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Title: A Gilded Serpent: The Story of a Dark Deed Author: Dick Donovan * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1501071h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2015 Most recent update: November 2015 Project Gutenberg of 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 Licence which may be viewed online.
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SOON after leaving the pleasantly situated country town of Ministerfield, by the high road running North, the traveller used to catch sight of the tower and turrets and upper windows of Runnell Hall, a fine old mansion, a portion of it dating back to Henry VIII's time. It was conspicuously perched on a wooded eminence, and formed a very picturesque object in the landscape. At the present day it is no longer noticeable, as some years ago it was almost entirely destroyed by fire, and seems to have been rebuilt with little regard for taste, and none for picturesqueness. The place could be reached from the high road by a narrow field path, at right angles to the road itself. This field path still exists, and skirts and runs parallel to a famous wood covering something like fifty acres, and known as Black Lake Copse. It takes its name from a large, dark, romantic pool, nearly in the centre of the wood, the home of a great variety of water fowl. The wood is separated from the field path by a ditch and hedge bank; and the field, wood, and the land almost as far as the eye can reach was at the period of this story the property of Mr. Roland Lacey who resided at Runnell Hall, and of whom the reader will hear much as this narrative unfolds itself.
Half way between the high road and where the field path ends, there was an oak, five-barred gate, which gave access to the wood from that side. As the wood was a renowned game preserve, it was strictly guarded, and the gate in question was always kept padlocked. But now on a summer afternoon, as the shadows are lengthening over the land, and the westering sunlight turns the windows of Runnell Hall into plates of shining gold, a young and attractive woman stands at the gate which is swung half open. She is plainly attired in a grey canvas gown. A small jewelled brooch fastens a red ribbon at her throat, and a broad-brimmed bonnet, decorated with a few imitation cornstalks and poppies, covered her shapely head. She made a picture, did this simply attired girl, with her fair, fresh face, and deep-set, wistful brown eyes, and wealth of hair of a rich mahogany hue, the hue beloved of painters of old. She strained her eyes anxiously in the direction of the high road, occasionally turning and glancing nervously, as it seemed, towards the Hall. Her face was filled with an unmistakable expression of eager expectancy, while her movements indicated some restlessness and impatience and a certain suppressed nervous excitement. The girl was waiting for, and expecting to meet, a lover; a man against whom her people had set their faces. This sort of thing is common enough in human history, and history was repeating itself there as it did yesterday, as it will do to-morrow. She had come there clandestinely, and dreaded detection. She was the daughter, the only daughter, of the owner of the wood, Mr. Roland Lacey, of Runnell Hall. The absence of her father for a few days had facilitated her plans on this particular day, which was to be a red-letter one in the calendar of her life.
As she stands and gazes wistfully, eagerly, yearningly, towards the high road, from which she evidently expects her lover to appear, she is suddenly startled by the crackling of sticks, the rustling of leaves, which came from the wood. She turns with a half-frightened look on her pretty face, and then a little cry escapes her as she sees her lover approaching rapidly along the grass-grown path that runs through the wood. Like one fleeing towards a refuge from some threatening danger, she literally ran to him, with an exclamation—
"Oh, Jim, how you startled me!"
The next moment she was held fast in his arms and he was kissing her upturned face, dyed now to a vivid scarlet, after the manner of one who had been long separated.
He was a lusty-looking lad was Jim, with dark eyes and almost black hair. He had evidently been in some sun-land for his face was bronzed, until he could almost have passed for an Arab. A well-kept, dark moustache hid the curves of his mouth, but there was character in his face. It was not a face that, so to speak, gave itself away all at once. It was the face of a man of resolution, of one not lacking in courage; of one who might prove a very dangerous enemy, who certainly could be a staunch fiend, for there was honesty in those eyes; a frankness and fearlessness of expression that betokened an outspoken mind.
Norah Lacey was breathless with excitement; he held her and kissed her, and she remained passive.
"Why did you come through the wood, Jim? I expected you would have come by the field," she said when she had somewhat recovered herself.
"I thought it safer to come by the wood, darling, and knowing every inch of it as I do, I felt I could dodge the keepers. Anyway, here I am, after two years' separation from you. Two years! Good Lord, how have I existed? What a time it has been for me. How I have thought of you, longed for you, dreamed of you. And now at last after weary waiting I hold you in my arms."
She released herself. She put her bonnet straight, smoothed back her disarranged hair, and, still panting, said—
"Jim, I am awfully wicked in disobeying my father, but what could I do, what could I do? When you wrote to me and told me you were back in England I could not resist your appeal. But, Jim dear, what is the use of it all? You know the difficulties that lie in the way of my becoming your wife. Oh, Jim, isn't it awful? My father seems to be dead set against you; and I am afraid we shall have to say farewell."
"And yet you love me," he remarked with a touch of sternness.
"Yes, dear, I love you, love you, ah, so much. But you know my father's wishes; you know how bitterly my people are opposed to you. I am an only daughter. I cannot break my father's heart, and set myself in antagonism to the whole of my family. After all, a girl should not forget what she owes to her parents."
"Yes, I admit that," replied Jim thoughtfully. "But if you and I love each other, and you consider me essential to your happiness, then I maintain that parental objections ought to be waived unless they are fully justified. In this case they are not."
Norah Lacey was evidently troubled; her face clearly indicated that. Probably she had some vague notion of being inconsistent, for while confessing her love for this man, she asserted that he and she could never hope for union. In tones of marked agitation she said—
"It's awfully curious, Jim, that we should be here again in the old wood after two years' separation. Tell me, dear, all that you have been doing since you went to Jamaica? Have you thought of me much? Do tell me everything. I'm just dying to know. Oh, Jim, I do wish my father would be more reasonable."
"To tell you of my ups and downs, my hopes and struggles since I saw you last, is a long story. What I am chiefly concerned about now is to know your mind. You ask me if I have thought of you much. I wonder if I have ever forgotten you. I have yearned for you, dreamed of you, prayed for you. The separation has become unbearable, and I came back to England to know if you still loved me, if I might still hope, If not, then my fate is decided."
"Oh, Jim!" she exclaimed with a catch in her breath, and laying her hand on his arm. "Oh, Jim, what do you mean?"
He drew her arm through his, and they walked towards the lovely and romantic lake, looking sombre and weird now in the evening light.
"I scarcely know what I mean," he answered, still in thoughtful mood. "But if you believe that I love you, and you can't help but believe it, imagine what I am likely to become if there is no hope of my obtaining you. A man who fails to get the woman to whom he has given his heart, and upon whom he has set his hopes, is never the same again. It breaks him, sours him, makes him reckless, and unless he has a tremendous amount of self-control, he's apt to go to the devil."
The girl's distress was pitiable. In agreeing to meet him clandestinely she had yielded to an absolutely irresistible impulse. She had known Jim Spedwick nearly all her life. But unhappily differences had arisen between her family and his family, and he himself had fallen into disgrace through an incident which will be explained later on. This had made it desirable that he should leave the country, and his father had sent him to the West Indies, where for some time he had been with an uncle on a coffee plantation in Jamaica. Unknown to any one but his near relatives Jim had stolen back to England for a brief spell, and had written to Norah craving an interview. Hence the clandestine meeting this summer evening in the Black Lake Copse. Norah loved the man; she could not deceive herself on that point. But her father not only desired, but insisted that she should become the wife of one Randolph Pym, youngest son of Sir Yardley Pym, baronet, ex-M.P. and large land-owner, whose estates adjoined Mr. Lacey's.
The situation, as we have admitted, was not a novel one, for human affairs must necessarily run very much in a groove, but it was none the less painful and distressing, for this young girl, as yet an infant in the eyes of the law, had to choose between this man whom she loved and her family. She was far too intelligent not to understand the issues at stake. Her own father and Jim's father were at deadly enmity, and she knew that, as far as Mr. Lacey was concerned, reconciliation was out of the question; over and over again he had declared that he would "rather follow her to her grave than see her the wife of that young blackguard, Jim Spedwick."
The hopelessness, difficulties and painfulness of the situation were only too apparent to the girl as, distressed and agitated she stood leaning on Jim's arm and gazing abstractedly at the dark waters of the lake, as if she hoped to find some solution of the problem there.
A more lonely or romantic spot for a lover's meeting could hardly have been imagined. Here in the tall rushes that fringed the pool the coots—shyest of all water birds—built their nests in security, while wild ducks and teal made the secluded spot their home. It was a strip of primitive nature in the heart of a rural county. The Copse being Mr. Lacey's property, and private, Norah frequently visited the pool in the summer time, for she was fond of painting and working there, it was so quiet and peaceful, so romantic and dreamy that it appealed to her. But now her heart was heavy, and her brain was tortured with many conflicting thoughts. In yielding to the request of her lover to see him once more, she was conscious of having committed a grave error, for all her love for him was revived, but how could she hope to break don the barriers that had been reared between him and her.
"I know you love me, Jim," she said in low, tender and plaintive tones, "and I love you, God knows I do. But, dear one, what am I to do? Think of what it means for me to go against all my family. My father would curse me, I am sure. You know how stern and determined he can be. Do you suppose he would ever forgive me if I went against his wishes? He has strictly forbidden me to hold any communication with you, and yet here I am now. Whatever would he say if he could see us?"
Jim was quite as distressed as she was; for he was neither lightheaded nor frivolous enough to be indifferent to the intricacies of the situation; nor did he underestimate the heaviness of his own responsibility. His position was precarious. His father was a ruined man, having lost a fortune through unwise speculation; and he was practically dependent on his uncle in Jamaica: an old and wealthy West Indian planter, a bachelor but crotchety and irrascible, and subject to ever-changing moods, whims and fancies. Jim hoped that the old man would leave him some, if not all his money; but he mentally asked himself whether on this slender chance he was justified in persuading Norah to give up the peace and luxury of her home; to sacrifice the love of her people and all her brilliant prospects to share with him the uncertain future? And yet he loved her and she loved him, and such a love is a mighty factor in the sum of human affairs.
"It seems to me, Norah," he answered sadly, "that there is nothing for it but to part, and part for ever."
"For ever?" she echoed with a start, and as though she hadn't viewed the situation from that aspect before.
"Yes. The world will be nothing to me without you, and in the delirium of a reckless life I shall try to find forgetfulness, and a speedy ending. Why should I live; why should I desire to live? You are my life, my world, my all."
The girl shuddered, drew a little closer to him and tightened her clasp upon his arm; while unperceived by either of them, two men, each armed with a gun, suddenly appeared behind some bushes at the end of the lake, but quickly withdrew again on perceiving the young couple.
"Jim," said Norah with a decisiveness in her intonation, "I won't give you up without a struggle; but my only hope is in my mother, and I am by no means sure that she will take my part. But come back with me now and see her; father is away from home, as I told you in my letter, and it is now or never. If we can win her to our side all may be well. At any rate it is worth trying."
Jim's face brightened.
"It is worth trying," he said, and he manifested his feeling by taking her to his breast and warmly embracing her. Then arm in arm they moved off towards the gate, and from behind the bushes one of the two armed men stole forth and stealthily followed them. But the young couple were unconscious of this: they were absorbed in themselves, they were thinking of their own affairs, which to them at that crisis of their fate were of graver importance than aught else in the world. They were young, and had not yet come to full understanding of the responsibilities of life. They had looked into each other's eyes and saw their world there. But they had already verified the proverb that the course of true love never did run smooth; and they were full of anxiety about the future. Norah's father was a determined, self-willed egotistical man, and had sternly set his face against his daughter's union with Spedwick. But youth is sanguine, and in their distress the young people hoped that though the father was adamant, the mother would prove to be more sympathetic. Circumstances seemed to be in their favour, for Mr. Lacey's absence from home rendered it comparatively easy to approach Mrs. Lacey, and if she could be won over it might be well. The "if," however, was an all-important factor in the calculation, and a surprise awaited them, upon which they had not counted.
RUNNELL HALL was certainly an imposing pile of buildings at that time, and was a conspicuous landmark for miles around, while its windows commanded a panorama that for variety and extent could scarcely be excelled. The rocky and undulating grounds, which culminated in a hillock on which the house was built, were tastefully and artistically kept. A noble carriage drive swept up from the lower entrance gate to the main porch, where a broad flight of marble steps gave access to the entrance hall, built in the style peculiar to noble houses in the days of Henry VIII. A minstrels' gallery was a conspicuous feature of the hall, and on one side an enormous fireplace, with a massive carved oak front and mantelpiece, spoke of the time when yule-logs were burned. Over the fireplace was a large frame bearing a full-length portrait of a stern warrior in armour; and on the oak panelling all round were many shields, swords, and other weapons of warfare, lending a martial air to the place. A very fine stained glass window, depicting scenes in the life of Robin Hood, afforded light in the daytime, and at night illumination was obtained by enormous candles fitting in hollow cases to imitate torches.
The whole house bore evidence of wealth and comfort, and here Norah Lacey had been born and brought up. The only shadow that had ever fallen across her path of happiness was the rupture between her people and the Spedwicks. The Spedwicks were an old county family, and had had their home in Ministerfield for many generations. Jim's father, James Oliver Spedwick, had always been opposed to Mr. Lacey in matters of religion and politics, as well as socially. Spedwick had Bohemian proclivities, and things had not gone well with him. Mr. Lacey was in a sense a nouveau riche. It is true he had inherited a little money from his father, but his wealth had come to him by judicious purchases of land and other property. He was an ambitious, purse-proud man, and had looked down upon, and to some extent had treated his neighbour with contempt. But not always, for when, as a young married man, he acquired the magnificent property of Runnell Hall by purchase, he cultivated a friendship with Mr. Spedwick which continued for a good many years, and Jim and Norah, an only son and only daughter, though Mr. Lacey had two sons, both of them very considerably Norah's juniors, and at the time when this history commences they were at school, were thrown much together in their younger days. But the time came when a shadow fell between the two parties. The split began by divergences of opinion regarding church matters. Then Mr. Lacey was desirous of entering Parliament, but Mr. Spedwick supported the opposition with such zeal and vigour that Lacey was nowhere, and the rival candidate, thanks to Mr. Spedwick, won hands down. Necessarily that increased the bitterness, and when at last Jim, who was then at a public school, got into disgrace, Mr. Lacey's pent-up feelings were let loose like a flood; he denounced the Spedwicks in unmeasured terns of opprobrium, and forbade Jim, under all sorts of pains and penalties, to hold further communication with Norah. The young people had grown to be very fond of each other, and the stern parental edict was a great blow to both.
Jim's trouble was this. On one occasion, being home for his holidays, when he was about seventeen, he set off one night with some companions, to raid the game preserves of Lord Winlands, a profligate young nobleman, who had but recently succeeded to the title and estates, and was far from popular. Jim and his companions, six of them altogether, were actuated by a spirit of devilment, and their folly was merely a youthful escapade. Unfortunately they were disturbed in their depredations by two of his lordship's gamekeepers. A struggle ensued, during which one of them, as he alleged, was struck over the head by a heavy stick, and his brain injured. The young men were subsequently arrested, and the affair caused an immense sensation in the neighbourhood. The defence was that the keeper had received his injury by slipping and striking his head against a tree. The end of it was, after a great deal of ill-feeling and heat had been imparted into the affair, the evidence given as to how the injury had been received led to the young delinquents being fined in various sums, and Jim Spedwick, who was regarded as the ringleader, was fined very heavily, and until his friends could get the money together he was kept for some days in durance vile. Unhappily the keeper died soon afterwards from softening of the brain caused by the injury, and this caused a recrudescence of ill-feeling against the young men. Jim's father packed him off to Jamaica, where an uncle, a wealthy and somewhat eccentric planter, had lived nearly all his life.
As may be supposed Norah and Jim were very greatly affected, and both vowed eternal faithfulness; Norah particularly was cast down, for she never expected to see her lover again. However, after a separation of two years, he had come back for a brief visit, and had managed to communicate with Norah, the result being the tryst in the wood as we have seen.
It was perhaps a daring and desperate step for him to accompany Norah back to her home; but time had been when Mrs. Lacey had shown a good deal of partiality towards him, for he was a fine, open-minded young fellow, with a manly bearing, and a certain rugged independence that promised well for the future.
When the young people reached the Hall the whole landscape was bathed in the mellow, golden light of the dying day, and a more peaceful and beautiful scene it would have been difficult to imagine. Nature was calm and restful, but the hearts of Norah and her lover were agitated with hopes and fears.
Jim was ushered into the elegantly furnished drawing-room, while Norah went to prepare her mother for the interview. Jim spent a dismal and anxious half hour alone. A footman came in and lit the candles, and a few minutes later Mrs. Lacey, followed by the trembling Norah, made her appearance. The lady, who had had a humble origin, her father having been a naval carpenter, was pompous and purse-proud, for her husband had exercised great influence over her, acknowledged Jim's greeting in a cold and stately way.
"It seems to me, young man, that you have been guilty not only of an indiscretion, but an impertinence in coming here," she began.
Jim's hope sank, but his pride rose. His youthful follies were common ones; but he was a member of an old family who had distinguished themselves in many ways, and he did not feel that he had anything to be ashamed of.
"I am sorry that you should think so, Mrs. Lacey," was his answer. "It strikes me that impertinence is too strong a term to use—"
"I am tempted to use a stronger one than that," interrupted the lady.
"You seem to forget that I have known Norah all my life," continued Jim, without noticing the interruption.
"I forget nothing," replied the lady sternly, "and certainly not your disgraceful conduct that led to the death of an unhappy man. That in my mind is a crime."
"Oh, mother, don't be cruel," pleaded Norah in tearful voice.
Jim's face coloured, and pride of race rose strong within him. He was tempted to answer sharply but restrained himself. Norah's troubled face touched him to the depths.
"The man's death was the result of an accident," he said with firmness and dignity. "But for that accident my folly would have been regarded as nothing worse than a trespass; it's unfair to speak of a boyish escapade as a crime, and I solemnly declare that I never struck the man. His injury was the result of a fall."
"Well, we won't dispute about terms," replied the lady, drawing herself up with dignity. "The question is, what have you come here for? When Norah confessed to me that she had secretly met you in the Black Lake Wood I was thunderstruck. But when I heard that you were actually under my roof I could scarcely believe my own ears. It is audacity, unpardonable audacity."
"If I had thought that this was to be my reception," said Jim, "I should have given Dingle Hall a very wide berth; but since I am here there need be no beating about the bush. I love your daughter. She loves me. And I am here to plead to you not to turn a deaf ear to my entreaties to be allowed to pay my addresses to her."
Norah did not speak, but her eyes met his and her face betrayed the agitation from which she was suffering. It was a painful situation. Each felt it to be so; and each knew, or at least believed, that on the result of this interview depended his and her future happiness.
"There is one thing to be said, you are not lacking in assurance," answered Mrs. Lacey scornfully. "You were guilty of wickedness and deceit when you wrote to my child and asked her to meet you, knowing as you do that you will never be tolerated by any member of my family."
Norah spoke now. With desperate courage she plunged into the fray.
"I tolerate him, mother," she exclaimed, in high ringing tones that indicated spirit and will. "I tolerate him, and I have a right to have a voice in a matter that so closely concerns my own happiness."
"You will remain silent. You will be obedient, and you will do as your father and mother intend you to do," commanded the lady austerely. "As for you, sir, you had better put an end to this painful scene by leaving at once." She crossed the room and pulled the bell-rope violently. "I shall tell the footman to show you to the door, and once you have left my house you must never darken the portals again."
Norah made a movement to get nearer to Jim. She was evidently labouring under great distress of mind. She seemed struggling to find words, but at tha t moment the door opened, and a liveried flunky appeared in response to the ringing of the bell.
"John, show—" began Mrs. Lacey peremptorily, but checked herself suddenly for John announced—
"The Hon. Randolph Pym."
A gentleman entered attired in shooting costume, a velveteen coat, leather gaiters, and heavy boots. He was a young man, of fair complexion, with a light moustache, and a mass of curling hair. The lady hurried forward and extended her hand. Norah started; her face was very red, and she seemed overwhelmed with confusion.
"You will pray pardon my intrusion upon you in such a costume as this," said Mr. Randolph Pym apologetically, and glancing rapidly from Norah to Jim with a look full of inquiry. He was evidently confused as well as surprised. "The fact is," he stammered, "I—I—have hastened here. I—I—really it's a painful position for me to be placed in; but—I—I have been shooting in the Black Lake Wood, and near the lake I witnessed to my astonishment Norah in the arms of this gen—this fellow. I came here to question Norah, and warn you, as well as demand from this young man an explanation."
The unexpected appearance of the Hon. Randolph Pym not only complicated matters, but added greatly to the dramatic intensity of the scene.
A old, almost sardonic smile showed itself in the lines of Mrs. Lacey's face, as turning haughtily to Jim it said in measured tones of studied insult—
"Jim Spedwick, this gentleman is the Hon. Randolph Pym, youngest son of our neighbour and close friend Sir Yardley Pym, Baronet, and formerly M.P. for this county. My daughter Norah there is pledged and engaged to Mr. Pym, with the full consent of myself and her father, to become his wife. You will, therefore, have the good sense, I hope, to realize at once that you are out of place here. You are intruding, and after the information I have now given you it would be impertinence for you to continue to force yourself on Norah."
The two men exchanged glances, angry glances. They knew they were rivals, and between men so situated hatred is human and inevitable. But here in the presence of the ladies they were necessarily restrained. Jim was at a disadvantage; he was at a loss how to act, what to say. He looked into Norah's eyes for encouragement, inspiration. She was overwhelmed by this unexpected development. Her distress was pitiable. Her breast rose and fell rapidly with emotion. Her face was flushed, her eyes misty with tears. She felt to the full the responsibility that rested upon her. Here were two young men appealing to her woman's heart. One was of her own choosing, the other the choice of her father.
It was a cruel and painful position for a young girl to be placed in. It was a solemn moment too, for it was big with her own fate, and probably the fate of those, around her. It was true she was pledged to young Randolph Pym. He was the son of a wealthy man, and his father's estates adjoined those of Mr. Lacey's. By both parties it was considered that a union of the families by marriage was very desirable in every way, and Norah's parents had been at great pains to impress upon her that it was her solemn duty to do exactly as they wanted her to do, without any reference to her own personal feelings. In a spirit of dutiful obedience she had complied with their wishes. She had accepted the "Hon." Randolph Pym's addresses, had acknowledged him as her affianced husband, and the respective fathers had been busy discussing the marriage settlement. Randolph being the youngest son was entirely dependent upon his father, but he felt that in marrying Norah Lacey his future would be secure. Although he had ni legitimate right to the prefix of ".Hon." before his name, the Ministerfield people had so dubbed him, and he was always so addressed.
During all the time that Jim Spedwick had been away, Norah had not ceased to think of him, while the love-letters he had written to her before he fell into disgrace were among her most treasured possessions; she had, however, gradually come to regard Jim as a lost ideal, and had settled down to the prospect of becoming Pym's wife. But Jim's sudden return had revived within her all the old feeling, and convinced her that her love for him was as real and strong as ever, and she felt now, in the extraordinary situation created by the presence of the two men under her father's roof, she must speak her mind or for ever hold her peace.
This it was that with trembling voice and yet with resolute determined air, and to the amazement of her mother and Randolph, she said—
"I have given my heart to Jim Spedwick, whom I have known all my life, and if I am not to be his wife I will be wife to no one."
IF Norah had dropped a bombshell on the floor of the room, she could scarcely have caused more consternation to show itself in the faces of Mr. Pym and her mother than did her announcement that she would be wife to Jim or no man. Perhaps Jim himself was scarcely less surprised than they were. He was quite conscious of the fact that he was placed in a delicate as well as an awkward position. He was poor and in a sense friendless, while arrayed against him was a combination of wealth and power. Nevertheless, if Norah declared for him, he was prepared to fight his way through sea and land, and face his foes with a front of brass for her sake. That was his feeling at that moment.
Mrs. Lacey was the first to speak. Opening her eyes, and elevating her brows to their fullest possible extent as indicating the supreme surprise she felt, she exclaimed—
"Well—that—I—should—have—lived—to witness—such a scene as this." Then turning to Jim she said with a fine, acid scorn, "Your disgraceful career does not encourage me to hope that you will recognize your duty in this crisis and tell that silly girl not to disgrace herself and the proud name she bears. Yet it is your duty to do so."
Jim's blood stirred within him, and his indignation was strong as, meeting the lady's burning looks steadfastly, he answered—
"Whatever your hopes may be, Mrs. Lacey, my duty to myself is plain. Your reference to my disgraceful career as you are pleased to term it is unpardonable. My career has not been disgraceful. But anyway as Norah is true to me I shall cling to her and claim her in spite of all you may say or do."
Randolph Pym's face darkened at these defiant words, and an involuntary cry of horror escaped from Mrs. Lacey's lips. She almost rushed to the bell rope, pulled it violently once more, and when the flunky appeared she commanded him to—
"Remove that fellow; show him to the door," that fellowbeing Jim Spedwick, at whom she pointed a finger of scorn.
She was a foolish woman to betray her anger and want of self-control before the servant, but she had allowed her feelings to entirely carry her away and she was lost to reason.
Jim Spedwick did not hesitate on the course to pursue. He must act promptly for Norah's sake; she was evidently suffering keenly, and she cast an appealing look at him, a look that plainly said, "Please go."
"Pray don't concern yourself, Mrs. Lacey," said Jim with a courtly bow. "I don't want showing to the door. I know where it is, and I have the honour to wish you good-night."
With a quick, hurried glance at Norah and without deigning to notice Pym, he walked out of the room in a most dignified way and left the house. It was a beautiful calm summer night, and the stars were shining brightly. There was a deep peace in the night stillness. Nature was at rest, and the world was beautiful; the starry heavens spoke of the greatness and immensity of the universe; of limitless expanses and vast aeons of time, but Spedwick was in no mood to note these things. His heart was hot and restless, and his brain vexed with the complex problem that the events of that day had shaped themselves into. Man's life is a little span but it leads through tortuous ways and eidolons of things that seem but are not, mock him, and often lure him to suffering and destruction. But of all the forces that act upon human nature for good and ill the greatest is love. It is capable of making a man desperate and terrible, and of taking his reason prisoner.
As Jim Spedwick pursued his way through the night and over the silent fields to his home in the old-world town of Ministerfield, he was perfectly conscious that the threads of his life were ravelled, and his future dark and uncertain. What hope was there that even if Norah should remain true to him, he would ever be able to consummate his desires by making her his wife? Her people were powerful in that part, and she was pledged by them to a man who was not likely to yield his prize without a desperate struggle. What chance had Jim against such forces? He was poor and without influence; what was there to look forward to? His crotchety uncle in Jamaica might not do something for him, but it was all uncertain. The lad was by no means lacking in ability and force of character, but somehow he had warped his life so far, and he could not cheat himself into a belief that he was anything but a dependant. The current of his career had been swept by the force of circumstances into a rocky channel, and it seemed to him that it would never flow smoothly again. The idea of abandoning the struggle for the hand of Norah was maddening; but would he be justified in persuading her to give up luxury and wealth, the love and honour of friends and relatives, to wreck the peace of her home in order to share with him poverty and perhaps disgrace? It was too great a sacrifice to ask even love to make. That the girl loved him now was indubitable, but would even her love stand the test that she would be called upon to endure?
He came to the conclusion that it would not. He had made a mistake in returning to England, or at any rate in seeing her. He was disturbing her peace of mind, doing her an injustice, and he must hasten to repair the mischief he had already done. He would give her up; he would go away, never to return until the possibility of Norah becoming his wife no longer existed.
In this varying mood, and oppressed with doubts and fears, he reached his home in Ministerfield. His father was a quiet man, not averse to occasional conviviality, but fond of books, and though poor, proud; He was much embittered against Mr. Lacey, whom he regarded as an upstart, but he had always shown a great liking for Norah. He could not fail to notice his son's moodiness when he returned on that eventful night, and he questioned him as to the cause. Jim frankly told him, and Mr. Spedwick made no attempt to conceal his annoyance.
"I am surprised," he said, "that you should have so little respect for yourself, for me and for the name you bear, as to place yourself in the power of these Laceys. Wean yourself from your infatuation for Norah. There are plenty of other young women in the world, and you've got life before you. Why make troubles for yourself in striving after the impossible? The Laceys have come out of the gutter. You have an ancestry to boast of. Why then should you crawl on your knees for the sake of Norah? There are thousands of young women in the world, any one of which would jump at you. Mind you, I am not saying a word in disparagement of Norah. The girl is to be pitied; but you haven't a penny to bless yourself with, I have no money to leave you. You are not justified, therefore, in encouraging the girl to stick to you. Of course if your Uncle Dick in Jamaica would leave you his money, your position would be different. But he's a curious mortal, and has been away so long that he is out of touch and out of sympathy with his family; and though he is my own brother he has never treated me kindly. For myself I wouldn't ask him for a shilling. I have never injured him, but he has said hard things about me. He blames me for my poverty—an easy thing to do. However, you have got to look after yourself; your future is in your own hands; don't mess your life about. Go back at once to your uncle. Stick to him; bow down to him; let him walk over you if it pleases him; let him walk over you if it pleases him, so long as he leaves his wealth to you. Remember he is an old man, and his span is nearly complete. Don't throw that chance away. In this strangely constituted world you can do nothing without money. Money is everything. 'Men make it a golden idol and bow down and worship it. If you have money, though your sins be as scarlet, people will fawn upon you. With money you can buy human souls."
Mrs. Spedwick, a subdued, careworn woman, whose life had been a disappointment, supported her husband in his argument, which was sound enough. She loved her boy, and it lacerated her heart that he should have to go from her; but it was for his own good, and she subordinated her own feelings, sacrificed herself for his sake. Jim's distress was very great, though he could not be indifferent to the advice of his parents. He fully recognized his own helplessness. He could not, dare not ask Norah to defy her people and share his poverty with him. So he went to his bed with a mental resolution. He would give Norah up, and on the morrow write to her to that effect. He would cut short his holiday; take the coach to Liverpool in a few days, and thence get ship back to Jamaica. He felt desperate, reckless and miserable, but it was no use fighting against the stars. Norah was lost to him, and it was worse than folly trying to blink the fact.
Such was his frame of mind as he fell into an uneasy sleep, and such was his frame of mind when he rose in the morning weary and unrefreshed. But as the day wore on there was placed in his hands by an under-gardener, employed at Runnell Hall, a letter, and that letter was from Norah.
"My dear one," it ran. "That awful scene last
night nearly killed me, and after you had gone I had to endure
purgatory. I have never seen my mother so angry, and in the
presence of Mr. Pym she said all sorts of hard and cruel things,
while he, like the coward that he is, took her part against me.
Mother is writing to-day to father, who is in London, and is going
to send her letter by special messenger. But, Jim dear, I don't
care what they do so long as you remain true to me. I won't give
you up. And I will have you if I have to wait years. It is simply
awful that they should want me to marry a man that I don't care two
straws for. I told Mr. Pym last night that I could never love him;
but he only laughed and said I was simply infatuated with you, and
that as soon as you had gone away again I would forget all about
you. But you won't believe that, will you, dear? My heart is yours
and yours only, and unless you say that you don't want me I will
die rather than be forced to wed a man I hate. Oh how I wish I
could comfort you, for I know how unhappy you will be; but don't,
despair, dear one. You know the saying, I think it is one of
Shakespeare's plays, 'The course of true love never did run
smooth.' If we are true to each other we shall triumph in the end.
I love, you, dear with all my heart and soul, and if you are
patient you shall have me. I had no idea that my mother could have
been so embittered against you, but she seems to be entirely under
the influence of Mr. Pym, who imagines that I am so lacking in
spirit and independence that I will submit to be treated like a
child. He made me very angry last night when he accused you of
being a dissipated young man, with no moral principles. I was
furious, and spoke my mind very freely.
"You may imagine the time I had with the two of them; mother on one side and Mr. Pym on the other. But I held my own, I assure you, and told them I wouldn't hear a word said against you. But it was no use, they said the most cruel, bitter things, and I was so overcome that at last I fainted. When I had recovered I was thankful to find that Mr. Pym had gone.
"Of course, dear, we shall be closely watched and shall have to be very careful; but I felt as if I should go mad this morning if I didn't write to you and tell you that I shall be faithful unto death. I am sending this by Robin Agg, one of the gardeners, though I don't think it is wise to rely upon him, or anyone else. But you must let me have an answer, Jim, and tell me you won't let them separate us. There is a way we can write to each other without its being known. In the wood, close to the gate, where I met you yesterday, is a large oak on the left side of the path with a hole in the trunk. Don't you remember when you and I were children we once took a tomtit's nest out of that hole. Write me a letter and put it in that hole to-night and I will go for it some time to-morrow, and the following day I will put one there for you. But be sure you are careful, dear, for we shall be watched. God bless you, my dear sweetheart. Be true to me."
By the time he had finished reading this very womanly letter Jim's previous resolutions had all vanished, and he made fresh ones. Neither persuasions nor force should prevail upon him to give Norah up. And it came into his mind to suggest that she should elope with him to Gretna Green, and as soon as they were married they would leave England for Jamaica. It was a bold scheme and he kept it to himself; but he forgot the old proverb, "Man proposes, but God disposes." A lover, however, is invariably reckless, and ready to take risks that under other circumstances he would shrink from. Norah was still under age and still dependent upon, and under, her parents' control. Her father was a wealthy man, but if she defied him he might cast her out and leave her penniless. Moreover, an alliance by marriage with the House of Pym had become almost a mania with him. It appealed to his pride, for the Pyms were an old county family, although there had been many black sheep among them. But the present baronet was wealthy, with great political influence. And though Lacey had riches, he had hitherto failed to obtain the recognition at the hands of the aristocracy of the county that he so much desired. But Sir Yardley Pym, an easy-going and exceedingly worldly man, did not hold his head quite as high as some of his people had done. Moreover, Randolph had been a source of anxiety to him, with a tendency to fast living. Therefore the old man had come to regard marriage between his son and Norah as a very desirable thing. And in discussing the matter with Mr. Lacey he stipulated, that apart from any settlement he himself might make, Lacey should pay off the young man's debts, which were by no means inconsiderable, and present the young couple with a portion of the Lacey estates, which comprised an old and very comfortable mansion. To these terms Lacey had readily agreed, and all the desires of the two families seemed in a fair way of being realized. It will therefore be easily understood that Jim Spedwick would have to contend against forces that were likely to prove too powerful for him. At the same time Randolph Pym was exceedingly uneasy in his mind, and by no means disposed to underrate his enemy; he recognized clearly that if Norah was determined, Jim Spedwick was a force that would have to be reckoned with.
