken, would have spared your friends all this misery and suffering—indeed, if yet spoken, may still save them from crowning their career of deceit and fraud with crimes even worse than those they have already committed."
"But can you supply this mysterious, word?" I asked, paling at the thought of all that his utterance implied.
"I am afraid," he replied, "that to be convincing it must be supplied by one who is more nearly concerned than I."
"And if he will not supply it?"
"It is that which we shall see," he answered briefly.
There was a sternness in his tone which thrilled me. What clue had my story given him? I scanned his features intently, hoping to read in them something of what was passing in his mind. But they afforded me no enlightenment.
"Mr. Lauder Caine," I said earnestly, "whether Clive Cunninghame be mad or not, of one thing I am certain, that he has not knowingly been guilty of any crime."
"God forbid that I should judge him!" Lauder Caine answered, rising. "Deceit is the father of all crime, and of all deceits the most dangerous is self-deceit. Who of us can escape it? Let him be humbly thankful whom it leads to no deadly pitfalls. My mission is to help, not to reproach; to save, not to condemn, and may Heaven deal mercifully with me when my own day of reckoning comes."
The words were uttered with so much simple earnestness that there was no doubting their sincerity, and they impressed me deeply. Notwithstanding, I half regretted at this moment that I had meddled in an affair which seemed to be fraught with such grave issues.
"May I ask, Mr. Lauder Caine," I said, as I rose to take my leave, "what course you intend to pursue at Glen Elc? It is only right for me to warn you that you may find difficulties thrown in your way there that will prove serious obstacles to your success. In asking your aid, I have followed the dictates of my own heart, not the desire of those for whom I invoke it. If I have acted wrongly, it has at least been with good intentions."
I saw by his reassuring smile and the kindly gleam in his eyes that he had understood my meaning.
"You regret your action," he said, "because you fear its consequences to the one you are desirous of saving. Is it not so?"
"I am a woman, Mr. Lauder Caine," I replied, "and am, I suppose, actuated by a woman's motives. I acknowledge frankly that my interest centres in Clive Cunninghame, my patient. To save him merely to see him condemned to what may perhaps prove worse misery to him than he is now suffering, was not my intention. You may think me inconsequent," I added, "but, much as I dislike and, to speak the plain truth, distrust Miss Staunton, I believe the poor fellow loves her, and I have set my heart on seeing her marry him yet, in spite of Mrs. Ruhmkorff and her infamous will."
An expression, half humorous, half grave, stole over his features.
"That is a wish," he observed, "which I fear you are not destined to see fulfilled."
"Ah!" I exclaimed, struck by his positive tone, "she will surely never marry Richard Coxton?"
He shook his head.
"I think," he said, "it will not be your lot to see her marry either Richard Coxton or Clive Cunninghame. There are even graver issues involved here, my dear young lady, than you have imagined."
His words startled me. Was it possible, I reflected, that there could be a third person to whom Belle Staunton had transferred her affections? I thought involuntarily of the Fitzgerald case, and the strange facts I had seen brought to light on that occasion by this same man, facts which had come like a thunderbolt upon those most intimately connected with the supposed patient, nay, which had even astonished that unfortunate individual himself. What if here, too, the seemingly incredible transpired, and Clive—but my mind rebelled against the possibilities which Lauder Caine's words had conjured up in it, and to be candid, the positiveness of his tone struck me as presumptuous.
"Are you quite sure of all this, Mr. Lauder Caine?" I ventured to ask.
"As sure," he answered, bending forward and fixing his eyes upon me with a curiously penetrating expression, "as you are doubtful of the truth of your own conclusions. For do you not doubt your young patient's sanity, even whilst most eager to establish it? Nay, why attempt to deny it? The seeker after truth is never farther from his goal than when he makes a false compromise with his own faith. The honest doubter, believe me, has a truer and purer faith than he who merely believes because he dare not face and wrestle with the doubts that assail him. The world were better to-day, and Christianity more Christian, had men been less reluctant to recognise this simple human fact."
I have reproduced his words, but I cannot reproduce the manner of their utterance, which rendered them doubly impressive to me. Alas! what could I reply? When I recalled poor Clive Cunninghame's sudden intrusion upon me the previous afternoon, and his strange behaviour on that occasion, I had to admit that the experience had overthrown all the theories to which I had so fondly clung. Yet I had not had the heart to renounce them.
While I stood silently pondering over Lauder Caine's words and the conclusion they seemed to point to, I felt conscious that his eyes were still fixed upon me, and I started as from a dream when he spoke again in his ordinary gentle voice.
"You have asked to know what course I intend to pursue at Glen Elc," he said. "You shall learn in time."
He took what looked like a small crystal prism from the mantelshelf as he spoke, and, holding it before my eyes between his forefinger and thumb, bade me regard it carefully.
I obeyed wonderingly; and now a strange and fearsome thing happened, for I had scarcely, as it seemed to me, fixed my eyes upon the prism, when Lauder Caine touched me lightly on the arm, and, pointing over my head towards the door behind me exclaimed, in a sharp, imperative tone:
I turned my head mechanically in the direction in which he pointed, and saw, with a weird sensation of dread, that the door was being slowly and cautiously pushed open. It seemed as if some fascinating spell were upon me, and I could not have averted my gaze from that door had my life depended upon my doing so. Slowly it swung open, and a man's figure appeared upon the threshold. Merciful heaven, it was Clive Cunninghame!
I gave one great gasp of astonishment and stood rooted to the spot, while large beads of perspiration gathered on my brow. He entered in the same stealthy, noiseless manner as on that memorable occasion at Glen Elc, and the look of crafty cunning in his face as he stole nearer and nearer, was, if possible, more intensified than it had been when I last saw it. My suspense was horrible. Again, as once before, I was powerless either to cry out or move, and it was not until the cruel, insane face was within a yard of mine, and the hand uplifted threateningly above my head, that I shook off the awful spell and threw myself forward to evade the fell blow.
"Save me!" I shrieked. "He will kill me!" And covering my face with my hands, I fell headlong—I know not where, for my senses left me, and when I again opened my eyes I found myself reclining upon a couch near the open window, and Lauder Caine standing beside me, grave and expectant. His hand was upon my brow, and a sense of infinite calm pervaded my being, which was the more strange that I remembered in its every detail the horrible scene I had just passed through.
"Has he gone?" I murmured, raising myself and gazing around me in dreamy bewilderment.
But Lauder Caine seemed to ignore my question. Assisting me to my feet, he merely laid his hand upon mine and said:
"Lose no time in returning to your patient, Nurse Forsyth. He may need your presence. You will see me before evening."
"At Glen Elc?" I asked eagerly.
"At Glen Elc," he answered.
"But tell me," I said, casting a quick glance at the door through which but a few instants before I had seen that horrible apparition enter, "what has happened? Is he not here? Surely it cannot have been a freak of my fancy, some terrible nightmare haunting me by daylight. I saw it again, that fearful face—the whole appalling scene of yesterday." And I shuddered as I remembered its exact reproduction in these strange surroundings.
"Dismiss it from your mind," Lauder Caine said. "It has come, it has gone, like the creation of some distorted brain that intrudes for an instant upon our senses and vanishes as it came, a phantom unreality."
I do not know whether it was the suasive power of his voice that compelled me, or whether it was my own inability to formulate my thoughts, but I went without further question. It seemed for the moment as if all my powers of self-assertion—and I have always prided myself upon possessing such powers—had become entirely latent. I believe Lauder Caine gave me some parting words of encouragement, but, if so, I do not recall their tenor. I have only an indistinct recollection of the staid manservant ushering me through the hall to the street door and bowing me out in his pleasant, condescending manner, of my hailing a hansom when I reached the street and driving to the station, which I reached just in time to catch the 2 o'clock express that stopped at Scadbury Junction.
The train was crowded with excursionists, and it was with difficulty that I found a seat. But I cared little for the discomfort. My mind was imbued with one sole idea—the solution of the problem that had grown to be an abiding terror to me.
Would Lauder Caine grapple with it successfully? And at what cost? Again I thought of the famous Fitzgerald case, and this time it was with a feeling of strange misgiving; for I remembered that the chief actor in that drama, the pampered darling of a whole family, the object of his friends' tender pity, and, for a twelve-month at least, a centre of intense scientific interest to a host of famous physicians, had ended his career by being sentenced to lifelong imprisonment for a crime of a character so horrible that men only mention it with bated breath. And the evidence that led to his conviction had been furnished by Lauder Caine the Confessor.
Extraordinary experiences of a thrilling nature, such as I had recently undergone, have a tendency to inflame the imagination and cause it to conjure up all sorts of extravagant possibilities which the mind under normal circumstances would be utterly incapable of conceiving. Thus by the time I once more reached Glen Elc I had worked myself up into a state of morbid apprehension regarding what might have occurred there during my absence that bordered on actual terror, and I verily believe that it would not have surprised me to find the place itself a heap of smouldering ruins and to learn that its inmates were one and all buried beneath them.
But a more peaceful picture than the stately old mansion, when it came into my view at last, lying half-concealed between the magnificent trees that encircled it, as I drove up from the Scadbury station, it would scarcely be possible to imagine, and I almost laughed at myself for having allowed it to figure in so terrible a fantasy.
The first person I met upon my entry into the house was Mr. Richard Coxton. He came out of the library just as I passed through the hall on my way to Mr. Cunninghame's room. He was alone, but a rustle of garments on the stairway leading to the first floor caused me to suspect that a moment ago Belle Staunton had been with him, probably in the library, that they had seen me return, and that she had retired to her room, leaving him to interrogate me on the success of my mission.
"How is Mr. Cunninghame?" I asked, responding to his polite greeting, and momentarily forgetting my suspicions in my anxiety to learn something of the condition of my patient.
"There is no change of any importance, I think," he answered gravely. "I have been with him the greater part of the day, but he has scarcely opened his lips save to ask occasionally whether you had returned. You appear to have gained a strong influence over the poor fellow, Miss Forsyth."
I paid no heed to the remark, and would have passed on in silence. But he detained me.
"I trust your journey has been successful?" he said.
There was not a trace of mockery in his tone. Apparently he spoke with perfect sincerity, and with an air of earnest solicitude that could hardly have been greater had it been he himself who had suggested the course I was pursuing.
"Mr. Lauder Caine will be here tonight," I answered briefly.
"Indeed!" he said; "that is prompt. And does he hold out any hope that he will effect the cure you are so confident of?"
"He could scarcely be expected to pronounce an opinion before seeing the patient himself," I replied warily. "But you can question him yourself when he arrives."
"May I detain you for one more moment?" he said, seeing that I was about to pass on. "I wish, if it be possible, Miss Forsyth, to correct an impression which I understand you to entertain—that I have some sinister motive for acting as I have done in the matter of Clive Cunninghame."
"I am not aware," I said, returning his searching gaze unflinchingly, "that I have credited you with such a motive—until now."
"Which means," he remarked quietly, "that you are at this moment inclined to do so, on the principle, I suppose, of the French proverb, Qui s'excuse s'accuse? It was a risk I had to run. Still, I intend that we shall be friends, and when I am determined upon a thing, I generally succeed. Do you believe me, Miss Forsyth?"
"I am too poor a judge of your abilities to offer an opinion," I answered, with a curious feeling of contempt which I had never experienced from him before. "Speaking for myself, I am accustomed to be consulted before I yield my friendship to any man, be his power of compulsion what it may."
He was still regarding me with singular intentness; but, though he never removed his eyes from mine, a look of perplexity now crept into them, which impressed me strangely. Suddenly, without forewarning, he advanced quite close to me and laid his hand upon mine with a gesture that was almost imperious.
"I am sure you will respect my desires," he began in a steady, peculiarly passionless voice, "even if I should ask you——"
But he got no further. A feeling of the most intense repugnance had seized me at his touch, and now flung off his hand with an impulse of defiant anger which, upon after reflection, I found it difficult to account for.
"How dare you!" I exclaimed. "How dare you touch me!"
The look of perplexity which I had noted in his eyes a moment ago crept into them again, only this time it was more marked than before, and a deep flush of embarrassment overspread his countenance. But he made no reply. For an instant I stood thus facing him in silence, then I turned on my heel, and, leaving him abruptly, crossed the hall to my room opposite the library.
I had scarcely closed the door behind me when the passionate feeling of resentment to which I had just given vent suddenly left me, and I threw myself on my couch with an unpleasant sense of having acted with what was, to say the least, a sad lack of rhyme and reason. For, indeed, now that I recalled what had passed, there had been nothing disrespectful in Richard Coxton's bearing towards me. His words, if persuasive, were polite, and his whole tone and manner of that distinguished, high-bred kind, which was peculiarly characteristic of him, and which I had hitherto so often admired. Whence, then, this sudden aversion—for I could call it nothing else? I had felt indignant with him for what I considered his heartless condemnation of the friend he pretended to pity, and my indignation had perhaps been tinged with a certain suspicion that he was no unbiased judge of that friend's best interests. But I had certainly had nothing to complain of in his behaviour towards me personally. It had always been courteous and considerate, even despite certain clashes of opinion, which may have been more trying to him than I was willing to acknowledge.
It was with some difficulty that I at last shook off these self-accusatory reflections, and proceeded to visit my patient. I found him pacing his room with a quick, nervous tread, his mind evidently full of some thought that was struggling to find expression.
"So you are back at last," he exclaimed, greeting me as I entered with something of his old rollicking manner. "I was beginning to think you had thrown me over for good and all." He flung himself into a chair as he spoke, and, inviting me to a seat near him, went on in a more serious tone: "I believe you are a sensible little body, nurse, and mean it well with me. Will you give me a simple answer to a simple question?"
I assured him that I would answer any question he liked to put to me to the best of my ability.
He nodded his head appreciatively, paused a moment, and then burst out abruptly: "What would you do if you were in my position?"
This was a poser, indeed, and for a moment or two I felt at a loss what to say. At last an inspiration, the source of which the reader may not find it difficult to divine, prompted my reply, which equalled in brevity the words of my questioner.
"I would tell the truth, Mr. Clive," I said.
He gave me a blank look.
"Tell the truth? What truth?" he asked.
"I do not know," I answered. "I suppose all of us have some truth to tell ourselves, the withholding of which, if we looked closely, we should find to be the origin of most of our troubles."
I felt like a scholar rehearsing a lesson, and I was a little uncertain as to where it would land me.
"Is that all you meant by the remark?" Mr. Cunninghame asked, eyeing me quizzically.
"That is as you choose to regard it," I replied. "You asked me for a simple answer to a simple question, and I have given it. If it has not afforded you the light you expected, the fault is not mine."
"Another enigma?" he exclaimed. "You are not usually so vague. It you have anything to say, say it plainly."
He spoke with unusual pettishness, and I felt that I had gone too far to retreat.
"Mr. Cunninghame," I said, "my meaning can surely not be so difficult to fathom. Or do you think it possible for me to have lived in this house for two whole months without discovering that some of its inmates are treading crooked paths? Forgive my frankness. I feel instinctively that there is falsehood in the very air I am breathing here, and you know it, and have not the courage to face and expose it."
This time my words went straight home. Clive sprang up in great agitation.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "I don't deny that you are right in a sense. There is something wrong—damnably wrong—somewhere, and I can't right it. I can't, I tell you," he repeated desperately. "I have pledged my word, and there it ends." He paced the room once or twice with rapid strides, then flung himself once more into his chair, and continued more calmly: "As for your other conclusions, nurse, there you are entirely off. I tell you this thing has no more connection with this accursed trouble of mine than it has with the Sultan of Morocco."
"Perhaps the connection is not apparent to you," I remarked, "and yet it may be there."
"Pshaw!" he said, "what's the use of discussing it? You don't understand. A man may make an infernal fool of himself, and all that sort of thing, but there's no reason why he should go crazy about it. Great powers? if I thought——" He stopped short, as if the idea were too startling for utterance. "There, don't let's talk about it any more," he broke off, rising again from his chair and looking down upon me with a half-dubious smile. "You're a deuced observant little soul, nurse, and no mistake. Now, what about this wonderful doctor of yours—is he coming?"
"I trust you will still see him to-night," I replied. "He has manifested much interest in your case, and if you will but place yourself unreservedly in his hands, I have no doubt he will help you."
"I am much indebted to the gentleman, I am sure," he said, with a touch of irony, "though what there is to help about me I don't know. I believe I am as healthy a subject as ever scorned physic. But there is some devil's handiwork in this business, nurse, or my mythology is sadly at fault."
"Perhaps Mr. Lauder Caine may be inclined to agree with you," I said. "Let me advise you to state your case frankly to him, concealing nothing, and to follow such instructions as he may give you to the letter. He is no ordinary physician, Mr. Clive."
"But if I have no case to state——Confound it!" he exclaimed irritably. "Why, what can I tell him? That my own belongings think I am mad, and that I am inclined to differ. There's my whole case in a nutshell. If he can make anything out of it, he's welcome. Nurse," he went on, falling suddenly into a subdued tone, which was quite new in him, "it's no good. I may as well throw up the sponge. My courage is gone. I'm even afraid to go to sleep."
"Afraid to sleep?" I said astonished.
"Yes," he answered. "I haven't closed my eyes for two nights, and I don't intend to until I know that I can do so with safety."
"But this is sheer madness, Mr. Clive," I exclaimed, much disturbed. "Why, sleep is the first essential of all health. Without it the strongest of us must succumb."
"Would you care to go to sleep," he rejoined dryly, "if you knew that, while sleeping, you were likely to stick a knife into your best friend, or to strangle some innocent fellow-being? Heaven knows, I am no saint. But I do draw the line at certain items of the decalogue."
He turned away impatiently, and strode to the window, where he stood drumming with his fingers upon the glass panes, and gazing out listlessly into the dusk.
What could I say? I knew there was truth in his words, and I dared not gainsay it. I had heard of people being driven mad by the suspicion of insanity that rested upon them. Was such a fate to be Clive Cunninghame's? I could not help scanning his features anxiously. He had altered perceptibly during these last days. His face had become drawn and thin, his buoyant spirits had left him, and the dark rims round his eyes told only too plainly of the mental struggles passing within him. My heart misgave me as I thought of the probable outcome of it all.
Suddenly Mr. Cunninghame turned about, and faced me once more.
"This Mr. Lauder Caine is a so-called quack, I understand?" he said abruptly.
The tone of the question was a trifle disconcerting, and I paused a moment before I replied.
"Did Mr. Coxton tell you this?" I asked.
"Coxton? no," he answered. "You appear to be strangely distrustful of Dick. My informant in this instance was Belle. Women, you see, have rather decided opinions of their own on these subjects, and Belle fancies——"
"What does she fear?" I asked.
"I didn't say that she feared anything," he said testily, while a curious flush tinged his cheeks; the word seemed to have irritated him. "you have a mighty sharp way of taking a fellow up. I mean that she appears to have heard something about him that is not to her liking, and I thought it—well——"
"What has she heard?" I interrupted him.
"I don't know," he answered, "and what's more, I don't very much care. I'm not particular myself as to whether a doctor has a string of letters attached to his name or not, so long as he attends to his business and doesn't tackle you about things that don't concern him, as that old wiseacre Crackenthorpe does. By the way," he went on, falling unconsciously into his old boyish habit or starting off on a new topic before he had finished with the old, "Coxton tells me he has had the deuce of a time persuading the old gentleman to consult with your friend. It appears there's some nice point of professional etiquette involved which I don't pretend to understand."
This time it was my turn to be taken aback.
"Do you mean to tell me," I said, "that Mr. Coxton has personally interested himself in this matter?"
"He has done what he thought right, I suppose," Mr. Cunninghame replied, "and I understand old Crackenthorpe has consented to meet Mr. What's-his-name provided Mr. What's-his-name expresses a desire to enjoy the benefit of his professional countenance. That's the way the old fellows puts it, I believe. Now this is all nonsense," he continued vehemently. "I have been bothered with enough doctors these last twenty-four hours to suffice me for the rest of my mortal days, and if old Crackenthorpe puts his head in here again, I warn all those concerned that there will be trouble. But for that meddlesome old fool, I believe I should not be in this infernal fix, and, by Jove! if ever the strangling fit seizes me again I'll see to it, if I can, that he is my victim."
At any other time I should have smiled at the extravagant humour of his words, for I well knew that he would not willingly have hurt a hair of the venerable old doctor's head. But I was too much concerned about the object of Richard Coxton in dragging Dr. Crackenthorpe into consultation with Lauder Caine and the possible effect of such a policy to dwell upon anything else. Evidently Clive Cunninghame, for some reason of his own, desired that Lauder Caine should not see him in the presence of the family doctor, nor indeed of any other person connected with the household of Glen Elc, for he continued to pursue the subject with a persistency that was unusual in him, and led me to conclude that some one else had put this notion into his head. Was it Belle Staunton? And if so, what was her object in influencing Clive against the man who was coming to befriend him? For I could not doubt, from Clive's own words, that she had endeavoured to poison his mind against Lauder Caine.
It was all a complete enigma to me, and the longer I struggled to solve it the more puzzling it grew. Had I really wronged Richard Coxton in my thoughts, and was it, after all, Belle Staunton in whom I had been deceived? Had she not quite recently professed to me the most intense anxiety for Clive Cunninghame's safety, and yet was she not here sacrificing his best interests for some hidden purpose of her own! I recalled to my mind Lauder Caine's unaccountable sympathy for this girl, and wondered more than ever upon what it could be based. There had surely been nothing in my story to justify it. He had told me that she would marry neither Richard Coxton nor Clive Cunninghame. Yet she was betrothed to the one, and the other shared some guilty secret of hers, the nature of which I could not guess. Was it this secret that Lauder Caine had divined? And if so, what effect could its disclosure have upon Clive Cunninghame's mental condition?
These reflections passed in rapid succession through my brain, while I sat listening to Clive's excited diatribes against meddlesome physicians and other busybodies. It was useless to argue with him in his present frame of mind, so I merely lent a sympathetic ear to his grumblings, and finally left him with the assurance that I would do all in my power to see that his wishes were respected.
I little suspected that I should not have occasion to carry out my promise. As the evening advanced without bringing any sign of Lauder Caine, I began to grow uneasy and to fear that I had not sufficiently impressed him with the urgency of the case. The thought of passing another night in this terrible state of uncertainty, not knowing what the next hour might bring forth, alarmed me beyond measure. I had requested permission to have my dinner brought to my own room, upon the plea that it was necessary for me to remain within call of my patient, in case he should need me. But he evinced no desire for my company, and when I had finished my solitary meal I was condemned to wait patiently, while the hours dragged on, my attention divided between the ormolu clock on the mantelshelf of my room and the occasional sounds that reached me from outside.
I noted with a peculiar sense of satisfaction that Belle Staunton, contrary to her usual practice—for she had of late invariably retired to her own room immediately after dinner—formed one of the family party in the library that evening. But for my reluctance to encounter her cold, suspicious gaze, I think I should have been inclined to avail myself of my privilege to join the little circle, if merely to escape the tedium of waiting. But, truth to say, with my nerves all in a tension as they were, I did not feel equal to the task of facing both Belle Staunton and Richard Coxton, and I resigned myself to my solitude.
It was long past the hour at which I myself had arrived at Glen Elc on that memorable evening in June, when I at last heard the welcome sound of a carriage driving rapidly up the gravel sweep from the lodge gates, and my heart leaped with sudden hope. A minute afterwards the house-bell pealed, and I stepped cautiously into the passage to listen. Presently the hall-door was opened, and I heard a well-known man's voice. But to my intense chagrin I recognised that it was not the voice of Lauder Caine. The visitor, after all, proved to be only Dr. Crackenthorpe, and without waiting to ascertain the reason of his unexpected appearance at this hour—doubly unexpected under the circumstances—I retired once more and sat down with a feeling of the keenest disappointment.