THAT very night Jim had written an answer to Norah's letter and himself conveyed it to the secret post office. It was a letter strong in expressions of love and devotion, and he vowed that nothing should separate him from her. He asked her to try and arrange an interview, as he had a proposal to make. To restrain his impatience until he had got her answer was difficult, and the time went by with leaden feet. She told him that an interview was out of the question as she was being closely watched; nor would it be safe to write again for some time, as she was afraid she could not convey a letter to the place appointed without running risk of discovery. She renewed her vows of constancy, and bade him hope and wait.
"Be patient," she counselled, "and all may be well."
Before many days had passed Mr. Lacey returned. His wife's letter brought him back from London post-haste. He was a hot-headed, excitable man, with a tremendous belief in himself, and a very exaggerated sense of his own importance. Of course he had his good points, and was not without a considerable measure of generosity. His great weakness was vanity. Let him have his own way and he was genial enough; but thwart him and you could expect no mercy. Mr. Spedwick senior had always thwarted him. Spedwick senior had treated him with contempt, and that according to Mr. Lacey was an unpardonable offence. Jim's love-making with Norah was a very sore point. He considered it an impertinence. He had set his heart on her marrying the Hon. Randolph Pym. This young man had been very wild, and had committed many sins against good taste and good manners. He had spent some time at Oxford, but had distinguished himself more by running into debt than by anything else. His father at last got tired of paying his debts and took him away. Since then he had lived the life of an exquisite, and had managed to ingratiate himself very strongly in the good opinion of Mr. and Mrs. Lacey. There was plenty of money in his family; his father was a man of distinction and to the Laceys a union between Norah and Randolph seemed to promise great things. The prospect of Norah becoming the wife of a baronet's son filled the hearts of her parents with unspeakable felicity. The return of young Spedwick, however, and the scene that had taken place consequent on his "unheard-of impertinence" in going to the Hall not only cast a shadow over their path, but filled them with misgivings, and Mr. Lacey hurried from London, resolved on taking very drastic measures to stop the love-making. So impatient was he to return that he would not wait for the stage coach, but had posted all the way. He had hoped when Jim left England he had disappeared for good, but here he was back again, and poor Mr. Lacey felt that he would know no peace of mind until this "young fellow's impudent pretensions were put an end to once and for all."
Of course the parental wrath descended in the first instance on the head of Norah. Mr. Lacey sincerely believed that the immortal welfare of his daughter was imperilled by her obstinacy in continuing to regard Jim with favour; he would not admit that she had any right to an independent judgment. It was her duty, he insisted, her "solemn sacred duty," to render unquestioning obedience to her parents who had her interests at heart, and were desirous of protecting her from the "malignant influence" of a "shameless scapegrace." He reminded her that she was a mere girl, and quite incapable at that stage of shaping her own future for her own welfare.
Norah did not venture on any counter argument, but she did press this question, "Why should you and my mother desire me to marry a man for whom I entertain no respect, and whom I certainly can never love? It will be a mere marriage of convenience, and can only result in misery and unhappiness."
Mr. Lacey met this with a flippant assertion that a girl of her age did not know her own mind, and the superior judgment of her parents was beyond cavil. It was a pretty conceit but not sound logic. Of course women have made grave mistakes in matters of love, but that doesn't prove that the parents are always right. At any rate in matters of the heart, rightly or wrongly, a woman strives for her own way and generally gets it. Though whether Norah was likely to do so, seemed very doubtful.
Having expended the first outburst of his wrath on his daughter, Mr. Lacey went off in a hot fume to interview Mr. Spedwick senior. He was resolved there should be a clear understanding once and for all, and Jim must be taught to know his place. There was an angry scene between the two men. Mr. Lacey was patronizing and mordacious, and the other resented it with a forcibleness of retort that did not make for peace.
"I consider it perfectly monstrous," said Mr. Lacey, "that the peace and happiness of my family should be disturbed and imperilled by the hair-brained pretentions of your ne'er-do-weel son."
Spedwick bitterly resented this imputation on his boy.
"You've no right to term him a ne'er-do-weel," he exclaimed. "He is honest, straightforward, and gentlemanly; that is more than can be said of the Hon. Randolph Pym."
This of course was oil on the fire, and Mr. Lacey fumed; but at this stage of the contest Jim himself unexpectedly appeared. He had been into the town, and was not a little surprised to find Mr Lacey and his father together. He knew at once what it meant. There was war.
"Look here, young man," cried Lacey impetuously. "You've got to cease poisoning my daughter's mind. Now let there be no mistake. I will not tolerate it. I must insist upon your respecting my wishes. But to prove that I bear you no ill-feeling I will give you a hundred guineas on your consenting to leave the country at once."
Nothing more undiplomatic, nothing more calculated provoke irritation than this, could have been thought of by Mr. Lacey. Father and son alike resented it. They were poor, but proud, and their pride was wounded to the quick. With a scorn that almost took Mr. Lacey's breath away Jim replied—
"If you offered me a thousand guineas I wouldn't accept it. I deny your right either to try to buy me or to sell your daughter."
"If you will accept a word of advice from me," put in Spedwick senior while his opponent was struggling to recover himself, "you will allow the young lady to follow her own inclinations instead of forcing her to accept a man for whom she has no love. Marriages of convenience should be left for royal families, and history leaves us in no doubt as to how they usually turn out. If my lad and your lass love each other, what is the use of trying to separate them."
Mr. Lacey's stock of patience, not great at any time, was exhausted, and he allowed his feeling to find vent in heated and unguarded language which culminated in a threat to invoke the aid of the law to protect his daughter from the "persecution of a disgraceful young scamp."
The threat was absurd, but Mr. Lacey was at his wits' ends, and his offer of money having been scornfully refused, he felt desperate. The object of his visit had not been secured, and he must now think out some other plan to prevent his daughter from being led into paths of disobedience.
Father and son were glad to get rid of their unwelcome visitor, but Mr. Spedwick was a little concerned in his own mind as to what the upshot of it all would be. This concern found expression in words.
"Much as I should like to bring old Lacey to his senses," he said, "I don't think there's much chance of doing it."
"Why?" asked Jim quickly.
"Well, you see, it's hardly likely Norah will have strength of mind to stand up against her father. Anyway trouble will come out of this business if you don't mind. I think the best thing you can do is to get back to Jamaica. I've told you before there are still as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it. Give Norah up. You will find somebody else you will like quite as well before long."
This advice, sound as it seemed, did not tend to elevate Jim's spirits, and as the days sped away he became more and more depressed, for he received no further communication from Norah. Night after night he went to the secret post office in the tree in the Black Lake Copse, but only to meet with disappointment, and his father's words, "It's hardly likely Norah will have strength of mind to stand up against her father," seemed to him now to be prophetic; but when it came to a question of leaving the country he wavered. If he could only obtain, one more interview with Norah and hear from her own lips what she desired he would be satisfied, he thought.
Thus the weeks dragged on and his misery increased. Suspense tortured him. One evening he was persuaded by some companions to adjourn to a renowned posting inn, known as the Half Moon, situated at the entrance to the town of Ministerfield. It was the birthday of one of the party who had invited the rest to celebrate the occasion by a supper. When the supper was ended they fell to playing cards in the public coffee-room, and while they were so engaged a second party of young men came upon the scene, and amongst them was the Hon. Randolph Pym. They had evidently been enjoying themselves and were a little hilarious. Jim ignored the presence of his rival, probably he did not even know that he was in the room, which was a very large one and a great many people were present. Spedwick's party occupied a recess formed by a large window. The card party had been playing for very moderate stakes, and success had favoured Jim who had quite a pile of counters in front of him. Suddenly Pym started up, moved to the recess, and, excited and flurried, exclaimed—
"Gentlemen, this man Mr. James Spedwick is cheating. I watched him cut the cards, and secretly slip an ace from the pack and place it on the top."
The confusion and uproar that followed on this accusation was remarkable. Jim sprang to his feet, the hot blood surging into his face.
"You lie," he exclaimed, "and I'll ram the lie down your throat." Before he could attack his enemy a strong pair of arms encircled him and held him back, and the landlord rushed upon the scene.
"I don't lie," answered Pym, still very excited. "I've been watching you, and I saw you manipulate the cards."
Jim tried to reach his accuser but was restrained. The landlord interposed, and said he could not allow the peace of his house to be disturbed, and if the gentlemen wished to quarrel they must leave his premises.
Feeling ran very high in the room, for a good many of those present were under the effects of wine. Of course the landlord was well acquainted with Pym and Spedwick, and was anxious to keep on good terms with the former. He therefore persuaded Jim to leave, telling him that as a gentleman he had his remedy. If he felt himself aggrieved he could challenge his accuser. Jim's party seemed unable to make up their minds one way or the other, but at last three or four of them vigorously espoused his case and expressed belief in his integrity. Smarting from the charge he denounced Pym as a blackguard, who, being his rival for the affections of the same lady, had taken this cowardly means to ruin him. This told in Jim's favour to some extent, but being afraid that a general scrimmage would ensue the landlord insisted on Jim's leaving, and yielding to the persuasions of his friends he took his departure, though before doing so told Pym he would call upon him to make good his words, and that on the morrow he would send him a challenge. It was an age of duelling, and it needed very little at times to breed a quarrel between two men, the sequel to which was a meeting with lethal weapons and, generally, bloodshed.
Jim Spedwick was greatly upset by the accusation made against him, and he appealed to his friends for an expression of their opinion. Those who knew him best did not hesitate to declare a belief in his innocence. The others were undecided, and one, a young fellow named Ralph Tinker, clerk to a solicitor in the town, said that it was rather an ugly circumstance that Jim had been winning all the evening.
"I admit that luck was in my favour," answered Jim, "but I swear solemnly that my play was fair."
As is ever the case in such matters there were divided opinions and Spedwick felt that his position was an awkward one. Spedwick senior, to whom his son had made a faithful statement, of all that had happened, took the nattier up, and let it be known widely in the town that Pym, being Jim's rival, could not be relied on.
In a little community like that of Ministerfield an incident of the kind became a common topic of conversation, and as the parties concerned were so well know, unusual interest was manifested, and the town practically ranged itself into two camps. When it became known that Jim Spedwick had sent a challenge to the Hon. Randolph Pym, who had returned for answer a distinct refusal, adding that as a gentleman he could and would not fight with a blackleg, the interest increased, and the question asked—
"What will Spedwick do now?"
Ralph Tinker, the solicitor's clerk, volunteered his advice to Jim in the following form—
"You cannot force Mr. Pym to fight with you, and you cannot clear yourself of this charge; you will, therefore, do well, it seems to me, to leave the country at once. In the course of time the incident will be forgotten; but at present things look exceedingly black against you. Now take my advice and go. To remain here is madness. I don't see what you can possibly hope to gain by doing so."
Jim could hardly refrain from laying violent hand on Tinker, whom he accused of being a creature of Pym's. This promised to lead to further complications. Those, however, who thought that Jim Spedwick was going to take things lying down made a grave mistake. He nursed his grievance and bided his time, and his time came on the market day following the night of the accusation. A week had elapsed. The Ministerfield Market dated back for many generations, and people brought in their goods from quite far distant parts of the country. On this particular day Randolph Pym attended the market with a view to purchasing a horse. Under any circumstances he generally came into the town on the market day, and at such times he dined at the Half Moon inn, where on that day there was always an ordinary, which was a great attraction, as it brought people together and naturally led to much conviviality.
Anticipating his coming Spedwick had been on the look-out for him, and meeting him in the part of the market devoted to horses and cattle, he at once accosted him, and in the presence of the crowd exclaimed—
"Randolph Pym, here in this public place I charge you with being a liar and a scoundrel, and since you have declined to afford me the satisfaction of a gentlemen I publicly horsewhip you."
Suiting the action to the word, he produced a whip from under his coat and proceeded to vigorously lash his rival about the face and neck.
HOW far Jim Spedwick would have carried the castigation of his rival it is difficult to say; he felt that he had a heavy score to wipe off, and he was aroused to a pitch of temper which made self-restraint very difficult. But when the astonishment, which the sudden attack caused the country people, had passed off, Jim was seized and forcibly held back. His self-possession almost immediately returned, and throwing down the whip, which had been broken by the force of the blows, he said—
"That man has sought to ruin me in this my native town, and when I demanded the satisfaction I was entitled to, he added insult to insult. I have, therefore, publicly whipped him, and I as publicly accuse him of having wilfully lied in order to bring discredit upon me."
Mr. Pym did not show to any advantage in this encounter. He seemed to have entirely lost his nerve, and made no attempt to defend himself beyond raising his arms to protect his face. But despite that, his face was cut and blood dripped from the wounds. He was deadly pale, and appeared confused and almost stupefied. He had never dreamed that his rival would have shown so much spirit; and not for a moment had he anticipated such a scene as this.
"If there is law in the land you shall pay for this outrage," he gasped, in hot and choking anger. His pride was wounded to the quick, and he felt that he been worsted.
"Never mind the law," growled Jim; "if you have any honour and you think it's wounded, I'll render you satisfaction when and where you will; for the present I'll leave you."
It was many a long day since Ministerfield had had such a sensation as this attack on a baronet's son in the open market place. The simple farmers and country folk who thronged the market knew nothing of the merits of the quarrel between the two men, but it became common knowledge that they were rivals for the hand of the same lady, and that fact added greatly to the interest. The question that was asked was, what would Pym do? Socially, the opponents were not considered to be on equal terms, but it was admitted that unless Randolph could substantiate the serious charge he had made, he was bound to withdraw it and apologize; or, failing that, Jim was within his rights in demanding satisfaction. Jim's vigorous action certainly won him a good many supporters. Anyway, there would be some pretty developments, and a quarrel between two young men, arising out of a love episode, was so much more interesting than one due to a dispute about some nice point of honour. The developments, however, that were subsequently to startle the town would prove very different from anything that could possibly be imagined. The quarrel was simply the prologue to a strange and sensational drama, destined to take a prominent place in the history of the quiet old town.
When Spedwick left the Market Square he went straight to his home and told his father what had happened. Mr. Spedwick did not reproach his son. What had happened was only what might have been expected under the circumstances, but he could not help feeling some uneasiness about the future. He felt certain that this horsewhipping would lead to results, but what the results were likely to be he could not guess.
The Hon. Randolph Pym adjourned to the Half Moon inn to wash the blood from his face and compose himself. Of course the news of the incident soon spread, and he found himself an object of interest as well as sympathy, for most of the people knew him, and some of them described what they were pleased to term "The unprovoked attack" as "dastardly." Pym being a baronet's son had his followers. In a little while Mr. Lacey arrived. He had been transacting some business in the town when he was made acquainted with the incident that was being so freely discussed, and he hastened at once to Pym to express his sympathy with him and his indignation with the author of "the outrage." In order that the legal aspects of the case might be discussed, an attorney, a Mr. John Saunders, the employer of Ralph Tinker, was sent for, and all the facts were placed before him. He was a shrewd man with a good deal of legal acumen and a faculty for weighing all the nice points of a case as they were likely to influence, pro and con, a judge or jury. To the disappointment of Mr. Lacey and his prospective son-in-law he came to the conclusion that they were not likely to gain much by taking the case into the court; and his reasons were clear. Pym had accused Spedwick of cheating, but his accusation apparently was unsupported. Spedwick was within his rights in challenging him, but while Pym could refuse to meet him, he was wrong in describing him as a blackleg, which was a very opprobrious epithet in those days, and commonly applied to people who were known to be card and dice cheats. If Pym prosecuted his opponent it would be urged that Spedwick had received very great provocation, and he would in all probability be acquitted, or at the worst but lightly fined. On the other hand it would be open to Spedwick to bring an action for slander, and unless Pym was prepared with indubitable proof he might be cast in heavy damages.
"It seems to me, gentlemen," said this Solomon in conclusion, "that only one of two courses is open—either to fight or let it drop. You, Mr. Pym, accused, somewhat rashly in my opinion, your rival of cheating. You were not one of his party; you were not playing with him. He retaliates by thrashing you. Now if you carry it into a court of law think of the scandal. And Mr. Spedwick being a rival lover is certain to be an object of much sympathy. It's a pretty quarrel as it stands, but I think that the less it is made public the better it will be for all concerned."
The soundness of the legal man's arguments was incontestable, but needless to say both Pym and Lacey were very disappointed. Pym's vanity, and he was an exceedingly vain young man, was sorely wounded; and Mr. Lacey's fears were that his daughter, who had a great deal of self-will and determination, would be more closely drawn to Spedwick's side. It was a complicated situation bristling with all sorts of difficulties, and they both felt that the only solution of the problem was to get rid of Spedwick. But how?
The question was easily asked. It required a Sphinx to find the answer. The Spedwicks were well known, and as law-abiding citizens they had their rights. It wasn't a crime for Jim Spedwick to love a young lady, even though he was poor and she was the daughter of a rich man. Mr. Lacey, hot-headed as he was, could not close his eyes to the difficulties that confronted him, and he counselled Pym to take no further steps in the matter of a public nature. Jim Spedwick would have to be considered, but diplomacy was required and scandal must be avoided.
While this interview was going on, the subject it, that is, Jim Spedwick, resolved upon a bold and daring step. He penned a letter to Norah, giving her a succinct account of all that occurred, and begging her to send him a few lines to assure him that he might still hope. The delivery of the letter was entrusted to an old and faithful servant, who had entered the service of the Spedwick family before Jim was born. She was charged to go with speed to Runnell Hall and endeavour to deliver the letter into Norah's hands. Failing that, she was to bring the letter back, and under no circumstances be cajoled into parting with it, unless to Norah herself.
Jim's suspense and anxiety during the absence of his messenger may be easily imagined. He believed that the chances of success were in his favour, for he knew that as a rule Mr. Lacey came into town on a market day. Old Betty was cautious and trustworthy, and if any one could succeed in communicating with Norah she was the one to do it. Nevertheless, during her absence, the hours passed heavily enough. Even by the field paths, the shortest way, it was seven miles to the Hall, so that the old woman had to walk fourteen miles; but the country-bred as she was thought nothing of that.
The eventful day drew to a close. The stir and bustle died down as the country people took their departure, and the town began to resume its normal quietude, which would remain undisturbed until the next market day. But Jim Spedwick's heart was hot and restless. His present position was full of trouble, his future dark and uncertain, and all for the love of a lass. The idea of giving her up was not to be thought of for a moment; but if she gave him up, and was it not possible she might be coerced into doing so? his life, as it seemed to him at the moment, would not be worth living. And even supposing she resolved to be true to him, how were the difficulties to be surmounted? His lack of means rendered him powerless, and he was aware that Norah had no means of her own. If he returned to Jamaica, the probabilities were, he would not be able to revisit his home for some years. His uncle had opposed objections to his coming on this occasion, and would be hardly likely to sanction a second absence for some considerable time. To offend his uncle would be fatal to his hopes. This uncle was the rich man of the family, and his poor relations, who were numerous enough, turned their eyes wistfully and longingly to him. Jim's father felt he was doing a wise thing when he sent his son out to Jamaica, although it cost him and Mrs. Spedwick many a pang to part from their boy. But, as Mr. Spedwick argued with his wife, "It is for the lad's welfare." Jim was not indifferent to all this, and he recognized his duty. At the same time if it became a question of neglecting his duty or sacrificing Norah, he felt that he would have to undertake a tremendous struggle with himself. The mere thought of giving Norah up tortured him.
When darkness had fallen he could endure his suspense no longer, and started out to meet Betty as she came back from the Hall. He proceeded a considerable distance before he espied her trudging, somewhat wearily, along.
"Did you deliver the letter?" he cried, unable to restrain his impatience.
"'Deed I did," she answered breathlessly, for she had been hurrying. "I was told by a servant that the young leddy was out riding, so I bided till she returned, and slipped t' letter in her hand as soon as she got off her horse."
"Well, well, and did she give you an answer?"
"Aye, she did." The old woman produced a letter, tied with a piece of ribbon, from the bosom of her dress. Jim seized it, and so eager was he to learn its contents that he left Betty and hurried off, for the darkness prevented him from reading it there. He had covered at least a mile before he met an empty wain, and with a lantern hung in front of it, lumbered along. He stopped the sleepy driver, and by the dim light of the horn lanthorn he read the precious lines, which were as follows—
"Dear Heart of mine, I am terribly distressed at your news and fear that trouble is brewing. But oh, Jim dear, I cannot, will not, give you up. Even if they flay me alive I will not marry Pym. I am yours, Jim, yours till death. I have been unable to communicate with you as all my movements are watched. The groom who accompanies me on my rides is a spy, and he saw old Betty give me your letter, therefore my people will know, but I don't care. Jim dear, I am most unhappy. What is to be done? Can't you carry me off and marry me? Then they couldn't separate us. But whatever happens, Jim, I will be true to you. I know you will be true to me. Father is going to take us all, and some of the servants, up to London, and this house is to be shut up for some time. Mr. Pym is to accompany us, so you know what sort of a life I shall lead. But trust me, Jim. Whatever they do they shall never make me become Mr. Pym's wife."
Spedwick read this letter with mixed feelings. The information Norah gave him was ominous; and if she was removed to London, what hope had he of seeing her again? In the first place he could not remain in England indefinitely. He had promised his uncle that he would return to the West Indies after a brief holiday. If he failed to redeem that promise he would jeopardize all his future prospects. His uncle was his only hope. To carry out Norah's suggestion, that is, bear her off and marry her, was impracticable owing to the want of means. But even if he could do that how could he support her?
Look which way he would he saw nothing but difficulties; and so utterly hopeless did his position seem that he was crushed by a sense of utter despair.
AS Norah surmized might be the case, it became known to her father that she had received a letter. The groom was the informant. The man had received instructions to keep a close watch on his young mistress, and as ample reward was promised both by his master and Mr. Pym, if he rendered faithful service, he did not hesitate to play the part of spy. Mr. Lacey, relying on the fondness a young woman has for treasuring her love-letters, deemed it highly probable that the letter Norah had received, if it was from Jim, would not be destroyed. He therefore instructed his wife to make a careful search that night for the letter, as it might prove valuable in furnishing proof of what Spedwick's intentions were, and they might then be able to guard against them. Unhappily for Norah's peace of mind she did treasure the missive. Her first impulse was to destroy it, but it seemed like sacrilege to do that. She couldn't bring herself to do it. She would keep it until the morrow she thought, and destroy it after she had read it again and again. The written words of love from a lover to his mistress are so precious that a young woman may be pardoned for attaching an importance to them, which to the unsentimental world seems ridiculous. It would have been better, however, for Norah had she allowed caution to over-rule sentiment in this instance. As it was she did not exercise even ordinary care, for she placed it in her open jewel-case, where her vigilant mother discovered it, and the next day the girl had to face her parents, who confronted her with what they termed that "damning evidence" of her guilt. One sentence was dwelt upon, as pointing to peculiar depravity on the part of the writer. It ran thus—
"It is pretty evident, I think, that while your father lives our chances of coming together are small, unless by something like a miracle he can be converted to our views. But unfortunately the age of miracles is past."
Poor Norah endured something worse than a bad quarter of an hour. For nearly two hours she was subjected to her father's wrath. Never before had she known him so utterly carried away by his feelings. The strength of his expressions to her was only excelled by his abuse of Jim, whom he described as a disturber of the family peace, and "a dangerous and unprincipled young scoundrel." He dwelt with great emphasis on Spedwick's poverty.
"Surely," he said, "you can hardly be responsible for your actions if you prefer poverty and misery with a pauper to wealth and luxury with a man of position."
"I prefer poverty and love to luxury and a loveless marriage," replied his daughter boldly.
This irritated Mr. Lacey still more, and he vowed she should marry Pym if he had to drag her to the altar.
"This mad infatuation of yours must be cured," he exclaimed, "even though I have to shut you up until you come to your senses."
In spite of his show of authority and his threats Mr. Lacey felt far from satisfied that his control was as complete as he tried to make himself believe it was. He told his wife that their departure for London must be hastened, and the date for the marriage of Norah and Pym be fixed much earlier than originally intended. In the meantime increased vigilance was to be exercised over Norah, and Mr. Pym was to be requested to set some watch over Jim Spedwick's movements. For fully a week Pym did not put in appearance at Dingle Hall. He was ashamed of the marks on his face,—marks left there by his rival's horsewhip. Moreover, he found that this incident of the horsewhipping, which was being freely discussed, had placed him in a very awkward position. It was repeatedly asked whether he was going to submit tamely to such an outrage. It was urged that as a gentleman of high standing his honour would be severely compromised if he did not take some action. But what action could he take? he asked. He had no legal remedy; of course he could retaliate by horsewhipping his opponent, but it was obvious that would not terminate the dispute, and it might make matters very much worse. Jim Spedwick had shown himself to be a fighting man.
There was one adviser who was very emphatic in his opinion as to the proper course to be pursued. That one was 'Mr. Ralph Tinker, the attorney's clerk. Since the night of the alleged cheating at cards Tinker had had several interviews with the Hon. Randolph Pym, and seemed to be very proud indeed of the connexion he had thus formed. Pym did not hesitate to consort with this young man, whose reputation in the town was not of the best, for his own purposes, and the chief of them was to utilize him as a spy on Jim. It was not very creditable to the Hon. Randolph Pym, but he was prepared to go to great lengths if he could, not only disgrace but ruin his rival, or anyway drive him out of the country. Something had to be done if Jim was to be rendered powerless.
Ralph Tinker, who had more than a little of the cunning of the serpent in him, and whose knowledge of the law, and some ability in argument, made him doubly dangerous, ventured to give his patron advice.
"You see you can't afford to ignore this fellow," he said. "Jim Spedwick is a determined chap, and having thrashed you once, he may thrash you again. Anyway he can make things very disagreeable; you ought to settle him, or the chances are he will run off with Miss Lacey.
"Call him out. Now take my advice and call him out."
"But he's not my social equal."
"Fudge! What does that matter? He's committed an outrage on you. Send him a challenge; choose pistols as the weapons and shoot him dead. As it is now you are playing into his hands."
"But—" gasped Pym.
"I know your objection—the law. It's a serious matter to kill a man even in fair duel. Leave it to me, however. Even the law can be hoodwinked. I'll prove that your rival had registered a vow to kill you either by fair means or foul. That you had no alternative but to defend yourself, and it was your life against his. We can bring plenty of influence to bear in your favour; at the worst you would probably get off with a fine, and your rival would be dead. Dead men tell no tales; dead men do not come back to horsewhip us and to annoy us with their rivalry for the hand of the same lady. You understand! It's no use demurring on points of etiquette when you are in imminent danger."
This subtle reasoning produced effect on the listener. Pym knew that he had to deal with an obstinate young lady and a determined young man. The danger to his peace of mind and the prospects of their marriage, so long as Jim Spedwick remained in Ministerfield, was too obvious to be overlooked. The Spedwicks were people of some importance in their way and could not be ignored. The Hon. Randolph Pym was a gentleman who had lived hitherto entirely for himself. Pure selfishness dominated all his actions. His family were noted for the keenness with which they studied their own interests. They were an old county family, but no philanthropic movement or act could be placed to their credit. Sir Yardley Pym did not like to be worried about anything. His chief concern in life was what he should eat and drink. He was a martyr to gout, and that made him very irritable. Coming from such a stock and indoctrinated with narrow, cramped views, young Pym seemed to think that nothing should be tolerated that interfered with his aims and desires. Then again his vanity was excessive, and Jim Spedwick had wounded that vanity by publicly horsewhipping him. His physical hurt was small, but his feelings were lacerated to a degree that was almost unendurable, and after the manner of all small-minded people he thirsted for vengeance; but how was he to obtain it? He shrank from taking risks. But the way that society was constituted in the little community of Ministerfield did not leave him much choice. If a gentleman considered that he had been insulted by another gentleman, the custom in vogue at the time enabled him to challenge him to a more or less deadly encounter; but in this instance the Hon. Randolph Pym took his stand upon the fine point of social dignity. He was pleased to think that Jim was very far beneath him. Nevertheless Jim was a force to be reckoned with. Jim knew bow to protect himself, and his courage could not be questioned. Under all the circumstances, therefore, Mr. Pym was susceptible to subtle suggestion that had for its object the rendering of Jim Spedwick impotent for mischief. The tempter Tinker had said—
"You can't afford to ignore this fellow."
The Hon Randolph Pym could not be altogether obdurate against the cogency of that premise; the question was, "How could he deal with him?" Ralph Tinker furnished the answer, "Dead men tell no tales, dead men do not come back to horsewhip us," he had said.
Of course if two men pitted themselves against each other in a contest for supremacy, the best man would win, that is to say if he had fairplay. If the Hon. Randolph Pym endeavoured to avenge his outraged honour by challenging Jim Spedwick to mortal combat, and Jim Spedwick should prove the better man, it would be awkward for the challenger. This possible contingency gave Mr. Pym pause, and he discussed the point with Ralph Tinker whom he had come to regard as a mentor and instrument of considerable importance.
"Of course," said Tinker, "if you meet your rival on equal terms the fortune of the fight might go against you. In fact, from what I know of Jim Spedwick I would back his chances. He's a dead shot. You see, he's had a lot of practice. But you must arrange it so that the odds are in your favour."
"How?" asked the Hon. Randolph Pym eagerly, and with an increasing interest.
"The information has a value, sir," answered Tinker. Mr. Ralph Tinker was an attorney's clerk, and did not give advice for nothing.
"I am prepared to recognize that," said Pym, "and you may rely on my not underrating the value. But I am anxious to know how you propose to deal with Spedwick?"
"You see, I am still friendly with him up to a point, although he has abused me. But he does not dream that I have played into your hands. When you send your challenge I will offer my services to him. Then I will arrange matters that he shall be absolutely at your mercy."
"By what process do you hope to accomplish that?"
"By taking care that he has no bullets in his pistol," replied the subtle Mr. Tinker, rubbing his hands one about the other, and glancing furtively at the hon. gentleman whom he was addressing. And the hon. gentleman's nature responded quickly to the dangerous influence that was thus being exercised. "Dead men tell no tales, and dead men do not come back to horsewhip us," rang through his brain. Mr. Pym, being inflated with his own pride and sense of self-importance, felt that the little world in which he and Jim Spedwick lived, moved and had their being was all too small for both of them. Jim's shadow eclipsed him. One of the two must give way. Mr. Pym being the son of a baronet was a luminary whose light must not be dimmed by a plebeian like Jim Spedwick. By courtesy, Mr. Pym was justified in prefixing Hon. to his name; but his sense of honour was easily deadened when his interests and his pride were at stake. At first he did waver a little with respect to Ralph Tinker's suggestion. If he met a man who by a conspiracy had been rendered impotent to do harm, and taking advantage of that fact, he shot him dead, there was one term, and one term only, that could be applied to the deed, that term was MURDER.
A bad and very ugly sound had murder, and it startled the Hon. Randolph, thus causing him to waver, until he heard that Jim had written to Norah; that Norah had answered his letter; and when taken to task by her parents, she had defied them, and declared that she would adhere to Jim.
This information braced Mr. Pym to a degree of firmness and he wavered no longer. He sent an urgent message to Ralph Tinker that he wished to see him, and when he came he said—
"Tinker, I have decided to send a challenge to Jim Spedwick."
Mr. Ralph Tinker, the attorney's clerk, chuckled.
"If Mr. Spedwick accepts," answered Ralph Tinker in a low tone in which was a sinister, minatory ring, "then Mr. Spedwick's days in the land are numbered."
The Hon. Randolph Pym was very uneasy. His conscience troubled him, but he had travelled so far on the road of wrongdoing that he felt impelled, by the evil influences to which he so readily yielded, to proceed further, in order, as he hoped, to render his position thoroughly secure. Therefore, conscience must be stilled in some way, for the stake he was playing was a large one. And either he must confess defeat, or win—win a all hazards and at any cost. It was a very dangerous game, but he was so far committed to it that he must continue it to the bitter end.
IT was clear to those who were most interested in and most intimate with Jim Spedwick that his attachment to Mr. Lacey's daughter, and his assault upon his rival, had involved him in a situation of extreme difficulty. How he was going to find his way out of it was by no means clear. He was as much in a tangle as was Pym himself; but unlike Pym he was a fair fighter, and not the man to avail himself of any mean advantage. He would checkmate his rival if he could, but he would checkmate him fairly. Necessarily his parents were painfully anxious about him, and urged with the eloquence of affection the advisability of his immediate return to Jamaica. But the lad could not make up his mind to do that. If he went away he gave the enemy a fair field. And though he had Norah's assurance that she would remain faithful to him, it would be expecting too much of human nature to suppose that, unsupported by his presence, she would be strong enough to resist the forces arrayed against her. Besides, if he left the country there was little hope of his being able to return for a longtime. That was self-evident, unless he chose to mortally offended his uncle. So far his uncle has shown him much kindness, but it would be unwise to tax his patience too far.