I suppose I must have remained in this disconsolate attitude for about twenty minutes, when there came a knock at my door, and Kingham, the butler, appeared with a message from Mrs. Cunninghame summoning me to the library. There was, of course, nothing for me to do but to comply, and I did so with my mind full of anxiety as to what new move might be in contemplation; for I felt certain that some special significance attached to this late visit of the worthy doctor's.
When I entered the room the first person upon whom my eyes fell was Dr. Crackenthorpe himself. He was standing with his back to the large library table, holding forth upon some subject in a low voice, but with great impressiveness, to Mr. Coxton and Belle Staunton, while Mrs. Cunninghame sat apart from them in the large sofa-chair which she usually occupied during the evening. A tall, familiar-looking figure stood at her side, engaged in earnest conversation with her, but in the subdued light that fell from the shaded table-lamp into that part of the room I failed at first to recognise who it was. As I closed the door, however, the person turned his head slightly, affording me a full view of his features, and then the truth flashed upon me with a suddenness that caused me to catch my breath in a vain effort to suppress an exclamation of joyful surprise.
The stranger, who now came towards me with a friendly smile of greeting, was no other than Lauder Caine himself.
So he had come, after all, and in company with the redoubtable little doctor himself, upsetting all my well-laid plans, forestalling Richard Coxton's intentions, and playing, as I feared, sad havoc with the desires of poor Clive, as expressed to me so forcibly that evening.
A glance at Dr. Crackenthorpe's face sufficed to convince me that the spirit of antagonism so recently manifested by him against the 'quack physician' had considerably subsided, if it had not vanished altogether. Nor was this due to the fact that Lauder Caine, executing a shrewd stroke of policy, had seen fit to pay his respects to the family doctor before proceeding to Glen Elc, but rather, as I afterwards learned, to the more potent circumstance that Dr. Crackenthorpe had satisfied himself that the Confessor, though lacking a regular physician's practice, was none the less a physician, qualified in the strictest sense of that much-abused term—in other words, that he held a diploma from one of the most rigidly exclusive colleges in the United Kingdom.
"I have a little bone to pick with this young lady," the doctor said, shaking his forefinger playfully at me, as I turned to bid Lauder Caine good-evening. "Would you believe it, sir," he went on, addressing that gentleman himself, "that young friend here led me to infer that I was expected to meet in consultation with a mere quack, instead of an esteemed brother practitioner?"
"Was this not rather a hasty conclusion of your own, Doctor Crackenthorpe?" I said, with a slight touch of malice. "I do not pretend to have the 'British Medical Register' at my fingers' ends. I knew that Sir Winton Forbes had not disdained to cooperate with Mr. Lauder Caine, and I never imagined that Doctor Crackenthorpe would feel any scruples in imitating so illustrious an example."
"Of course, of course," said the doctor, with a shade of embarrassment, "very appositely observed, very appositely indeed. And now," he went on, assuming his usual pompous air, "how is our patient this evening, nurse?"
"Very irritable, doctor," I said.
"Irritable, eh? And does he eat and sleep?"
"He takes very little nourishment, and still less sleep," I answered. "Indeed, I have reason to fear that he deliberately abstains from sleep."
"Indeed!" Dr. Crackenthorpe said, inclining his head gravely. "Very convincing symptoms, you see," he added, turning to Lauder Caine.
The Confessor nodded a grave assent.
I looked from one to the other in some surprise. Was all this indicative of the course the consultation was to take? If so, it did not look very promising.
"Doctor Crackenthorpe," I took heart to say, "if I may venture to do so without appearing impertinent, I would suggest that anything in the nature of an examination of Mr. Cunninghame should be avoided to-night. His nerves are much wrought up, and I fear that the visit of two physicians under these circumstances might produce results which would not be favourable to a just appreciation of his condition. Perhaps if Mr. Lauder Caine——"
Doctor Crackenthorpe interrupted me with a deprecatory gesture.
"Your suggestion, my dear young lady," he said blandly, "while eminently proper, is superfluous. We have no intention of disturbing your patient. I think I may venture to say that Mr. Lauder Caine is thoroughly in accord with my and Sir Winton's view of the case, and is prepared to deliver his opinion, without the formality of putting a series of questions to our unhappy young friend."
Again Mr. Lauder Caine silently signified his acquiescence, as before, and I regarded him with a look of blank dismay. So it was apparently all settled between them, and poor Clive Cunninghame's fate had been decided without even the pretence of arriving at an independent diagnosis of his care. My feelings may be better imagined than described, and I turned away to check the indignant tears that welled up in my eyes. I think Mr. Lauder Caine noticed my distress, for he touched me lightly on the arm, and said in a low voice, meant to reach my ears only:
"Take courage. Remember, you have your patient, I have mine. Our tasks are divided."
Before I had time to ponder the meaning of his words, he passed on, and, approaching Mrs. Cunninghame once more, drew up a chair, and seated himself beside her.
"Madam," he said, in a tone distinct enough to be heard by every one present, "before expressing any final opinion on your son's case, I desire, with the consent of Dr. Crackenthorpe, to perform a trifling experiment upon the patient which, if successful, may determine, better than the closest study of his symptoms, the nature of the treatment that is likely to benefit him. Of the peculiar affection of the brain from which Mr. Cunninghame is suffering there can be no shadow of doubt. I agree in this respect unreservedly with the conclusions arrived at by Dr. Crackenthorpe and confirmed by so eminent an authority as Sir Winton Forbes, with whom I have had the privilege of conferring on the case."
I gave a start of surprise at these words, and Mrs. Cunninghame sank back in her chair with a sigh of disappointment.
"In other words," she said, "you concur in the opinion that my poor boy's mind is unbalanced?"
"Your son is suffering from an attack of what is known to medical science as acute somnambulism," Lauder Caine replied. "Whether this, however, is the result of a permanent cerebral disturbance, or merely due to some removable cause, only the future can tell us. Cases of this kind are comparatively rare, but one or two have recently, to my knowledge, been treated with marked success by a very simple method, which, while not yet generally recognised in medical practice, is none the less of striking effect when applied with due judgment and discretion." He paused for an instant, and I glanced in silent wonderment from him to Dr. Crackenthorpe, who stood a few feet off, following every word with a self-satisfied air that puzzled me completely. Whence this strange acquiescence in a theory which, in spite of Lauder Caine's confident assertion, I knew to have been, but a few hours ago, as foreign to the worthy doctor's convictions as the belief in Clive Cunninghame's sanity? For had I not myself suggested the possibility that Mr. Cunninghame was merely a sleep-walker, and been ridiculed for my pains? "It is for you, madam," Lauder Caine now concluded, "to determine whether Mr. Cunninghame shall undergo such a course of treatment or not."
Poor Mrs. Cunninghame glanced around her in a helpless sort of way.
"It is attended with no danger, I trust?" she said.
"In my judgment," Lauder Caine answered, "with none whatever."
"And you advise it?"
"I am of opinion," Lander Caine said with emphasis, "that it will be the means of restoring your son to his accustomed health."
"Ah! if you could accomplish that," Mrs. Cunninghame exclaimed, half-rising from her seat and clasping her hands together, "there is no sacrifice that I would not gladly bring."
"Perhaps Mr. Lauder Caine," Richard Coxton now interposed politely, "will explain the nature of the treatment he is referring to."
"Certainly," came the prompt response. "I refer to what is known as treatment by hypnotic suggestion."
Unfortunately, I missed the effect of these somewhat surprising words upon Mr. Coxton, for my attention was suddenly diverted by a startled movement which they caused in another part of the room, and, turning my head quickly, I saw that Belle Staunton had risen from her place at the library table, and stood gazing at the speaker with that expression of vague terror which I had seen in her eyes on one or two former occasions. All trace of colour had left her cheeks, and her hands clutched nervously at the table, as if she felt the need of some support. When I looked again at Mr. Coxton, there was a faint smile of incredulity playing about his lips, but he was otherwise apparently little moved by the Confessor's strange proposition.
"Does Dr. Crackenthorpe concur in this advice?" he asked.
"My dear sir," the little doctor replied, with a slight shrug of the shoulders, "I cannot profess to have followed the progress of this so-called science in anything but the most perfunctory manner. That the power exists to produce a semi-cataleptic state in certain individuals is, I think, beyond question, and according to good medical authority it has on occasions been applied with some success in the alleviation of acute pain, generally of a nervous origin. Its application in a case of this kind, however, is new to me."
"And likely, I should think," Mr. Coxton remarked, "to be fraught with considerable risk to the patient. In Clive's present super-excited mental condition the failure of such an experiment might prove positively dangerous."
"The failure, yes," replied Lauder Caine. "But we do not contemplate a failure, Mr. Coxton."
"You will pardon me if I reserve my own judgment on that point," Mr. Coxton observed coolly. "I have spent some time in India, Mr. Lauder Caine, and have had occasion there to witness something of these practices. Their effect, I may tell you, is by no means always salutary."
There was just the slightest pause before Lauder Caine replied in even, unruffled tones:
"If it were otherwise, Mr. Richard Coxton, I should not be here now. I, too, have lived in India and can appreciate the full force of your remark."
The eyes of the two men met squarely and was it my imagination, or did I see a gleam of sudden intelligence flash in Richard Coxton's eyes, and die away as quickly as it had come? I had an instinctive feeling that things were shaping towards some definite end, and I glanced involuntarily across at Belle Staunton, thinking to find some enlightenment in the expression of her face. But she had regained her ordinary composure, and though her cheeks were still paler than usual, her attitude was merely that of an interested listener, and showed no trace of the violent agitation that had characterised it a moment before.
Mrs. Cunninghame had meanwhile left her chair, and was conversing in low tones with Dr. Crackenthorpe. It was evident to me from her manner that she was only too willing to grasp at anything that held out a promise, however vague, of her son's ultimate restoration to health. But unhappily the poor lady suffered from a chronic distrust of her own judgment, and Mr. Coxton's opposition had manifestly influenced her.
"What advice do you give us, doctor?" she asked. "Perhaps it would be well to consult Sir Winton Forbes before taking any decisive step. After all, so great an authority——"
"My dear madam," the doctor broke in, "but for Sir Winton's opinion, I should certainly hesitate to countenance an experiment of the possible effects of which I must freely admit my complete ignorance, in face of the expressed concurrence of so eminent an authority, however, I will not venture to question the wisdom of the course proposed by Mr. Lauder Caine. It must be understood, of course, that I accept no responsibility for the consequences."
"Are we to understand, then," Mr. Coxton asked in a tone of undisguised surprise, "that Sir Winton Forbes has approved of this extraordinary proceeding?"
"With Mr. Lauder Caine's permission," the doctor replied, "I will let Sir Winton speak for himself."
He drew a letter from his pocket, and adjusting his spectacles read aloud, as follows:
"'Dr. Joseph Crackenthorpe, Scadbury.
"' Cunninghame Case.—Lauder Caine has conferred with me on this case. He advises the hypnotic test. In my opinion it can do no harm, and may result beneficially. WINTON FORBES.'"
"'N.B.—Would advise to give Lauder Caine full charge of the patient. His magnetic power is phenomenal.—W. F.'"
There was a moment's silence, during which Mrs. Cunninghame glanced appealingly from one to the other of those present, as if seeking counsel and guidance. It was Richard Coxton who spoke first.
"With all due deference to Sir Winton's opinion, the authority of which I am the last to call in question," he said quietly, "I still maintain that such an experiment would be hazardous in the extreme. Knowing Clive as I do, I am convinced that he would violently resist all attempts to subject him to influences of the true nature of which so little is known, and such resistance in his present state might have disastrous consequences."
"Your objection, sir," Lauder Caine said, "would indeed be insuperable, were it not for the fact that it assumes the necessity of taking the patient into the operator's confidence."
"In other words," Mr. Coxton said, "you claim the power to exert this influence without the object's knowledge?"