As Jim studied his position the more desperate did he become. The mere thought of giving up his claim to Norah was maddening. The only course open to him, therefore, was to take a bold plunge and clandestinely marry the girl. It would of necessity have to be a runaway match. The chances of his success would depend upon many things, though with Norah's hearty co-operation he might succeed. But having to regard the way in which she was watched her flight would not be easy. With his father he discussed the plan, and Spedwick senior was so anxious to outwit his old enemy Lacey that he encouraged his son, promising to place the sum of fifty guineas at his disposal; and as it was highly probable, he suggested, that Nora herself would be able to furnish something towards the sinews of war, the financial problem was practically solved. The next step was to arrange the details of the elopement. The vigilant enemy would have to be circumvented—not an easy matter, but not impossible of accomplishment. There was a traitor in the camp, however, but quite unsuspected by Jim. This traitor was Ralph Tinker. The two young men had been acquainted for many years, for they were both natives of the town. In Jim's emergency and trouble Tinker tendered his sympathy, and made a fine pretence of friendship, but as the reader will already have gathered he had sold himself to the enemy, and with diabolical wickedness was plotting Spedwick's doom. The unprincipled rascal had an esurient desire for riches, and he was prepared to go to great lengths, to stoop to any means almost, so long as he could gratify his greed without openly compromising himself.
At length the challenge from Randolph Pym reached Jim, and Tinker, being in the confidence of each party, had so arranged matters that he was with Jim at the Half Moon inn when the challenge was brought. The emissary who was charged the important duty of conveying the challenge was a haughty youth named Charles Lachemal, whose father was a small landed proprietor in a neighbouring county. Charles and Randolph were bosom friends.
Charles Lachemal made known that his dear friend, the Hon. Randolph Pym, had come to the conclusion that the gross insult to which he had been subjected and the blow to his pride and dignity could only be atoned for with blood. He therefore condescended to fight his plebeian rival with pistols. The place of meeting to be the north side of the Black Lake in the Black Lake Copse, as there would be no danger of their being disturbed there. It was private property and very secluded. The details of the meeting could be arranged by the seconds.
As Jim had horsewhipped Pym because he had denied him the satisfaction which a gentleman had the right to demand, when he considered that his honour had been insulted, he could not refuse the challenge. In accordance with the wicked scheme he had devised Ralph Tinker offered his services to Jim, who promptly sent back word to his opponent that he would meet him when and where he desired. Jim did not attempt to minimize the gravity of his position. It wasn't that he had the slightest fear of Pym. It was war to the knife, he knew that. The circumstances which had set him and his antagonist in opposition were of a nature to create the bitterest hatred. Rivalry on the part of two men for the hand of one woman has the most potent power for evil; it is capable of rendering men absolutely pitiless, and indifferent alike to honour and justice. It has been so since man came into the world. It will continue to the end of time, for though the world changes, human nature remains the same. Pym knew that as long as Jim remained in Ministerfield he had a rival whose influence was very great, and who might, unless he was rendered powerless, outwit him. Therefore it was obvious to Jim that when he faced his rival, each with a lethal weapon in hand, it would truly be a matter of life and death. If he succeeded in wounding his enemy there would be after trouble, and if he killed him he would have to face the terrors of the law. The law winked at duelling unless a combatant was killed. But if the slayer was rich and had influence he could get off with a fine.
In discussing the matter with Tinker, whose treachery he never once suspected, he said incidentally—
"You know all this trouble and ill-feeling is due to the obstinacy and obtuseness of Mr. Lacey, who cannot or will not see that he is trying to force his daughter into an odious marriage."
"Why don't you talk with the old man and try and overcome his prejudices?" suggested Jim insidiously.
"Pooh!" exclaimed Jim. "I might as well try to prevail upon the wind to cease blowing at my bidding. In this matter Mr. Lacey is adamant."
"My good fellow, need you ask? I am poor and without influence. Pym is the son of a baronet, and has excellent prospects."
"Then if Pym is the only obstacle between you and the lady you covet, you must kill him—or lose your bride."
"Yes, it will be a serious question of one or the other being killed, and I shall take precious good care that I am not the one if I can possibly help it, but even if I annihilate my enemy Pym, I have still got Mr. Lacey to reckon with."
"Remove him then," muttered Tinker.
"Kill him," replied Tinker with a laugh, as though he wished to imply that his suggestion must not be taken seriously; that it was a joke, a grim joke truly, but nevertheless a joke.
"You shouldn't make such a suggestion as that, even in joke," said Jim reprovingly and severely. "Mr. Lacey is a decided obstacle to my marriage with his daughter, but I have not sunk so low as to become an assassin. God forbid that I should entertain such a thought for a moment."
"Why, of course you wouldn't. You don't suppose that I meant what I said, do you?" replied Tinker, with an assumption of indignation. "You take me too seriously."
Jim had not attached any serious importance to the remark, and so he let the subject drop and discussed the details of the coming duel with his supposed friend; and leaving him to settle all the preliminaries he resolved in his own mind to have an interview with Norah if it were at all possible, but that thought he wisely kept to himself. The difficulties and risks were great that he knew, but he taxed his powers of invention to discover some way of overcoming them, though after long pondering he could arrive at no other conclusion than that old Betty was was the most reliable medium of communication. She was in full sympathy with him, and that was a great deal. So he entrusted her with a brief note in which he asked Norah to try and see him, and he also furnished Betty with a guinea which was to be used as a bribe if she deemed it necessary.
Betty started on her mission and conducted it to a successful issue, though probably she would have failed but for a lucky chance. She fell in with a farmer's wife with whom she had a casual acquaintance. The woman was on her way to Runnell Hall with a large basket of new-laid eggs. She visited the Hall once a week to convey eggs and poultry, and as she made a long journey she was invariably invited to partake of some refreshment in the kitchen. The farmer's wife, after being moved by a pathetic story of young lovers cruelly kept apart by a stern father, was induced to undertake the delivery of the note, and in the event of her success and bringing back a reply she was to receive a guinea. The rewards was so liberal that the woman vowed she would gain it. That afternoon as she was on her way back from the Hall she met Betty at an appointed spot and placed a note for Jim in her hand. She had managed to get Jim's letter conveyed to Norah and there was the reply. So she received her reward and was happy. In the note Norah gave Jim a rendezvous on the morrow, the place being a fernery in a secluded part of Runnell Hall grounds, which he could reach by roundabout way through some meadows and by climbing a fence.
The tryst was duly kept. The meeting was a very pathetic one, and necessarily it had to be very brief. Jim felt it to be his duty to tell Norah that on the following day he was to fight a duel with his rival. The poor girl was overcome with horror at the bare thought of it, and pleaded to him to refuse to meet Pym. She renewed her vows to be faithful to him, and declared that she was ready to elope with him at any moment.
"I will escape from the house to-night," she said, "and fly with you to Scotland if you like. Flight is our only hope, for my father is inflexible. He seems to think I am a mere child and have no right to any views of my own. But, Jim dear, I will die rather than marry Mr. Pym. I positively loathe him."
Spedwick was on the horns of a dilemma. For one thing there was hardly time enough to make the necessary preparations for flight that night, and the plan might be frustrated, in which case he was sure his chance would be gone for ever. For another thing, if he failed to meet Pym in accordance with the challenge he would be branded as a coward. That thought had a very weighty influence with him; he was not a coward, and shrank with peculiar sensitiveness at the bare idea of anything calculated to render him liable to a charge of cowardice. He made this clear to Norah, and he pointed out the difficulties that lay in the way of immediate flight. Her distress was pitiable. She felt that it was not her place to urge flight if he did not approve of it. She knew that it was a step beset with difficulties. Her absence at night would be sure to be known, and pursuit would follow immediately. It was a far cry to Gretna Green, and it was hardly to be hoped that she and her lover could reach there without being overtaken, unless they had a very long start. The poor girl was broken-hearted, and with plaintive appeal she exclaimed—
"Jim, can nothing be done? It does seem to me so hard, so cruel and unnatural that I should be kept from the man I love, and compelled to accept the addresses of a man I hate. Both my mother and father tell me I don't know my own mind. They say all sorts of dreadful things about you and your people, and warn me against you, as if you desired to destroy me body and soul."
Jim was no less depressed, no less sorrow-stricken than she was. He saw things at that moment "through a glass darkly," and difficulties were exaggerated and distorted. In human affairs a single word, a trifling act often changes the whole current of one's life. It was to be so in his case. His fate trembled in the balance, and the shadows were closing around him.
"Norah, my darling," he answered, in a tone which too surely betrayed his emotion, "the die is cast, and I must abide by it. I cannot avoid meeting Pym—"
"Oh, yes you can," she said, as shudderingly she threw her arms round his neck. "You must not, you shall not fight him. For my sake, don't."
"For your sake, Norah, I would sacrifice my life; but in this instance I must give Pym the satisfaction he demands. He insulted me. I challenged him. He refused to meet me because, as he urged, my social position was inferior to his. I then horsewhipped him publicly, and now that he challenged me I dare not refuse him."
"So be it," said Norah with a bitterness she never before shown. "It is horrible to contemplate what the consequences may be. My feelings are not worth taking into consideration. Do as you will, and God pity me. Farewell."
Before he could move a hand or utter a word she had fled, leaving him standing there dumbfounded.
NORAH'S action was so sudden, so totally unexpected, that Jim Spedwick was overwhelmed with a sense of irreparable disaster. He could not follow her, he could not call her back. The very light of his life seemed to have gone out, leaving him in darkness. He was crushed. What was there to live for now? The stars in their courses seemed to fight against him. He was like one who had wandered in a maze; he could see no way out of the tangle of things with which he was beset. Nor could he reason clearly in that crisis of his fate. His brain seemed numbed, and yet he endured a mental agony which no words could describe.
Presently a fiery impulse came upon him to rush to the house, to thunder at the door, to demand admittance, to bear Norah off in spite of all resistance. But the thought no sooner shaped itself than it was dismissed. It was too mad an idea to be entertained. It could only add disaster to disaster. How could he possibly hope to be successful?
The twilight was deepening into night; yet he lingered with some vague shadowy hope that Norah would return. But only the wind sighing through the trees broke the silence. He listened in vain for her returning footsteps, until his very heart seemed to cease its beatings and grow cold. Like one in a dream he scaled the fence and wandered wearily back to the town. Scarcely conscious of what he was doing he entered the Half Moon inn, and almost the first man he encountered was Ralph Tinker.
"I've been looking for you everywhere," said Tinker. "Come in here," and he drew him into a private room. "I've seen Pym's man and settled everything. The encounter will take place at six o'clock in the morning, before any one is astir. We've arranged with Dr. Patchett to be on the ground." As Jim appeared to be absorbed and dazed, and utterly indifferent to what was said to him, Tinker exclaimed, "Why, what on earth is the matter with you, man? Have you been seeking Dutch courage?"
"No," snapped Jim, angrily and decisively.
"Why are you mooning, then? Something is wrong."
"Yes, something is wrong, Tinker; but it is my affair. Don't question me," replied Jim sadly.
"Oh, very well. I thought I was your friend and confidant, but as it isn't so, let us confine ourselves to the business in hand. You've got to face Pym at six o'clock in the morning. And look here, my friend, he's in deadly earnest, and I am afraid if you don't kill him hell kill you. He regards you as his deadly enemy."
Jim seemed to suddenly wake up. His face hardened into sternness; his eyes flashed with the light of inward passion.
"He hates me, does he?" he said with a sardonic laugh. "I wonder if his hatred for me is greater than mine for him? He has cankered my life. He has blasted my future. If I didn't hate him I should hardly be human."
"Then you must kill him," answered Tinker flippantly.
"I tell you what it is," exclaimed Jim; "I feel so desperate that I almost think I could kill any one who opposed me." Suddenly he changed his tone and manner and added, "Look here, old friend, don't take me too seriously, I'm a little out of sorts. I've met with a disappointment and it's upset me."
"Why don't you confide in me?" asked Tinker, who was burning with curiosity.
"No, I'll confide in no one. It's a matter that concerns me only."
"Very well, keep your secret then, and I'll keep mine. To-morrow morning at six o'clock you take your fate in your own hands, and it depends on yourself how you come out of the affair. As there is nothing more to be said now I'll wish you good-night."
Jim was not sorry to be left alone. He felt he was in no mood to argue, or even to talk. He called for some claret, and having consumed it he went to his home and, avoiding his father and mother, sought his bed. For some time he tossed restlessly about, sinking at last into a heavy sleep from which he did not awake until after five o'clock. He hurriedly dressed himself, partook of a little wine and a crust, and set off rapidly for the rendezvous. He had a long way to go, and was fearful of being too late. It was after six when he reached The Black Lake Copse, and, flurried and excited, he hurried towards the lake. It was a gloomy morning, solemn and still. The sky was leaden-hued, and the wood seemed dark and drear. How everything appeared to have changed since that fateful day when he walked through the wood with Norah, when he met her for the first time after his return from the West Indies. He was oppressed now with a sense of impending disaster, but desperate withal and reckless of his life, for what was the world of life to him if he had lost Norah? It was not a good frame of mind in which to encounter his enemy.
As he hurried along he was suddenly startled by a pistol shot which resounded through the wood in weird echoes. He paused and listened, but all was still again, and he came to the conclusion that some poacher was at work, or else his enemy was practising. He started off once more and almost ran, for he was already much behind the appointed hour. He came in sight of the lake. Never had he seen it look so weird. The water appeared to be absolutely black. Under such atmospheric conditions it presented a scene almost repellent in its sombreness. It was like a picture painted in Indian ink. Not a single gleam of light relieved it.
Making his way along the narrow path that ran through the wood and led to the north side, he came in sight of the clearing where the encounter was to take place, and he caught sight of a group of people, and to his intense astonishment there was a lady amongst them. As he approached, his surprise increased as he recognized Norah. He stopped suddenly. He was almost tempted to turn and go back as fast as he could. It was only a momentary feeling, and he went forward. As he reached the open all eyes were turned to him, but he himself had eyes only for Norah. She looked deadly pale, but singularly beautiful despite the paleness.
"You are late," said Tinker, as he approached him.
"Yes. I am sorry."
"Did you fire a gun or pistol just now?"
"Did you hear a report?"
"It's very strange," muttered Tinker. Then he added, "You see that Miss Lacey is here. She has come to stop the duel. It will have to be postponed. Pym is furious, but there's no help for it. We shall have to arrange another meeting."
Jim turned a look of wonderment and inquiry towards Norah. He saw no one else. She and she only appeared before him. She met his gaze, but he could gather nothing from her eyes. Whether she was angry with him or not he could not tell. He still felt bewildered in his mind, and as if he could evolve no clear thought. It was a strange and dramatic situation which had shaped itself out of a combination of circumstances; and the gloomy surroundings—the weird lake and the dark wood—were fitting to the occasion which had drawn the little group to that sequestered spot. And even as Ralph Tinker spoke there suddenly burst upon the scene a breathless and excited youth; he was one of the under-keepers. A look of fear and horror was in his eyes. As if addressing no one in particular he exclaimed wildly—
"Masters, masters, there has been a murder done."
Consternation fell upon the group.
It had an enhanced awfulness in that woodland wilderness. Murder! It almost seemed as if the word was taken up and echoed and re-echoed among the trees. Pym was the first to speak.
"Murder," he repeated. "What do you mean?"
"There has been a murder, master—come," answered the youth in great agitation.
Moved by one common impulse they all followed him, and he led the way by a narrow path which could only be traversed in single file. In breathless agitation they hastened along in silence, Ralph Tinker bringing up the rear. The lad led them for a distance of about a quarter of a mile to a spot where there was a dense growth of bracken in a hollow, and there in the bracken lay the huddled-up form of a man. The doctor sprang forward and turned the man over. Then there rang through the wood a shrill, piercing scream of agonized horror. It was a woman's scream, and it came from Norah who fell prostrate on the body of the man.
The man was her father, and he was dead.
THE scene almost beggars description. Consternation was depicted on every face, and the silence of unutterable horror added an impressiveness to the strange situation—a silence that was emphasized by the pitiable sobbing of Norah.
The doctor having assured himself beyond all possibility of doubt that the unfortunate gentleman had ceased to live, addressed himself persuasively and kindly to Miss Lacey.
"My dear young lady," he said, "pray let me conduct you from this terrible scene; and pray endeavour as far as you can to control your feelings."
Norah rose up, and for a few moments buried her face in her hands and sobbed convulsively, until by a supreme effort of will she regained her self-possession. Standing erect, glancing with flashing tear-wet eyes from one to the other of the little group, she pointed to the body in the bracken, and said hoarsely—
"He has been murdered; murdered! Oh, who can have been guilty of such a horrid, wicked deed?"
This pathetic outburst seemed to break the spell, and moving a step or two nearer the body and glancing at it, Randolph Pym replied—
"Yes, it's murder, I think, beyond dispute;" then fixing his eyes on Jim Spedwick, he continued: "The man who is guilty of this crime has been moved to its commission by no common motive. Unless I am mistaken revenge is responsible for this dear gentleman's death. Now who could have cherished feelings of revenge against so honourable, upright, and fair dealing a man as Mr. Lacey?"
Then up spoke Ralph Tinker. He had the appearance of one suffering under deep emotion, and he spoke as if with reluctance.
"It isn't for me to accuse any man without proof, for murder is a terrible crime, and he who wilfully sheds man's blood must answer to the law with his life; but it is my duty to state what I know. Yesterday during an interview I had with Jim Spedwick he expressed himself very bitterly against the late Mr. Lacey, and said that he was the only obstacle that stood between him and his marriage with Miss Lacey. He may have meant nothing by the remark, but I feel I ought to make it known."
For a moment Jim's face paled. Then with blazing eyes he turned fiercely upon Tinker, and with great force of expression exclaimed—
"You miserable hound! You show the deep treachery of your nature now in thus trying to cast suspicion on me. You yourself suggested that I should kill Mr. Lacey, although as you declared that you meant your suggestion only as a joke, my reply was you ought not to make such a suggestion even jokingly, and that I had not sunk so low as to become an assassin."
Tinker was agitated and confused, and he growled between his set teeth—
"You lie, you know you do; you made no such reply to me."
It was clear that Tinker's statement had had an effect upon his listeners, for, as if by common instinct, they seemed to shrink from Jim and draw nearer each other until he stood isolated; but suddenly Norah moved out from the group, and with solemn earnestness exclaimed—
"I, for one, absolutely refuse to believe for a single moment that Mr. Spedwick is guilty of this horrible crime. But as God watches over us all, depend upon it that in His own good time He will bring the cowardly murderer to justice."
"Amen to that," responded the doctor gravely; then approaching Miss Lacey, he said: "My dear lady, let me persuade you to return to your home and break the sad news to your mother. It is our painful duty to guard the body until the authorities have been notified, and it will but add to your distress if you remain here."
"May I escort you?" asked Pym, making a movement as if about to offer her his arm, but she visibly shrank from him and said in a subdued broken voice—
"Thank you, but as I came here alone, so I will return alone." She cast a tearful glance at Jim, and then slowly, and with her handkerchief to her face, walked away.
An awkward silence fell upon the little group of men. It was broken by Pym, who, even in the presence of mystery and death, could not suppress the hatred and bitterness he entertained for his rival. With a menace in his tone, and an angry frown distorting his face, he said—
"Had you, sir, never returned to the land you have disgraced we should have been spared this heartrending scene. God knows whether you have had any hand in directly bringing about the death of this unfortunate gentleman, but in a sense I hold you morally responsible for it. With your pernicious influence you endeavoured to persuade the young lady to take a course which was antagonistic to her father's wishes."
"You choose a moment to insult me," replied Jim with dignity, "when the presence of the dead protects you; but have a care how you loose your tongue against my good name. Be assured you shall not do it with impunity. You have already done your best to bring disgrace upon me, but I'll wring from you a retractation of your cowardly allegations."
Pym was about to make some retort when the doctor authoritatively interfered.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," he exclaimed, "I pray you restrain your passions in a solemn moment like this, and let me remind you that a certain duty devolves upon us. Mr. Lacey is dead, and the method of his death has yet to be determined; but if, as there is reason to suspect, he has been shot, we should endeavour to discover the weapon. Perhaps, Mr. Spedwick, you will pardon me if I ask as a matter of form if you carry a pistol about your person?"
"I have no pistol," answered Jim boldly, and he proceeded to turn out his pockets and open his clothing in such a way as to demonstrate the accuracy of his statement.
Then the doctor proceeded to examine the body of Mr. Lacey, while one of several keepers who had come upon the scene was told to take one of the horses which had brought the party to the Wood and gallop as hard as he could go to Ministerfield and give information of the fact that the body of Mr. Roland Lacey was lying in Black Lake Wood, the unfortunate gentleman having been shot, as was proved by a gun-shot wound over the heart. The doctor having a case of instruments with him was enabled to probe the wound, though he could not feel the bullet, but he expressed a pretty confident opinion that the wound was an oblique one: that the missile had cut one of the great blood-vessels of the heart and had then embedded itself in the soft substance of the lung.
In the meantime a most diligent search by all present was made over a wide area for something that might afford a clue. Although the thought was unexpressed, there was little doubt, notwithstanding that Jim helped in the search, that suspicion was strong against him, and since he had given ocular demonstration that he had no weapon concealed about his person, it was felt that he might have thrown it away into the brushwood. The search, however, proved fruitless, and the party came to the conclusion that they could do no more at that stage. Jim Spedwick was only too painfully aware of the feeling against him, nor was he indifferent to the fact that circumstances might make it difficult for him to clear himself of suspicion. Mr. Lacey had been shot, that was certain. Had he shot himself the weapon must have been found near him. As he did not shoot himself, somebody else must have shot him. Who was the somebody? Certainly when all things were considered, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the popular answer to that question was exceedingly likely to be, "The somebody is Jim Spedwick." Jim saw the matter in this light, nevertheless he approached Pym, and addressing him with studied dignity, said—
"Presumably this awful tragedy renders a settlement of our personal differences undesirable at present, though if you think otherwise I am at your service."
The Hon. Randolph Pym drew himself up to the fullest possible extent of his inches, and while his face was a study in scorn, he endeavoured that his voice should be pitched in a key of withering contempt.
"Jim Spedwick," he said, "having regard to your past, your shameful and dastardly attack on Lord Winland's keeper, and your imprisonment for that disgraceful affair, I have already sufficiently bemeaned myself by condescending to accord you the privilege which only a gentleman has the right to claim. I now refuse to have any further transactions with you; but mark this, and note it well, if you subject me or Miss Lacey to further annoyance my servants shall horsewhip you within an inch of your worthless life."
For a moment, but only for a moment, Jim Spedwick looked dangerous. His manner suddenly changed to self-restraint and dignity, and he answered quietly, though in a mordacious tone—
"In the presence of the dead the Hon. Randolph Pym may insult me with impunity, but there will come a day of reckoning when I will repay with compound interest. You can talk in a lofty strain now, but my turn will come; and I will repay with a full measure."
He bowed with mock politeness, and turning on his heel slowly walked away. The Hon. Randolph Pym looked somewhat surprised, and his general expression was that of a man who was conscious of having been worsted. He spun round sharply after the manner of one whose pulses were stirred with unrestrainable anger, and he found himself face to face with Ralph Tinker, in whose eyes was a curious look. In a low tone Tinker said—
"Why concern yourself, Mr. Pym? Surely you now hold the winning card and can beat your adversary."
Pym passed on, making no answer. His suppressed rage choked him and prevented words. He felt that his pride had been cut to the very quick, and he hated Jim Spedwick as only a rival can hate. Words could not possibly relieve his feelings. If Jim Spedwick had been lying dead, there in the bracken where the master of Runnell Hall had so suddenly passed into the night, the Hon. Randolph Pym would have thought the world a good world, but while Jim Spedwick walked it in freedom, Mr. Pym felt that a shadow lay over his life, and his way was a way of thorns.
NOT within the memory of the oldest inhabitant of Ministerfield had there been such a sensation as that caused by the mysterious death of the master of Runnell Hall. That he had been treacherously murdered there could not be a doubt; the inquest and official inquiry made that point clear. He had come to know in some way of the arrangements for the duel, and was hurrying to the scene of the encounter when he met his death, which, it was proved, must have been almost instantaneous. The crime was committed in his own private grounds, and within a short distance of the spot where a group of men were assembled for the purposes of a duel, and where his daughter had suddenly appeared, greatly to their consternation and confusion. Her object in putting in an appearance was to prevent the threatened bloodshed. She had sped hot-footed to the scene, fearful that she would be too late, and when she arrived she was surprised to find that one of the protagonists, to wit Jim Spedwick, had not presented himself. The Hon. Randolph made the most of the opportunity thus afforded him, and such arts and wiles as he was capable of exercising he called into play on his own behalf. He reviled his rival in unmeasured language, and endeavoured to impress her with a proper sense of his own virtues and Jim Spedwick's iniquities. He told her that he had been so grossly insulted by Spedwick that he had no alternative but to challenge him to deadly combat. Mr. Pym gave evidence that he was far from being a generous enemy; and he laboured his cause with such stress and egotism that he made an impression the reverse of what he intended.
Miss Lacey, who had listened to him with some show of impatience, said with a decisiveness which left him no room to doubt that she meant what she said—
"There shall be no combat, Mr. Pym, and the sooner you go away with the people you have brought here the better. It is disgraceful that you should resort to such proceedings. You may think it manly, but I don't. And I frankly tell you that your unmanly conduct pains and displeases me."
Mr. Pym was greatly disconcerted, and before he could recover himself Jim came upon the scene, and was quickly followed by the excited youth who had brought the news of the tragedy. Such was the prologue to the ghastly crime that set all the countryside agog. The differences between the rivals had become something of a scandal. It was common gossip that Pym had accused Spedwick of cheating at cards; that Spedwick had challenged Pym, who refused on the ground that his opponent was socially inferior, whereupon the opponent had used the horsewhip to good effect; the result was a meeting for a duel that didn't come off, but which was responsible for the murder of one of the best-known residents in the neighbourhood.
The crime was certainly a mysterious one, and it presented the good people of Ministerfield and the country round about with a puzzle which they were incapable of solving, though of course there were a good many irresponsible opinions expressed, while both Spedwick and Pym had their friends and enemies, though the Pymites were far the stronger party. Among the "well-to-do" people Jim was severely condemned; his youthful escapade was remembered against him, and Pym was at pains to let it be known that he had detected his rival cheating at cards. It was unquestionable that Jim was under a very dark cloud, and the finger of suspicion was pointed menacingly at him. It was thought that revenge and disappointment had prompted to the deed, but the officers of the law did not consider there were sufficient grounds to warrant his arrest at that stage, notwithstanding that Ralph Tinker detailed a conversation which he alleged he had had with Jim, and which in the light of what had occurred seemed to indicate that Spedwick premeditated the crime. Certainly there were numerous circumstances that told against Jim.
As may be supposed Mr. and Mrs. Spedwick were bowed with grief, though needless to say neither believed that Jim was guilty. The lad had said to his father in simple but dignified language—
"Whatever my faults are, dad, I am incapable of dishonouring you or myself by committing such an awful crime as murder. I think Mr. Lacey was very unfair to me, and very unjust; but I call God to witness. I would rather have died myself than have shed his blood."
Mr. Spedwick wanted nothing more than this to convince him of his son's innocence, but he urged him to return to Jamaica without delay. Jim resolutely declined to do that.
"It would seem too much like flight," he said, "and would give my enemies their opportunity. Whatever the ultimate consequences of this unhappy business may be I shall stay and face them. Thank God I am entirely innocent of Mr. Lacey's death, and I will never rest until this has been made clear to every one. To disappear would be to condemn myself. I shall stand my ground, and as Norah herself has declared that her faith in me is unshaken I will not abandon hope of winning her."
Mr. Lacey was buried with every manifestation of sincere public sorrow. Such a funeral as was accorded him had never before been witnessed in the history of Ministerfield. On the day that he was borne to the family tomb in the picturesque and quaint old parish church, all business was for the time suspended, and the town and country people followed in their thousands. On the following Sunday, when the Vicar preached a special sermon on the tragedy, the church was literally crowded to its utmost holding capacity. The rev. gentleman referred to the deceased as a man who had been so universally beloved, that his sudden taking off was like a personal loss to every one in the place. He was eulogized as a model of all the virtues, and "a man so God-fearing, so upright and conscientious that he would have died a hundred times rather than stoop to an ignoble act." This and much more to the same effect was embodied in the sermon which, being pathetic and eloquent and well delivered, touched the hearts of the listeners, though no doubt many of them must have thought the veneer was being laid on a little too thick. It is wonderful, however, how many virtues can be discovered in a dead man, which were never even suspected in his lifetime.
The inquest was continued for weeks after the murdered gentleman had been laid to eternal rest. It was adjourned from time to time in the hope that some evidence would be forthcoming that would justify an arrest. But herein the authorities were disappointed, and the sensation did not develop itself further. Jim Spedwick was called as a witness; he was a witness against whom the eye of the law directed a penetrating gaze. But he had only a simple and plain story to tell, and told it in simple and unadorned language. His clandestine meetings with the dead man's daughter were made much of; so were the alleged threats which Tinker averred had been uttered in his presence; nevertheless the law could forge no chain to bind the witness. Suspicion wasn't evidence, and there was nothing to justify his arrest. And so when every process had been exhausted a verdict of "wilful murder against some person or persons unknown" was returned. The authorities were baffled and disappointed, and the public were angry. They clamoured for somebody to be thrown to the wolves, though the somebody was not forthcoming.
Jim Spedwick came through the ordeal a little crushed, but also a little wiser, and he knew that in Pym and Tinker he had two uncompromising enemies. He had certainly known for a long time that Pym was not his friend, but he had not suspected Tinker before. He had been on terms of intimacy with this man, but he had now revealed himself in a new light, and Jim felt that he would have to be very cautious in his dealings with him in future.
And what of Norah Lacey all this time? Since the fatal morning when her father was so mysteriously killed, and she had declared her belief in Jim's innocence, he had had no sign from her. He caught sight of her at the inquest and on her way to church, but no word passed between them. Dressed in deep mourning, her face pathetic in its expression of sorrow, he had yearned to whisper comfort to her, but no opportunity was afforded him. Her mother, grief-stricken and broken-hearted, ever accompanied her. Thus in doubt and painful suspense he had to wait through the weary weeks, and the situation became more irksome to him as the days wore on, for he found that he was no longer welcomed even by those whose friendship he counted upon. Of course this state of matters was unendurable. Besides, he could not remain for ever idle; as it was letters had come from Jamaica complaining of his prolonged absence, and hinting at a complete severance of the connexion unless he returned at once. His uncle was a crotchety and irascible man, and would not be played with. When it came to making up his mind to depart, however, Jim found it exceedingly hard to tear himself away, and he put off the fateful hour from day to day. He had endured and suffered so much for Norah's sake that to have to depart without uttering a farewell was maddening. Her silence mystified him. She had openly declared her belief in his innocence, and yet had allowed the long and sorrow-burdened weeks to drift by without a word to tell him that he might still hope, or even that he was remembered. He himself had carefully refrained from communicating with her. Under the unhappy circumstances which had caused him to bulk so largely in the public eye, he felt it was his duty to avoid doing anything that would set people talking again. Moreover, it did seem to him that it was her place to communicate. He was a fallen man, and a sign of consolation and pity from her would have eased his pain and made his burden less heavy; but she remained mute. And yet he loved her! For years she had been his dream, she would be his dream for years to come. He remembered so well saying to her at that memorable tryst in the Black Lake Wood after his return from Jamaica—
"The world will be nothing to me without you, and in the delirium of a reckless life I shall try to find forgetfulness and a speedy ending. Why should I live; why should I desire to live? You are my life, my world, my all."
The sentiment of that fervent expression of his passion was but little exaggerated. There is no question about the strength of his passion. There had been many happenings since that meeting in the wood, and grim tragedy, tragedy weird and mysterious, had cast its gruesome shadow over them; his love for her, however, had not weakened, and life without her would seem a poor and miserable thing. To part from her would cause a wrench that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. But the time had come when he could no longer dally with his fate. If for no other reason than that he was straining to excess the slender resources of his father and mother, he must move on. They loved him and uttered no complaint, but he was not lacking in proper regard for them, nor in respect for himself. He could not shirk the responsibilities of life, nor shrink from facing the future, whatever it might hold for him. It was hard to be compelled to turn from the beacon that at one time held out promises of happiness and peace and go out into the darkness. But it must be done, and yet when it came to the act of going he lingered. It seemed so terrible to have to place between himself and the woman of his heart a vast expanse of sea, that when it came to the supreme moment his heart failed him.
"Yet a little while," he thought, "and all will be well."
He dreaded the wrench. Perhaps it was cowardice of a kind, but the bravest man finds it hard to turn from the woman he loves when he knows that he may never set eyes upon her more. Jim's wavering and indecision, however, were ended in a way he had little expected. One day the coachman employed at Runnell Hall drove up to Mr. Spedwick's house and left a letter for Jim. When it was handed to him the lad's heart came into his mouth, for the superscription on the covering was unmistakably in Norah's handwriting. With feverish haste he broke the seals and read this—
"Why are you still in Ministerfield? I had hoped you would have gone long before this. It is better for me and better for you that you go, until the shadows lift; if ever they do. Anyway, your place is not here. I pray you go without further delay. Farewell!"
That was all she said. There was no name signed. It was cryptic, for though she had declared her belief in his innocence, she now bade him go, and uttered that saddest of all words—"Farewell." It blotted out the last gleam of hope. The slip of paper fluttered from his hand to the floor. He sank into a chair and nursed his throbbing head between his hands. His dream was over then. The weeks of strain and pain had brought him no better reward than the brusque, almost brutal dismissal, as it seemed to him. Every word she had penned was like a blow on his heart. What had he done to deserve it all? For the love of a woman his whole life was wrecked.
"I had hoped you would have gone long before this."
Surely, he argued, that came not from love's promptings.
"It is better for me and better for you that you go, until the shadows lift."
What was he to make of that?
"Until the shadows lift!"
To his dazed brain it seemed that only one interpretation could be put upon those four words—"until the shadows lift." For him they would lift no more. She knew it, and the parting was for ever. She cut the bond that bound them. She bid him go, and he must obey.