"Nay, more," Lauder Caine replied. "The influence can be exerted, if necessary, through a third person without the knowledge of the patient himself, and without detriment to the medium concerned."
A curious light flashed in Richard Coxton's eye.
"Through myself, for instance?" he inquired quickly.
"Through yourself, for instance," Lauder Caine answered, with great deliberation, "providing you are willing to place yourself in my hands."
"The experience would be intensely interesting to me," Mr. Coxton said with a meaning smile. "If your proposition is serious, I am willing to submit to the ordeal."
"Now?" said Lauder Caine.
"Now," Mr. Coxton replied. "Why lose any more precious time?"
"But, my dear sir," Dr. Crackenthorpe interposed in some alarm, "are you quite alive to the seriousness of this step?"
"As much alive to it, my dear doctor," came the cheerful reply, "as I trust Mr. Lauder Caine is to the seriousness of the task he is undertaking. I have submitted to experiments of this kind before, but, unfortunately, they invariably proved a failure."
"And you felt no ill effects?" the doctor inquired.
"I did not," Richard Coxton replied, with a peculiar emphasis on the pronoun. "I am at your service, Mr. Lauder Caine."
It would require a more competent pen than mine to give anything approaching an adequate description of the extraordinary scene that now followed. The rapidity with which the events succeeded one another is, of all the strange features connected with it, the one that has remained most deeply engraven on my memory. True, I can conjure up, as I write, with all the vividness of the reality, each surrounding detail of the scene as it passed before my eyes, from the pale countenance and the startled look in the eyes of Mrs. Cunninghame to the rigid expression of unspeakable horror that settled on Belle Staunton's face. But while I can picture them to myself in all their simultaneity, I cannot so set them down on paper, and thus I pass them over.
I see the two men confronting each other, erect and stern, the eyes of each riveted upon the other's resolute and firm, so different in aspect, and yet in purpose so strikingly alike, for all the world a picture of two wrestlers on the eve of a gigantic struggle. And a struggle it proved to be, a struggle none the less, fierce and awe-inspiring that it lasted but a few moments, a struggle, not between muscle and muscle, but between eye and eye, between mind and mind. I cannot recall it to-day without experiencing the same feeling of shuddering terror that mastered me at the moment when I witnessed it.
Yet from where I stood I looked into one pair of eyes only. Those eyes were the eyes of Richard Coxton, and it is the fierce, triumphant resolve in them that I still see occasionally at night in my dreams, when they seem to penetrate into my very vitals as they seemed to penetrate the very vitals of him they were then bent upon. In those dreams, too, I see, as I saw then, the slight, at first almost imperceptible quiver of the lip that was set with such firm, overpowering determination, see, as I saw then, the burning light in those masterful eyes suddenly stagger, as it were, and then slowly wane and wane, until they grew dull and toneless, and the living spirit died out of them entirely. I see, as I saw then, the change gradually creep into the stern face, perplexity chasing away the assurance, fear the determination, and despair the triumph, that a moment before was stamped upon its features. And when, in those same dreams, I gaze finally with a sigh of intense relief upon the rigid, expressionless face of Richard Coxton, helpless now, spellbound, I see in my mind's eye the tall, commanding figure of Lauder Caine the Confessor rise up before me, and feel his restful, quiet glance upon me, as I felt it that day in the house in Kensington Gardens, when he bade me look into the glass prism.
Whence this fearful victory, and by what means it had been brought about, of this I can pretend to know no more to-day than I knew at the time it occurred. Lauder Caine's face was concealed from me, and I could not see its expression. Only its terrible effect, as I witnessed it in the stupendous change that crept into Richard Coxton's face, petrifying each feature, as it were, by a stroke of magic, gave me an instinctive conception of the tremendous power that had achieved it. And all the while not a word had been spoken, not a movement had marked the progress of the now ended struggle.
It was Dr. Crackenthorpe who first broke the silence. Stepping suddenly forward with a startled exclamation, he peered excitedly into Richard Coxton's face.
"Great heavens!" he whispered, "the man's in a trance. What have you done?"
Lauder Caine turned his head, and looked at the speaker gravely.
"I have carried out my part of the compact," he said simply. "The rest will follow. Nay, madam," he went on, addressing Mrs. Cunninghame, who had now risen and was approaching in great agitation, "I beg you to remain calm. There is no cause for alarm. I have promised, if possible, to restore your son to his wonted state of health, and Mr. Richard Coxton has voluntarily consented to act as my medium. There is no reason why he should not now perform his part."
Without waiting to see the effect of his words, he extended his hand, and, touching Richard Coxton lightly upon the shoulder, whispered some words in his ear. Instantly a look of intelligence came into the face, the features relaxed slightly, and the next moment, with quick, almost automatic strides, Richard Coxton had passed out of the room, leaving the door wide open behind him.
The little doctor would have sprung after him, declaring that he might do himself some injury, but Lauder Caine laid a restraining hand upon him and waved him gently back into a seat. As for myself, I was beset for an instant with the wild fear that Mr. Coxton was going straight to Clive Cunninghame's room, and I trembled to think what effect his sudden appearance there might produce upon my charge.
But my expectation was not fulfilled. Through the open door of the library I could see the swiftly moving figure traverse the hall and mount the staircase to the upper floor, where it became lost to view. In the total silence that reigned, we could hear the rapid footfall above us going along the passage, then die way in the distance, and presently return again with the same swift, decided movement. Down the staircase Richard Coxton came once more, and as the light from the great lamp globe in the hall fell upon him, I saw that he held in his right hand some small white object like a folded strip of paper. On he came, with firm, unerring tread through the carpeted hall towards the open door of the library, and stood for the space of an instant hesitatingly upon the threshold. But for the vacant look in the eyes, one might have said that he was taking a survey of those present, for he turned his head slowly from one to the other, as if he were in search of some one. Then he advanced with the same quick, determined step straight towards Belle Staunton, and extending his right hand, presented the strip of paper to her.
I saw her shrink back at his approach, then regain herself with an effort, and mechanically take the paper from his hand. A look of mild wonder came into her eyes as she unfolded and glanced at it, and then——
Ah! I shall never forget the extraordinary change that swept over her face at that moment. All the blood in her body seemed to rush into it with one great gush, and then desert it again, leaving it pale with the pallor of the whitest of marble. A low cry, something between a sigh and a moan, came from her lips, the paper fluttered from her hands to the floor, and tottering forward like one struck from behind by some treacherous blow, she fell limp and lifeless at Richard Coxton's feet.
Lauder Caine was beside her in an instant, and raising her gently, carried her to the sofa-chair which Mrs. Cunninghame had occupied a few moments before, where he left her to the care of Dr. Crackenthorpe. I say it with a sense of shame; for, as for myself, nurse though I was, and accustomed to render prompt aid in cases of this kind, I was so completely unnerved by the sudden occurrence that I merely stood gazing with a kind of fascination at the mysterious strip of paper that appeared to have been the cause of it.
What could it contain to have produced so overpowering an effect upon Belle Staunton? It had fallen at the feet of Mrs. Cunninghame, and I saw her stoop and pick it up. Scarcely had she glanced at it, when she too exhibited signs of violent emotion, and I feared for an instant that she was about to swoon away as poor Belle had done. But she recovered herself With wonderful self-control.
"Clive—my God, what a fatality!" she murmured faintly.
Whether the exclamation reached the ears of Richard Coxton or not, it is certain that a perceptible tremor passed through his frame, and taking a step in the direction of Mrs. Cunninghame, he stretched his arm out towards her, as if he were about to snatch the paper from her. But he stopped half-way abruptly, and passed his hand across his brow in the dazed manner of a man returning to consciousness after a long spell of slumber.
At this moment I felt a light touch on my arm, and turning round, I looked into the face of Lauder Caine. It was grave, but there was that kindly light in his eyes with which I had always been accustomed to see them rest upon me.
"Come," he said simply, in a low voice. "Our task here is done. The rest is not for us."
I followed him obediently, though with a sense of wonder which I could not restrain. As we passed out I caught a last glimpse of Belle Staunton's pale face as it lay nestling among the cushions of the big sofa-chair. Her eyes were now wide open, and in them I observed a look contrasting so strangely with their expression a few moments before that I hesitated for an instant in sheer bewilderment before closing the door upon the scene. If ever eyes expressed the intense relief of a soul freed from some long, agonising trouble, hers did at that moment.
When I stood at last alone beside Lauder Caine in the hall, Mrs Cunninghame's ominous words rushed back to my memory, and I turned to my companion with a gesture of appeal.
"And Clive?" I said, "you will visit him now?"
To my dismay, he shook his head and held out his hand, as if to bid me goodnight.
"It is close upon midnight," he said, "and your patient should be sleeping. Since Mrs. Cunninghame has been good enough to offer me shelter for the night, I will avail myself of her kindness and retire to rest. And you too," he added in a kindly tone, which was no doubt prompted by my crestfallen look, "you should seek repose. Rest assured that you can do so with perfect security. I will visit your young charge in the morning, if you desire it."
If I desired it! This, then, was the extent of his interest in poor Clive Cunninghame. He had apparently succeeded in breaking some distressing news regarding Clive to Belle Staunton and Mrs. Cunninghame, and there his mission was ended. My heart was too full for speech, and turning away with a sigh, I left him to find his way to his quarters by the aid of the servants, and went straight to my room.
When the body is tired out and the mind is exhausted, as was then the case with me, things that would seem small and insignificant under other circumstances assume towering dimensions and oppress one with a sense of weight that is overwhelming. I gave little thought to the astounding events I had witnessed that evening, but the picture of Clive Cunninghame pacing his room until morning, haggard and sleepless, was one that haunted me with painful persistence, until the prospect of hearing the ceaseless tread of his feet in the adjoining room all night became well-nigh intolerable. I do not know how long I dwelt upon this morbid thought, nor when it first dawned upon me that the sounds I dreaded, and dreading seemed to hear, were but the creation of my own excited fancy. By slow degrees, however, the complete stillness around me impressed itself upon my senses, until, seized with a sudden inquietude, I rose and knocked softly at Mr. Cunninghame's door.
Receiving no reply, I entered. The lamp was burning brightly, and the room was just as I had left it early in the evening. Stretched out to his full length upon this couch lay Clive Cunninghame, slumbering peacefully. Sleep had apparently taken him unawares, for he was fully dressed, and judging by the peculiarly restful expression of his features and his calm, regular breathing, he must have lain thus for some time.
I stood beside the couch watching him for a few moments with a feeling of infinite relief. Then I carefully extinguished the lamp, and withdrawing softly to my own room, lay down on my bed and slept soundly until morning.
The first thing I became conscious of when I awoke early the next morning was a curiously muffled sound as of some one sobbing near by, and I sat up with a start and looked around me. There was no one to be seen, but the sound continued nevertheless, rising and falling at irregular intervals, after the manner of such paroxysms of mental anguish, and as my ear grew accustomed to it, I recognised without difficulty that it proceeded from Mr. Cunninghame's room.
There was something so pathetic to me in the thought of this strong, manly young fellow yielding in his solitude to an outburst of emotion so womanly in character that I obeyed the quick impulse of pity that seized me, and gently opening the door of his room, looked in. The blinds were all drawn up, and the full light of day fell into the room, presenting to my view a scene so strange and unlooked for that I came to a sudden standstill on the threshold and gazed upon it in silent surprise.
Half raised upon his couch and supporting himself on one elbow, lay Clive Cunninghame, still dressed as I had left him the night before, while, flung down beside him, with her head buried on his breast, and sobbing her heart out, knelt Belle Staunton. There was a wonderfully tender pitying look in Clive's honest brown eyes, as they rested upon her prostrate form, and ever and anon his hand passed with a gentle, soothing touch over her loosened tresses. But he did not speak; apparently there was no need of speech between them. Only the saddened expression of his usually careless face, and a slight contraction of his brow, indicating a struggle with some painful memory, told of the grave thoughts passing within him. What these thoughts were I could not guess.
Fortunately, neither of them had observed my entrance, and retracing my steps noiselessly, I regained my room again without attracting their attention.
I looked at my watch. It was barely half-past 5 o'clock, and as yet no one was stirring in the house. Thoroughly perplexed, I threw myself into a chair at the window, and opening the sash, let the cool morning air refresh my temples, while I sat recapitulating to myself the strange occurrences in the library the night before, and wondering what bearing they could have upon the scene I had just witnessed. How long had Belle Staunton been with Clive, and what had brought her to him? I remembered how studiously she had been wont to avoid Clive's room, and indeed all intercourse with him during Mr. Coxton's sojourn at Glen Elc, and I marvelled not a little at her boldness in seeking him now and at such an hour. Her posture had clearly been that of a penitent, and yet when I recalled Mrs. Cunninghame's exclamation of dismay on reading the contents of the mysterious strip of paper that night, it had been her son whom she apostrophised with such painful emphasis, not Belle Staunton.
These puzzling thoughts pursued me, as other similar thoughts had so often pursued me on the same spot before, until I gave up in despair, and rising, proceeded to make my morning toilette. From my dressing-table I could command a complete view of the carriage drive as it swept up in a graceful curve from the lodge gates. A footpath ran along it at the further side, girdled at intervals by a low shrubbery, and shaded by the foliage of the giant elms that stretched in an unbroken row on either side of the driveway from the house to the lodge. The scene was a pretty one at all times, but on this particular morning, with the rays of the rising sun glinting obliquely through the trees and sparkling on every leaf, wet still from the freshening rain that had fallen overnight, it seemed a perfect revelation of beauty, and I sat gazing out upon it with a sense of calm, dreamy contentment.
Presently I saw two figures cross the carriage drive, and gaining the pathway on the opposite side, pass along it in the direction of the lodge. They were Mr. Lauder Caine and Richard Coxton, and I watched them with curious interest as they sauntered slowly beneath the trees, apparently engaged in deep conversation, appearing and disappearing at intervals between the clusters of shrubs that fringed the road, until they finally vanished entirely from view where the sweep curved sharply to the left at its approach to the entrance of the grounds.
About ten minutes later Lauder Caine returned alone by the same path. He did not re-enter the house, but turned aside before he reached it, and made his way across the grass lawn to the grounds at the back.
I meditated for some time upon the strangeness of this friendly meeting between two men after the events of the previous night, for there had been nothing in their attitude, as they walked together, to denote the existence of any antagonistic feeling between them. I marvelled, too, now more than ever at Belle Staunton's visit to Clive Cunninghame in face of the fact, of which she can scarcely have been ignorant, that Mr. Coxton was already astir, and might at any moment have broken in upon them. The sounds of weeping had long ceased in the adjoining room. They had been succeeded by an interval of complete stillness, only interrupted occasionally by the dull thud, thud, of a pair of feet pacing the room in a restless, uncertain fashion. The walker could be no other than Clive himself, and once or twice he approached in his peregrinations so close to the door between the two rooms that I thought he was about to enter. But though I distinctly heard his hand touch the handle of the door, he apparently bethought himself differently, and after a while all sounds ceased again.
Suddenly I heard myself called by name. It was Clive's voice. I went in to him and found him alone. Belle Staunton was gone, and he sat carelessly astride a chair in the middle of the room, with his elbows crossed over the back and his chin resting upon his hands. I stood beside him for quite a while before he spoke. At last, he glanced up at me slantwise, without moving his head.
"So the murder's out," he said calmly.
"The murder? What murder, Mr. Clive?" I asked.
He did not reply immediately, but sat toying with a narrow strip of paper, so identical in shape and appearance with the mysterious strip of paper I had seen pass from Richard Coxton's hands to Belle Staunton in the library the night before, that I could not doubt that they were one and the same.
"There," he said at last abruptly, handing me the paper, "it's the whole story in a nutshell, and you may as well know it now as later."
I took it from his hands and glanced at it with a mingled feeling of fear and embarrassment. On the surface, certainly, there was nothing alarming in what I saw, merely two names, which I had been accustomed to associate together in my own mind for the last three months, yet whose association here upon this otherwise harmless document was such as to take my breath away and cause me momentarily to wonder for an instant whether my eyes were not deceiving me. But there was no possibility of a mistake. The document was a copy from the register of marriages, issued at Somerset House in the ordinary form prescribed by law. It was dated the sixth day of January of that year, and attested the uniting in wedlock of the two contracting parties therein named. Those two contracting parties were Clive Cunninghame and Belle Staunton.
I had been prepared to receive a shock, and I did receive a shock. But it was one of a character no different from what I had expected that I hardly realised its full effect, and all I did was to utter the somewhat trivial exclamation:
"Oh, Mr. Clive!"
He gave me a comical look.
"Yes," he rejoined rather ruefully, "I suppose it is 'Oh, Mr. Clive!' This infernal secret-mongering would have been the death of me if it had lasted much longer. But to think," he went on reflectively, "of Dick carrying that thing in his pocket for the last eight months. It passes all understanding."
Indeed, it did pass my understanding, then. Nor could I have said which of the two things appeared the stranger to me: that Belle Staunton was Mrs. Clive Cunninghame, or that Richard Coxton had all along been cognisant of the fact.
"But why all this secrecy, Mr. Clive?" I asked at last.
"Why, indeed!" he said, rising and pushing the chair petulantly from him. "Because I was a fool, I suppose, and because——" He stopped short, crossed over to the window, dug his hands fiercely into his trousers pockets, and gazed out. Presently he returned. "Sit down, nurse, and I'll give you the whole history," he said, motioning me to take a seat upon the couch. "There are some, I know," he continued, "who believe I came between Dick and his girl, and Westley is among them. But they are wrong. Belle and I have been close chums ever since I can remember. There was no foolish sentiment about the thing; we just fitted together, and we knew it. At one time Dick paid her a good deal of attention, and I dare say it turned her head a bit, for he was considered head over ears above the rest of us in most respects, and that sort of thing naturally tells with a young girl. Besides, he has a kind of sway with people that is difficult to withstand, and it's no use denying that Belle fell under it. The saying went at college that Dick Coxton could make a fellow do what he wanted without so much as raising his finger or opening his lips to intimate his pleasure. I wasn't much delighted, of course, at seeing him pay court to Belle, and Belle and I had some pretty hot words about it. But Dick was at that time in London studying at Guy's, whilst I was still at Oxford, so there wasn't much chance of our clashing. When I left college, old Mrs. Ruhmkorff had died, and Belle had come to live at Glen Elc. The will came upon us all like a thundercap; for, between you and me, I knew that the old lady had had an unaccountable aversion to her husband's nephew, and I remember more than one occasion when she expressed her disgust at my intimacy with him in very strong terms. She had a kind old heart towards those she liked, but her temper was her own, and the devil of a temper it was too. Poor Belle, who, as I dare say you know, possesses a pretty good head of her own, hadn't always the easiest sailing with the old lady."
He paused a moment, and then resumed in a grave tone: "Heaven knows I don't want to pose as a saint. I had always looked upon Belle and myself as if we were made for each other. This is no cant. I've been thrown together with girls by the score, but I have never seen one who, in my opinion, was a patch upon Belle Staunton. But, of course, all this doesn't interest you," he broke off apologetically. "You'll say the money—it's quite a heap, you know—should have been a consideration to me for Belle's sake. Well, it wasn't. I never reflected that her choice now lay between a large fortune and me, a fellow with no prospects beyond those that lay within the scope of his own capabilities. Perhaps the blame wasn't entirely mine. Dick Coxton was her appointed husband, and the world, according to its lights, regarded him as such. But Belle swore to me that she would never marry him; her hope, I believe, was that he would set her free, or die, or something of the kind. Yet her tacit acceptance of the situation galled me not a little, and when Dick went to India I needn't tell you that I made the best of my opportunity. He was away nearly a year, and three weeks before he returned Belle and I were married."
He paused again, and glanced furtively at me as if he expected me to say something. But I remained silent.
"You wonder that I consented to this secrecy," he said at last. "It was Belle's one inexorable condition that our marriage should not be made public until she was twenty-one, and all chance of Coxton voluntarily releasing her was gone, and I consented to it rather than risk the possibility of her weakening again under Dick's influence. Poor Belle!" he concluded softly. "Had I considered all that my promise involved, she wouldn't have got it. I've had the devil of a time ever since, as you may imagine."
Indeed, I knew it only too well, and, though I pitied him from the bottom of my heart for what he had suffered, I could not but feel that it had been in a measure deserved. Yet, surely, his duplicity paled into insignificance before that of Belle Staunton. Upon what frail hope had she staked this enormous risk? I thought with an inward shudder of the shooting incident. Was it possible that, torn between her love of wealth, with all it affords, and heart's passion for the man of her choice, she had been driven to commit——But I dared not dwell upon the awful suspicion.
Poor Clive! He evidently felt so much cheered by his sudden release from the false position he had occupied this last twelvemonth that he entirely forgot the more immediate danger that hung over him. I, too, thought for the moment no more of the all-absorbing subject that engrossed me for so many weeks, and entered into his animated talk about his marriage and its bearings upon his future, as if no doubt of his sanity had ever risen to disturb us.
When I left him at last, which I did rather hurriedly upon Kingham's appearance with a message saying that the 'strange doctor' desired to speak with me, the memory of it all came back to me with a rush, and with it the sense of anxiety under the strain of which I had laboured so long.
I found Mr. Lauder Caine walking under the cluster of trees immediately behind the house, the same spot whence two nights before I had seen Richard Coxton issue with a bullet wound in his arm.
"I must ask your pardon for troubling you so early," he said, when I had joined him. "But my time is limited, and before I leave——"
I fell back dismayed.
"Before you leave!" I stammered. "You don't mean that you are going away—now, when your task is but half accomplished?"
"What it was in my power to do," he said, "I have done. My presence here is no longer needed."
I walked on beside him with feelings divided between doubt and anger.
"And Clive?" I said. "Is his case not worth even an instant's consideration?"
He smiled down upon me with gentle indulgence.
"Mr. Richard Coxton was right," he said. "You are a stanch little friend, though a blind one. May Mr. Clive Cunninghame always be worthy of so true a champion." As he spoke, he drew from his inner pocket a paper, and handed it to me. "Will this satisfy you that your charge is now safe?" he asked.
I took the paper, and glanced at it. It was the certificate of Sir Winton Forbes, attesting the lunacy of Clive Cunninghame, and declaring him a proper subject to be placed under restraint.
"Where did you obtain this?" I asked.
"From one," he answered, "who but yesterday, I think, would rather have laid down her life than parted with it—his mother. Mrs. Cunninghame summoned me to her room at 5 o'clock this morning, and when I took leave of her she placed this document in my hands."
"And what do you intend to do with it?" I asked.
"To return it to the person who signed it. I gave Sir Winton my promise to secure the paper and restore it to him in the event of my diagnosis of the case proving correct."
"Your diagnosis!" I murmured, with growing surprise. "You have satisfied yourself, then, that Mr. Cunninghame has never been afflicted with this horrible taint of madness?"
"Nay," he replied, "his affliction has been none the less a reality that all danger of its return is now over."
"All danger of its return is over? Since when?"
"Since the truth of his marriage is no longer confined to the three persons most nearly concerned in it," he answered gravely. "Pardon me for saying," he went on, noticing my perplexed expression, "that for one so observant you have shown a singular lack of the faculty of constructive reasoning. Yet you were once so near the solution of your patient's trouble that it required but one further step to place it entirely within your grasp."
"I do not understand," I said. "You cannot mean that it was ever in my power to solve this unhappy mystery."
"As surely in your power," he replied, "as it was in the power of Miss Belle Staunton, whom, I presume, you now know to be Mrs. Clive Cunninghame, to suggest its true cause. When she told you that our young friend suffered from attacks of somnambulism——"
"But it was false," I interrupted. "Even Clive himself denied it, while Dr. Crackenthorpe, who brought him into the world and has known him intimately since his earliest childhood, laughed the notion to scorn."