Two days of moaning, and the anguish of a sorrow unuttered, and he was on his way to Liverpool to catch the packet for the West Indies. His parents were bowed with their burden of grief, but his father, as he wrung his hand, said—
"Jim, do your duty, lad, as I shall do mine. God knows if we shall ever meet again, but duty demands from us a faithfulness unto death."
IT happened that one evening, within a week of his departure from Ministerfield, Jim Spedwick was induced to visit the hostelry called the Half Moon. It was the first time he had been seen there since the murder of Mr. Lacey. He was drawn thither by an irresistible desire to meet a few of his old acquaintances previous to leaving his native town for ever, as it might chance. He had no intention of making known his intention to depart, which of course he was free to do now that the inquest was closed. The inn was a favourite resort in the evening of the gossips of the town, and there the topics of the hour were discussed. Two or three of his friends were present, but a general feeling of surprise manifested itself when he appeared, and he was left in no doubt that most of the company regarded him as an unwelcome guest. He did not feel, however, that he had any reason to lower his head, so he carried himself proudly and met the gaze of the people with unflinching eye. He found a seat at the table occupied by his friends who, though few in number, accorded him a welcome. He felt ill-at-ease notwithstanding, and having smoked a long pipe and drunk a glass of claret he bade his friends good-night, and went forth into the hall, where he was accosted by Ralph Tinker, who had followed him from the large smoking-room. Jim had observed him sitting there, but had passed no word with him.
"I am sorry to see you are still so much under a cloud," remarked Tinker with some show of obsequiousness, and yet with an air of patronage.
Jim turned sharply upon him.
"Are you?" he exclaimed angrily. "Your sympathy is wasted then. I do not appreciate it. You have played the part of a traitor, a sneak, and a coward."
"Oh, don't lose your temper, my friend," snapped Tinker, changing his key to one of insolence.
"I acknowledge no friendship with you now," retorted Jim.
"It wasn't always so," whined the other.
"No, you are right, but I thought then you were fair dealing and straightforward, but I regard the acqaintanceship as having been baneful—"
"To me—yes," interposed Tinker quickly.
"You miserable dog!" replied Jim, his temper rising; "I have conferred an honour upon you by associating with you, but you have proved yourself a treacherous knave. You have done your best to twist an innocent remark of mine into a weapon to be used against me, but therein you've failed. And believe me, Mr. Ralph Tinker, I would rather have a fer-de-lance, one of the most deadly of West Indian snakes, for a companion than you."
Tinker was evidently strung up to argument point, but the harsh things he would have said were unuttered as Jim Spedwick strode away, hot with indignation and wrath. Mr. Tinker smiled after the manner of a man who was pleased to think he had got the better of an opponent, and when he returned to his companions he relieved his mind by saying some very harsh things about the man for whom he had once professed undying friendship; and though he was a lawyer's clerk he was incautious enough to remark—
"It's a wonder to me that the police have kept their hands off the fellow, for circumstances point very strongly, in my opinion, to Jim Spedwick as the slayer of poor Mr. Lacey. However, unless I am mistaken he will yet be netted. Something will turn up to justify his arrest."
Ralph Tinker was not the man to show the slightest consideration for other men if it was likely in any way to be detrimental to himself; and the innate malignancy of his nature came uppermost whenever he was thwarted. Whatever his reasons for so doing were, he made no secret of the fact that he entertained for his erstwhile friend Jim Spedwick a very dangerous feeling of ill-will; and after that chance meeting at the Half Moon he allowed his feelings to find vent in extremely harsh utterances to all who would give him a hearing, while with dark and mysterious hints he tried to create a belief that ultimately he would secure sufficient evidence to warrant Jim Spedwick being arrested on suspicion of having caused Mr. Lacey's death.
The day following the Half Moon incident Tinker met the Hon. Randolph Pym in the town, and to him he made known what had passed. Mr. Pym's manner towards Tinker was that of a superior to an inferior, for Mr. Pym was not modest with regard to his own importance and position. At the same time he treated the lawyer's clerk with some familiarity, and invited him to discuss a bottle of wine. Jim was the chief subject of conversation, and Pym remarked—
"It's a pity we can't render the blackguard impotent for further mischief."
"We must watch and wait," replied Tinker; and after a pause added, "He who would be a successful hunter must be patient, vigilant and persistent. Depend upon it, Jim Spedwick will not escape."
Pym recognized the point of the remark and assented to the general correctness of the assertion.
"Under any circumstances," added Tinker, "he's done for here. Give a dog a bad name and you might as well hang it."
When it became known a few days later that Jim Spedwick had quitted the town, and returned, as was surmised, to the West Indies, the Hon. Randolph Pym experienced a sense of delight which he could ill conceal; but Mr. Ralph Tinker felt somehow as feels the hunter who after weary waiting sees his longed-for prey escape. Pym was delighted because he believed that now his wooing of Norah might have a fairer chance of successful issue. He had only seen her once or twice, and then casually, since the death of her father; but having satisfied himself that his rival really had departed, he betook himself, in the course of a day or two, to the house of sorrow and sought an interview with Miss Lacey.
She and her mother had been almost prostrated since that sad day when they learnt that husband and father had been foully murdered, but she did not hesitate to accord him the interview he desired. The trappings of woe which she wore did not detract from her beauty, though her sweet face was clouded with a settled melancholy. Mr. Pym was not altogether at his ease, but he was profuse in his condolences until Norah cut him short by saying—
"Please, Mr. Pym, don't touch the open wound. You have expressed your sympathy on each occasion when we have met, and I require no further assurance of the state of your feelings. Even expressions of sympathy pall after a time."
This greatly disconcerted him, and he was rather at a loss for another topic, until it suddenly occurred to him to say—
"By the way, I heard a day or two ago that Jim Spedwick had gone back to the West Indies."
"Has he?" she remarked listlessly, as though the information had no earthly interest for her.
"Yes," went on Pym with a singular want of tact, "and none too soon as far as he is concerned, for if rumour is to be believed there was the possibility of his being placed under arrest at any moment. I have heard that the police have some fresh evidence."
Norah's manner changed, Her face became animated, and she spoke sharply.
"On what charge can he be arrested?" she asked.
"Oh, well—well—you—that is; but really, Norah, you don't wish me to put it into words, do you?"
"Mr. Pym, I have asked a question; I require an answer, not prevarication." She said this with an inflexion of voice that made him feel very uncomfortable.
"Well, of course, if you insist upon it I must tell you," he answered hesitatingly; "the charge would necessarily be that of having waylaid and shot your father."
Norah, who had been seated, rose up. She stood erect and firms clenched, her arms rigid by her side. She faced him with flashing eyes, and as an angry and determined woman.
"I do not believe you," she said. "I repeat I do not believe you. They cannot arrest him—"
"Oh, you needn't be surprised at my bluntness. Your hatred of Spedwick is too apparent to be disguised; and when you speak of his probable arrest on a charge of murdering my father, the wish is father to the thought. Mr. Spedwick's hand was not the one that fired the fatal shot. For him to kill my father was to injure me. Why should he do that?"
The Hon. Randolph Pym felt as if he would like to sink through the floor and so escape the dilemma in which he had placed himself. He had come there to exalt himself at the expense of his rival, and hoped that she would prove pliable in his hands. Instead of that she was adamant and angry.
"You—you speak with such an air of certainty," he stammered awkwardly.
"I speak with the certainty of instinct," she answered, still standing.
"I am not sure that instinct is always right," he remarked.
"I trust to it in this instance," she answered.
"Will the same instinct, then, enable you to suggest even ever so vaguely, whose was the guilty hand?"
"No, it will not!" she replied firmly; "but at your door I lay the sorrow that has come upon this house."
White and trembling he sprang to his feet, and exclaimed huskily—
"Good God, Norah, surely you don't suspect me?"
"I did not say that. I do not suspect you. I know that you could not commit this crime. But you provoked Spedwick into meeting you to fight a duel. If that meeting had not taken place, my dear father, in all human probability, would be still living. Therefore, in a sense you are morally guilty."
"But Spedwick grossly insulted me," urged Pym in his own defence.
"You insulted him in the first instance."
"I accused him of cheating!"
"And did he cheat?"
"I declare he did."
"Did you see him cheat?"
"And Mr. Spedwick challenged you to fight a duel with him?"
"He did, and I declined on the grounds of his inferiority in social position."
"A mean and paltry excuse," said Norah resentfully; "but, Mr. Pym, this interview has become painful. You will pay me a poor compliment if you think I am so obtuse as not to understand the situation. You are jealous of Jim Spedwick, and on the principle that any stick is good enough to beat a dog with, you do not hesitate to hint that your rival may possibly be guilty of the awful crime of murder. It does not reflect creditably upon you; and it does not place you in an honourable position in my estimation. A true gentleman should be generous even to a fallen rival."
Pym was conscious now of-the mistake he had committed, and he tried to repair his error. He made as if to seize her hand, but she drew back and clasped her hands behind her.
"For Heaven's sake, Norah, forgive me," he cried in anguished accents. "You know how I love you."
A slight shudder passed over her.
"You show your love in a strange way," she said. "Without a shadow of proof you accuse your rival of a ghastly crime and hope thereby to win my favour. I, who am stricken with a never-ending sorrow, believe in Spedwick's innocence; and while I believe him innocent I shall never cease to respect him. And I will go further than that, Mr. Pym. I loved Jim Spedwick. I have known him practically all my life. We romped together as children, and whatever his faults were he possessed qualities that won my respect, and something more. But of course it is all over now. And to be perfectly candid he has departed from Ministerfield because I told him to go. At the same time you forfeit my respect, and beget a feeling within me that I will not put into, words, by allowing your enmity to display itself it such a marked way. You should be just at least, even if you cannot be generous. When it is proved that Jim Spedwick really killed my father then I shall hate him, but not before. And if that time ever comes I shall be ready to admit that I have done you a wrong. But this interview is too painful to be prolonged, so I will wish you good-bye."
She did not give him a chance of reply, for she swept out of the room with a suddenness that left him dumbfounded. For some moments he stood irresolute. He had played the game badly, and for the time being was checkmated. He realized that and went forth from the house in anything but a pleasant mood, but resolving in his own mind to still struggle for the prize. He believed that his chances were much better now that his rival had gone, and in future he would adopt different tactics.
MANY weeks after the interview between the Hon. Randolph Pym and Norah Lacey at Runnell Hall the town of Ministerfield was agitated by a strange rumour. It was winter weather now; snow lay heavily on the land, and the nights being bitterly cold the inns and other places of public resort where warmth and refreshment were obtainable were generally crowded. In these places the rumour was much discussed, for it was sensational enough. It was to the effect that the authorities had got a most important due in connexion with the murder of Mr. Lacey; that the clue pointed very strongly to Jim Spedwick being the guilty person, and accordingly a warrant had been issued for his arrest.
That, baldly stated, was the rumour; but it was chopped and changed about, and added to, according to the fancy of the teller. In the snuggery of the Half Moon Mr. Ralph Tinker suddenly found himself in a position of conspicuous importance. He loomed big through the haze of incense that was being burnt to the Goddess Nicotine, while a pleasant aroma of something hot, with lemon intermixed, diffused itself through the chamber. In the capacious grate leapt and flamed a cheerfulness-begetting fire, while a merry copper kettle on the hob piped a soothing lay.
In this sanctum, devoted to ministrations to the body comfort of those of the townsmen who delighted to assemble there after the worries and fret of the day, a goodly company had gathered. There were Jones of the grocery store, Brown the butterman, Robinson the butcher, White the bootmaker, Black the linen draper, and many other worthy representatives of trade. Good Christian men they accounted themselves, with only such venial sins against them as a little sanding of the sugar, short measure, adulterated flour, or a weight fixed under the scales so as to tell in favour of the seller. But these were amusing tricks of trade, and it would be putting too great a tax on one's credulity to expect a tradesman to be strictly honest. These enlightened citizens of the town of Ministerfield were Churchmen to a man; some were wardens of the church, and some were sidesmen; and some passed the plate on Sunday, so of course they were Christian people, and were proud of it. There had entered a late comer to the sanctum that night, bursting with news; and when he had freed himself from the many rounds of muffler that encircled his capacious throat, and divested himself of the heavy upper coat in which he had garbed his well-nourished body as protection against the arctic blasts that swept over the land, he gave his tongue freedom. "What think you, neighbours?" he asked, with the air of one who was the proud possessor of a secret. Well, the neighbours' thought a good many things but no evil of any one, being Christian men; and they bent looks upon the late comer which plainly signified that he would tantalize them at his peril. He smiled blandly and felt happy. He allowed moments to elapse, moments of suspense, and what is harder to bear than suspense? But the frowns deepened, so he advanced a stage—
"I've learnt a bit o' startling news."
The company manifested the keenest eagerness to hear it.
The new comer smiled more expansively. He was particularly pleased with himself. The company grew restless, and up spoke one, a ponderous man with huge hands, and a complexion the colour of port wine. It was Robinson the butcher. His voice was a full-volumed one betokening lusty strength.
"Lookee 'ere, Master Green, dontee keep us on tenter 'ooks; dontee do it, Master Green. I tell 'ee straight sich like makes me danged angry, it do fur sure. And when I be angry things is apt to go wrong. It baint right for you to tantalize we."
Master Green grinned; he was a little bit overawed by the minatory manner of the fat butcher, but he still felt important, and it was so nice to be the cynosure of all eyes for once in a way.
"Well, the fact is, it has to do with the murder of Mr. Lacey of Runnell Hall."
The company pricked up their ears, they craned their necks, they held their breath. The murder of Mr. Lacey of Runnell Hall was a subject of such absorbing interest to these smug tradesmen that they couldn't have too much of it. Time and place were peculiarly suitable to its further discussion.
"And what about the murder?" asked the butcher breathlessly. Indeed, it was an imperative demand, and Master Green saw that he was running risks.
"They've gotten a clue," he replied, sinking his voice, as befitted the gravity of such an announcement.
"Who has?" cried the company in chorus, all alert and eager.
"What clue?" A demand again from the butcher, a demand that was in the nature of a protest against further delay.
"Well, I heard it from old Giles the beadle," responded Green, beginning to edge a little.
"Pooh," sneered the fat butcher with an air of disgust as he relaxed and sipped copiously the something hot in his glass. "Pooh," he repeated as he blew the moisture from his moustache. The "Pooh" was a long-drawn-out sigh of contempt. "Giles gabbles. He baint o' much account, he baint. A beadle's nigh always a fool."
"But it was Diggle the town crier as told him," explained Green, looking anxious.
"Ah, now we be getting at it," remarked the burly butcher in a bass key. "Diggle, he's more reliable, he be. Now, what says Diggle?"
"I think I can speak more authoritatively," chimed in Ralph Tinker; and instantly he became the centre of attraction, while Master Green sank unnoticed into a chair, and with the air of saddened and disappointed man began to fill his pipe.
Tinker was regarded by these Christian men as a person of importance. He carried about with him the atmosphere of a lawyer's office, and he knew some legal jargon which to the unsophisticated minds of these worthy townsmen sounded very learned. He was even appealed to at times for advice on some knotty point, and he never hesitated to give advice freely, whether he understood the point or not. Of course lawyers themselves generally do that, and Tinker was only a lawyer's clerk. Tinker was now elevated to the position of Oracle, and he made the most of it. He tried to look like a judge summing up. Perhaps he didn't succeed, but at any rate he did his best. Tinker had great belief in himself, and he liked to pose.
"I am not sure," he said gravely and solemnly, "that the matter ought to be made public though I have reason to think it is quite true, since it came to me in my employer's office. But still one has to be careful nowadays, and it is not wise to blazon out anybody's statements. Vulgar and irresponsible gossip can sully any reputation, and therefore—"
At this point something like an earthquake happened. Robinson the fat butcher had banged ponderous fist on the table. The glasses had jumped and trembled, and the spoons had rattled in the glasses, while two long pipes peacefully reposing crosswise in the very centre of the mahogany were so startled by the vibration that their stems were broken.
The butcher's patience had reached its extreme limit, and he exploded.
"Dang it, man," he roared as his pent-up wrath gushed out; "dang it, man, why do 'ee shilly-shally in that kind o' way? If ee's gotten anything to say, say it out, Master Tinker. You be mighty learned, Master Tinker, but we doan't want no fine words."
As there was imminent danger of another shock, for the ponderous fist was poised in the smoky air again ready to descend, Ralph Tinker spoke quickly—
"Well, the fact is," he said, "Dick Jopling, the late Mr. Lacey's head gamekeeper—"
"What, him as has the pretty daughter what's as proud as Lucifer?" interposed one of the company.
"And what of him?" growled the butcher, angrily resenting the interruption.
"He has given some valuable information to the police. Mind you, it's only what I've heard."
"Go on, go on," cried sundry of the listeners testily.
"He declares that on the morning of the crime he saw a man crouching down in the bracken close to where Mr. Lacey was found, then he was startled by a shot, and saw a man running away. And he now believes the man he saw running away was none other than Jim Spedwick. I believe he's pretty certain about it."
This announcement took the breath away from the company, and Tinker smoked fast and furious. The butcher was the first to recover, after he had taken a long pull at his glass, but he seemed subdued. He spoke blandly, and rather as if he was holding an argument with himself.
"If as 'ow this be truth," he said, "I be puzzled to understand why Dick Jopling's kept his tongue quiet all this time. Why didn't un come forward at crowner's quest and speak what he knowed? Baint right, Master Tinker; baint right, say I."
"Ah, that's just it," replied Tinker sagely. "But my information is, that not feeling absolutely, certain he could not make up his mind, until prickings of conscience have at last urged him to make his statement."
"And what's your own opinion, Master Tinker?" asked the baker somewhat timidly. The baker was a little, doughy-faced man with a squeaky voice.
"Well, my opinion is, Jopling is right," answered Tinker with all the solemnity of a judge delivering a weighty verdict.
This caused a sensation, and the company solemnly smoked their pipes in silence for some moments. Then the voice of the draper, a dapper man who had a sweet way with him, was heard.
"Will a warrant be issued for Jim Spedwick's arrest?" he asked under his breath.
"Yes, you may depend upon that, if Jopling's statement is believed," answered Tinker.
The company drew a sigh of relief as one man, and there was a simultaneous raising of glasses. The suspense was over, and on the morrow these Christian men would spread the news like wildfire, that Jopling the gamekeeper had sworn he saw Jim Spedwick fire the shot that killed Mr. Lacey; and that four officers of the Law, armed with a warrant in the name of his Majesty the King, were already on their way to the West Indies to arrest Jim Spedwick and bring him back to stand his trial on a charge of wilful murder. Such an item of news could not be kept, and there would be rivalry amongst these most excellent fellows to spread it; nor would it lose by the spreading. It would be added to, embellished, and twisted about in accordance with the temperament of the teller.
DICK JOPLING had long been in the service of the late Mr. Lacey as a gamekeeper. He was a widower with two grown-up sons and a daughter. One son was in the army, another in the navy, while Martha, a well-proportioned young woman of twenty or thereabouts, presided over her father's small household. Dick himself had been a soldier; had seen service, been seriously wounded, and dismissed with a trifling pension. He was a native of Ministerfield, and so it came about that he entered the service of Mr. Lacey, and occupied a piqturesque little cottage on the edge of the Black Lake Wood. As a gamekeeper he was a useful man, being thoroughly versed in woodcraft, and there was little in connexion with feather and fur that he did not understand. He was an authority on the wild life of the woods, and his services were much appreciated by his late employer, although he had a weakness which occasionally led him into trouble. Now and again he over-indulged in strong drink, and when in his cups was quarrelsome. On two or three occasions he had been fined for assault, the outcome of his natural tendency to fight when the liquor was in and the wit out. These little lapses had provoked his master to threats of dismissal, but the threats were never put in force. Jopling was trusted, and considered reliable, so his faults were forgiven, for his faults were outweighed by many excellent qualities.
When the news spread, and spread it did like wildfire, that Jopling could give some valuable information about the crime in the Black Lake Wood, he became an object of interest to all and sundry; and human nature in Ministerfield being very similar to human nature elsewhere, there were plenty of people ready to exclaim, "There, I told you so." Meaning thereby that they knew from the first that Jim Spedwick had shot the unfortunate Mr. Lacey. It flatters one's vanity to be proved a true prophet. And these same cock-sure folk were strong in their denunciations, of the absent man; and no less strong in their opinions of the blundering of the authorities in having allowed Jim to leave the country. According to these Christian people Jim should have been hanged first, and tried afterwards.
Of course the interest in the murder was revived by the latest rumour, and while on the one hand public feeling was unmistakably against Spedwick, the Hon. Randolph Pym was regarded as a hero with whom every one commiserated.
He had been badly treated they said. It was shameful that young Spedwick should have come between him and his lady-love and have created so much mischief, mischief which had ended in a dastardly crime, and Spedwick was the criminal.
As for the dear young lady, Miss Lacey, it was terrible to think what her sufferings were.
Such was the trend of public thought; thought that was flippantly shaped into words by irresponsible tattlers who considered their wisdom quite equal to any that Solomon had displayed. Nor were they mindful of the sufferings and misery of the parents of the young man whom they so readily condemned. Mr. and Mrs. Spedwick bore their grief in dignified silence, and their faith in their boy's innocence never wavered, though, as may be imagined, their suspense was dreadful. If Dick Jopling persisted in his statement, the authorities could hardly fail to issue a warrant for Jim's arrest. And if that were done he would be brought back and have to stand his trial for a murder which was generally regarded as one of the most dastardly and brutal that had ever been committed in that part of the country. But to the astonishment of every one, and not the least of Mr. and Mrs. Spedwick, the warrant was not issued, although Jopling, according to report, was firm in his assertion that he had heard a shot fired on the morning of the tragedy, and immediately afterwards saw a man running away from the spot where the body was found. To the best of his belief that man was Jim Spedwick, but he would not swear to it. There was one difficult point that added greatly to the mystery, no weapon had been found, and yet the Wood was searched with a thoroughness that could scarcely have failed to have brought the pistol or gun to light if it had been there.
Speculation was rife as to what would be done in the face of the new evidence; and comments, far from complimentary, were made about the denseness of the authorities whose duty it was to bring the criminal to justice and have a public hanging. Every one was desirous that justice should avenge the crime, and public feeling being so strong against Jim, it was a matter of supreme surprise that he should be allowed to escape the ordeal of a public trial. The Hon. Randolph Pym was certainly surprised, as well as annoyed, and his annoyance was accentuated by Norah telling him, during another interview he had with her, when the news became generally known, that, despite Jopling's statement, she still believed Jim innocent. Further than that she aroused in Pym a feeling of anger that he could not conceal, by saying—
"I would as soon believe that you murdered my father, Mr. Pym, as that Jim Spedwick did."
This was a sore blow not only to Pym's pride but his hopes, and it seemed to him that his prospects of a matrimonial alliance with the House of Lacey became more and more remote. The prize, however, was not only worth the winning, but worth struggling for; and he had staked a good deal already on the chance of winning it. Norah was beautiful as well as wealthy, and her mother encouraged Pym to persevere. She spoke of her daughter as being obstinate and self-willed, and shuddered with vague and shadowy fears of the social ostracism which she declared would be her daughter's fate if she persisted in clinging to such "a disreputable young man as Jim Spedwick, against whom the finger of suspicion pointed so menacingly."
Mrs. Lacey appeared to be quite unable to see any faults in Pym. It was true enough that suspicion did point to Jim, but suspicion was not proof, and what Pym desired above all things was to obtain such proof as would justify Spedwick's arrest. Mr. Pym could hardly be expected to love his rival, believing as he did that if the rival could only be discredited beyond any possibility of rehabilitation, Norah's "blind infatuation," as he was pleased to term it, would give way, and her hand and fortune be his. But how was that desirable consummation to be attained? Norah was indifferent to censure and advice alike, of relations and friends. Her position was far from an enviable one. In her family circle she stood alone and had to bear with patience the many hard things that were said. Often in her solitude she wept bitterly, and felt that it would cost her never a pang to give up her riches and social position, if she could only secure peace of mind and be free from the attentions of Pym. She had told him she did not care for him, could never care for him, and would not marry him. He tried to countervail against this by arguing that her infatuation would soon cease, and when she came to a proper frame of mind she would feel heartily ashamed of ever having given Jim Spedwick the slightest encouragement. He laboured the point that Jim was disreputable, and not only beneath her socially, but suspected of having been guilty of bringing the great sorrow upon her house. To all this Norah merely repeated what she had often told him—
"I have known Jim Spedwick from my childhood, and I cannot bring myself to believe that he is guilty of such an awful crime as the killing of my father. At any rate I shall think no ill of him unless it is proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he committed the murder."
The Hon. Randolph Pym was disconcerted, though he tried to look pleasant as he remarked—
"Your sublime faith in Jim's innocence does more credit to your heart than your head, Norah. It is curious that he should have been able to inspire you with such a faith, but for your own sake I would earnestly urge you to fight against this delusion, for delusion it assuredly is. And you may depend upon it, the guilt will be brought home to Spedwick before long."
"When that takes place I may alter my views," she said frigidly. "Of course in your case the wish is father to the thought. I have told you before that you lack generosity."
"God forbid," Pym exclaimed with a display of fervency, "that I should wish him proved guilty if he is innocent. To be perfectly frank I believe he is guilty; I think all the circumstances are against him, and Jopling is almost certain that the man he saw running away after your father received his fatal wound was Jim Spedwick."
"Why has Dick Jopling remained so long silent?" she asked, with animation.
"Ah, that I cannot tell you. I am not the keeper of Dick's conscience. From what I gather, as he was not absolutely certain about the identity of the man, he refrained from speaking lest he might do an injustice; but the matter seems to have troubled him lately, and compelled him at last to open his mouth."
"Far better had he kept it dosed for ever," Norah murmured pathetically. "Better be dumb than speak with vagueness. But I pray you let the discussion cease. It pains me, for I never forget that your conduct indirectly led up to this awful business."
"Why do you harp on that so much?" he gasped.
"Yes. You sought a quarrel with Jim."
"I accused him of cheating, and justly so."
"But he denied it."
"Surely, Norah, my accusation is as worthy of credence as his denial. When a man is accused of cheating he generally does deny it. It's human nature, you see."
"And it's also human nature for a man to hate his rival."
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed the Hon. Randolph Pym, looking aghast, "you don't imagine that I accused Spedwick of cheating for the mere sake of injuring him and advancing my own cause?"
"I imagine a good many things," she answered. "Possibly my imagination is playing me false, but I cannot help it. I shall continue to imagine that Jim Spedwick is an honest, upright man until the contrary is indubitably proved."
Pym could not fail to understand that he had once more been worsted in the argument, and that if his suit for the hand of Norah was to succeed she would have to be cured of her "infatuation," as he persisted in calling it. He had brought himself to believe that Jim really fired the fatal shot which ended Mr. Lacey's life; and believing that, he was prepared now to go to any lengths to bring the crime home to him. He had latterly formed a theory that Jim Spedwick, while on his way to the place fixed for the duel, had unexpectedly encountered Mr. Lacy. The latter had upbraided him; the two men had quarrelled, and in a moment of uncontrollable passion Jim had shot Lacey. Probably Mr. Lacey, who was hot-tempered and hasty, had struck the young man, and that had maddened him and led to the tragedy. Such was Pym's theory, and he let it be known far and wide. Between him and the accomplishment of his desires, Jim Spedwick interposed himself, and it was not in Mr. Pym's nature to be generous under such circumstances. His supreme selfishness rendered him absolutely indifferent to the feelings of others.
AS may be supposed the police of Ministerfield had not been inactive or supine in the matter of the Black Lake Wood Tragedy, and in spite of adverse criticism and public opinion they had declined to arrest Jim Spedwick in the absence of anything like a clue. Dick Jopling had been severely questioned with regard to his belief that the man he alleged he had seen running away from the scene of the murder was Spedwick. But all he would assert was, that to the best of his belief it was Spedwick, though he would not swear it. He was not well acquainted with Spedwick, and when he came to describe the appearance of the man he saw running away, there were many discrepancies. Anyway, the police, while determined to bring the criminal to justice if it were possible to do so, were inclined to act precipitately; and to have brought Jim back from Jamaica on no better evidence than the vague statement of Jopling was to incur expense hardly justified at that stage, and possibly to court failure; but they did resolve upon taking another step which was destined to have remarkable results.
In the meantime Mr. Pym became a rather frequent visitor at the cottage of Dick Jopling. As already stated the cottage was a picturesque one. It stood in a somewhat lonely spot, surrounded with a well-kept garden which in summer time was a blaze of colour, with almost every kind of old-fashioned flower, and its lavender, wall-flowers, honeysuckle, jasmine, mignonette exhaled delicious odours in their season. The Queen of this garden was Martha Jopling, a young woman with a face and figure that caused men to sigh and women to envy. But though Martha was a rustic beauty, she had been blest with a keen intelligence, and had ambitions far beyond her station. It had been her good fortune to receive a better education than generally falls to the lot of a girl in her position, and like her father she was exceedingly well versed in woodland lore. Humble lovers sued to her in vain. She flouted them. She'd have none of them. To her intimate female acquaintance she declared that she was "going to be a lady," whatever meaning that might carry. In her case it no doubt implied a marriage with a man much above her in social station, and who, by right of courtesy, could be described as a gentleman. Anyway, she was keen-witted, determined, and not altogether a saint; but being endowed with a good voice she sang in the choir of the parish church, and every Sunday, morning and evening for years, she had heard the service and the sermon droned out by the aged and earnest vicar, though the gossips among her circle, with some accentuation of spitefulness, said that she did not benefit thereby. But then it was in accordance with things human that Martha should have her enemies, for she displayed none of the meekness of her biblical namesake. On the contrary she was proud and haughty spirit, or, as her acquaintances, some of them anyway, preferred to call it, "stuck up."
No doubt the young lady provoked envy, jealousy and perhaps malice by reason of her "superior air" and self-consciousness. However, Martha Jopling knew how to hold her own, and she played her own game. It was a worldly game, and she did not allow her choir singing and constant attendance at the Sunday services, and occasional Bible classes, to influence the game in any way. She had no intention of always walking in humility, when her mirror told her that her face was her fortune. Men had a high regard for a pretty face, and Martha was resolved to make the most of hers.
To Jopling's cottage in the Wood, the Hon. Randolph Pym often went and manifested interest in the pretty Martha. The cottage being secluded and in private grounds, his visits were not likely to attract the prying eyes of curiosity mongers. He paid Martha compliments, and she was at no pains to conceal the pleasure she derived from these visits. She talked to him learnedly of the flowers and plants in the garden, and he affected an interest in her discourses, though he did not feel it. Indeed, he was often bored, for he was ignorant of the subject, and his inclinations tended not towards an acquirement of knowledge. However, she knew how to minister to his pleasure in other ways. She had a deft hand in the production of kitchen delicacies which he was far from despising, for he displayed a weakness for the flesh pots of Egypt; and she could brew a bowl of punch or make a claret cup with the best, and the ingredients for these seductive drinks he himself supplied. Jopling and he showed their appreciation of them, but he exerted such influence as he could command to prevent Dick from carrying his appreciation to excess.
One evening, after one of these visits—Pym had but just departed—Dick Jopling sat in the garden. Spring was merging in to summer; there were nature's voices in the woods, and the flowers exhaled sweet odours. Martha was at work on a sampler of divers colours; her father meditatively and reflectively smoked a long pipe; while in front of him was a rustic table on which was a glass that he frequently replenished from a bottle of excellent claret which had come from the cellar of the Hon. Randolph Pym's home.
Presently Dick spoke. His voice was round and full as became a soldier and a woodman; and his grey eyes watched the gyrations of an upward curling ring of tobacco smoke.
"I say, lass, what's yon fellow's game?" It was obvious that this question was the outcome of deep pondering. Dick was far from being a fool. He kept his eyes open and saw things; and it required a clever person to deceive him.
"What fellow?" demanded the daughter with a shade of indignation in her tone. She didn't quite like the way the question was put. Its point was too obvious to be overlooked.
"Why, Pym, of course," was the gruff answer. "You know what I mean."
"I don't understand you," she said with a snap.
The smoke ring had dispersed, and he turned his grey eyes on her now.
"Don't you?" he growled with a certain harshness. Then he paused, watching her the while, but apparently she was absorbed in her sampler work. He spoke again. "Now look here, Martha my girl, I'm going to say what I think and what's on my mind; the Hon. Randolph Pym is not a man I'd trust further than I could see him; and though I say it as shouldn't, perhaps, you're a fine lass and a pretty one. Now do you understand?"
Martha raised her head quickly. There was a sparkle in her pretty eyes, and an enhanced colour in her face.
"Oh, yes," she said, with a scornful curling of the lip. "Oh, yes, I understand. But have you ever had occasion to think me a fool?"
"Very well, then, don't talk to me as though you were talking to a fool."
Dick was rebuked, and he felt it. He was a little afraid of his daughter. He could not be indifferent to her masterful disposition, and he was aware of any attempt at severity of control would probably have a disastrous effect. She resumed her work, and he helped himself to some more claret. He hadn't given vent to all that was in his mind, however, and the claret loosened his tongue again.
"I'm not by way of talking to you as though you were a fool," he pursued, "but you're a woman, and as I said afore, a pretty one, and he's a man; and men have made fools of pretty women before to-day. Most women make fools of themselves when a man dangles about 'em. They're not to be trusted. A man who knows how to play the game can do what he likes with a woman."
"No doubt, dad," she replied, with some acidity, "you think yourself very clever, and in some ways you are. But you mind your own affairs and I'll mind mine. Do you understand?"
"Yes, but it's my business to see that you don't go wrong," he replied bluntly. "And hang me if you shall go wrong if I can help it. I tell you again, Mr. Pym's not a man I have much faith in."
She flashed an angry look upon him and laughed contemptuously.
"Dear me, what a nice opinion you have of me," she said. "Do you suppose I am so dense that I am unable to read Pym. Why, he's like potter's clay in my hands. I can twist him."
"Oh," jerked out Dick as an exclamation and surprise or admiration; perhaps it indicated both.