"It was false in a sense, certainly," Lauder Caine pursued, "for, until six months ago, Mr. Cunninghame was not a somnambulistic subject. But," he went on, after a deliberate pause, "it is none the less certain that he has been so since Mr. Richard Coxton's return from India."
There was something so startlingly significant in these words that their true meaning rushed in upon my intelligence with the suddenness of a shock, and for a while I was dumb.
"Since Richard Coxton's return—merciful Heaven!" I exclaimed at last, in a low, awed voice. "Then all these strange actions, which have been attributed to the effects of a melancholic condition of mind, were in reality the fruit of some sinister influence wielded by this man?"
"Call it what you will," Lauder Caine said—"hypnotism, magnetism, will-transference, suggestion—it is a power of which much has been said, and but little known. It is given to us for good or for evil, and not to all in like degree."
I thought of yesterday's scene in the library. In what a new and thrilling light it appeared to me now!
"And Richard Coxton used this power," I exclaimed, "to compass his friend's ruin, to make him unconsciously appear a suicide, a murderer, and a madman? Oh, the baseness of it!"
It did not occur to me for a moment to question the extraordinary fact itself, or to inquire by what strange intuition Lauder Caine had divined it. Now that it stood revealed, I marvelled only at my own semi-blindness, which had enabled me to perceive Richard Coxton's bias against Clive Cunninghame without recognising in Coxton himself the originator of all the poor fellow's troubles. But then, I had had no suspicion of Belle Staunton's marriage and of Richard Coxton's knowledge of it.
"I understand it all now," I murmured. "That marriage was a secret known to these three only. Had Clive been removed, it would have been the common interest of the remaining two never to divulge it."
Lauder Caine assented with a silent gesture.
"And yet," I pursued, "Belle loved Clive. Is is possible that she would have consented to this infamy, even for the sake of the wealth she worships?"
"Of her own free will, perhaps, not," Lauder Caine said. "But——"
"Ah! I know, I know!" I broke in with a shudder. "You mean that he would have practised his devilish arts upon her."
"There can be no doubt," he said, "that he has practised these arts upon her. Alas, poor girl! her sins have been many; but they were the sins of frailty, and as such they may well command our charity."
"I would forgive her everything," I said impulsively. "But can I forget, Mr. Lauder Caine, that she deliberately attempted to take a human life for the sake of this accursed money?"
"God forbid," he said earnestly, "that I should palliate the crime of murder! But if her motives had been such as you suspect, would she not have solved her fearful dilemma long ago by removing him who was its cause? Remember that when she attempted Richard Coxton's life she believed that the life of another was at stake, and that other the man she loved."
Obvious though it seemed, this view of the terrible incident that had shocked me so inexpressibly had never occurred to me. And yet I had lived for two mouths in closest touch with the actors in this extraordinary drama, while this man, who appeared by some strange instinct to have traced every one of their actions to its primary source, had but four-and-twenty hours ago been ignorant of their very existence.
"You mean," I said, still unwilling to exonerate her, "that she my have been driven to this act by her knowledge of Clive Cunninghame's danger? But if she knew of this terrible persecution of him she loved, how could she keep up the horrible pretence of her betrothal to the man who was its author?"
"You may well ask," he replied. "It is the folly of crime that is its strangest feature, and how often does it not become its surest means of punishment."
"Poor Belle!" I murmured with an involuntary impulse of pity, which was perhaps a trifle inconsistent. "She has now lost irrevocably what she sacrificed so much to secure."
Lauder Caine walked on for a while in silence.
"Better for her, perhaps, if it were so," he said presently. "But a loss which we have brought great sacrifice to save is sometimes less painful to contemplate than sacrifices made to save that which we were never in danger of losing. But do not let us waste time in discussing possibilities," he broke off, checking the question which rose to my lips at his somewhat enigmatical utterance. "It was to request a service of you that I took the liberty of sending for you. The will of Mrs. Ruhmkorff, as you are aware, provides that, in the event of her ward contracting a marriage in violation of her testamentary dispositions, the estate shall be divided among certain charities, and the solicitor of her late husband is designated as the trustee of these bequests."
"I presume," I said, not understanding the drift of these remarks, "that Mrs. Clive Cunninghame will lose no time in communicating on the subject with her late guardian's lawyers."
"I have no doubt," he said, "that Mrs. Clive Cunninghame will do all that is right and proper. Meanwhile, for reasons into which I need not enter, I thought it desirable yesterday afternoon to acquaint these gentlemen with the fact of Miss Staunton's marriage. They will reach Glen Elc this morning, in company, I understand, with the solicitor of the late Mr. Ruhmkorff, and it may be of importance that the contents of this letter should be brought to their knowledge while they are here. May I ask you to see that it is safely delivered to them?"
With these words, he handed me a sealed letter, which I saw was addressed to Cane, Bissom, and Cranbury.
"You say," I stammered, receiving it with an air of amazement, "that you communicated with these gentlemen already yesterday afternoon? But by what means did you discover that Clive and Belle were man and wife?"
"Could the story I heard from your own lips yesterday morning," he rejoined, "lead me to any other conclusion? Indeed, the problem in this particular respect was simplicity itself. When a girl in Miss Staunton's circumstances remains calm and self-possessed at the appearance of a young man in her bedchamber at dead of night, only to exhibit signs of the most violent agitation when others become cognisant of his presence, the inference as to the true relations existing between the two is surely obvious. Still," he went on, "I was careful to make assurance doubly sure, and two hours after you left me I was in possession of a certified copy of the entry in the official register of marriages recording the marriage of Mr. Clive Cunninghame and Miss Belle Staunton, both of Glen Elc, Scadbury. I learned at the same time," he added, after a pause significantly, "that on 8th January last one other copy of the same entry had been issued to an applicant whose identity I had little difficulty in guessing."
"To Mr. Coxton?" I murmured, under my breath.
"Precisely," he said.
"And knowing him in possession of this document, you forced him to disclose it?"
"By meeting him with his own weapons. It was the surest means and the easiest."
"The easiest?" I exclaimed, with a shudder at the recollection of last night's scene. "When you knew his power? What if he had triumphed over you? He attempted it—oh, I saw it, I saw it."
"It was he or I," he said simply; "and I had learned that I was the stronger."
"You had learned this? Through whom?" He smiled at my bewilderment.
"Through one," he said, "to whom I owe all the knowledge I have concerning Richard Coxton and his doings—through yourself."
I stared at him without replying, for I scarcely knew whether he spoke earnestly or in jest. But the expression of his face left no doubt as to his sincerity.
"You do not understand me," he went on. "Yet it is all very simple."
He stopped suddenly, and laid his hand on my arm.
"Try," he said, "to fix your mind for a moment on Richard Coxton, and tell me——"
"Oh, don't, don't!" I cried, a feeling of horror creeping over me which no words can describe. It was the same sense of unutterable loathing that had overcome me at Richard Coxton's touch the previous afternoon, when I returned from my visit to Mr. Lauder Caine; only this time it was infinitely more intense. It left me almost as quickly as it came, but while it lasted the effect it produced was that of actual physical nausea. I was recalled to myself by Lauder Caine's soothing voice.
"There is nothing to fear," he said reassuringly. "See, it has passed already."
"It has passed," I said, heaving a sigh of relief, and regarding him with a sense of shrinking wonder, for I knew instinctively that it was he who had called forth this strange manifestation. "Why have you cast this spell over me?"
"To save you from a spell which might prove more dangerous," he answered kindly. "Need I tell you that Clive Cunninghame's threatening appearance in your room that Sunday afternoon was a mere vision suggested by Richard Coxton, a brain picture transferred from his mind to yours, for the purpose of destroying your inconvenient faith in your patient's sanity."
I gazed at him horror-stricken.
"It was here," he went on, "that Richard Coxton betrayed his hand; for though he could deceive you as to the reality of what you saw, he could not so deceive others; and Clive's innocence of this particular act, which was plainly proved by the poor young fellow himself, convicted his friend beyond the shadow of a doubt."
"Yet it was Richard Coxton himself," I said "who forced this proof of Clive's innocence upon me."
"Very shrewdly, yes," Lauder Caine rejoined; "for he knew but too well that no proof based upon Clive's assertions would weigh with you against the supposed evidence of our own senses."
The logic seemed indeed unanswerable.
"And it was you," I exclaimed, after a moment's reflection, "who caused me to reproduce that horrible scene yesterday morning?"
He nodded gravely.
"It was then," he said, "that I learned the extent of Richard Coxton's powers, and knew that when his strength was pitted against mine he must needs succumb."
"Ah! surely," I cried, "this terrible power is a gift of the Evil One."
"Nay," he replied gently, "it is not our gifts that are evil, but the use we make of them."
"But what if Richard Coxton should still assert his sinister influence? May he not yet bring ruin upon those who have thwarted his plans?"
Lauder Caine pondered a moment, as if he were weighing my words. Then he shook his head.
"I think there is nothing to fear on that score," he said. "Richard Coxton leaves England to-night. Let us hope he may use his gifts elsewhere to better and nobler ends."
"Richard Coxton is leaving England!" I exclaimed. "And shall he be permitted to go unpunished?"
Welcome as the prospect of this man's disappearance from the scene was to me, it was not until now, I think, that I realised the full iniquity of his doings, and a feeling of righteous indignation seized me at the thought of his escaping the retribution which was his due.
Mr. Lauder Caine's reply struck me as somewhat extraordinary.
"Whom the law can punish, let the law pursue," he said. "It is not for me to aid or hinder." Then he added, after a pause, as if upon an afterthought: "Or would you that stern justice should deal equally with all those concerned in this miserable history."
I understood what he meant, and said nothing.
"Far be it from me," he went on, "to defend Richard Coxton. But let us remember that he has succumbed to the most dangerous of temptations, and perhaps the hardest to withstand, the temptation of power. How few are there who can resist it!"
We walked on a few moments in silence. I was not at that time, nor, I fear, am I even to-day, in a sufficiently dispassionate frame of mind to cast the mantle of charity over Richard Coxton's sins. Perhaps, had Lauder Caine lived, as I had lived, through all the horror of the events I have attempted to describe, he would have judged differently of him who was their cause. For myself, I could see nothing but the relentless purpose of this man, the cold inflexible compassionless will that scorned every obstacle in its path, pursuing its one aim regardless of whom it sacrificed, silently, determinedly, without mercy, without passion. Men of consuming ambition, we are told, have been possessed of such iron wills. Yet, what has the greatest ambition accomplished for mankind that was not tempered with the gentle spirit of charity, which is man's surest mark of kinship to the higher Being whom he worships?
We had made the complete tour of the grounds during our conversation, and were now once more approaching the house. As it came into view, with its quaint gray turrets glistening through the trees in the glorious August sunshine, I was reminded of the peaceful impression the fine old place had produced upon me when I took my first survey of it the morning after my arrival two months before. That impression and the liking I conceived for Clive Cunninghame, had prompted me to stay, in spite of the misgivings I had felt regarding my ability to take charge of the case. And now, how many strange and startling events had occurred since then upon this same spot, events the mystery of which, ever deepening, had all this time completely baffled me, to be dispelled at last by the mere breath, as it were, of the man now walking by my side!
I regard it as a curious fact, and perhaps one which I have cause to remember with shame, that I experienced at that moment no sense of gratitude towards Lauder Caine for what he had done. My first and foremost thought had always been to save Clive Cunninghame from the living death which I believed to be threatening him, and, that accomplished, to see him, if possible, united to the girl he loved. But I had not contemplated that, as a necessary consequence of the latter event, the inheritance of Belle Staunton would be forfeited, and the young pair be doomed to a life of comparative penury. Inevitable though I knew that consequence to be, was it necessary, or even charitable, I thought, to force the unhappy issue with so much precipitation as Mr. Lauder Caine had done?