"Yes," she went on, "and if Mr. Pym is playing a game, so am I. Pym thinks he's clever, but he isn't. I can read him like a book, and he'll have to smarten up a good deal if he wants to take me in."
"See here, lass, don't talk in riddles," cried out her father with an almost comical distress fulness; "I'm not good at guessing 'em. I like plain speaking, I do. Now what's your game?"
"Very well, then, I'll speak plainly. How would you like your daughter to be a real lady?"—Dick Jopling gasped—"Yes, a real lady; the wife of the Hon. Randolph Pym? Think of me as a Lady Pym! Won't it be a feather in my cap! And won't it make my enemies envious!"
"The Lord preserve us all," exclaimed Dick. "Hast taken leave of your senses, lass?"
"No; I think I'm coming to my senses. I tell you again, I can read Pym like a book. I can fathom his mind, for it's shallow enough. He thinks I'm to be caught by flattery, and pretty sayings and empty praises; but he's mistaken, and I'll lime a twig for him as sure as he's born, if he's insincere."
Dick Jopling was overcome by the possibilities shadowed forth. He replenished his tumbler and re-invigorated himself with the ruby wine; he rammed more tobacco into his pipe and applied a light deliberately. Dick's intellect worked slowly. His powers of observation as a woodland craftsman were little short of extraordinary; but when it came to a case of mental discernment and the exercise of his imagination, he was at a disadvantage. Gradually his thoughts clothed themselves in words, however.
"Do—you—mean—to—tell me—Martha, that Mr. Pym is paying court to you?" he asked slowly and with pauses, for his amazement was very great.
"I mean you to understand," she replied, "that Mr. Pym is artful, but he's not artful enough to deceive me."
This was cryptic; Jopling felt puzzled and looked it.
"What are you driving at?" he jerked out, like one who felt helpless.
"It strikes me you're the fool, dad," she remarked incisively. "Surely you are not so thick-headed that you don't understand what I mean."
He rubbed his setaceous chin which had known no razor for two days, and the expression of his tanned face was that of dumb obtestation.
"Dang my buttons if I know what you're driving at," he murmured pathetically. His daughter laughed and called him "a real thick-head," and then with a sudden assumption of seriousness she asked—
"What do you suppose Pym's been coming here for and sending wine and other things to you from his house?"
"He wants me to swear that I saw Jim Spedwick running away from the spot where old Mr. Lacey was shot. But I'm not going to swear to a lie."
"Yes, that's his main object, and another is to flirt with me."
"And you encourage him?"
"Yes, of course I do."
An angry light gleamed from Dick Jopling's grey eyes.
"You mind what you're at," he growled in a minatory tone.
"Oh, yes, I'll mind what I'm at," she replied, with a scornful tossing of her head. "Don't you alarm yourself. Pym will have to get up very early in the morning if he wants to befool me. He thinks he's clever, but he isn't. Anyway, I'm as clever as he, and I'll hook him as sure as fate if you'll help me."
The reply that Jopling would have made to this remained unspoken, for the creaking of the wicket gate arrested his and his daughter's attention. They both turned round and beheld Pym. For some reason he had come back, and with him was a strange man.
"I MET this gentleman by the gate at the entrance to the wood," explained Pym. "He inquired his way to Mr. Jopling's residence, and as he was obviously a stranger to the district I volunteered to guide him, so here I am back again."
This was addressed to Martha; at any rate Pym fixed his eyes upon her as he spoke, and she smiled and seemed pleased. The stranger raised his hat to Miss Jopling, bowed and turned to her father.
"Mr. Jopling, I presume?"
"Yes, I'm Jopling."
"Ah, I'm glad to see you. If you can spare me a few minutes I should like to have a word with you. By the way, sir," turning to Pym, "it was exceedingly kind of you to conduct me here. I might have had some difficulty in finding this sequestered spot. Pray favour me with your name, that I may know to whom I am indebted?"
Martha spoke before he could.
"This gentleman is the Hon. Randolph Pym," she said.
Something like a look of surprise displayed itself in the stranger's face at the announcement, and bowing again, he remarked: "I feel honoured, sir; you have placed me under an obligation."
Pym had not rendered the service from disinterested motives. Under ordinary circumstances he would not have deigned to act the part of a guide to any one, but in this instance curiosity overcame his pride. He wondered who the stranger could be, and why he wanted to see Jopling. That was the reason he came back with him. Strangers did not often visit Jopling.
"You are strange to this part of the country?"
Pym queried with a view to drawing him out.
"Well—yes, in a sense. That is, I have not been in Ministerfield before."
"It's a sleepy kind of place," pursued Pym. "Not much attraction for a visitor. You are here on business, I suppose?"
"Yes, business; business, sir, has brought me here," replied the stranger blandly.
"With Jopling?" asked Pym, looking hard at the visitor.
"With Mr. Jopling—in a casual way. Other business has called me to these parts. My business with Mr. Jopling is a detail. I hope Mr. Jopling may be able to assist me in a little matter. Possibly he may, possibly he may not. Anyway, I was anxious to see him."
Pym was dying with curiosity, and would have put further questions with a view to learning more had not Martha intervened with the remark—
"Here, let us leave father and the gentleman together; you come and talk to me, Mr. Pym." She gave him no choice, for she linked her hands about his arm, and looked at him in a way he could not resist; so they wandered arm-in-arm down the garden, and, opening a small gate, passed into the wood, which was solemn enough in the subdued light of the dying day.
It was a beautiful evening. There had been an unusually fine sunset, and the after-glow of rich colouring still lingered in the sky and filled the old wood with a beautiful glow that mellowed and softened everything, and seemed to impart a peculiar transparency to the tender young ferns and the newly-opened buds of the trees. A cuckoo proclaimed its presence in a clump of oaks down in a hollow, and thrushes and blackbirds flitted busily among the thickets. It was a fitting evening and a fitting scene for love-making.
"This is delightful," exclaimed Martha gushingly, and the remark presumably not only applied to the pleasant atmospheric conditions prevailing, and the sense of solitude and repose which that haunt of wild nature begot, but to her own gratification of finding herself alone with the Hon. Randolph Pym. But while her thoughts ran in one channel, his ran in a contrary direction, as evidenced by his saying, with the air of a man who was turning things over in his mind—
"I wonder who that fellow is and what he wants with your father. I don't much like his looks. There is something sly about him."
"Oh, bother the fellow," snapped Martha testily, irritated by her companion's unromantic curiosity when she wanted to confine the conversation to a pleasanter theme. "Surely my father can have a visitor without you concerning yourself about it."
"Oh, I don't know," laughed Pym. "You see, your father doesn't often have a visitor, and this fellow is evidently a stranger. By the way," he added, suddenly assuming a more serious air, "your dad's peculiarly obstinate with regard to the new evidence in the murder case. If he really believes that the man he saw running away was Spedwick, why doesn't he swear it and secure the arrest of the blackguard?"
Martha leaned on her companion's arm and gazed up into his face with a peculiar light in her eyes which seemed to confuse him, for he averted his gaze from her.
"Supposing," she said softly, and with a sort of coo, "supposing he swore it, and ultimately it should be proved that Spedwick wasn't there at all?"
"Oh, you are far too sensitive," he growled.
"Am I?" she remarked in the same soft, cooing tone.
"Yes. There is no doubt Spedwick murdered old Lacey—"
"How do you know?"
"Well, doesn't everything point to that?"
"No. Spedwick is your enemy, your rival, and you hate him, so you are ready enough to say anything and do anything to disgrace him. But what will be the end of it all? Miss Lacey will never marry you."
He started from her, and stood staring at her in amazement. His face was pale, and he was agitated.
"How do you know that?" he asked sharply when he had somewhat recovered himself.
She laughed as she replied—
"I am a woman. I know Miss Lacey, and know that she hates you. It takes a woman to read a woman. I tell you, you will never marry her."
"Has she told you so?" he gasped.
"No, certainly not. She doesn't take me into her confidence. But I have seen you together, and I have seen the expression on her face. It wasn't the expression a woman has when she is in the presence of her lover."
Pym broke into a laugh, but it was a forced laugh. He was annoyed, though he tried to conceal his annoyance. He was anxious to avoid any disagreement with Martha.
"You are a very sharp young lady," he said suavely.
"Yes, in some ways. Sharper, perhaps, than you give me credit for being," she replied with point and emphasis.
He took her arm again and said—
"Well, we needn't discuss Miss Lacey now; I would rather talk love to you. You would inspire any man with love. I would make love to you."
"Would you?" she remarked archly. "Supposing I object?"
"Oh, but you won't."
He tried to kiss her; she drew back, kept him at arm's length, and frowned.
"Mr. Pym," she said a little sternly, "you must respect me."
"So I do."
"Then what am I to infer if you talk love to me?"
He seemed to be thrown into confusion again by her question, but tried to laugh it off.
"Well now, Martha, that's a funny question," he said. "What does a woman infer under such circumstances?"
"That the man wants to marry her," answered Martha boldly.
Pym's face coloured, and a wicked expression developed in his eyes.
"Not necessarily so," he replied haltingly, and evidently ill at ease.
She drew away from him again, and said angrily—
"What else then?"
"Why, surely a little harmless flirtation may occasionally be indulged in by young people."
"Harmless flirtation, indeed!" she exclaimed with a toss of her pretty head. "Then do you think that I am so flighty and feather-brained as to feel gratified because you condescend to talk a lot of nonsense to me? No, Mr. Pym, you've made a mistake for once in your life, and I will wish you good-night and good-bye."
He was amazed. He had not expected this. He had conceived an idea that she could be played with; that he could amuse himself with her and make her useful. It would not serve his purpose at this critical juncture to let her go from him in anger, so he caught her in his arms and held her.
"Martha, Martha," he exclaimed; "you do me a wrong, you do really; I have no intention of trifling with your feelings—"
"You had better not," she interrupted. "If you do my father would think nothing of shooting you."
"I didn't imagine he was so bloodthirsty," replied Pym a little scornfully.
"He would be bloodthirsty enough where my feelings were concerned. He has already questioned me about your intentions. He's got his eye on you, Mr. Pym, I can tell you."
Pym felt that he was impaled on the horns of a dilemma, and the question was, how could he wriggle off without quarrelling with this strong-willed young woman? To quarrel would be fatal to his schemes and strivings, and rendered desperate by the situation in which he unexpectedly found himself, he was prepared to go to great lengths. He had no scruples about his honour, and could with ease adapt his principles to square in with the necessities of the hour. He was in a necessitous strait now, and something must be done.
"When you say your father has questioned you about my intentions," he asked softly, "what do you wish me to understand?"
"What my father wishes to know is, are your intentions honourable?"
Once more was the Hon. Randolph Pym thrown into a state of confusion, for he was conscious that he was being cornered and that the cards were running against him.
"Why of—of course they are honourable," he stammered.
To his amazement Martha suddenly threw herself upon his breast, twined her arms about his neck, and emitted a sigh which seemed to indicate that her cup of happiness was full to overflowing.
"Ah, Randolph, dear one, how happy you make me!" she murmured. "What a load you lift from my mind! I knew that you would not trifle with the tender feelings of my heart, which would surely have broken if you had deceived me. You know that you have won my love, and that I am yours until death parts us."
The Hon. Randolph Pym was disconcerted, embarrassed, flabbergasted. He had not bargained for this. He was not blind to Martha's pulchritude, but he had been under the impression that she would be dazzled by his position, his splendour, and in return for his patronage she would be ready to let him wipe his boots upon her if he so desired. It came as a shock to him to find that she was serious enough; and while he with flagitious intent had sought to ingratiate himself into her favour, she had succeeded in placing him in a position from which retreat seemed difficult.
While he was yet speechless and confused, and she still hung round his neck, a man approached them coming from the wood. It was Jack Westhorpe, a woodcutter under Jopling. Jack was a somewhat wild young fellow, and noted as a gossip. Martha was in no ways flurried. She released Pym, took one of his hands as Jack approached, and presenting him to the woodman—who of course knew him—said—
"Jack, this gentleman is the Hon. Randolph Pym, and he has asked me to be his wife, so that some day, perhaps, I shall be Lady Pym, should he succeed to his father's title."
Jack seemed knocked all in a heap, as the saying goes, and snatching off his cap and dropping a bundle of faggots he had swung over his back, he made a low bow, and stammered—
"Lord a love ye, mees, who'd a thought it? But I do congratulate ye, I do fur shure; and likewise you, zur. With your leave, zur, I say she's a bonnie un, and ain't to be matched even by them as is 'igh born. You've gotten a prize, zur, you 'ave fur shure."
DURING the time that Martha was so strenuously and skilfully weaving her web around the Hon. Randolph Pym, Dick Jopling and the stranger who had been conducted to the cottage by Pym were seated in the garden, discussing the murder of Mr. Lacey.
There was nothing very remarkable about the stranger, excepting, perhaps, his eyes. They were grey-blue, small and sleepy-looking. Any one given to noting details of human features would have conceived the impression that the owner of these deep-sunk, dreamy-looking eyes was a non-observant man, and much given to introspection. But they were emissitious eyes and saw much. The face was clean-shaved; the eyebrows somewhat shaggy; the chin and mouth of the type usually associated with physical courage and strong will power. For the rest the stranger was a pleasant-spoken man with no trace of provincial accent in his speech, while his manner was suave, his bearing slightly deferential.
When Martha and Pym had departed, the stranger addressed himself to Jopling with a winning frankness.
"I am interested in the murder case which has recently agitated this rather somnolent district," he began.
"You mean the shooting of Mr. Lacey?"
"Ah, just so. A somewhat mysterious crime, eh?"
"Yes, very," assented Jopling, looking hard at his visitor. Jopling was an alert man, and by no means lacking in shrewdness.
"My name's Dick Jopling; I'm head game-keeper here," he said bluntly, as if he had determined that there should be no beating about the bush as far as he was concerned.
The stranger smiled pleasantly, and replied—
"Thanks, many thanks. Your information confirms what has been given to me elsewhere; so you see, Mr. Jopling, your light is not quite hidden under a bushel."
"That's all right; now, then, what's your name?" demanded the gamekeeper.
"Mine—ah, ah—oh, well, suppose for the time being you simply know me as Bob, eh?"
"You've come here about this murder case?" asked Jopling with some show of irritation.
"Quite correct, quite correct, my dear sir. I give you credit for keen intelligence."
"And as you seem to know so much, you are perhaps aware that I have been questioned and pumped by the police here until I'm sick?" snapped Jopling irritably.
The stranger smiled blandly again and rubbed his hands as he replied—
"I admit it is within my knowledge that the law's representatives have of necessity subjected you to some verbal examination which you to some verbal examination which you expressively and picturesquely describe as pumping. But it is added information to learn from your own lips the interesting fact that the dynamic results of the pumping have been of a nature to disturb your epigastrum to the extent of sickness. Nevertheless, you seem to be in perfectly sound health."
Dick Jopling was inclined to anger. Epigastrum and dynamic were a little too technical for his intellectual grasp, but he understood broadly that the stranger was indulging in badinage. The pleasant manner and the bland smile, however, softened him, though he said with a little sharpness—
"Until I know who you are you'll get nothing out of me."
"Oh yes, my dear sir, I shall," responded the stranger, still smiling affably. "But, now, those pipes and tobacco and the bottle there on the table are enticing. Tobacco has a soothing effect, while wine, providing it's good, is stimulating. And as that wine came from the cellars of Mr. Pym, a gentleman whose tastes are those of a connoisseur, its quality cannot be questioned."
The expression of Dick Jopling's face underwent several changes, but fixed itself at last into one of astonishment, in which was a mingling of suspicion if not fear of the stranger, who was masterful, insinuating and not to be denied.
"Have I your permission?" queried the visitor, as, taking up the decanter and glass, he paused.
"I've no objection," growled Dick sullenly, for he felt that he was at a disadvantage and overmatched.
"Thank you. Your health, Dick. Ah! That's refreshing. Capital wine, capital, my dear sir."
"Look here, how the devil do you know that that wine came from Mr. Pym's cellar?" demanded Jopling, allowing his feelings to betray him into a display of temper, for he was conscious that he was at a disadvantage; that he was playing second fiddle to this self-assertive stranger.
Still looking very suave and pleasant the stranger filled a pipe, lit it, and seated himself before answering.
"Possibly, my dear sir—possibly, I say, the legendary personage you refer to, and who is usually associated with sin, may have supplied me with the information. Anyway, you will not, I am sure, deny the accuracy of my assertion if you are an honest man. Now, why be angry?" Here the stranger became grave and serious. "My name is Bob. I am from London. I have come to talk to you about the murder case; and, my dear friend, there are reasons, strong reasons, that I am sure you will appreciate why you should be perfectly frank with me. Now fill your pipe and let us be jovial." He was all smiles again; while some magnetic or other influence he possessed had such an effect that Dick Jopling seated himself, filled a pipe, and, pouring out a glass of wine, said—
"Mr. Bob from London, here's your health."
"Ah, now we're getting on. Your health, Dick. Umph, that is capital wine. By the way, it was curious I should have met the Hon. Randolph Pym, wasn't it?"
"Did you know him?" asked Dick pointedy.
"On my honour, no. Never set eyes on him before. If I am not mistaken he admires your daughter, as, indeed, he may well do so. She's a remarkably fine girl, Dick; positively handsome." Jopling looked pleased. His eyes sparkled, and he rubbed his hands together as if congratulating himself. There was a slight pause; then Bob touched his companion on the chest with the end of his long pipe, and added in a confidential tone, "If you are not above accepting a word of caution from me, keep an eye on the young lady, my dear sir. Don't let the Hon. Randolph Pym fascinate her too much."
"It strikes me, Bob," replied Jopling, becoming more genial, "that Martha is a match for him."
"Ah, I shouldn't wonder; and I'm glad to hear you say so, for if I'm any judge of character, I should say Mr. Pym is a bit artful. He's a gentleman who knows how to play his own game, and—I hope I don't do him a wrong—is not particularly sensitive about the means he employs to win."
Jopling gave visible signs that this remark rather startled him. But he could think of nothing better to say than this—
"Mr. Pym is a gentleman."
"In the ordinary acceptation of the word—yes. But there, I mustn't be unfair. You have an interest in Mr. Pym; or, rather, let us put it this way: he is interested in you, eh? Isn't that so?"
Dick remained silent, and Bob proceeded, "However, let us change the subject. Now, tell me, my friend, do you really believe that Jim Spedwick shot Mr. Lacey?"
The sleepy eyes were fixed on Mr. Jopling's face, which, in spite of its nut-brown tan, visibly paled. Mr. Jopling was evidently thrown into a state of mental confusion by the unexpected question, and he blurted out, without pausing to think—
"No; I don't."
"You don't?" exclaimed Bob, with a peculiar intonation that carried with it a wonderful amount of meaning.
"Well, that is—" began Jopling, growing more confused, but Bob checked him.
"Now, my dear fellow, don't get out of your depth, or you may drown." The seemingly dreamy but emissitious eyes were still fixed on the tanned face. Jopling was still flustered, but Bob was as cool as the proverbial cucumber. "I am aware," he went on, "that you informed the police you had seen a man running from the spot where Mr. Lacey's body was found, and the man was Jim Spedwick."
"No, I didn't say positively it was. I said I thought it was."
"Umph, a nice distinction, a nice distinction, Mr. Jopling, and perhaps a safe one under the circumstances. But, Jopling, my friend, you know that even then you lied. For you did not see a man running away, as you were nowhere near the spot at the time."
The blunt accusation of lying had such an effect on Jopling that a nervous spasm caused him to close his teeth so hard on the stem of his long clay pipe that he scrunched an inch or so off, and spluttered and spat the fragments on to the ground. Whereat Bob broke into a laugh, and said, "What on earth do you want to eat your pipe for? Of course it was foolish of you to allow the Hon. Randolph Pym to tempt you not only into perverting the truth, but the fabrication of a downright tarradiddle. Now if you had only reflected, the heinousness of an attempt to cast suspicion of so foul a crime on an innocent man would have occurred to you. But the mischief being done, there is no reason for your trying to choke yourself with a yard of clay. You did lie, didn't you, when you made the statement, eh, Mr. Jopling?"
"Yes," Dick jerked out sullenly.
"And the Hon. Randolph Pym prompted you?" asked the stranger, looking as if he was half asleep.
"Ah, now we shall get on well together. When a man confesses a fault it proves that he is not altogether depraved, so I won't labour the point too strongly against you. But you were weak, very—weak, Mr. Jopling, though I make every allowance for Mr. Pym's liberality and the excellence of his wine. And then, of course, it was very gratifying to you as a proud father that Mr. Pym should take notice of your pretty daughter."
Dick Jopling sprang to his feet, banged his fist on the table, and assumed a threatening attitude.
"Look here, Bob, or whatever your name is, don't know if you are the devil, or have dealings with the devil, but you seem to be able to read what's in a fellow's mind. It's true that I lied when I said I saw a man running away on the morning of the murder, and it's true what you say that I was nowhere near the spot. But it's all Pym's fault, and lately I've been wondering a good many things about him. Now, Bob, will you answer me a question?"
Bob's eyes were dosed, or appeared to be so. He smoked placidly, and might have been dreaming sweet dreams of Eden.
"I will if I can, my friend," he murmured.
"Tell me, then, do you think that Pym himself murdered Mr. Lacey?"
Bob opened his eyes with a jerk, looked straight at his questioner, and answered—
"Certainly not. How can I possibly think that? There are plenty of witnesses to the fact that at the moment the fatal shot was fired the Hon. Randolph Pym was at the place appointed for the duel."
"Why, of course, I'd forgotten that," said Dick as he dropped into his seat again, his face glistening with perspiration, the result of mental excitement.
"Although no suspicion attaches to Mr. Pym in that respect," continued Bob, speaking with great deliberateness, "he has made it evident that his hatred for his rival has demoralized him, and has led to his demoralizing you—"
"My God, and he will demoralize my daughter," cried Jopling excitedly as he once more sprang to his feet.
At that psychological moment the Hon. Randolph Pym and Martha reappeared in the little gateway at the bottom of the garden. The gloaming had deepened, though there was still a lingering glow in the western sky, and a strange, weird, but subdued light filled the garden, though the wood beyond was shrouded in impenetrable gloom. Martha hurried towards her father, almost dragging Pym after her, and in an apparently artless, gleeful, excited, childish way she exclaimed—
"Dad, dad, what do you think? I am to be the Hon. Randolph Pym's wife." Then, as if she hadn't observed Bob at first, she faltered, and stammered, "Oh, I—I—really I'd forgotten. I beg your pardon. I didn't notice you."
The Hon. Randolph Pym seemed to be under some spell which had deprived him of the power of speech and the power of action.
THAT scene in Jopling's garden was striking and impressive; a little human drama full of the elements of comedy and tragedy; while the weird sisters who spin the threads of human destinies were busy with the future of these people.
"Bob," the mysterious stranger, who seemed unconcerned and perfectly self-possessed, advanced to Martha, and with outstretched hand said smilingly, and with hearty gusto—
"My dear young lady, permit me to congratulate you. The Hon. Randolph Pym must feel a proud man at this moment, and well indeed he may as the happy possessor of such a prize. Love is a great leveller; it recognizes no distinction in social position, but—"
Pym seemed to suddenly recover himself at these words, and with declamatory fierceness exclaimed—
"This is tomfoolery. I don't know who you are, and I be hanged if I care; but your familiarity is objectionable, and you take a liberty in jumping to a conclusion which is not warranted by facts. Anyway, it is not a matter on which, as far as I can judge, you have any right to express an opinion. In the first place, this young lady is evidently under some misapprehension—"
"What?" shrieked Jopling, while Martha drew herself up and looked dangerous. "What! you mean to tell me that my girl would announce to me that she was to be your wife, unless you had made love to her? Now, sir, you may tell that to the horse marines; they may swallow it, but, by Jingo, I can't and won't."
"Of course he's made love to me," whimpered Martha, with a sweetly injured innocent air.
The situation was one that strained Pym's temper to its uttermost limits; but somehow the presence of the stranger subdued him, or at any rate held him in check. Hitherto he had domineered over and patronized Jopling, and regarded Martha as a young person with whom he could amuse himself. She was undoubtedly attractive, and superior to her station, but a matrimonial alliance with her had never formed part of his wildest dreamings; the bare idea was preposterous. Moreover, hadn't he set his mind on wedding Miss Lacey? She had a fortune, and a fortune was necessary; and though she had scouted and flouted him, and showed a vulgar predilection for the penniless beggar, Jim Spedwick he was not a man easily turned from a purpose. He regarded himself as Miss Lacey's affianced husband An alliance between his house and her house was, from his point of view, one of the most desirable things in the world; for his eldest brother was a hale and lusty man, likely to live long, and the father was not accounted a wealthy man. Yet, notwithstanding all these facts, the Hon. Randolph Pym, looked up to as a country gentleman of good social standing, was now placed in a position which, if generally known, would not only compromise him seriously, but blast his career.
That he was confused goes without saying; and the presence of the stranger so embarrassed him that he was at his wits' end, but he felt it was important that he should disentangle himself in some way. Finesse and delicacy were not qualities which distinguished him, otherwise he would not now have assumed lofty disdain, blended with more than a dash of arrogance.
"Look here, Jopling," he exclaimed, "you mustn't forget your position, you know, nor that I am a gentleman—"
"Mr. Pym," answered Jopling, without giving him time to finish, "it isn't fine clothes and position that make a gentleman. There are as many scoundrels in broadcloth as in moleskin. Between you and me there isn't such a wide gap; and I says it, and I'll say it afore any one, my gal Martha there will not disgrace you as your wife—"
Pym broke into a forced laugh, and said—
"My good fellow, don't let us quarrel. Martha is perfectly charming, I admit; but I positively decline to discuss my affairs in the presence of your—your friend. Therefore I will wish you good-night, and reserve what I have to say to a future occasion."
"Oh, pray don't let me disturb the harmony of the meeting," interposed Bob pleasantly. "I have already overstayed my time. Miss Martha, good-night." He extended his hand. She grasped it, and he gallantly raised hers to his lips, adding, "I wish you joy and prosperity. Mr. Pym is a lucky dog. Gentlemen, good-night."
With a suddenness and abruptness that prevented them making any reply, he swung himself on his heel and disappeared in the darkness. Then there was an awkward pause, broken by Pym exclaiming—
"Who is that fool, Jopling?"
"I don't know who he is, but take my word for it, Mr. Pym, he's not a fool. He knows his way about town, you may bet."
"Well, I'm going," growled Pym sullenly.
"Hadn't you better come into the house," suggested Jopling. "Anyway, I should like to have a word or two with you."
"Oh, yes, you must come in, Randolph," cried Martha, linking her fingers about his arm. "Don't be unkind to me, anyway."
Still under her spell he yielded, and walked with her into the cottage, and when the lamps were lighted, it revealed that he was very pale and seemingly agitated. Martha flitted out again to the garden and returned with the decanter and the pipes and tobacco. She filled a pipe and handed it to him. He took it without even a thank you, and she gave him a light.
"Now, Martha, my dear," said her father when they had settled down, "am I really to understand that Mr. Pym has asked you to be his wife?"
Pym himself answered before she could speak—
"No, certainly not. You are not to understand anything of the kind."
"Ran—dolph!" ejaculated the young lady, in apparently breathless amazement.
"You know quite well, Martha," said Pym snappishly, "that I am engaged to Miss Lacey; therefore it is ridiculous to talk of marrying you."
"I told you in the earlier part of the evening," replied Martha with great firmness, clasping her hands about her knee, and gazing fixedly at him, "that Miss Lacey does not love you and will never marry you."
"Oh, it's all very well for you to say that," said Pym in a jerky and irritable way; "but you know nothing at all about it."
Jopling remained silent and watchful. And Martha, without changing her pose or attitude, continued—
"You told me in the wood that there was no necessity to discuss Miss Lacey; you would rather talk love to me, for I would inspire any man with love, and you would make love to me."
"Girl, did he say that?" demanded Jopling sternly.
"Yes, father, he said it," replied his daughter, still maintaining her pose.
Pym grew paler. His eyes were restless, betraying the agitation of his mind.
"But, Martha, my dear child, you have taken me too seriously. I—I—"
Up rose Jopling like a giant in wrath, and directing the stem of his pipe towards Pym, in order to add emphasis to his remarks, he said with force of expression—
"Mr. Pym, I am a father, and that there's my lass. She's as dear to me as a king's daughter is dear to him; and, Mr. Pym, if you trifle with her feelings; if you betray her and break her heart, it's my life against yours, by God it is! You've tried to corrupt me by wanting me to swear false evidence, but as there's a heaven above us you shall not corrupt my daughter."
The Hon. Randolph Pym presented a pitiable spectacle in the presence of this strong, determined man, by whom he was cowed, and from whom he would have liked to flee away. Dick Jopling was not a man to trifle with. Mr. Pym had come to an understanding of that now, as a little while ago he had come to understand that he had made a great mistake with regard to Dick Jopling's daughter. Miss Martha Jopling was quite a match for Mr. Pym, and she had cunningly thrown a net about him from which escape seemed difficult, if not impossible.
Martha rose up now and confronted her father, not wrathfully. Tears stood in her eyes; there was a quaver in her voice; she was a touching picture of a pretty woman labouring under deep emotion.
"Dad dear," she said pathetically, "control yourself for my sake. I love Mr. Pym and he loves me; he has told me so, and I am sure he will not deceive me, will you, dear?" She turned to him appealingly. The net was pulled a little tighter. His confusion increased. He was painfully conscious of his utter helplessness. There was the daughter, like a syren of old luring him to his doom; and there was the father, stern and resolute, who could neither be bought nor cheated.
"I have never intended to deceive you," was the best he could say, and even that was said almost in a whisper, for suppressed excitement had parched his throat and made his tongue dry and hard.
"Ah, dear one, I knew you wouldn't," she sighed, as throwing her arms about his neck, she let her head fall upon his breast.
The long pipe he had been smoking fell from his grasp to the floor and was shivered. He had grown deadly pale, and had all the appearance of a man suffering to such an extent from mental bewilderment as to be deprived of the power to act or to think lucidly. But with a tremendous effort of will he recovered some of his self-possession, and, gently disengaging himself from the girl's embrace, said—
"Pray sit down, Martha." The distress he suffered from was obvious in his voice. "Have some regard for my feelings. Perhaps I have been a little unfair to you, but that is no reason why you should be unfair to me now. Let us postpone further discussion of the matter for the present. My position is a difficult one; you will surely admit that, and we ought not to be hasty."
"But, Randolph," cried the girl, "you said nothing about being hasty when you made love to me in the wood a short time ago, and in the presence of Jack Westhorpe."
Jopling interposed. He was still standing and his tanned face was a study in its expression of inflexible determination.
"There's got to be a clear understanding, Mr. Pym," he said, weighing every word. "Don't you attempt to trifle with my daughter's honour; don't do it, Mr. Pym, or this country won't be big enough to hold you and me. I won't trust myself to say anything more now. Only don't forget my words." He strode out of the room, shutting the door forcibly behind him.
Then for a space of time that seemed very long under the circumstances, there was silence between Pym and Martha. The girl was sobbing, and covered her face with her handkerchief. At last Pym spoke.
"It seems to me, Martha, that this business is ours and ours alone, and no one has any right to interfere. I don't deny that I think a lot of you; but my position is an exceedingly difficult one, therefore don't be hard; give me time to breathe, time to think the matter out. Trust me, will you?"
"Yes," she answered with a rifting of the breath. Then she added with great significance, "But you mustn't deceive me."
"I've no intention of deceiving you," he answered. "But really I must go now; it's getting late. Good-night, dear." He took her in his arms and kissed her, and she whispered—
"When will you see me again, love?"
"Soon," he answered.
He disengaged himself, shook her hand and strode out into the darkness of the night, painfully conscious of the fact that he had seriously entangled the threads of his life.
MEN, with the passion for gambling strongly developed, who play for high stakes, are seldom honest. The love of self-interest is so powerful that they will readily sacrifice honour and principle rather than let their interests suffer. The Hon. Randolph Pym was a confirmed gambler; that is to say, in playing his own game of life, and in his case it was a low game: he was ready to resort to any means to gain his own ends. He was worldly in its basest sense, and self-aggrandizement, covetousness, vanity were ruling passions. Like all men of his type, he was most intolerant of defeat. Neither the snubbing to which Miss Lacey had subjected him, nor the difficulties he had brought upon himself by the charges he had made against Jim Spedwick, had sufficed to subdue his vanity, nor open his eyes to the dangerous course he was pursuing. He still believed, in spite of all that had taken place, that he would ultimately succeed in his suit with Miss Lacey. Her father had had faith in him, and he possessed her mother's confidence. The unhappy widow was strangely blind to all his faults, regarding him with positive affection. She, of course, was worldly minded too, and being of humble origin she aspired to higher social position, and it seemed to her, with her limited capacity for gauging and weighing things, that young Pym was not only endowed with excellent qualities, but would be able to raise her in the social scale by marrying her daughter. It was this that added to the difficulties of poor Norah's case. Her own mother was opposed to her. Mrs. Lacey was absolutely blind to Pym's faults. Of course, she only saw him at his best, and incapable as she was of looking below the surface, she was in ignorance of the baseness of the metal beneath the thin veneering. Pym's dastardly nature was fully shown in the attempt he made to bribe Dick Jopling in perjuring himself, and perjuring himself in such a way that if he had been believed he would have jeopardized the life of a fellow-being. But Dick had shrunk from lending his aid to the carrying out of such an act of black knavery, and Pym realized now that it was too late, that in resorting to such means to secure his ends he had placed himself in a situation of such difficulty that the way out was not clear, even if a way out existed at all.