As the irretrievable loss of the fortune she had sacrificed impressed itself more and more clearly upon my mind, the feeling of contempt with which I had regarded Belle Staunton's frantic efforts to save it for herself vanished and made way for one of actual sympathy. Perverse as it may seem, I now almost regretted the part I had taken in bringing about a revelation so costly in its result, and while I hardly dared to upbraid my companion for what I considered his needlessly hasty course of action, I could not refrain from giving expression to my distress at its lamentable consequence.
"Is it not shocking," I exclaimed, "that the act of a foolish and cruel woman should be capable of bringing so much trouble and misery upon people who, but for it, might have passed through life free from all this crime and infamy!"
"You are right in a sense," Lauder Caine said, "and yet I think you are wrong. From the meagre knowledge we have of the late Mrs. Ruhmkorff, I judge her to have been a woman of considerable shrewdness and strength of mind. Her shrewdness may have been strained to the point of folly, but scarcely, I think, to that of cruelty. She had learned, no doubt, that the surest way to drive Belle Staunton into the arms of Richard Coxton was to oppose his suit. She knew of his dangerous power, and adopted what she conceived to be the best means of neutralising its effects after her death—with what success we know."
"And all this," I exclaimed, "at the sacrifice of her ward's material welfare, at the cost of her fortune and future!"
The theory struck me as too preposterous for belief.
"Perhaps at an even greater cost, as events have demonstrated," Lauder Caine replied. "To play the part of Providence towards those we love is a pardonable impulse common to us all. But to attempt to continue that part after our life has ended is worse than futile; it is folly itself."
All this was very little comforting, and I told him so with some show of impatience. We had now reached the house, and he stepped aside, as if to let me pass in.
"If I read your thoughts aright," he said, "you view certain of my acts with disapproval. Yet, believe me, what I have done was done for the very best of reasons. He who would help others must first know all the truth concerning them. Half of that truth, in this case, I learned from you, the other half I had to seek elsewhere. Had I not found it, my mission here would have been of little avail."
There was so much gentleness in his manner and in the tone of his words that I was about to offer a contrite apology for my rudeness, but he continued, almost without a pause: "Suspend your judgment for a while, and, above all, do not mar what you have achieved by a too hasty condemnation of one whose motives you do not understand. Perhaps the last word of Mrs. Ruhmkorff has not been heard. When you hear it, you may find cause to pity, perhaps, not to condemn." He lifted his hat in token of farewell, and passed on without another word.
I re-entered the house with those parting words of Lauder Caine's ringing in my ears, but though I pondered over them for some time, I could find no satisfactory clue to their meaning. Whence, indeed, was any further word from Mrs. Ruhmkorff to come, seeing that Mr. Bissom, her own solicitor and, until the last day of her life, her trusted friend and adviser, had conferred with her about this unhappy will within a few hours of her death, and had exhorted her in vain to alter its fatal provisions? I had learned this fact from Mortimer Westley, and also that the old lady had refused point-blank to discuss the subject, or even to listen to the arguments advanced by the old lawyer in support of his advice. She had given the matter all the thought it required, she said, and so she died.
Towards 10 o'clock that morning, after being closeted for nearly an hour with Clive Cunninghame and his young wife, Lauder Caine left Glen Elc. What passed at the interview between those three I never learned, for I did not see Lauder Caine again, and neither Clive nor Belle ever referred to the subject. But its effects were noticeable in various ways.
Clive Cunninghame, with that wonderful buoyancy of spirits which was his most striking characteristic, had seemingly shaken off the growing depression under which he had been labouring these last few weeks, and when I saw him and Belle for a few moments in the library, immediately after Lauder Caine's departure, he was almost his old careless, easy-going self again. When I happened to make a chance reference to the Confessor and his visit, however, I saw an expression settle on his face of a kind that I had never seen there before. It was not exactly an expression of reverence, nor was it one of awe, for neither of these emotions, to speak the truth, were in Clive's line. But it was as close an approach to them as his honest soul was capable of.
Belle's manner towards me showed a perceptible change. Cordiality, at least in its outward expression, was not in her nature. But she extended her hand to me on this occasion—for the first time—with an air of graciousness that was peculiarly becoming to her, and the smile with which she accompanied the action was almost apologetic.
"You have been very good to Clive," she said. "I shall not forget it."
That was all. She never referred in my presence again, by word or sign, either then or afterwards, to the past and its painful experiences. It would be idle, of course, to suppose that the thought of her loss, now that it seemed irretrievable, caused her no pang of regret. But she bore it bravely, and with a spirit of resignation that was perhaps not untinged with relief at the termination of the long and agonising battle she had fought to avert it.
Upon old Mrs. Cunninghame the events of the last four and twenty hours appeared to have produced an entirely different effect. The spirit of diffidence and indecision that had marked her actions in the past had almost completely vanished, and for once she asserted her own judgment independently and without reference to the views and suggestions of others. I could not learn to what extent Lauder Caine had enlightened her as to the real causes of her son's affliction. But she questioned me during the morning so closely and with so much nervous anxiety about all that I had seen and heard during my attendance upon Clive that I feel convinced she had at least some suspicion of the true facts. Clive's concealment of his marriage from her seemed to have grieved her deeply, and she spoke of it with evident pain. But her chief concern was about his and Belle's future.
"I do not doubt the depth of their attachment to each other," she said. "But love is a passion and passions are subject to the altering influence of circumstances. Character is unalterable. Belle will never be happy as a poor man's wife."
She repeated these last words again and again, and though I pretended to take a more hopeful view of the case, in my heart I fully agreed with her.
Towards noon, at last, Mortimer Westley arrived with Mr. Bissom, Mrs. Ruhmkorff's solicitor. They were accompanied by a third gentleman, who proved to be Mr. Gresham, the late Mr. Ruhmkorff's legal adviser and the executor of his will.
I was sitting in the library with Mrs. Cunninghame when they were ushered in, and deeming my presence undesired, I rose at once to leave the room. But I had scarcely reached the door when Mrs. Cunninghame called me back.
"I should like you to stay, Nurse," she said. "Nurse Forsyth," she added, turning with an introductory gesture to the two older gentlemen, "has been attending my son during his recent illness, and is almost one of the family. If you have no objection, she will remain present at our interview."
She touched the bell as she spoke, and gave orders to the servant who appeared to summon her son and 'Miss' Belle. The arrival of the visitors was evidently no surprise to her.
"There can be no objection in the world," Mr. Gresham said, after scrutinising me with a sharp glance. "It is, on the contrary, eminently desirable that some one not directly concerned in the somewhat painful business we have come to transact should witness our proceedings."
There was something ominous in his tone, and from the look which he exchanged with Mr. Bissom, and the rather flushed countenances they both displayed, I judged that a not altogether amicable discussion had been in progress between them prior to their appearance.
Mrs. Cunninghame looked from one to the other with a questioning expression.
"I understand you have been acquainted with the fact of my ward's marriage to my son," she said. "If I am rightly informed, she has thereby forfeited her conditional inheritance under the Will of her late guardian."
"I am afraid that is so," Mr. Bissom answered. "Still, we understand that Mrs. Ruhmkorff has left certain written directions——"
"Sealed directions," corrected Mr. Gresham, tapping with his finger a massive looking envelope which he held in his hand.
"Sealed directions," Mr. Bissom went on, "which may throw new light upon her ultimate intentions."
"I demur," said Mr. Gresham emphatically. "No written directions, however well authenticated, can, either legally or otherwise, alter, abrogate, or in any way modify, the dispositions of a testamentary document. I took the precaution of advising the late Mrs. Ruhmkorff of this fact when she did me the honour to place this packet in my hands. It is to be regretted that my advice proved of no avail."
"We shall see," observed Mr. Bissom, turning away to greet Clive and Belle, who entered at that moment.
"Where is Dick Coxton?" asked Mortimer Westley of me in a whisper.
"Gone!" I answered in the same tone, handing him the letter entrusted to me by Lauder Caine.
He took it, turned it over curiously, and passed it on to Mr. Bissom.
Meanwhile Mr. Gresham, with an air of great self-sufficiency, had seated himself at the table.
"May I request you," he said, addressing Mrs. Cunninghame, "to ask Mr. Richard Coxton to step this way. As the sole surviving relative of the late Mr. Ruhmkorff, and an indirect beneficiary under the will of his departed widow, it is imperative that he should be present on this occasion."
"Mr. Coxton is no longer at Glen Elc," Mrs. Cunninghame answered. "He left suddenly for London this morning."
"In that case," said Mr. Gresham with great decision, rising abruptly and casting a look of defiance across the table at Mr. Bissom, "I can proceed no further. I decline to open this packet in the absence of one who is so nearly concerned in the matter at issue as the nephew of the late Mr. Ruhmkorff."
"Perhaps," said Mr. Bissom calmly, "the letter I hold in my hand, which I have only this moment received from the gentleman in question, will remove my friend's scruples on that score. It reads as follows:
"'My Dear Mr. Bissom,
"'At the instance of Mr. Lauder Caine, I desire to inform you that I am this day leaving for South Africa, and that I do not contemplate returning to England for the next five or six years.
He flung the letter upon the table under Mr. Gresham's nose, and continued:
"Under the circumstances, if my friend so desires, the proceedings can be postponed until Mr. Coxton returns. But in that case I, as executor of the late Mrs. Ruhmkorff, and as the legal adviser of Mrs. Clive Cunninghame, shall counsel my client to resist any attempt to contest her rights under her late guardian's will pending the production of the papers left by the latter in the care of her husband's solicitor."
"Tut, tut!" exclaimed Mr. Gresham, who had meanwhile perused and examined Richard Coxton's letter, "this alters the case, of course; the matter can go forward." He adjusted his spectacles, took up the massive-looking packet that lay before him on the table, inserted his penknife in the cover, then stopped, laid the packet down again, and, looking around him, addressed the company at large as follows:—"I request your close attention for a few minutes while I relate the circumstances and conditions under which the document I am now about to disclose was placed in my hands. Some six months before her demise, Mrs. Ruhmkorff informed me that she had made a will, leaving all she possessed to her ward Belle Staunton, on condition that she entered into a marriage contract with her late husband's nephew, Mr. Richard Coxton, before she reached the age of 21. In case this condition should not be fulfilled, the said will provided for the disposal of her estate to certain charities specifically named therein, and designated me as the trustee of these bequests. She then handed me a sealed pocket, which she said contained such directions as she desired me to follow in carrying out the said trust, exacting from me my professional word that, in the event of my being satisfied that her ward had fulfilled the condition imposed upon nor, or that Richard Coxton had died or refused to make Miss Staunton his wife before she attained her majority, as provided in the said will, I would destroy the packet without opening it, but that in case satisfactory evidence were produced to me that her ward had contracted a marriage with any other person I would unseal the packet and act faithfully in accordance with the directions I should find therein, so far as the same were not in conflict with her legal testamentary dispositions. Evidence of the latter contingency," he went on, after a slight pause, holding up the certificate of the marriage of Clive Cunninghame and Belle Staunton, "now lies before me, and unless the authenticity of this evidence is contested by those concerned, I propose to proceed to carry out my late friend's wishes."
No answer being forthcoming from the parties in question, Mr. Gresham once more lifted the packet from the table, and having inserted his penknife in the cover, ripped it deftly open and extracted its contents.
These consisted of two sealed envelopes, the one addressed to: 'My Ward, Miss Belle Staunton, by the hand of F. Gresham, Esq.,' the other bearing no address, but containing the following legend, written across the top of the envelope in a bold, dashing woman's hand, which was plainly legible from where I stood:
'The last will and testament of Elizabeth Ruhmkorff, executed on the third day of April, 1892.'
For a moment no one uttered a word. Then Mr. Bissom observed quietly:
"Another will! I thought so."
Mr. Gresham sat staring in helpless amazement at the envelope in his hands.
"Another will!" he muttered at last.
"And executed, it appears," Mr. Bissom broke in, "one day later than the will we have probated. Might I suggest the propriety of opening and reading this document, Mr. Gresham?"
The sarcastic tone evidently went home, for that gentleman, without deigning to reply, now tore open the envelope, and, having first carefully examined the signatures of the principal and witnesses, plunged incontinently into a perusal of its contents.