When he left Jopling's cottage after that extraordinary scene between himself and Martha, he had come to a consciousness of this fact, that Dick was a dangerous man to trifle with, and that Martha was a young lady who would have to be taken into his reckoning with regard to the future. If the folly of fools only affected the fool himself it would be of no material consequence, but others are almost certain to suffer, and the evil of Pym's acts and deeds could not fail to cause widespread misery amongst those who had faith and trust in him and regarded him as a man of honour. Jopling had thrust home when he told Pym that fine clothes and position did not make a gentleman, and that there were as many scoundrels in broadcloth as in moleskins. But when he added, "Between you and me there isn't such a wide gap," Dick did himself an injustice, for he had refused to be corrupted into perjury by Pym's money, and had proved himself to be an honest man, whatever his faults were. Pym's failure in this direction had compromised him, and his dalliance with the daughter of the sturdy gamekeeper threatened him with social ruin. His father, although an easy-going man, was as proud as Lucifer, and would cast him out of heart and home if he, as his father would have said, stooped to a mésalliance. To Pym the idea of a marriage with Martha seemed absolutely preposterous, so ridiculous indeed that he actually laughed to himself until he suddenly remembered the angry Jopling's menacing words: "You've tried to corrupt me by wanting me to swear false evidence, but as there's a heaven above us you shall not corrupt my daughter."
Pym ceased to laugh. Dick was a humble man, but he was a force that would have to be taken into account. For several days the Hon. Randolph Pym was much disturbed in his mind, when chance once more brought him in contact with Miss Lacey. They met at the house of a mutual acquaintance, where there were a good many guests, and with a view to avoiding tittle-tattle and scandal, Norah made herself agreeable with him, and he, taking advantage of that, renewed his protestations of love. Her presence caused him to temporarily forget the scene in the gamekeeper's cottage, and he urged with forcible obtestations his claim to her regard. He reminded her that she had at one time led him to believe that she loved him, and her own father had recognized him as her affianced husband. He was careful to avoid any reference to the unfortunate Jim Spedwick, and she, also, wisely refrained from mentioning Jim's name. The result was he was encouraged in the belief that notwithstanding all that had passed, he would, by persevering, ultimately triumph over her objections and succeed in winning her.
It is easier to imagine Norah's state of mind than to describe it in words. She was painfully alive to Jim Spedwick's position. The dark shadows that enveloped him showed no signs of lifting. She had heard the cruel rumour that Jopling had seen a man running away from the spot where her father was killed, and that he had identified the man as Spedwick. She had heard many other rumours; the spiteful tongue that finds pleasure in spreading evil news had been very busy, while irresponsible babblers had grossly exaggerated every little item. It was curious that public opinion was still dead against Spedwick. To the vulgar mind all the circumstances of the grim tragedy were damning proof that Jim, and nobody else but Jim, was responsible for Mr. Lacey's death. These things affected Norah deeply; she felt her isolation acutely; she had no one to whom she could turn for advice and sympathy, for all her relatives, without exception, were opposed to Jim, and his name was taboo in her family circle. This being the case, she remained silent; she kept her thoughts to herself, and had to quietly submit to the reproaches that were levelled against her by members of her family for what they were pleased to term her obstinacy in endangering her opportunity of "a brilliant match with the Hon. Randolph Pym."
Pym's renewed attentions were distasteful, but she did not resent them. She had no wish to make herself conspicuous, or give the other people present a chance of tattling. The result was, when Pym took his departure that evening, his hopes had quite revived, and he was firmly persuaded that time and perseverance would tell in his favour and Norah would be his.
He was a little elated as he wended his way home, but an ugly and tormenting thought would intrude itself, and Dick Jopling was the subject of it. Martha and her father had too much to gain to be shaken off easily, and Pym roundly cursed his folly in placing himself in their power. Something would have to be done, though what the "something" was to be he couldn't determine, but he resolved to call to his aid the smooth-tongued, wily rascal, Ralph Tinker, to whom he was already indebted for services rendered. And so it came to pass that an evening or two later Tinker met him by request, at a secluded little hostelry known as The Woodman's Rest, situated in a romantic and picturesque glen called Deep Dene Hollow, a few miles from Ministerfield. It was a summer resort and much frequented by lovers who billed and cooed in the glen and supped at the hostelry. The house was busy on this pleasant summer evening, and young couples, absorbed in themselves, sighed and looked unutterable things. In front of the inn was a veranda, which overhung a purling stream that gurgled sweetly as it meandered its way through the glen. And here on this veranda sat Pym and Tinker, refreshing themselves with such cheer as the inn afforded. Other couples were there, but Pym and his factotum occupied one corner of the veranda with a little table between them, a trelliswork covered with a luxuriant growth of honeysuckle affording them shelter from the breeze. Not far from them sat a clerical-looking gentleman, wearing spectacles, and picturesque with a mass of grey hair tumbling about his face and neck. He was engaged in sketching, and apparently so absorbed in his occupation that he took no notice of anything or anybody. On the opposite side of the glen was a mass of bold, scarped rock, clothed with ferns and foxgloves, and crowned with a straggling clump of trees. It was this rock that engaged the old gentleman's attention, and he was transferring a pictorial representation of it to his sketching board Pym and his companion entered into earnest conversation, and to Tinker he made a full confession of his folly in entangling himself with Martha, and expressed his fears of Martha's father.
It was curious that Pym, who prided himself his social position, should have condescended make this young man his confidant. But he had found him useful so far, for Tinker had no scruples and no conscience, and with a view to his own gain was not particular as to the kind of work he undertook. As an attorney's clerk he found that his earnings fell very far short of his desires, and being ambitious, and having extravagant tastes, he did not hesitate to place himself at Pym's service for a consideration, and Mr. Ralph Tinker was by no means modest when it came to a question of appraising his value.
He listened attentively to the story as it was unfolded, and swelled with a sense of supreme importance when he found himself called upon to advise this baronet's son in the difficult situation in which he had placed himself.
Tinker assumed a thoughtful and grave air. He stared into space, and toyed with the thick moustache that shaded his upper lip.
"It strikes me," he said, after some cogitation, and speaking with the deliberateness of a lawyer delivering a weighty opinion. "It strikes me, my friend, that you've got yourself into a precious mess. Old Jopling can be very violent when he likes, and as for his girl—well, I should say she's got a good spice of the devil in her. You may depend upon it the precious pair will cling to you like tenter hooks." Then he added, with an unpleasant smile, and there was much point in his remark, "You see, they regard you as the goose that lays the golden eggs. As long as the eggs are forthcoming it will be all right, but if they cease Jopling may rip you open out of sheer devilment."
Pym winced and changed colour a little, and he answered, with some warmth in his tone—
"But surely, man, there is some way of defeating these brutes. It's the girl I'm most afraid of. She's as wily as a serpent and as artful as a fox, and has the confounded impertinence to suggest that she should become my wife."
"Ah," said Tinker, with another unpleasant smile, "it's peculiarly unwise for a man in your position to make serious love to a young woman so much beneath you as Martha Jopling."
"I haven't made serious love to her," growled Pym. "She has taken me a deuced sight too seriously."
"That's where it is. They do, you know," remarked Tinker, still smiling. "You ought to know that when a man in high position stoops low enough to a humble woman to let her get her hands round his neck, he will not be able to straighten himself up without lifting her with him. She will cling like a limpet. Of course that's a figure of speech, but it expresses a truth, doesn't it?"
"What I want to find out is the best means to shake her off," exclaimed Pym irritably.
"Buy her body and soul."
"But suppose she won't be bought."
"Umph," grunted Tinker, with gravity of mien. "That complicates matters. If she is beyond price, well—then, as far as I can see, there is only one other course."
"And that is?"
Tinker glanced round, then brought his lips close to Pym's ear and whispered something that caused the colour to leave Pym's face, and drew from him an exclamation.
"By God, no! I'll be no party to that."
Ralph Tinker shrugged his shoulders, and said carelessly—
"Then you must devise a way for yourself out of the mess."
"If I could have done that I shouldn't have come to you," replied Pym sullenly.
"But what's the use of asking a man for his advice if you won't take it when it's given to you?"
Pym became very thoughtful and remained silent for a considerable time, during which Tinker smoked placidly, as if he hadn't a care in the world.
The sun had set; the gloaming was deepening. The old clerical gentleman had fallen asleep over his sketching block, and one or two spooney couples who still remained on the veranda were sitting with their arms round each other, dreaming dreams of elysium. The solemn silence of the night fell upon the scene, and the brook flowed by murmuring of eternity. Presently Pym whispered to his companion, and his companion whispered back; and they continued to whisper until the heavens were filled with the glory of the stars that mocked at man's puniness and his miserable plots for his self-advancement.
At last the two men rose and went away, and a minute or two later the sketcher woke up, gathered together his pencils and blocks, and disappeared. Only the lovers were left. They still dreamed of elysium; the brook still murmured of eternity.
WHEN Dick Jopling told Pym that the world wouldn't be large enough to hold them both if he, Pym, deceived Martha, he was in deadly earnest. Dick was a rough man, with a certain rugged honesty of purpose, and in his rough way he did his duty. He had a flaw in his character which was apt to cause disastrous results, if any one who was aware of it chose to play upon the weakness. That flaw was a lack of power to resist the seductive influences of strong liquor, when once he began to feel its effects. Pym knew of that weakness, and had traded upon it, when with a sense of desperateness he saw his own interests menaced. Then he sought to tempt Dick to the commission of a dastardly deed by giving false information about Jim Spedwick. Although Dick did not promise that he would perjure himself, he did not say that he would not, and Pym, believing that he had prevailed, employed Ralph Tinker to spread the rumour that Jopling, on the morning of the murder of Mr. Lacey, had seen a man running away from the scene of the crime, and he identified the man as Spedwick. But when Dick had recovered from the weakness of the hour, and came to an understanding of the heinousness of the offence he was asked to commit, his better nature prevailed, and he was angry with himself for having lent ear for a single instant to the voice of the tempter. This disconcerted Pym, and threw his calculation out; then with the strange lack of discretion which was so characteristic of him, he began to play Martha off against her father. This was a fatal error. Jopling loved his daughter with a devotion that was a redeeming feature in his nature, and she had tremendous influence over him; but the girl was far too clever to lend herself as an instrument for Pym to accomplish his base purposes with, and she turned the tables on him. She was dazzled and fascinated with the possibilities of a marriage with Pym, and we have seen with what skill she had placed him in a position from which retreat was practically cut off. In the presence of witnesses she made it appear that she stood in the position of his fiancée.
Some days passed after the incident in the cottage when the mysterious "Bob from London" had congratulated her upon her good fortune, when, not having heard from Pym, she addressed a letter to him, in which she called him "My dear Randolph," and spoke of the happiness she felt at the thought that he loved her. She could write an excellent letter, and in this instance was at pains to make it clear what her own feelings were in the matter. There was nothing ambiguous in what she wrote, and she left him in no doubt, that if he trifled with her he would do so at his peril. It would mean for him social ruin, and she hinted in carefully phrased sentences that behind her was the power of her father, and that was a factor which could not be lightly ignored.
The receipt of this letter almost drove Pym out of his senses. His hopes of a union with Miss Lacey had been revived by that interview at the house of their mutual friend, but now they were dashed again by his own "infernal folly." He began to realize that it was not only dangerous to play with edged tools, but something worse than folly to trifle with the feelings of a clever and designing woman. His schemes had miscarried, and he had wandered into tortuous ways that could only end in ruin. Crafty as he was, he had been outmatched; and was confronted with a danger which would undoubtedly wreck him if he could not avert it. He had drifted into evil gradually; until now it dawned upon him that honour, reputation, if not life itself, were at stake. What could he do to place himself right again?
In his distress and perplexity he appealed to Ralph Tinker once more. It was like going from Scylla to Charybdis, but he was in desperate straits. Tinker reminded him that he had suggested drastic measures when they sat together on the veranda of the inn in Deep Dene Hollow, but Pym rejected them again as he rejected them then. He had descended very low already, but that final descent appalled him.
"She must be bought, Tinker," he said. "Every woman has her price, and Martha Jopling, she cat as she is, cannot be beyond purchase."
Tinker smiled in his caustic way. He knew that whichever side won he would not lose. He had his price too, and it was a high one. Neither the welfare of Pym nor the welfare of Martha concerned him a jot. His own enrichment was the one and only thing he thought of.
"Perhaps you can purchase her if you bid high enough," he remarked; "and if I am to act as your emissary you must give me practically a free hand."
"I cannot do that," said Pym. "But I am willing to pay her the sum of a hundred pounds as a solatium for her wounded feelings."
Tinker laughed loudly.
"My dear fellow," he exclaimed, "from what I know of Martha Jopling, I am prepared to lay long odds that she will reject your offer with scorn. You must spring on that."
"Two hundred, then," Pym snapped irritably.
"Remember, I am a poor man."
"Useless, useless. Now look here, if you come to me for advice, and wish me to do business for you, you must act on my advice. If not, I shall leave you to your own devices."
"Well—what do you advise?"
"Lure her to London. The last time I was in London for old Saunders, my governor, I saw a bit of life, and I made the acquaintance of a fellow who I am open to bet could be turned to useful account. Of course he would want paying. London is a big place, and a country woman might easily get lost there without being missed."
This wicked suggestion made Pym thoughtful, for it pointed out a way to him that he had not dreamed of before.
"Try her with the hundred pounds first," he said after some reflection. "If that fails, then I might be disposed—"
"You are too simple for this wicked world, my friend," interrupted Tinker. "Don't you see that if you offered her a bribe first, and she refused it, her suspicions would be aroused if you then suggested that she should go to London? No, no; I haven't been in an attorney's office all these years for nothing. I say again, you must leave the matter in my hands, and I will get you out of the scrape."
Pym was so conscious of his own helplessness, and had already placed himself in the power of the wily knave to such an extent, that he felt he had no alternative but to rely upon him now in this extremity.
"Very well," he said; "I leave the matter with you. Do the best you can, but for Heaven's sake, be careful."
"Oh, don't concern yourself on that score," replied Tinker somewhat scornfully, as though he thought the caution was a reflection upon his own cleverness. "I think I know how to manage Miss Martha Jopling. She is artful, but the woman isn't born who cannot be outwitted by a man, if he isn't an absolute fool. I promise you I'll outwit Martha."
In accordance with this understanding Ralph Tinker went out on the following afternoon to Jopling's cottage, and by a coincidence "Bob from London" was also a visitor there. Jopling was absent as he had some business to attend to on another part of the estate; but Martha was dispensing hospitality to Bob as she did not expect her father back before six o'clock at the earliest. Tinker's visit was a great surprise. He managed to convey to her without Bob hearing the intimation that he had been sent with a message from the Hon. Randolph Pym. He added that it was necessary he should be afforded an opportunity of talking to her, and to that end he would call again, by which time probably the stranger would be gone. But so anxious was Martha to learn what the message was that she asked the other visitor to excuse her for a little while, and she strolled with Tinker into the wood.
He began by assuring her that she had so fascinated Pym that he was overhead and ears in love with her. But he dwelt with emphasis on the delicacy of the situation, and the necessity for caution.
"You know how people talk in this little place," he went on; "and you know also what a purse-proud upstart Sir Yardley Pym is. He has set his hopes on Randolph marrying Miss Lacey, but whatever Randolph may have thought of Norah in the past, he thinks nothing of her now. He doesn't want to marry her, but to marry you. Need I say, however, that if the old man knew that he would turn him out and cut him off with a shilling. Of course it's a serious matter for young Pym, and he has to act with the utmost circumspection."
A little excitement and a little emotion had deepened the colour in Martha's face, and she looked with a penetrating gaze at this man who was lying to her like truth.
"And pray, Mr. Tinker," she asked with some breathlessness, "why has Mr. Pym sent you here on such a business as this?"
"Now, my dear young lady," cried Tinker, "the reason is surely obvious. His visits to you could hardly fail to attract the attention of some pettifogging tatler, who would blow it all over the town in a jiffy, and then there would be a pretty scandal. It would be a glib morsel for the slimy-tongued gossips. The Hon. Randolph Pym is paying his addresses to the pretty daughter of Dick Jopling. Miss Lacey and Mrs. Lacey would hear of it, Sir Yardley would hear of it. Everybody would hear of it, then the fat would be in the fire, and there would be a nice rumpus. And as Randolph is dependent upon his father he would soon find himself penniless. Now it's my privilege to enjoy the friendship and confidence of Mr. Pym, and as my legal training has taught me caution, he has in this instance made me his father confessor, and entrusted me with the delicate mission of negotiating between you." He paused and looked at her.
"Well?" she said, hanging on his words.
"Well, firstly, I am to assure you of his devotion. Secondly, I am to make a proposition." He still watched her narrowly as if trying to gauge the effect of his words.
"And what is the proposition?" she asked as he paused again.
"It is a proposition made in your joint interests, and I venture to think it will recommend itself to you. In the course of a week or two he is going to London; later he would like you to join him there, and he will place you under the care of a very dear friend until he can arrange to marry you."
Martha visibly started, and her breath came a little quicker as she said in a tone of suspicion—
"It is strange he should have employed a third person to arrange an affair of this kind."
"Not at all, my dear girl, not at all. In my capacity of a lawyer he knows that I am to be trusted, to say nothing of the close bond of friendship between us. I know how to respect a confidence. He has discussed the plan with me, and in my opinion it is an excellent one; certainly it is to your interest to fall in with his views. Now what do you say?"
Martha was puzzled and perplexed. She didn't know what to say. She was not without suspicion that Pym might have some sinister design. On the other hand Tinker was so plausible, and she knew that Pym being a dependent upon his father ran the risk of disinheritance if he went against hid father's wishes; and she was too shrewd to think for a moment that the proud Sir Yardley would condescend to recognize her as his son's affianced wife. But if she was really married to Randolph, was it not probable, highly probable, that the father would reconcile himself to what was irrevokable?
Thus she argued with herself. It was not a question of love with her. Pym had not inspired her with genuine love. She was a cold, calculating young person, dissatisfied with her humble position, and determined if possible to attain to higher station. Many an honest yokel had sighed to her in vain, but she'd have none of them. She was ambitious and good looking. She set a market value upon her good looks, and the man she favoured must raise her to a plane on which she could display herself.
These were Martha's views. Expressed, perhaps, not as she herself would have expressed them, but her views, nevertheless. She would have justified herself by claiming the right to take any legitimate means to improve her position. She wasn't vicious; she was only calculating and passionless. And if the good looks which nature had endowed her with attracted the attention of a swain of superior social station to herself, wouldn't she be justified in listening to him? Of course she would. After a conflict with herself she answered Tinker.
"The proposal you make is so sudden and so contrary to anything I had expected that I must take time to consider it."
"Of course you must, though it doesn't want much time. Pym is going to London in about three weeks. Business will take me there in about a fortnight. You could accompany me."
"How about my father?"
"Ah, now that's a matter that wants to be dealt with diplomatically. No doubt you are equal to the invention of some little story that will keep him quiet until you can announce yourself to him as the lawful wife of the Hon. Randolph Pym, son of Sir Yardley Pym, Bart., ex-M.P. Imagine it!"
Martha did imagine it until her blood danced in her veins and her face burned.
"Tell Mr. Pym," she said, "that I will think the matter over."
"Why not say at once that you will go?"
"Mr. Pym must come and talk to me himself about it."
"Good. Then I may take it that if he does you will consent?"
"Possibly I may."
"Very well, we'll leave it at that. Now good-bye. I must go, as I have some business to attend to."
He shook her hand and disappeared, and she stood there wrapped in thought. She was dreaming dreams.
"YOU are very thoughtful, Miss Jopling."
The speaker was Bob from London. He was at her elbow. His voice was low and insinuating. She woke up suddenly.
"Oh, how you startled me!" she exclaimed.
"You were so absorbed that you failed to notice my approach," he remarked, smiling.
She was confused; a little agitated.
"I am afraid; really—I—oh, upon my word, I am silly. But the fact is I've just heard something that has set me pondering."
"Umph! Just so. Known that gentleman long?"
"Which gentleman?" she asked, her confusion increasing.
"Mr. Ralph Tinker."
"Oh, yes. Well, you see, Ministerfield is a small place, and everybody knows everybody else. And I sing in the choir of the church he attends, so we often meet."
"Interesting, very. Any adders in this wood, Miss Jopling?"
The abruptness of the question and its apparent irrelevancy caused her to turn a quick, inquiring glance at the sleepy-looking Bob.
"Why, what a funny question! Of course there are."
"Do you like adders?"
"No; certainly not: they're hateful things."
"Wouldn't think of taking one to your bosom?"
"Really, Mr. Bob, how absurd you are!" she laughed. "Of course I shouldn't."
Bob opened his eyes; inclined his head a little towards Martha, and said with a peculiar incisiveness—
"And yet an adder would be less dangerous than Mr. Ralph Tinker."
Martha felt uneasy. She searched the face of the speaker, but it didn't tell her anything.
"But what do you know of Mr. Tinker?" she demanded with some sharpness.
"Enough to justify me in the warning I have given you. Beware of him. But here is your father."
The approach of Jopling, carrying a gun, and followed by two setters, put an end to the interview. He was of course surprised to see Bob, who advanced and extended his hand.
"Hope I don't intrude," said Bob, "but a little business matter has brought me out. You look tired however, I won't prolong my stay."
"I'm tired and I'm hungry. But you needn't go," said Jopling, as he put his gun down in the porch of the cottage and divested himself of his bag. "Martha, lass, get us something to eat. You'll have a snack with me?"
"Thank you," answered Bob. "I am already indebted to your charming daughter for hospitality."
"Been here long?"
"Well, some little time."
"And what's the business about?"
"The Lacey murder," answered Bob bluntly.
Jopling turned to him quickly with the remark—
"Still on that job?"
"Certainly; and I am interesting myself in a few other things. The other things I'll discuss by-and-by; the crime first. The law, you see, has been baffled up to the present. But in the end the law probably will triumph."
"You are connected with the law, then?"
"I am free now to confess that I am. You see, when I called on you before I was informed that you had made a statement which, if proved true, would have seriously affected a person upon whom suspicion had already fastened. But I have learnt a good deal since then. You allowed yourself to fall just a little too much under the influence of Mr. Pym. But you and I will understand each other better now. And in order that there may be no further mystery about myself, let me inform you that my name is Robert Pounds. I am attached to the staff of the Bow Street Secret Agency Department, London, and have gained some small reputation as a successful solver of criminal puzzles. I attribute my success to the fact that I have made a study of the subject; know a good deal of human nature, and have a peculiar faculty for judging the value of small details in their relation to each other. The more highly developed that faculty is in men of my calling, the more likely are they to be successful. But enough of myself. I desire that for the present you treat the information I have given you as strictly confidential. There are several reasons for this; but the chiefest, as far as you are concerned, is that your own interests are at stake. Perhaps you will understand that."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Dick, opening his eyes and looking puzzled and anxious.
"Yes, and the happiness of your daughter is menaced; don't forget that."
Dick became excited and seized Bob's arm.
"By God!" he cried, "the man who trifles with her will have to reckon with me, there's no mistake about that. And it shall be a heavy reckoning, I tell you."
"Quite so. Miss Jopling, however, is well able to take care of herself up to a point. Every woman can do that more or less; but there is a point beyond which every woman is liable to fall a victim to a designing man, however clever she may be. The man who lays himself open to trap a woman is certain in the long run to succeed if he is persistent and knows how to play on her feelings."
Dick Jopling was agitated.
"I take it you are acting friendly," he almost gasped, his brown face puckered with a deep frown.
"You may feel perfectly assured on that score."
Dick wrung the other's hand until Bob winced. Dick had a grip like a steel vice.
"Thank you, thank you," he murmured, with evident emotion.
"Well, now we understand each other I will talk business. I have come from London by request of the local authorities here to investigate the circumstances of Mr. Lacey's death. So far I am in the dark as to the slayer, but I have learnt a good deal about some of the people who were directly or indirectly associated with the late Mr. Lacey, though I haven't yet found the clue I seek. The crime is certainly a mysterious one, and was the result of either accident or revenge. I put accident out of the calculation. That reduces it to one of revenge. Now tell me, to your knowledge did the late Mr. Lacey ever give offence to any one in his employ?"
"Not that I know of. But stay; now I remember, about two years ago he employed a young fellow, who came from York, in putting up some fencing. The fellow was drunken and lazy, and the master was always finding fault with him. One day during working hours he discovered him asleep under a hedge, and was so enraged that he struck him several times with a horsewhip he carried. The man's name was Frank Welter, and one of my chaps told me afterwards that he had heard Welter swear he would do for the governor. But that was all bounce, for he enlisted in the East India Company's service and went out to India. I've heard nowt of him since."
"He has not been back then?"
"No, I am sure he hasn't, or I think I should have heard of it. That is, if he had come to Ministerfield."
"Umph I there doesn't seem to be any clue to be got out of that. And that is the only incident of the kind you know of?"
"The only one. The governor was a bit sharp-tongued sometimes, but wasn't a bad sort, and looked after his men well."
"And you, of course, are still in the employ of his widow?"
"Yes. But now tell me, what about my gal?"
"Ah, just so; an interesting subject, but one word more about the murder. On the morning of Mr. Lacey's death were you near the spot where he was killed?"
"So far as you are aware no one was?"
"So that the person who committed the crime had time enough to escape?"
"Yes. By the way," added Dick, as the thought only then occurred to him, "I'd forgotten to tell you, not that there's anything in it, that close to where Mr. Lacey's body was found there was a bundle of faggots lying. None of my chaps had been gathering faggots, and no one had any right to gather them. Some one had tied the bundle up ready to take away."
Bob Pounds became very thoughtful as this item of information was given to him. He drew his hand down his face from his forehead to his chin after the manner of a man who ponders deeply on some abstruse subject. Then he muttered, as if to himself: "Ah, that is important. But now about Miss Martha: there have been some love passages, have there not, between her and Mr. Pym?"
"I believe so."
"A mere flirtation, I suppose?"
"He may think so, but she don't," growled Jopling, his face darkening again. "But I'm watching him. He may fancy he can deceive her, but he won't deceive me."
"Your daughter, I suppose, would not object to be his wife if he had serious intentions of marrying her?"
"No, why should she?"
"I know no reason why she should, nor why she shouldn't. But take my advice, Jopling, continue to watch Mr. Pym."
"You think he's dangerous?" asked Jopling hoarsely.
"I think—well, I must speak with caution, but to put it plainly I fancy that Mr. Pym is a young gentleman not overburdened with scruples where his own interests are concerned. Therefore I say again, I should continue to watch him."
Once more Jopling seized Bob's hand and wrung it in an ecstasy of gratitude.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he repeated. "I'll watch him, you bet."
At this moment Martha announced that the supper was prepared. She took her seat with the two men at the table and made a charming hostess, drawing from the guest such glowing compliments that she blushed to the roots of her hair, but her father smiled with a father's pride, and in a burst of enthusiasm exclaimed that she would grace the table of any nobleman in the land. A sentiment Robert Pounds cordially endorsed, and added—
"And I am sure also she could turn the home of a humble man into a paradise."
Bob from London enjoyed his supper. When the board had been cleared Jopling produced pipes and tobacco, and suggested liquid refreshment. Bob said he would partake of a glass of hot grog subject to a condition. The condition was, that the fair hand of Martha should brew it. The condition was observed; then another was imposed to the effect that Bob declined to partake of the grog unless, as a sign of his appreciation of the hospitality extended to him, he should be allowed the privilege of kissing the fair hand. Whereupon the proud father exclaimed, either in jest or earnest—
"Man alive, don't you think you had better kiss her lips."
With an agility that afforded Martha no time for protest or objection, Bob from London sprang to his feet, and with the grace of a courtier imprinted a kiss on the young lady's cheek. She showed no resentment, but, laughing, told her father, though the application of the epithet was not apparent, that he was a donkey. At a late hour the guest took leave of Martha, and Jopling, with a lantern, conducted him through the wood to the high-road. At the moment of parting Bob remarked—
"That's a fine lass of yours, Mr. Jopling, and while I remain in this part of the country I'll keep an eye upon her."
As Jopling wended his way back to his cottage he was a little puzzled to understand the point of the remark. But he was not displeased, as he felt that he now had a keen-witted ally against the Hon. Randolph Pym in case that gentleman was not disposed to play the game fairly.
THE blight, so to speak, that had fallen upon Runnell Hall through the tragic death of its owner continued, and Mrs. Lacey and her daughter lived their shadowed lives almost in seclusion. A few visitors, friends and relatives, had come and gone, but they failed to revive the old gaiety of the home. Norah had grown very subdued. Jim Spedwick's name was a dead letter in the house, and Mrs. Lacey was hopeful that time would serve to cure her daughter of what she had always considered "a mad infatuation," and that ultimately Pym's suit would prosper. She still regarded Pym with something more than affectionate interest, and though she made a pretence of being neutral she encouraged him in his attention to her daughter. The good lady suffered from a form of acrisia and was incapable of seeing his faults. She looked upon him as a young man of fine qualities, and considered that her daughter was not only lacking in discernment but was wayward and wilful. Poor Norah's life was thus far from a happy one. Jim Spedwick had gone from her, the seas rolled between them, but he had taken her heart with him. A consideration of all the circumstances of her position did not encourage a hope that she would ever be united to Jim. She knew that in the community of Ministerfield opinion was still against him, and many people clung to the belief that he was responsible for Mr. Lacey's death. Ignorance and prejudice have always to be reckoned with, and in this instance the spitefulness of human nature was stronger than the divine charity of brotherly love which they made profession of in their public worship. The crime of the Black Lake Wood was still unavenged, and the public were indignant. To the unreflecting, Jim was the only individual to whom the finger of suspicion pointed, and they were indignant that he had not been brought to the ordeal of public trial.
Norah was not ignorant of the trend of public thought—thought that not infrequently found expression in cruel remarks, but she remained silent. She felt her isolation and loneliness keenly, but what could she do? Any outward expression of her belief in his perfect innocence would only have provoked the retort that her "silly infatuation" blinded her to facts. It was a very sad and painful position for a young girl to be placed in, and she felt as if her life had been spoilt. That, of course, was morbidity, for she was young, rich, or would be; and in all human probability had many long years of life before her. Nevertheless she was to be pitied, for the mysterious death of her father, and the misfortunes that had befallen the man to whom she had given her heart, had proved a very heavy blow indeed. No wonder that she suffered both in mind and body. And added to it all was the irritation resulting from her mother's persistent efforts to influence her in favour of Pym. This was a source of constant grief to her. For the sake of her widowed mother, who had been sorely stricken by the murder of her husband, the poor girl suppressed her feelings so far as she could, and tolerated the attentions of Pym, who, encouraged thereby, gave her no peace.
Neither Norah nor her mother knew anything of the efforts that were being made by Robert Pounds to bring the slayer of Mr. Lacey to justice. Indeed, so secret had his mission been kept, that, apart from the representatives of the law, his errand was not even suspected, and in declaring himself to Jopling he had a purpose to serve; he had speedily discovered that Jopling might become a useful ally, for he was not indifferent to the extraordinary nature of the crime and the deep mystery surrounding it. In carrying out his investigations he had felt it to be his duty to keep an eye, as the saying is, on a good many people, who had, or seemed to have, some interest to serve by Mr. Lacey's death, and though he saw no cause to suspect for a moment that Pym was a party to the crime, he had been puzzled to understand how it was that a gentleman of Pym's social position should have been on intimate terms with a man like Tinker. Coming to the conclusion that Tinker possessed some maleficent influence over the other he was led to closely watch them both, and much was revealed to him that he had not for a moment suspected. His primary business was of course to solve the mystery of the murder, if that were possible, but he was induced, by reason of what he had discovered, to take upon himself the task of trying to play checkmate to Pym and his factotum.
Of course Norah was in ignorance of all this. She mourned her father most sincerely, and during that black year which had brought her so much sorrow she secluded herself very much, and kept away from social functions of all kinds. Consequently she heard nothing of the current gossip, and there had been gossip about Pym's intimacy with Tinker, and his frequent visits to Jopling's cottage in the wood. These were matters that could not escape the notice of sharp-eyed people ever on the look-out for bits of scandal that would keep their tongues wagging; and the whisper had run that Jopling's pretty daughter was "carrying on a fine game with young Pym." Martha was by no means a favourite, though for no more substantial reason than that she was "uppish," as the rustic folk termed it. They declared that she "treated her equals like dirt."
With a fatuous belief in his own cunning and cleverness, Pym posed before Norah as a man of honour whose devotion for her could never change. Reckless he certainly was, and he had now become desperate, like the gambler who plunges heavily in the hope of regaining his losses. Norah was a matrimonial prize that was worth struggling for; at any rate to him it meant a future free from any financial care, and therefore he was determined to make great efforts to secure it. He was perfectly well aware that he had compromised himself, and forfeited even the respect Norah had once entertained for him; but with her mother on his side he pressed his suit with renewed vigour, until the sorrow-stricken girl began to feel that the situation into which he had forced her was intolerable. The man she really loved was far away, and it seemed absolutely hopeless to look forward to a union with him. Considerations for her mother weighed with her. Otherwise it is possible she might have been tempted to have taken her fate in her hands and have said to Jim Spedwick, "Come to me, or, failing that, I will come to you." But since his departure she had had no sign from him, nor had she given one. Was it not probable that separation and silence would tend, as time went on, to make him indifferent to her? For her sake he had suffered ignominy and shame, and had fallen under a suspicion of having been guilty of the awful crime of slaying her father. Now that he was far from her a revulsion of feeling might set in and he would cease to think of her, save as one for whom he had suffered, and who, to all intents and purposes, was lost to him. It was too severe a test, surely, for any man's love to be put to, and what right had she to suppose that Jim would allow all his future life to be overshadowed by an impossible love?
Some such reasoning as this passed through Norah's mind, and of necessity increased her unhappiness; but it also begat in her a certain indifference about herself, and she wondered whether, after all, it wouldn't be better to put an end to her difficulties by becoming Pym's wife. There was scarcely one of her relatives who hadn't blamed her for the course she had hitherto pursued. And, though self-reliant and strong willed up to a point, she had suffered so much, and her nerves had been subjected to such tension, that she lacked the courage now to set herself in opposition to the whole of her family. It is true her fortune would be under her own control, and in that respect she was independent, but to be estranged from all her kin was a heavy penalty to pay.
Of course, this line of thought was a sign of weakness and wavering; but, having regard to what she was called upon to endure in the situation which an extraordinary series of events had created, she might well be pardoned. Anyway, she began to show signs of yielding to Pym's and her mother's entreaties; he was by no means slow to take advantage of it; pressed her to give him a distinct pledge that she would marry him, and that at an early date. He reminded her that he had stood in the position of her affianced husband, and been recognized by her mother and her father, and the family generally, until Jim Spedwick appeared upon the scene. His coming had led to disastrous results, and Pym laboured the point that suspicion was still strong against Jim; but anyway, whether guilt was ever brought home to him or not, she could hardly dream, in the face of all that had happened, of marrying Jim.
Norah declined to be drawn into any further discussion about Spedwick; whatever her thoughts were she kept them to herself, and remarked—
"The past is past; why recall it? As regards giving you a pledge, there is no necessity for that. If Fate wills that I shall become your wife, Fate will have her way. In the meantime we are to all intents and purposes engaged to each other. That must satisfy you. Wait patiently for what the future holds in store."
He would have preferred that she had been a little less vague, but he had perforce to be content. Besides, her assertion, "we are to all intents and purposes engaged to each other," seemed to him in the nature of a pledge, and so far he was satisfied. At the same time he was not a little concerned by the complications he had brought about. His dastardly attempt to bribe Jopling into swearing false evidence had placed him in the man's power. While his folly in trifling with the feelings of Miss Jopling might have far more serious consequences than he anticipated. He had thought at one time that Jopling and his daughter could be easily moulded, cheaply bought; his mistake was beginning to impress itself upon him, to the disturbance of his peace of mind. He found, as many before him had found, that deception once practised, led to the weaving of a very tangled web, from which extrication was at all times difficult, and not infrequently impossible. But Pym had no high-souled notions; no exalted sense of honour; he was selfish above all things, and to gain his ends he was prepared to go to great lengths. And in this instance if Miss Martha Jopling made herself disagreeable, he would be compelled to resort to severe measures to render Miss Martha Jopling powerless to do him harm. What form the severe measures might take he hadn't an idea at that stage; but like the reckless gambler who loses heavily, and plunges wildly, he might be driven by desperation to make a grand coup.
DURING the little exchange of confidences between father and daughter, when Dick Jopling demanded an explanation from Martha as to her object in encouraging Randolph Pym's advances, the young lady had displayed a good deal of determination.
"Do you suppose I am so dense that I am unable to read Pym?" she had asked. And by adding, "Why, he is like potter's clay in my hands," she had given a peculiar significance to her question; at the same time she fell into an error. To further his own dastardly schemes, and from motives of extreme selfishness, Pym had made her believe he was in love with her, and in doing so he hoped to use her as a means of influencing her father to perjure himself. Herein he had failed; but he had given evidence that he was not altogether the fictile substance she supposed him to be. He was keenly alive, however, to the possibilities of Martha proving troublesome; and he was also somewhat afraid of the mysterious Bob from London.
Martha's strongest weapon against Pym was her femininity, but on that she placed too much reliance. She could lure him up to a point; but when he realized that she was attaching too serious an import to his flirtation, he became alarmed. To a young woman of Martha Jopling's disposition the prospect of becoming the wife of a man of a much higher social position than herself was fascinating. She was of a very practical turn of mind, and but little given to sentimental dreaming. The rustic bumpkins who paid homage to her only annoyed her. She considered herself good enough to preside in a gentleman's drawing-room. Anyway, she had no intention of becoming the drudge of a yokel who could offer her nothing better than a thatched cottage and coarse fare. Her chance with Pym was the chance of a lifetime, and there is no doubt her feelings had carried her away until she was far more under Pym's influence than she would have cared to confess. But Pym, finding that he had blindly strayed to the brink of a precipice over which he might be dragged, felt so gravely concerned that he was willing to resort to almost any measures to save the situation. His belief that he had once more ingratiated himself in Miss Lacey's favour added to his anxiety lest the folly of which he had been guilty should deprive him of the prize. Cunning though he was, he lacked the courage that should back cunning up, and he began to regard Ralph Tinker as the one and only person who could save him. The result was much exchange of confidences and many interviews; and, acting on advice no doubt, he invited Martha to met him secretly at the rustic inn in Dene Hollow. Having faith in herself and firmly of opinion that she was a match for Pym, she kept the assignation, and said nothing to her father or any one else. As it chanced Jopling had left on the previous day for York, to attend the Assizes there; three notorious characters were being prosecuted for much wilful damage and poaching on Mrs. Lacey's estate, and Jopling was required as a witness. He expected to be detained for three days at least, and had suggested to Martha that during his absence she should go into Ministerfield and stay with a friend. This she consented to do, and, as it turned out, these things were all in favour of Pym. It was easy enough to get away from her friend for a few hours, without explanation beyond saying that as she was in town she wanted to make a few calls.
So it came about that she and Pym sat together at Dene Hollow, and he talked to her long and seriously and with apparent sincerity. Utterly regardless of truth and honour he led her to believe that at last he had wakened to the fact that she was really essential to his happiness; but he laboured hard to impress her with a sense of his difficulties.
"I am perfectly sure," he said, "that my father would be furious and cut up rough if he came to know of our connexion. How is that danger to be averted?"
Martha remained silent and thoughtful. The pride that was in her was somewhat wounded by the suggestion that Sir Yardley Pym would not deem her good enough to mate with his son. But she smothered the pride down; she was too intelligent to be indifferent to the fact that socially there was a wide gap between her and this son of a baronet. It might annoy her, but there was the fact, and she couldn't get away from it.
"I don't know," she answered at last.
Pym assumed an air of great concern, and seemed much distressed, which appealed to the sympathy of his companion, who laid her hand on his arm, and said—
"Surely, Randolph, we can find some way out of the difficulty."
"Oh, well, that is a matter that rests with you."
"In what way?"
"Well, if I am to make you my wife the marriage must be a secret one. You will see clearly enough that for me to openly defy my father at this juncture of affairs would be fatal to my future."
She bent a piercing gaze upon him, and was visibly agitated.
"I don't like the thought of a secret marriage," she remarked.
"Nor do I. But what is to be done? To quarrel with my governor would be madness. I am dependent on him. He would turn me adrift penniless without a doubt. If, on the other hand, he came to know that you were really my wife, he might accept the situation and become reconciled. It would be an absolute impossibility to get his consent beforehand. You can understand that I am anxious to avoid getting at loggerheads with my father. I have been brought up in luxury, and I should go mad if I had to face financial difficulties. Now, the question is, shall I defy my father?"
"It is better not to do so," she replied, still pondering.
"Very well, if we are agreed on that point, let us agree upon the other."
"A secret marriage."
"I don't like the idea," she said in obvious distress.
"Nor do I; but have you any other suggestion to make?"
She hadn't. She was on the horns of a dilemma and felt very unhappy. At this juncture Ralph Tinker suddenly appeared upon the scene. He was accompanied by a rather loudly dressed young woman who was conspicuous by a mass of red hair and a coarse brick-dust complexion. He expressed unbounded surprise at meeting Pym and Miss Jopling, and Pym appeared to be no less surprised.
Tinker introduced the young woman as his cousin, Miss Amelia Godwin of Lincoln. She was on her way to London, but had broken the journey at Ministerfield in order that she might pay a flying visit to her relatives. Miss Godwin had an artless and insinuating manner, and was soon chatting with Martha as if she had been an old friend. Presently the men left the young women together, and were away nearly half an hour. On their return Pym said to Martha—
"You are aware that Mr. Tinker is a friend of mine and in my confidence. In the difficulty in which I find myself placed I have appealed to him for advice, and he tells me that this young lady, his cousin, is to be trusted implicitly, and may be able to help us." He then turned to Amelia Godwin and told her the particulars, winding up with the assertion, "There is only one way out of the difficulty, and that is a quiet marriage which must be kept from the pater for a time until I can reconcile him to it."
Miss Godwin began to gush.
"Oh, that is just delightful," she exclaimed, "and so romantic, you know." Then she added with a frivolous laugh: "My word, I wish I had such a chance, wouldn't I jump at it. If I could not get a rich lover to run away with me—"
"Here, don't you talk like that," growled Tinker sharply. "You must be satisfied with me."
"Why, of course I am, dear old boy, but if a baronet's son made love to me and asked me to elope, I am afraid I should be too weak to resist the temptation."
Tinker showed red-hot anger, and rose wrathfully, telling her she had better go back to where she had come from. She jumped up, threw her arms about his neck, and hugged him, using many endearments, until he melted, returned her caresses, and the little tiff was made up. The quartette supped together. Amelia won the confidence of Martha, and ultimately, taking her apart, she began to urge her not to miss such an unusual chance of marrying a man like Pym.
"Travel to London with me," she suggested. "I am going to stay with my uncle and aunt who keep a large draper's shop in Oxford Street. If I say you are a friend of mine, they will be delighted to look after you. Ralph is to join me there and we are to be married in about a couple of months' time. So there can be a double marriage. Why, it's just delightful to think of it."
Martha began to give evidence that she had a very vulnerable side to her nature after all, and Amelia Godwin played upon it; and when a little later Pym renewed his persuasions, and vowed and declared that his one desire in life now was to marry Martha, her strength left her. She was dazzled. She had played to win, and apparently had won. Under the circumstances it did not seem to her in her dazed state that Pym's demand for a secret marriage was unreasonable. Women have had to take their fate in their own hands often enough when parents were obdurate. Why shouldn't she do what so many had done before? It was a dangerous argument, but Martha was a woman! The aim of every woman is to be mated; the special aim of Martha Jopling was to mate with a man socially above her. Here was her chance. Should she be indifferent to it? No! She saw through a glamour and recked not of the peril. Legally married to this man, neither he nor his father could shake her off. As a lawful wife she could claim her position and her rights. And as regarded her own father, he would be quite content, so long as she was married.
With thoughts such as these in her mind she yielded. Before he left her that eventful evening Pym supplied her with some money, and exacted a solemn pledge from her, that on the night of the fourth day from then she would meet him at a trysting-place they arranged. He would then drive her in his gig to a little town twenty miles off. There she would join Amelia Godwin, and the two would journey by coach to London, where Pym would subsequently meet her.
Shrewd and intelligent far above the average of her class, Martha Jopling firmly believed that she was too wide awake and too careful to fall into a snare. But a woman's intellect is always subordinate to the affairs of her heart. Martha had endeavoured to trap Pym; but he, with a cleverly arranged plot and by means of his lure-bird, the red-haired, gushing young thing, Miss Amelia Godwin from Lincoln, was in a fair way of luring his victim to her doom.
Martha seemed to be altogether under an influence which for the time had taken her reason prisoner and prevented her seeing the peril in which she stood. It was extraordinary that one so shrewd as she usually proved herself to be should have been so easily deluded. But Tinker had given utterance to a time-proved truth when he told Pym that any man could win a woman to his purpose, if he knew how to play the game. Pym's purpose was to render Martha powerless to come between him and Miss Lacey. He had found Martha's companionship agreeable enough at times when he was under the impression that he could trifle with her as he liked. But when he became conscious of the fact that she was taking his fooling seriously, and that she had cleverly conveyed to witnesses the impression that he was paying attention to her with a view to making her his wife, he became alarmed, and had recourse to the low cunning of Tinker and the dangerous artfulness of the adventuress, Amelia Godwin, to free him from the tangle into which he had got himself.
A NIGHT'S reflection caused Martha Jopling to change her mind—a woman's privilege—with regard to the secret marriage. She had thought things over during the night, and had come to the conclusion that she had been hasty and foolish. It seemed to her now as if she had been under some strange spell which had prevented her seeing clearly, or understanding the position in which she stood. She recalled the warning uttered by the mysterious Bob from London, on the occasion when Tinker visited her at her father's woodland home. Bob had come upon them unawares, and had said, referring to Tinker who had then departed, "An adder would be less dangerous than Mr. Tinker." Nor could she forget that Pym had striven hard to corrupt her father by endeavouring to persuade him to swear that he had seen a man flying from the scene of the murder of Mr. Lacey, and the man was Jim Spedwick. The fascination of a union with Pym was very strong, but was Pym really sincere in his protestations? She had told her father she could read Pym like a book. But now a dark suspicion troubled her that she had not been quite as successful in her reading as she imagined. Necessarily this suspicion caused her concern, and she could not avoid the conclusion that she had been hasty and foolish on the previous evening in consenting to accompany Amelia Godwin to London. She knew nothing of Miss Godwin, and meeting her for the first time, she had not formed an opinion altogether favourable to Amelia.
Now Martha Jopling was greatly attached to her father, although, as she herself phrased it; she had to take him in hand sometimes and keep him in subjection. Therefore, the idea of deceiving him was repugnant to her; and she could not be indifferent to the sorrow she would cause him if things did not turn out just exactly as she anticipated they would.
The more she dwelt upon the matter the more uneasy did she become, until she positively frightened herself to such a pitch that she all but yielded to a temptation, to take into her confidence the people with whom she was staying. She resisted it, however, for she felt sure that they would not hesitate for a moment to instantly bring the matter under the notice of old Sir Yardley Pym, and instinctively she knew trouble would at once arise, the end of which it was difficult to foresee. This reflection gave her pause; nevertheless she felt irresistibly impelled to do something. A woman in a quandary is, as a rule, a very helpless creature, and if she cannot obtain the assistance of a man, she flies to her own sex. But in this instance Martha's position was peculiar. Pym had impressed her with the necessity of keeping his father in ignorance of his courtship with her. If she opposed him in that matter, it was pretty obvious she would set him against her; and her pride and vanity revolted against failure on her part. She was sure she would become a laughing stock for the whole town, and the girls who now regarded her with envy and jealousy would jeer her into madness. No, she would do and suffer almost anything rather than lose the game which, up to then, she had, as she believed, played so cleverly. But in spite of all the arguments she could use with herself, her uneasiness was not allayed; and the situation became so unbearable that she resolved at last to go and see Mr. Tinker at the office of his employer, Mr. John Saunders, the attorney.
Having come to this determination she quickly gave effect to it, and to Mr. Ralph Tinker's amazement and chagrin he was informed that Martha Jopling, "Old Dick Jopling's girl," wished to see him. Now in his own time, and when posing before the tradesmen who frequented the Half Moon Inn, Tinker was a young man of importance, at least he prided himself upon being so; but in his master's office he was in the fullest sense a subordinate. He was not in his employer's confidence, nor did the employer entertain a very high opinion of him. But he was well versed in the work he was called upon to do, and in that respect was worth his money. When Martha called, it so happened that Tinker was closeted with his employer, engaged in checking some accounts, and the mention of Martha Jopling caused Mr. Saunders to prick up his ears and exclaim—
"Hello! Dick Jopling's daughter! What's she doing here?"
"She wants to see Mr. Tinker, sir," replied the clerk who had brought the message.
"I say, Tinker, what does this mean?" demanded the master.
"Hanged if I know," spluttered out Tinker, and then cursed his folly the instant he had uttered the reply, for he saw that he might have made a much more diplomatic one, although he had spoken truly—he did not know why he had been honoured with a visit from the young lady.
Mr. Saunders looked at him hard. Mr. Saunders was a suspicious man; he was a lawyer. It was a very unusual thing for any one to call on Mr. Tinker. It was remarkable for a lady to do so, and when that lady bore the well-known name—that is, well known locally—of Jopling, there was cause for Saunders' suspicion and curiosity.
"You are not carrying on with that girl, are you?" the master asked, with some sharpness of tone.
"Carrying on—" gasped Tinker, confused and flurried.
"Yes. Come, now, you know what I mean. Is there anything between you?"
"Well, you needn't be indignant. Martha Jopling's a smart girl, and could give points to a good many of the local beauties who no doubt turn their noses up at her. She's clever to—"
Tinker had recovered himself by this time to some extent, but still he was far from being able to act diplomatically, or with the caution on which he prided himself.
"I've no doubt Miss Jopling is all you say," he answered, "but my lines run in other directions."
"Then why has she called?" asked Saunders. This time it was a sharp demand.
"Really I—I—upon my word, I don't know."
"Then you had better go and learn. A young lady has no business to call here for you during business hours."
Mr. Tinker left his master's presence in a very sheepy sort of fashion, and when he stood face to face with Martha, he was hot and bad-tempered.
"Why the deuce have you come here?" he asked with a snap; then suddenly changed his tone, and said more placidly: "It's rather unfortunate you should have called at this time, Martha, for I am very busy, and when you were announced I was engaged with the governor."
"I'm sorry if I've disturbed you," she answered, half apologetically, "but I thought you wouldn't mind my coming. I'm awfully troubled, and want to talk to you."
"Umph! it's exceedingly awkward," he growled. "But what's the matter? Anything happened?"
"No, but I've been thinking over what took place last night. It worries me, and I don't think I shall go to London."
Tinker shrugged his shoulders with the air of one who was thoroughly indifferent, and he said with contempt—
"More fool you, that's all I've got to say. You are throwing your chances away."
"But oh, Mr. Tinker, why should Mr. Pym want to do the thing in such a hole-and-corner manner?"
"I believe Mr. Pym has given you very good and substantial reasons, and I confess I am in accord with him. But you must really pardon me for declining to discuss so delicate and private a matter here. Let me suggest that you see Amelia Godwin. She's lodging at Jack Randall's, the Lincoln carrier's house. You know his place; it's in Church Passage?"
"Oh, yes, I know, but—"
"But—what? Take my advice. Go and talk to her. By-and-by I'll come round there, and then we'll go into the matter fully."
Martha still looked very distressed and uneasy. She was evidently far from satisfied.
"The fact is," she said, "I don't care about going to London."
"Now look here, my good girl," replied Tinker; "don't you go messing things up in that way by your wills and your won'ts. Pym means well by you, and I can tell you this, he's very sweet upon you indeed. And surely you are not such a fool as to be blind to your own chances, and the difficult position in which he places himself by wishing to marry you. He must do it quietly, for, as he has explained, if his governor knew, there would be the devil to pay. And what would you gain? Nothing. Now you go and see Miss Godwin, and I'll join you in the evening."
Martha's mind was still in confusion, but she recognized that she was an intruder there, and rose to go. The interview had taken place in the "waiting-room" devoted to visitors, and Tinker had been very careful to close the door and satisfy himself that what passed between him and the young lady should not be overheard. He knew that caution was necessary, for he was walking on the edge of a precipice and might topple over if not wary. His anxiety to get rid of Martha was great, but just as he was about to hand her to the door Mr. Saunders popped his head in.
"Ah, how do you do, Miss Jopling!" he exclaimed pleasantly, and he shook her hand with a cordiality that set his clerk agape. "When I heard you were here I could not resist having a word with you, for it is seldom these musty old offices are graced by so charming a young woman. There, there now, don't blush. You know you are pretty; and you know that you've turned the heads of half the young men in Ministerfield." Martha blushed still deeper, and Tinker stood with a petrified look of astonishment on his face. He thought that his staid old "governor" must have taken leave of his senses.
"And how is your father?" pursued Mr. Saunders.
"He was very well, sir, when I last saw him."
"Oh! Last saw him; what does that mean? Have you left him then?"
"Only temporarily," she answered. "He is gone to York."
"Ah, now I remember. Some poaching case; eh?"
"Are you staying in the cottage by yourself, then?"
"Oh, dear no, I'm staying in town."
"In town, are you? I see, I see. Well, take care of yourself." Then he added in an assumed jocular way: "And beware of this young man. I'm afraid he's a sad dog, and hasn't much respect for young ladies' hearts. By the way, when does your father return?"
"I expect him back in three or four days."
"And you'll rejoin him, I suppose?"
"Yes," faltered Martha, with a consciousness of guilt as she spoke.
Once more Mr. Saunders wished her good-bye, and as he turned to leave the room he said to Tinker—
"Now, young fellow, I'm waiting for you. You had better come. Miss Jopling will excuse you, I'm sure."
Tinker was furious, but he controlled himself. He was perfectly sure that the "governor" had some deep design in speaking to Martha and asking the questions he had.
"Surely," he thought to himself, "surely he doesn't suspect our little plot. Pshaw, impossible, unless Pym himself has betrayed it. But no, he would never be such a mad fool as to do that. The governor's sharp, but he isn't sharp enough, and he'll have to get up pretty early in the morning if he wants to get to the blind side of me."
Although Tinker tried to console himself with this reflection, he was not altogether easy in his mind as he returned to his work, and he resolved to keep a very sharp watch on his employer for the future.
MARTHA was no less surprised than Tinker was at the familiar way in which Mr. Saunders had addressed her. Although she knew him very well by sight she had rarely spoken to him. He was a regular attendant at the church where she sang, and once, long ago, after an Easter Festival, he had complimented her on her singing, and, with one or two exceptions, that was the only time she had held a conversation with him. Of course he knew her father very well, and had done some legal work for him. He had also acted in a legal capacity for Mr. Lacey; but, rightly or wrongly, Martha had conceived the notion that, as far as she was concerned, he had been inclined to regard her as too humble for his notice. However, she soon ceased to think of him as she wended her way to the house of old Jack Randall, the Lincoln carrier, with whom Amelia Godwin was staying.
She hesitated at first as to whether she should call on Amelia or not. But she was still so troubled, and had such an irresistible longing to discuss the situation with somebody, that her hesitation soon gave way, and she presented herself to the red-haired one, who was even more surprised than Tinker had been. With what was almost a scream of delight, most ably assumed, Amelia threw her arms about Martha's neck and exclaimed—
"Oh, you dear, sweet thing! I am so glad you have come. I was just dying with loneliness. Now take off your bonnet and make yourself at home. I've heaps of things to say to you. Oh, you are a dear for coming."
Martha did not appreciate the gush and caresses of the demonstrative Amelia, though she made no protest; but when the red-haired young lady sat on the sofa where the visitor was seated, and wanted to encircle her waist with her arm in an all too affectionate embrace, Martha mildly complained of the heat and said she thought she would be cooler on a chair. Miss Godwin did not look particularly pleased, and said testily—
"Oh, by all means sit alone if you prefer it. When I like a person I cannot help showing it; but I'm sorry if I've annoyed you."
"Believe me you haven't annoyed me," Martha replied distressfully, "but I'm troubled and out of sorts, and I've come to you as a friend—as a woman to a woman—for advice. Do be good to me, for I'm unhappy."
Amelia's cunning eyes brightened with an expression of triumph. Martha was clever, but Amelia's craft checkmated the cleverness.
"I'm glad you've come then," she said. "I'm ready to serve you if I can."
"I called on Mr. Tinker," pursued Martha, "and he asked me to see you. He will come here later on."
Amelia almost chuckled, and she watched the other from under her eyebrows as an animal watches its prey.
"Dear old Ralph!" she exclaimed. "He's a good fellow. And so he sent you to me. Bless his heart, he's great faith in me. Now do let me know, dear, what your trouble is. Remember I want to be a friend to you, so don't conceal anything."
"Well, you know what was arranged last night, when we were at Dene Hollow?"
"You mean that you should go to London with me?"
"Yes. But what I'm concerned about is the secret marriage. Why should it be secret? I don't like deceit; and I don't think I'm acting fair to my father."
Miss Godwin looked up towards the ceiling with an expression on her coarse-face of scornful pity.
"Well—upon—my—conscience, you are a funny creature," she exclaimed in pauses. "Can't you understand Mr. Pym's position? He is a gentleman, you see, and you are only a poor girl. Is it likely, do you think, that his people would give their consent to his marrying you? They want him to marry a lady, and you are not a lady. Suppose they find out what he's doing, there'll be a hullabaloo, and very likely they'll lock him up."
"But he is independent and can do as he likes," pleaded Martha with great earnestness.
"Oh, indeed, is he? I didn't know that," was the satirical rejoinder. "From what I've been told I gather that he's absolutely dependent on his governor, and the old man would cut him off with a shilling if he offended him."
"Of course if he really intends to marry me it will be all right," Martha argued, with a timidity of manner which was in strange contrast to the resolution and strength of mind she had hitherto displayed. But the fact was, now that a critical stage had been reached, and she was asked to take her fate in her hands, her courage failed her. The secret of this, no doubt, was a want of confidence in Pym. She had perceived his trickiness; she knew that he wasn't particularly truthful, and she could not be indifferent to his attempt to bribe her father into giving false evidence. And when he failed in that he sought to use her as a means of influencing her father. With this knowledge to guide her, she showed a strange want of consistency in trusting him at all, but her woman's nature and her vanity were fascinated at the prospects of a marriage with a man who occupied such a much higher social position than herself. And so she halted, as it were, between two roads, and could not make up her mind as to the one she should take, and out of the depths of her feminine heart she yearned for a confidante. She had lost faith in her own wisdom.
Her remark, "If he really intends to marry me, it will be all right," evoked from Amelia a burst of laughter, but it was the laughter of mockery and ridicule.
"Look here," she said, "you give the fellow up. You don't deserve a chance such as you've got. By Jingo, I wish it was mine. Why, you've got the fellow in the hollow of your hand if you only knew it. He's as sweet on you as he can possibly be, and a woman who can't twist a love-sick man about is a fool. Now look here, Martha, just try and be sensible for a few minutes. Is it likely that Pym would marry you in this place where everybody knows everybody else's business? Of course if you were a fine lady, and his old man recognized you, it would be different. You could have ever such a swell wedding and do the high and mighty to your heart's content; but as you're not a fine lady, only a gamekeeper's daughter, it's a horse of another colour. But when a chap like Pym is ready to risk everything for sake of the girl he has set his mind on, it shows that he's pretty far gone. But you go home and stop there, and give some other girl a chance. A man like Pym can have a dozen girls if he wants them."
This line of argument, notwithstanding its coarseness and vulgarity, was not without effect. Amelia Godwin wasn't given to fine phrases, for her instincts were low and degraded, but she was peculiarly cunning and artful, and understood Martha's nature and how to play upon it. She saw the state of mind her visitor was in, and she used it to gain the end she wished to attain. Her interests were not with Martha, and though she had met her on the previous evening for the first time she bore her no good will. She was an unprincipled adventuress and an instrument in the hands of Tinker, who, by desire of Pym, had arranged that meeting at Dene Hollow.
"I don't think you are kind, Amelia," she murmured sorrowfully. "It is only natural I should be anxious."
"You should have thought of that before you angled for him," answered Amelia bluntly.
"I didn't angle for him," protested Martha.
"Oh, oh, I like that," exclaimed the other. "Why, I'm told that you took all sorts of mean advantages of him, so as to have witnesses that he was courting you."
This was a thrust that made Martha wince, for she couldn't give a point-blank denial to the charge. Nevertheless, her feelings were hurt, and she rose up flushed of face and indignant.
"Well, I didn't come here to quarrel nor to be insulted," she said, "so I will go."
Amelia Godwin saw that she had been running on the wrong tack, and was in danger of losing her prey.
"Now, Martha, don't be offended with me if I have spoken a little too freely," she began in softened tones, and with a sort of feline purr. "You know I am not one of those fine ladies what can say nice things without meaning anything. I'm blunt, I am, and says just what's on my mind. You come here and ask me to give you advice, and then when I tell you straight what my opinion is, you get angry."
"No, no, I'm not angry; but I'm unhappy," murmured Martha, her looks justifying her words.
"It's your own fault then. What are you unhappy about? I tell you again you've got Pym under your thumb. He's promised to marry you and he'll do it; and if he doesn't you can come back and show him up. But sit down and be comfortable, and we'll have a dish of tea. It will soothe your nerves. Tea's recommended, you know, when one's run down."
Martha yielded to the soft seductiveness of this wicked syren who lured never so well. The poor girl was subdued, and began to feel that as she had proceeded so far she might as well risk the rest.
The tea was brewed and drank, and a little later Tinker appeared upon the scene. Amelia managed to give him an inkling of what had transpired, and he succeeded in clinching the matter, winding up with this lying statement—
"I know a good deal about Mr. Pym's affairs, and he's told me that he cannot live without you. But it would be sheer madness to fly in the face of his father, who is about one of the most crotchety old chaps I've ever known. The only thing to be done, therefore, is what Pym has suggested. Remember that when once you are married, you're married, and he can't shake you off. But believe me, Martha, if you shilly shally you'll lose him as sure as death. He's already had a lot of worry and trouble in the matter, and the limit of his patience is reached." He rose, and, putting both his hands on her shoulders, said in the most insinuating tones: "Now you'll be a sensible girl, Martha, won't you, and do as poor Pym wants you to do? Think of the triumph it will be for you when you have secured him. The game's yours, and you've played to win."
"Yes, I will go," she answered in a low tone.
Tinker escorted her back to her lodgings a little later and returned in haste to Amelia, who waited anxiously for him.
"She's trapped well this time," he exclaimed; then the two in the exuberance of their spirits executed a wild fandango, till they fell panting and exhausted on to the sofa; as Amelia struggled for breath, she laughed with a fiendish joy, and slapping her partner on the back, she cried—
"We'll do well out of this business, old cockey. I shall be delighted to see that she-ass sold. She thinks so much of herself. And as for Pym, he'll want a precious long purse to satisfy us."
MR. ROBERT POUNDS—"Bob from London"—had come down to Ministerfield with a very specific purpose. The local authorities had found themselves completely baffled in their endeavours to solve the mystery of Mr. Lacey's death. That he had been wilfully killed admitted of no doubt. Whoever killed him was a criminal, and the law demanded that he should be called upon to answer for his crime. But before the law could compel him to that answer it must capture him. So far the criminal had defied it, and the law wasn't pleased. With regard to Jim Spedwick there had been divided counsels. All things considered, suspicion against him was justified, but anything like a single tangible proof was lacking, and those who believed in his innocence prevailed. It followed, as a matter of logic, that if Spedwick was innocent, somebody else must be guilty. Now, who was the somebody? That is precisely where the Solomons were at fault, and, hopeless of solving the problem unaided, they had called in the services of Bob. He was held in high regard in London. He was an expert with an inborn and peculiar faculty for picking up a trail, and when once he had got on a scent it was a thousand to one in favour of his success. Outwardly he had the appearance of being a self-absorbed and sleepy kind of person who could be easily juggled with and hoodwinked. But it is not an inapt simile to say that he was like an owl. In the day the owl is very dull and indifferent; at night the owl is a different bird. When Bob had business to attend to it seemed as if his nature underwent a complete change; his eyes became like microscopes, he saw details that a thousand other people would not have seen; while his intellect was quickened into such an acuteness of understanding that it was almost phenomenal.
When he commenced his investigations he quickly determined that it would be impossible to sustain a charge against Spedwick, although prima facie a case might have been made out, though it would have been bound to fail. Next the Hon. Randolph Pym was placed in Mr. Pound's mental crucible and subjected to a critical test. It was impossible to associate him with the crime in any way, but there were numerous flecks and flaws in the hon. gentleman's character which, to a student like Bob, were singularly interesting. The story about Jopling having seen a man running away from the scene of the tragedy, and that he identified the man as Spedwick, would not stand five minutes' investigation. But it served its purpose. It attached a little more odium to young Spedwick, so far as the ignorant and unthinking classes were concerned. It revealed Pym, however, in the light of an adventurer, a thoroughly unprincipled fellow, who would stick at nothing where his own interests were at stake. In this respect he became an object of very great interest to Bob. And there was yet another person who came under Bob's analytical scrutiny. That was Mr. Ralph Tinker. At first he was a little puzzling. Bob couldn't quite determine the connexion was between Tinker and Pym. But with really marvellous professional cunning the astute Robert Pounds shadowed them, learnt much; and one evening, in the character of an old man, absorbed in making a sketch from the veranda of the inn at Dene Hollow, he gauged fairly accurately the depth of infamy that was in Tinker. That, however, had no bearing on the murder case. At least the fact, indisputable, of Tinker being with the duelling party at the time the crime was committed showed that he did not commit it; nevertheless Bob felt that he himself was a spectator, so to speak, of a very interesting drama that was unfolding itself, and that two at least of the chief actors, to wit the Hon. Randolph Pym and Mr. Randolph Tinker, attorney's clerk, were playing the part of villains in the piece. And yet despite much that he had heard, and not a little he had seen, Robert Pounds had failed to alight upon a cue that would enable him to determine who it was who had slain the master of Runnell Hall until Dick Jopling gave utterance to a casual statement. Pounds had watched Pym and Tinker; had warned Martha against the attorney's clerk, and had paid her some pretty compliments, but these were matters outside of his specific purpose. That purpose certainly did not allow for his acting the part of mediator between Miss Jopling and her admirers, and when he declared that he would keep an eye on her he spoke in his private capacity. It was also in his private capacity he had warned the anxious father that the happiness of his daughter was menaced. He was on another tack when he questioned Jopling about the murder, and, he listened with keen professional interest to the little incident of a labourer named Frank Welter, incurring the late Mr. Lacey's displeasure and suffering chastisement at the hands of that gentleman. But the further statement that though Welter had been heard to threaten his employer he had gone to India as a soldier under the East India Company long before Mr. Lacey's death, put him out of the case apparently. The item of information, however, that dose to the scene of the crime there was a bundle of faggots lying, and that the faggots had evidently been collected by some one who had no right to gather them, aroused Bob to great mental activity. It was an item that had not been taken into the reckoning.
Why hadn't that fact been mentioned before? asked Bob.
Jopling explained that at the time he attached not the slightest importance to it. On a subsequent occasion he did speak of it to one of the local authorities, but nothing had been done, and Jopling believed the faggots were still lying there. That was no matter for wonderment, as the "accursed spot" was carefully shunned by the gamekeepers and woodmen, and the public were not allowed to wander about the estate.