While he was reading perfect silence reigned in the room. But the deep flush in Belle's cheeks and the eager, strained look in her eyes told more eloquently of the reviving hope in her breast than any uttered words could have done, while Mrs. Cunninghame sat clutching the arms of her chair with a bewildered expression of inquiry upon her face, which was almost touching to behold. Clive alone seemed to be unaffected by what was passing around him. He watched Mr. Gresham intently as he sat mumbling the contents of the paper to himself, but his countenance betrayed no emotion beyond that of a mild curiosity, mingled with undisguised amusement at the facial distortions with which the old lawyer accompanied his reading. As he informed me afterwards, he was dwelling at the moment with much gusto upon the thought: "What a jolly sell it would be if the pompous old fellow found himself done out of his trusteeship after all!"
At last Mr. Gresham rose abruptly, and, removing his spectacles with an air of mingled contempt and anger, pushed the paper brusquely over the table to Mr. Bissom.
"The woman was mad; I always said so," he exclaimed. "She has employed no less than three different sets of lawyers, and has played the fool with them all." Having delivered himself of which verdict, he snatched the second envelope from the table and thrust it rudely into Belle's hands, saying: "Perhaps that may explain matters—unless," he added in a tone of infinite scorn, "the thing only contains a third will."
Belle drew herself up with an air of haughty displeasure.
"When you have recovered your senses and your manners, sir," she said, flashing her most queenly look upon the irascible little man, "you will perhaps be good enough to say what the document you have just read contains."
"Enough to suffice," replied the lawyer, not a whit abashed by the haughty rebuke. "It is to all appearances Mrs. Ruhmkorff's latest will and testament, according to which you, madam, are left as the sole beneficiary, and there"—pointing dramatically to Clive Cunninghame—"stands your guardian's executor and trustee."
With these words he snatched up his hat, and bidding the company in general good morning, left the house in high dudgeon.
And so it proved. By her latest will and testament Mrs. Ruhmkorff had bequeathed her entire estate, save a few trifling legacies to charitable institutions, to whomsoever her ward, Belle Staunton, should wed as her lawful husband, in trust to pay the income thereof during her lifetime to her said ward, and after her death, subject to a certain life-interest reserved to the said husband and trustee, to divide the estate, share and share alike, between the lawful heirs of her said ward's body.
I do not remember having ever experienced a livelier sense of satisfaction than I felt at this most happy disclosure. I had, as may be imagined, no especial love for Belle Cunninghame, but no one with a spark of human sympathy could have refrained from pitying her for all she had undergone. Indeed, as I watched her now, while with trembling fingers she unsealed the envelope handed to her by Mr. Gresham, and read its contents, my heart went out to her in her evident distress, and I forgot all her past shortcomings. Such emotion as she displayed at this moment, when the much-coveted treasure which she had given up for lost was so unexpectedly restored to her, could have no being in one whose heart was really cold and designing. There was no triumph, no exultation in her manner. On the contrary, every muscle of her face betrayed the most intense shame and humiliation, and when she had finished that last message from her dead guardian and friend, she broke down completely, and burying her face in her hands, burst into a passionate fit of weeping.
It was not until long afterwards, when Mortimer Westley and I were on a brief visit to Glen Elc, soon after our marriage, that old Mrs. Cunninghame, in one of her confidential moods, communicated to me the contents of that last message from Mrs. Ruhmkorff to her ward. It bore the date of 3rd April, 1892—the same date as that of her last will—and ran thus:
"My Poor Belle,—I write these lines well knowing that I have at best but a few months more to live. They are not destined to reach your eyes unless, as God grant, the plan should prove successful which I have this day put in execution in order to safeguard your interests when my protecting hand is withdrawn from you for ever. I have warned you against my nephew Richard Coxton, and my warnings have fallen upon unheeding ears. I foresee that, when I am no longer there to influence your judgment, his power over you will grow, headstrong and wilful though you be, until you become as a helpless puppet in his hands, obedient to his bidding, blind to his heartless ambition, and powerless to resist his villainous machinations. I know of but one means of awakening in you that spirit of resistance which alone may save you from him, and though its adoption may entail upon you a long and bitter struggle, and perhaps even cause you temporarily to execrate the memory of one who has loved you dearly, I will not shrink from it.
"By my first will, which I have placed in Mr. Bissom's hands, I have made your inheritance of the fortune left me by my late husband dependent upon your marrying Richard Coxton. It is the possession of that fortune, Belle, as I have told you again and again, which is his aim, for Richard Coxton is as incapable of love as he is incapable of anything good and unselfish. As time goes on, if I have read your character aright, his apparent interference with your freedom of action, that idol of yours, will gradually fret your pride, as the chain frets the limbs of the captive it binds. You will rebel, as you have ever rebelled, since your earliest childhood, with reason and without reason, against the coercion to which you will believe yourself subjected. You will become more easily susceptible to the attentions of other men; maybe you will encourage them, and thus raise up influences that will weaken, if not destroy, that fatal spell which I know Richard Coxton has cast over you. That spell is unnatural and evil, Belle, as I have often explained to you, though, in your ignorance, you have spurned the counsel of the older and more experienced woman. Nor dare I hope, from what I have learned of its sinister power, that any ordinary resistance, however strongly supported, will succeed in overcoming it. As long as Richard Coxton exercises that power you will be at his mercy.
"It is for this reason above all others that I have provided by my first will that my fortune shall not devolve upon you except through Richard Coxton himself. I can conceive of no safer means of securing for you that immunity from his evil influence which I believe to be your only salvation; for when he knows that you are bound to him by so strong a tie he will, I think, deem the exercise of those secret powers with which he has hitherto enthralled you no longer necessary, and, fancying himself secure of your dependence upon him, will think no more of safeguarding you from the influences of other and better men.
"Heaven grant that I may prove right! If I do, and my second and later will sees the light of day, I am assured that the husband of your choice will be worthy of the confidence I have decided to repose in him by appointing him the guardian and trustee of all that I leave to you; for the man for the sake of whose love you will have yielded up a princely fortune must be possessed of some sterling compensating qualities, else my knowledge of your character is a delusion.
"For the struggle I may have caused you, my darling Belle, I ask no forgiveness. Its successful issue is my full justification for imposing it upon you, My blessing goes with you. Requite it by giving me your prayers.
Poor Belle! I see her yet, as she sat with bowed head over these touching words, her haughty spirit for once quite broken, her pride shattered, and her wilful self-love humbled in the dust.
Old Mrs. Cunninghame had hurried to her side, and, with her arms about her neck, was whispering words of motherly comfort into her ear, while Clive knelt at her feet, patting and stroking her hands as one would those of a little child in distress. And so we who were, after all, strangers there, left them, I to retire to my room and seek that happy relief which is woman's privilege—a good cry all to myself; Mr. Bissom and Mortimer Westley to take a stroll in the grounds, in order, as Mortimer put it, to work off a bit of their excitement in a quiet smoke, which I judge to mean nothing more than man's equivalent for that which I was about to indulge in.
There remains but little more to be said. I have often regretted that I did not seize the opportunity that offered itself to me during that morning's conversation with Lauder Caine in the grounds or Glen Elc to ascertain what method of reasoning had enabled him to arrive at so accurate a solution of the problem that had baffled me so long. But my mind was then occupied with other thoughts, and so an opportunity slipped by that was never to occur again.
Doubtless his conclusions as to the true source of Clive Cunninghame's trouble were due to his superior knowledge of possibilities of which at that time I had but a very limited conception. Indeed, how many of us, though we read and hear daily of that strange magnetic power that unquestionably exists in some of our fellow-beings, ever give the question a serious thought whether, unknown to us, there may not be one or the other of our acquaintances who possesses that power and exercises it secretly for the furtherance of his own ends and purposes?
Perhaps one endowed with a quicker eye and a subtler mind than mine would have been more apt to detect the true relationship existing between Clive Cunninghame and Belle Staunton than I was. I have, indeed, little doubt that one or the other of my readers, who may be more gifted in this respect than I, has already commented upon my obtuseness on that particular score with all the contempt it deserves. He, of course, will have seen at a glance, as Lauder Caine did, that it was Richard Coxton's, not Clive's, presence in her room on that eventful night of 12th August, that so terrified Belle Staunton; that Richard Coxton, when he crept after me in the dark passage that same night, had been awaiting Clive's coming, and had followed me in the belief that I was he; that Belle's endeavours, the next morning, to imbue me with the belief that Clive was addicted to sleep-walking were prompted by her fear that she might have betrayed herself in her terror, and that her anxiety to induce him to leave Glen Elc for good was due as much to her desire to avoid an exposure of the dangerous truth as, perhaps, to save Clive from the fearful toils of his unscrupulous rival.
I freely admit my blindness, but let it be remembered that those who take active part in events are usually the least qualified to judge accurately of their underlying causes. It is rarely the contemporary historian who has lived and participated in the strife and contentions of his times, that is able to lay bare their true history. His records form the material out of which the student of a later day weaves the real truth, seeing that to which the other's biased eyes were blind, and grasping what to his impassioned mind was dark and unintelligible. It is given to but few to explore and lay open the secret springs of history, as it is given to few to penetrate into the inner life of their individual fellow-men, fathoming, as it were, by some unerring instinct the thoughts and the hidden passions that move and control them.
Among these latter few I class Lauder Caine the Confessor. That he divined from the outset the real object of Mrs. Ruhmkorff in making that first unhappy will, and that he actually foresaw the contents of her second will, is to my mind beyond the shadow of a doubt. There may be some who will question the morality of his attitude towards those implicated in the events I have here recorded. It is not for me, however, to express an opinion on the subject. To my notion, Richard Coxton was a dangerous criminal. Whether Lauder Caine with that marvellous insight into human character which none who know him and his work can deny him, recognised in this man one whose splendid gifts might, under more auspicious conditions, produce good fruit, I cannot say. Although I have never heard or seen anything of Richard Coxton since the day of his departure from Glen Elc, I have cause to believe, from certain indications, that Lauder Caine did not see the last of him on that day.
For Belle Cunninghame my sympathy has grown as with time my understanding of her dire struggle has become more complete. It is true that, but for the trembling of a finger, she would have been brought within the very shadow of the gallows, and those who live quiet, peaceful lives, aloof from great temptations and the baleful influence of thwarted passions, may regard such a one as beyond the pale of human forgiveness. But let those who think so ponder well the gentle judgment of Lauder Caine. Her sins, poor girl, were indeed the sins of human frailty, and which of us can claim to be free from them?
I have always regarded, and I still regard, Clive Cunninghame as innocent of any intentional wrong-doing. A stronger mind than his might have altogether avoided the terrible dilemma in which he contrived to entangle himself; one less honourable than he would have found no difficulty in extricating himself from it. Careless, good-hearted, unsentimental Clive was as incapable of the one as he was of the other, and though it may be a woman's weakness on my part, I have ever liked him the better for it.
As for the late Mrs. Ruhmkorff, who shall judge her? Her pious fraud, desperate as it was, can at least claim the merit of success. If it succeeded at a greater cost to her for whose sake it was perpetrated than she dreamed of, is it her whom we shall blame'? Alas! no being knows the other so perfectly as to be able to gauge with accuracy what impulses will control him under certain conditions. Belle's pride and spirit of self-assertion were great, but her love of ease and luxury proved greater. This was the rock upon which, in spite of her vaunted knowledge of her ward's character, Mrs. Ruhmkorff's well-laid plans suffered shipwreck.
I doubt not that it will excite feelings of contempt in many of those who read my story when I say, with old Mrs. Cunninghame, that, however strong Belle Staunton's love for Clive may have been, she would never have been happy as a poor man's wife. But let it be so. I have grown in wisdom since the day when I, too, shared those feelings of contempt, and I have learned, as the reader may still learn, that the mightiest fortress cannot be judged proof until it has suffered assault, that the strongest of mortals knows not his own weakness until he has been tempted.
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