Quite early on the morning of the day that conversation Mr. Robert Pounds was at the scene of the murder. Half buried amongst the rank grass and bracken that had grown up since the deed of blood were some faggots, in quantity such as a man could carry under his arm, or a woman in her apron. The spot where the body had been found was secluded; it was a cuplike hollow in the heart of the wood. Bob carefully studied the topography, and wondered why, if Mr. Lacey was hurrying to the scene of the duel, he should have been found in that out-of-the-way place? The suggestion was, he had wandered considerably from the track which led to the opposite side of the lake where the duellists had arranged to meet.
Why had he done so?
The question was fraught with peculiar significance, and now for the first time Bob began to attack the problem seriously. He had, so to speak, been taking his bearings up to then. He had to get the lie of the land and disprove certain rumours before his way was clear.
The answer seemed to be that the unfortunate gentleman had been lured there, or for some reason had wandered there of his own free will. To satisfactorily determine that point would be to find the key to the solution. Before disturbing the faggots Bob walked round the spot in an ever-widening circle, his object being to determine from what distance a person passing the hollow could see any one standing there. The result of this investigation was that he demonstrated to his own satisfaction that a man of medium height standing upright in the hollow could not be seen at a greater distance than a few yards, excepting at one particular point where the ground rose and the line of sight was through a glade. The line was at least two hundred yards. That point would in all probability have been passed by Mr. Lacey on his way to reach the rendezvous. Why did he turn off from there? Deductively because suddenly he caught sight of some one near or in the hollow. If that were correct it suggested that the crime was not premeditated. Mr. Lacey, catching sight of a person whom he did not recognize, and suspecting a poacher, had approached the hollow to make inquiries. Probably some altercation had ensued, and the trespasser in a moment of passion had shot the master. That was only a theory, but it was a feasible one. Mr. Lacey had suffered a good deal of annoyance from trespassers who damaged the fences and the trees and stole the game birds' eggs. He had, therefore, given firm instructions to his keepers to show no leniency, and he himself was not likely to be very gentle with any one whom he caught flagrante delicto. A desperate poacher, therefore, being armed might, in order to save his own worthless skin, have fired the fatal shot and fled, forgetting the faggots he had collected. Whoever the murderer was he was poverty-stricken, since he had run such risk for the sake of a few sticks. Mentally, Bob reconstructed the crime in accordance with this line of argument. Beyond suggesting all this, the bundle of faggots was not likely to aford a clue. The bundle had been roughly bound with a thin withy, the ends of which were twisted after the manner peculiar to the woodman; but attached to the withy was a loop of cord, obviously for the convenience of carrying the bundle at the end of a stick, resting on the shoulder of the person conveying it away. Almost automatically Bob hooked his finger in the loop and lifted the bundle up. In doing so he disturbed a nest of adders, and several of the small reptiles scurried away in wild alarm. But the old mother adder who had been with her young was very angry at being so unceremoniously ousted from her comfortable quarters, and she reared her head up menacingly. Pounds flung the faggots on one side and tackled the snake. He had a heavy stick with him. He raised it, and with a semicircular, swinging blow he struck at the reptile, killing it, at the same time striking some small, hard, bright substance lying on the ground where the snake was and sending it flying. The small, hard substance was clearly a piece of metal, and thinking it might be of some importance he sought for it. The blow had sent it hurling through the air for several yards, and, falling into the long, rank grass, its recovery was not an easy matter. Bob's curiosity, however, being thoroughly aroused, he, with exemplary patience, crawled on hands and knees, indifferent to the possibilities of adders being about, in his search for it. At last his patience was rewarded. He found the piece of metal, and as he clutched it and examined it he could not suppress a chuckle of triumph, for he felt sure that he held in his hand an important clue, and this strange discovery might enable him to bring the perpetrator of the Black Lake Wood crime to justice.
IT was not until the evening of the third day after the dastardly plot to lure Martha Jopling to London had been matured at the Woodman's Rest in Dene Hollow that Tinker met Pym again. During the intervening time the baronet's son had been much occupied in completing his arrangements to leave Ministerfield for a short time. In an interview he had with Norah Lacey he renewed all his protestations of love for her, and informed her that business of an urgent nature called him to London. To be separated from her, even for a brief period, he vowed and declared, made him very unhappy, and he bemoaned the nature of the business that forced him to go. However, he declared that he would not remain away a single instant longer than he was compelled to do, and he uttered a fervent hope, indeed a prayer, that on his return she would repay him for all he had endured and suffered on her account by bestowing her hand upon him.
The announcement that he was going to take a journey did not distress Norah in any way. If he had told her he had been going for ever, probably she would have felt relieved. As it was, she had come to regard her union with him as inevitable; and, therefore, when he prayed her to raise his drooping spirits and cheer his sad heart by promising that she would consent to the marriage as soon as possible after his return, she answered—
"I suppose that if fate has decided that I am to become your wife, it is no use my trying to change my destiny."
Pym accepted this remark as a definite promise, and he was elated when he left her. Subsequently he told his father and mother that all was settled between him and Norah Lacey, for at last she had recovered from her mad infatuation for the "low-bred scoundrel," Jim Spedwick, and had confessed her folly in ever having allowed him to influence her. This, of course, was an invention on the part of Mr. Pym; but then he never hesitated to invent untruths when it suited his purpose to do so.
Old Sir Yardley expressed his delight, and said he was glad to hear that the silly wench had come to her senses, while the pompous, vain, and empty-headed Lady Pym said she hoped Randolph would keep the jade in order when she was his wife.
"She's a self-willed creature," declared the lady, "and will want keeping in place with a pretty firm hand. I have always been surprised that her mother has been so lenient with her. But the fact is, the girl's been spoilt, or she would never have dared to take up again with that reprobate son of the low and vulgar fellow Spedwick. It's a pity, of course, Randolph, that a highborn gentleman such as you are should marry beneath you, for after all, although Mr. Lacey was rich, he was a man of no family; and as for his wife, well, goodness knows what she was—a cook or servant of some sort, probably.
"Well, never mind, my dear," put in her lord and master, "the marriage won't be a bad one for the lad, for Norah will have a snug fortune, I can tell you. All the same, I should have been glad if Randolph could have mated with some one more his equal, some one with a pedigree. But we must take such matters philosophically, and thank God that the youngster has stooped no lower than Miss Lacey. It would have been heartbreaking if the fellow had lost his head over some pretty gutter wench."
Lady Pym uttered a little scream of horror at the bare idea of such a thing, and scolded her lord for daring to suggest that her darling boy might have been guilty of so base an act.
"No; Randolph, thank goodness, is a gentleman by birth and feeling," she added, with all a fond mother's pride as she sniffed at a tiny jewelled pouncet box, and clinched her argument by declaring that Randolph had such a strong sense of honour that he would rather die a dozen deaths than sully the escutcheon of the proud Pyms.
What the Hon. Randolph's feelings were as he listened to this it would not be easy to describe. He knew that his life at that time was a living lie, and that for years he had thrown dust in his parents' eyes. His father was a high-living, easy-going man, who did not like to be worried about anything, while his mother was a silly, empty-headed, purse-proud, vain and worldly woman, who looked down, from what she considered was her exalted station, on every one beneath her. Not to pay homage and deference to Lady Pym was to incur her enmity.
Pym went direct from the presence of his parents to a rendezvous with the black-hearted Tinker, who had sent him an urgent message to come and see him. Sir Yardley and Lady Pym lived in a fool's paradise, but the son, having taken a plunge into the lower depths of infamy and shame, found that it was necessary now to sink to a lower depth still in the vain endeavour to shield himself from the results of his folly. It wasn't possible that he could have any respect for his creature, Ralph Tinker, yet he associated with him on terms of intimacy, for they were held together by a bond of guilt. And Tinker, on his part, unprincipled rascal that he was, regarded Pym as a poor weak fool whom he would serve so long as the fool had the wherewithal to pay for service, and no longer. Pym had placed himself too much in the power of this fellow even if he had been disposed to defy him. But at this stage it seemed to him that Tinker was indispensable.
Tinker did not consider it advisable in his own interests to tell his employer that Martha had visited him at Mr. Saunders' office. But he startled Pym by an exaggerated account of her interview with Amelia Godwin, and having no regard for truth he stated that Martha had declared she would not go to London, but vowed she would boldly go to Sir Yardley instead and announce that she was engaged to be married to his son.
The shock which this announcement caused him almost overcame Pym, and with a sense of terror at the consequences that would result from such a move as that, he exclaimed—
"My God, Tinker, she must be prevented at every cost from doing that."
"Just so," responded the wily one. "It is a question of cost. You see, it's this way. Amelia has acquired considerable influence over her. Amelia, I tell you, is a wonderful woman, but she's got an eye to the main chance, and she won't exert herself unless she's treated liberally."
"But you told me she was entirely subject to you," gasped Pym, becoming more distressed.
"So I did, and so I thought. But she has opened my eyes the last day or two. The truth is, I've never had occasion before to put her to such a test as we are subjecting her to now. She sees her chance, and she's going to make the most of it."
"Then I'll defy her," stormed Pym with a spasmodic burst of boldness.
"My dear friend, you can't do that," answered Tinker coolly. "A woman who has no principle is deadly."
Pym groaned. He felt his helplessness. He had called up evil powers to his aid, and now knew that he couldn't lay them again.
"What am I to do, then?" he asked despairingly.
"I believe it is merely a matter of money," remarked Tinker, with a sardonic smile.
"How much do you think?"
"Oh, I should say a couple of hundred guineas."
"Impossible, impossible," snapped Pym irritably. "I haven't got it. I will see Martha. I will talk her into doing as I wish."
Tinker laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"By all means see her," he said. "But you know how hopeless your chances of success are. She suspects your design. She's too artful for you. She reads you, and you will but make matters worse. Now unless you've lost all faith in me, be guided by what I tell you. Your only hope is in Amelia Godwin. She may be a she devil, but she's useful in this crisis, and if she cannot sway Martha no power on earth can. Martha has told her everything, and asked her to advise her. Depend upon it, what Amelia tells her to do she will do. Martha feels her isolated position. A woman in distress goes mad unless she has a confidante to keep her in check. If Martha can be induced to leave Ministerfield you need have no further fear. But that is just the point. Who can induce her to go? Amelia! That young woman has her price. Pay her that price, and you will be freed from an incubus. Martha once in London, she will cease to worry you. The friend of whom I have spoken about when we discussed the plan, Dr. Pope, will clap her in his private asylum within a week. Pope is staunch, and I can rely upon him; but London is a long way off. You cannot drive Martha, but Amelia can lead her. Now you come and see Amelia, and I fancy you will soon be convinced that what I say is correct."
Pym was at his wits' ends. This was as a mine that had been sprung upon him. And now for the first time did he realize how fully he was in Tinker's power. Nevertheless he hesitated. If he made a firm stand and defied him to do his worst, would it not be the wiser course to take? But then there arose in his mind thoughts of his father's and mother's fury when the truth became known to them; of Norah Lacey's scorn and contempt; of his own headlong fall into disgrace; of his absolute ruin and effacement. No, better anything than that. When Norah had become his wife it wouldn't so much matter. His position would be secure; but before that consummation of his desires he was merely as a cork on a stream, subject to every puff of wind, every eddy.
With such reflections as these he brought himself to believe that Tinker, scoundrel and treacherous knave as he was, was his only hope, and so to Tinker he yielded himself. Together they went to Amelia Godwin's lodgings. That young lady was not taken by surprise. She and Tinker were in the know, but she acted surprise splendidly, and when Pym reproached her for not being staunch to him, she asked whether he thought he could get his dirty work done for nothing. When he asked her what assurance he had that she would serve him, even supposing he consented to be bled, to the tune of another two hundred guineas, she answered him subtly—
"A word from me, I find, one way or the other, will induce Martha to go or stay. Now I will undertake that she will go on condition that at the third stage from here you arrange to hand me over the money. And I will pledge you my word she shall continue the rest of the journey to London."
"But I haven't command of so much money now," Pym pleaded. "Tinker knows quite well that I haven't. I've already treated him very liberally—"
"None too liberally," broke in Tinker, "considering what I have done for you, and the risks I have taken. If you have got into difficulties, it is all due to hatred and jealousy of Jim Spedwick. When on that fatal night at the Half Moon you bribed me to back you up in your false accusation of cheating at cards which you made against Spedwick, you sealed a compact from which you cannot now get away. Since then you've had to rely on me to help you along. Why should you expect me, or why should you expect this girl here whose interest is in me, not you, to be your slave for nothing?"
Pym could now be no longer in any doubt as to where he stood. Inch by inch the chain had been forged around him. Yard by yard he had proceeded on the road of evil; unmindful and careless; never realizing until this moment, when his servant showed himself to be the master, how far he had wandered from the light to the darkness, and how impossible it was ever to go back. It is ever thus with those who do evil. The evil-doer must ever be trying to hide one sin by committing another. As soon as this is fully realized, callousness comes, and then the rapid and final descent into the depths of perdition.
All that the wretched man could stammer out in his bewilderment was—
"I don't want you to be my slaves, I want you be my friends." Perhaps he hardly knew what he was saying. But he did understand that he had sold himself and now must buy back his freedom. He could never buy back peace and happiness; but if he could only shake off the bloodsuckers that were clinging to him he could live his life such as it was, such as it might be in the days to come. To marry Norah Lacey was the goal and only goal he had in view. Such a marriage, if contracted by him, would be infamous on his part. But that thought, if he thought it, caused him no concern. He had reached the stage of callousness. When he once more wailed his inability to find at that time an additional two hundred guineas, in addition to what he reckoned on spending, Tinker, out of the craftiness of his nature, suggested a means. He could give Amelia a promissory note, unsigned, his signature to be appended at the third post stage on the road, if she took Martha so far. This suggestion seemed to Pym to open a door for him. He agreed to it, and pen and ink being forthcoming, the lawyer's clerk drew up the note very carefully worded, and it was approved by the victim. Then on the surface friendship was renewed. A bottle of wine was drunk, pledges were exchanged, and when near midnight Pym went forth under the starless heavens and made his way to the Half Moon tavern, where he had arranged to sleep, the blackness of the night was not blacker than his own mind. He felt, indeed, as if he had signed a blood contract with the common enemy of mankind, who henceforth would control his life, until that dread hour, when his crime-stained soul would go forth to the supreme Judge of all, and he would be called upon to render an account of his stewardship.
DICK JOPLING was detained in the city of York much longer than he anticipated being. The Assizes were being held, and there was a heavy list. The cases in which he was concerned were low down on the list, and so he and the other witnesses had to wait. However, that fact did not cause him any uneasiness. Martha was all right, he argued with himself. She was staying with friends in Ministerfield and would be well looked after. His woodland home was in charge, during his absence, of an underkeeper and his wife, so Dick, having nothing to worry himself about, went in for enjoyment. A forest dweller, going to a city like York, which, notwithstanding that it was a cathedral town, by no means eschewed the pleasures and gaieties of life, found much to arrest his attention. Moreover, it chanced that the annual fair was being held, and that had many fascinations for the countryman who knew little of town life. If Dick had not felt so confident that all was well with Martha things would have been different; but he had wonderful faith in her. In his estimation she hadn't her equal hardly for cleverness, and she was capable of holding her own with any one. He was a rough, uncultivated man, with the strong blood flowing through his veins of wild woodland life, but he was wonderfully human where his child was concerned. His affection for her was boundless. Her mother had died in bringing her into the world, and through her infancy and girlhood the devoted father had tended her with untiring care and skill. He watched her grow into young womanhood with wordless admiration, and he denied himself many things that she might be educated and have her voice cultivated. That gift of voice which enabled her to sing in the church choir and at amateur concerts was a source of never-ending pleasure to him. Then again she had been his constant companion from the first day of her life: and in tending and watching her he had no time, and less inclination, to think of marrying again. No. He had been heard to declare that his Martha should never have a stepmother.
When at last he was free to leave York and return home, he started light of heart and blithe. He bore with him a paper parcel, in which was carefully wrapped a new shawl for his "girl Martha." With fatherly pride he had paid what for him was quite a round sum for this shawl, which, according to the vendor, was the latest London fashion. Martha, "bless her," should wear the shawl when she went to sing in the choir o' Sundays. It would enhance her attractions, if they could be enhanced; but anyway it would beget the envy of those who hadn't a fond, doting old father as she had.
Martha unquestionably was the joy of Dick's life and the apple of his eye, and he was very, very proud of her. The pride was justified, for, though she'd many faults, she'd some excellent qualities that made her charming as a woman; and then she certainly was not commonplace. She had originality and personality. A country wench she was undoubtedly; but distinctive in character.
Jopling arrived at Ministerfield and made haste to call on the people with whom his daughter had arranged to stay. They told him that she had left to return, as she said, to the cottage in the woods. Light-hearted he went back to his home, carrying the shawl under his arm and scarcely feeling the ground beneath his feet; but Martha wasn't there. Instead he found a letter lying on the table addressed to him. He cut the fastenings with some trepidation, and his feelings may be imagined as he read the following lines—
"DEAR OLD DAD,—
"I am going away for a little while, but you need not be uneasy about me. All is well. I have a surprise in store for you, and will let you know what it is as speedily as possible. At present there are reasons why I should keep my movements secret, even from you, dad. But, believe me, I am actuated by the best of motives, and though you may feel mystified now, it will only be for a little time. What I am doing is in your interests as well as my own; and though I do not like to keep you in suspense, it really cannot be avoided. When you know all you will say I am clever. You shall hear from me again in a few days. Now take care of yourself, dad, dear, and don't think unkind things of your affectionate daughter,
As Dick Jopling perused this strange missive his swarthy face underwent a complete change, and there was an expression in it that boded ill for somebody. His massive chest rose and fell with excitement, and his eyes glowed with the light of anger. He hurled the parcel containing the shawl from him, and it fell into a corer of the room. Clenching his fists and grinding his teeth he exclaimed fiercely—
"Damn him, this is his doing; but, by heaven, I'll thwart him."
There is no doubt the "him" who was in his mind was Randolph Pym, and if Pym had stood there at that moment it would no doubt have gone hard with him. As it was the wrathful gamekeeper crushed his soft hat upon his head, seized a stout stick and strode off at a great pace towards Ministerfield again. He burned with rage, and so keen was his anxiety that he could scarcely control himself.
The day was drawing to its close as he strode, hot and wrathful, into the town and went direct to the house where Robert Pounds lodged. But there the first disappointment awaited him. Mr. Pounds wasn't in. He had been away for two days and they didn't know when he would be back. He was "a curious sort of man" according to the people he'd been lodging with, and they couldn't make him out. Dick's first thought was that Pounds was perhaps responsible for his daughter's absence; but he didn't entertain that thought long. Was it not possible that Pounds had gone in search of her? Anyway he was much disconcerted by the absence of the detective. He had relied upon him for assistance. With parched throat he entered an inn and ordered some brandy, which was not a wise thing for him to do in his excited state.
Primed with the liquor and feeling desperate he betook himself in all haste to the home of Sir Yardley Pym and peremptorily demanded to know if the Hon. Randolph Pym was in. He was answered in the negative, but being sceptical about the truth of that assertion, he swore he would not leave until he had seen Sir Yardley. That gentleman being informed of this went to interview the fellow who was so persistent and "deuced impertinent."
Sir Yardley was a gouty, florid-faced, irascible old gentleman, as proud as Lucifer and with an exalted notion of his own importance. The greater part of his time was spent in London, where he had business connexions, and he did not concern himself much about Ministerfield affairs. Indeed, it may be doubted whether he concerned himself much about anything beyond the quality of his wine and the cooking of his dinner; for he was a gourmand and a bon-vivant. The pleasures of the table had more attraction for him probably than anything else in the world. He called himself "an epicure."
Excited as he was, Dick Jopling was not in a frame of mind to be either diplomatic or reasonable, and when the proud, port-wine-soaked old baronet confronted him, he blurted out—
"Look here, Sir Yardley, I've reason to believe that that rascally son of yours has gone off with my gal."
Sir Yardley's rubicund face took on a deeper vermilion hue, as, gasping and sputtering with excitement arising from insulted dignity, he exclaimed—
"Who the devil are you that you dare to come and make such a charge against a gentleman?"
Jopling was in no mood to be either subservient or submissive, and with hauteur and heat he made known who he was, and asserted that Randolph Pym had been making love to his daughter and had promised to marry her.
Sir Yardley was aghast. This was audacity and impudence beyond endurance. His son; his son, the Hon. Randolph Pym, make love to a vulgar wench like the daughter of a low-bred gamekeeper! It was preposterous; a deadly insult to suggest such a thing. The Hon. Randolph Pym was the affianced husband of Miss Norah Lacey, and the marriage arrangements were being made. To talk of a young gentleman of his high position making love to, to say nothing of running away with, a plebeian girl, was monstrous, a crime under heaven; an unpardonable offence on the part of a common labourer that deserved to be punished with death.
Sir Yardley Pym furiously denounced his visitor as a madman, a drunken, impudent vagabond, and had the door slammed in his face. For Sir Yardley to be bearded as he had been bearded was monstrous. It had set his blood on fire, and he felt he would like to run a sword through the ruffian's body.
Poor Jopling felt as if he had been smitten deep to the very heart, and it was only with a supreme, almost superhuman effort that he kept himself within control. Had not a stout oaken door and an army of servitors separated him from Sir Yardley he might have so far forgotten himself as to have cudgelled him within an inch of his life. But he realized his powerlessness, and at his wits' ends what to do in the absence of his friend Bob Pounds, he hurried back to the town, priming himself with more brandy as he went; and about nine o'clock he found himself at the Half Moon tavern. He knew that Pym used that house, and there probably he might learn something about him. He drank a quantity of brandy at the bar window, and then unceremoniously strode into the coffee-room. He was in a brooding and dangerous state. He was a distracted father looking for his daughter. His eyes wandered about the room. A few of the town's tradesmen who were there as usual at that hour he knew by sight; but there was one other person whom he knew personally; that person was Ralph Tinker. The agonized father lurched over to him, and with an abruptness that brought the buzz of conversation going on in the room to a sudden stop, he cried—
"Here, where has that rascal Pym carried my gal off to?"
Tinker changed colour, as well he might, and taken off his guard he displayed considerable confusion. This did not escape Jopling's notice, excited though he was, and he roared—
"Why don't you speak? Have you been helping him in his villainy?"
"What do I know about Pym and his doings?" growled Tinker, beginning to feel a little uncomfortable.
"What do you know about Pym," echoed the angry father; "you know a lot. What did he send you out to my cottage to see my daughter for, eh? Wasn't it to arrange some villainy?"
Tinker had become deadly pale, and his confusion increased. The company looked on and listened with astonishment and interest. Tinker was fully conscious of the awkwardness of the situation, and he felt the necessity for putting on a bold face. He must brazen it out.
"I'm not Pym's keeper, nor his servant. I know nothing at all about him," he snapped; "so take yourself off and don't annoy me."
"You lie," growled Jopling between his set teeth; "I say again, you lie."
"Look here, my man," said Tinker, with a lofty air. "I don't know what you are talking about, nor what you want. But you had better be careful in your language. To tell me that I lie is dangerous—"
"By the Lord," interrupted Dick, "it's more dangerous for you to trifle with me. I'm a father robbed of his child. Don't madden me."
The interest of the company increased. The situation was dramatic, and was becoming exciting. Tinker was exceedingly uneasy. He was an arrant coward at heart, and he was afraid of this strong, determined ex-soldier. He rose to his feet and glanced hurriedly round, probably with a view to determining if he could rely upon the company. He was well known to them. He was an habitué of the house. He spent most of his evenings there, and posed as a young man of some importance. His prestige would suffer if he allowed this clodhopper to browbeat him.
"I think, Mr. Jopling," he began, still maintaining his lofty and patronizing air, "if you have any business to discuss with me, you had better come to my office in business hours and when you are sober. Then I will talk to you. I won't now."
He made as if he would leave the room, but Jopling seized him by the arm. The clodhopper's eyes were ablaze, and his grip was like the bite of a vice, Tinker winced and glanced about him, but not one of the company showed signs of stirring. They were mere spectators of the scene, and deeply absorbed. It was a drama they had not anticipated.
"I'm sober enough for the likes of you," snarled Jopling, "and don't you taunt me. I ask you again civilly, where is Pym?"
Tinker wrenched himself free from the grip of his assailant. He was ghastly pale and trembling. He understood the seriousness of the business well enough now, and had he been alone with Jopling he might have tried to temporize. But before that room full of company it was another matter. He could not afford to even seem to be humbled. At those nightly gatherings he posed as a gentleman of high importance and, as compared with the shopkeepers, a scholar, as well as an authority on most things. What he didn't know, he pretended to know, and he was vain enough to imagine that he was regarded as a leading light.
"I tell you again, I am not Pym's keeper," he growled, "nor am I your servant, so go to the devil."
This was fine swaggering, but it hadn't the effect he imagined it would have. Instead of the "clodhopper" being cowed he was moved to an intensity of passion that carried him away, and he threw his hands round the lawyer's clerk as if he intended to crush him. Scared, and alarmed for his safety, Tinker struck the other in the face. The blow destroyed the last shred of Jopling's self-control, and lifting Tinker in his arms as if he had been a child he dashed him on the floor with tremendous force. Then the company, not being in sympathy with tragedy, sprang up like one man. There were cries and shouts, a short, sharp struggle, and Dick Jopling was overpowered and seized. Excited calls now arose for the watch and a surgeon, for it was noted that Tinker was motionless, and that blood was flowing from his head. It seemed, indeed, as if the life had been dashed out of the man.
THERE had been some strange scenes enacted in the Half Moon inn. As a posting-house, situated on the main road from the south to the north, it was used by all sorts and conditions of people-runaway couples flying to what they fondly hoped was the goal of bliss, Gretna Green; debtors seeking to evade justice; cattlemen and horsemen; sheep-farmers and huntsmen; gentlemen and blacklegs. Men in their cups had quarrelled and fought, and gamblers had been taken redhanded and trounced. But never before, perhaps, had a scene, at once so pathetic, so full of the elements of paternal agony and the black baseness of human devilry, been witnessed as that between the blunt, honest woodman and ex-soldier, Dick Jopling, and the thrifty, cunning, false-hearted attorney clerk, Ralph Tinker. The townsmen who were present could not help recalling the quarrel when the Hon. Randolph Pym had accused Jim Spedwick of cheating at cards. That was followed by a challenge to a duel, a public horsewhipping of Pym, arrangements for a duel in the Black Lake Copse, and the mysterious murder of the master of Runnell Hall, a crime which had placed Spedwick under a dark cloud. For some time, among the gossips and frequenters of the inn, there had been a tendency to a revulsion of feeling in favour of young Spedwick. The story of his love for Miss Lacey and her strong devotion to him appealed to the more sedate of the habitués. Moreover, it was known that his poor father and mother, living in their dignified seclusion, had suffered terribly, and they had won many sympathizers. On the other hand, Pym had come in for a good deal of criticism; and much curiosity was expressed that he should have suddenly taken up and become so intimate with Tinker. It had come to be known that Pym and Tinker went about together a good deal, and were frequently at Dene Hollow. And it was whispered by a little bird in the ears of the tattlers that the last time they went there Mr. Tinker was accompanied by a conspicuous young woman with red hair, and as she was a stranger in those parts there was much speculation as to where she had come from, and why she had come. Now to crown the business, Jopling, in the character of an outraged father, appears, and accuses Tinker of knowing the whereabouts of Pym, who, by inference, had eloped with the pretty Martha. Then it Was remembered that Pym had not been seen for some days, and a young man, a wine merchant's clerk in the confidence of Tinker, had casually mentioned that Mr. Ralph Tinker had made known to him that in a day or two he was setting out for London. The wine merchant's clerk had mentioned this little item of news with envy. Why couldn't he go to London? It had been the dream of his life. Truly Ralph Tinker was a fortunate fellow; and the conclusion arrived at was that an attorney's clerk made more money than a wine merchant's clerk.
Necessarily the alarming incident at the Half Moon inn became public property, and the good people of Ministerfield were once more furnished with a sensation. In their love of sensation they were no different from any other community. Scandal, elopement, murder were splendid subjects for discussion, and relieved the monotony of existence. It was now known that Tinker's projected journey to the Metropolis would have to be postponed sine die. When a surgeon examined him after that encounter with the deceived father, it was found that, apart from a broken head which had let out a lot of blood, his left arm was fractured. The burly Jopling had hurled his foe to the ground with a little too much force. The result was, Mr. Tinker was an inmate of the County Hospital, and Jopling, broken-hearted and distracted, was in the County Jail. He had been laid under arrest for assault and battery, and after the preliminary inquiry, being unable to find the bail demanded, was lodged in prison. He inquired for his friend, Robert Pounds, and was curtly told that he was away. There the information ended. To a further question, framed to elicit when Pounds might be expected back, no answer was vouchsafed, for what right had he to inquire about Mr. Pounds, who couldn't possibly have any personal interest in him.
The unfortunate Jopling was not in favour with the police. He had allowed it to be circulated that he had seen a man running away from the scene of Lacey's murder on the morning of the crime, and that man was Spedwick. Investigation, however, had proved the story false. Now there is nothing the guardians of the law dislike so much as to be led away on a false trail. In this instance the local police were somewhat discredited, for they had utterly failed to throw any light whatever on the Black Lake Wood-mystery. Consequently, having got Dick Jopling unexpectedly in their power, they were spitefully inclined. Human nature is human nature.
Jopling believed that he was deserted by every one in the wide world, even the daughter whom he had worshipped, and in his supreme misery he wished that his life would end. He felt "as a man dead; out of mind and forgotten." But herein he was mistaken. He had suffered three days' incarceration, having been remanded for a month, as the authorities did not know what the ultimate charge might be. Nominally, as it stood, it was case of "Common and unprovoked assault," but the medical men who had seen the saint-like man upon whom this "unprovoked assault" had been made, had expressed some fear of the possibility of erysipelas supervening, for Mr. Ralph Tinker had tippled a good deal, and had "an inflammatory diathesis."
Early on the morning of the fourth day it was intimated to him that he could go forth a free man for the time being, and a curt little note was handed to him. On a sheet of letter paper, bearing a crest, which of course it had no right to bear, but that is a detail was this request—
"Mrs. Lacey requests that Mr. Jopling will call upon her at Runnell Hall immediately on his release."
The previous day, unknown to him, of course, an attorney, acting on behalf of Mrs. Lacey, had tendered the bail demanded, which, after the usual formalities, had been accepted. The attorney was Mr. Saunders.
Chastened, subdued, sorrowful, and wondering what it all meant, Dick Jopling hired a horse and went with all speed to Runnell Hall, but not before several men, whom he scarcely knew, had come up and shaken hands with him, accompanying the act with a few sympathetic words. Although he had believed himself to be deserted, there was no justification for that belief. On the contrary, there had been outspoken expressions of public opinion to the effect that Jopling was a victim; that the Hon. Randolph Pym was a scoundrel, and Ralph Tinker was his shadow. These expressions had even penetrated to the recesses of Sir Yardley Pym's palatial residence, and had seriously disturbed that irascible old gentleman's digestion.
One irate lady, connected with the Parish Church, who was much interested in Martha Jopling, openly denounced Mr. Randolph Pym as "A Gilded Serpent," and further, she declared that Tinker deserved all he had got, and that he ought to be transported.
When once the public awaken to the fact that they have been deceived, they are unsparing in their denunciations. It was so in this instance. It was natural, too, that interest in the Black Lake Wood murder should be revived by reason of the recent happenings, and some of the people who had been loud in their condemnation of Jim Spedwick now regarded him in the light of a martyr, although to them the crime was as much a mystery as ever.
When Jopling arrived at Runnell Hall he was received by Mrs. Lacey and her daughter. Both bore traces of having endured considerable anxiety and sorrow. He was requested by his employer to frankly state all that he knew, and this he did without reservation or exaggeration. Unsophisticated and blunt as he was, he told his story in a manner that emphasized its genuineness. It moved the ladies to indignation, and Norah particularly showed to what extent she was affected. To her it meant so much. Her woman's heart had been wrung and lacerated, and she had been ruthlessly sundered from the only man she ever loved. Now it seemed to her that the shadows were lifting. Jopling's story was a startling revelation. A knowledge of what had happened at the Half Moon inn, when Jopling expended his wrath on Ralph Tinker, had come to her; and with irresistible argument she had awakened her mother to a sense of the error she had made. That lady could no longer doubt that she had been deceived, and with all her faults she could be just. Of course it was a great blow to her pride, but such pride as hers was bound, sooner or later, to have a fall. Her faith in Pym had been very strong, and it had taken a good deal to shake it; but it had been shaken; indeed, utterly and entirely shattered. To make love to her daughter when he was planning to elope with another woman was a sin in Mrs. Lacey's eyes, of such heinousness that it placed him entirely outside the pale of forgiveness.
As may be supposed, Jopling concealed nothing. He told how Pym had tried to corrupt him into dastardly perjury; how he had kept him supplied with wine and other things; how he had attempted to use Martha as an instrument to influence her father. Indeed, he stripped the mask completely from the honourable gentleman, and showed him to Mrs. Lacey as a treacherous, cunning rascal, who did not shrink from taking every mean advantage of his opponent.
While the information depressed Mrs. Lacey, it tended to elate her daughter. Norah had never wavered in her belief in Jim Spedwick's honesty, and now to have such strong confirmation that she was justified could not fail to raise her spirits. For months she had endured and suffered in silence; and there had been moments when, sunk into the lowest depths of despair, she had lost all interest in life. Naturally her spirits rose in a corresponding ratio now, but they received a check as she remembered that Spedwick was far, far away. She had sent him from her, and was it not highly probable that, angered by the persecution and wrong he had suffered, he had ruthlessly torn her out of his heart, even if he had not wiped her entirely from his memory?
At last Jopling had told all he had to tell, and Mrs. Lacey dismissed him with such consolation as she was able to give. She knew how deep was his affection for his daughter; and she understood, as only a woman can understand such a thing, the terrible pang of the burden laid upon him.
"Perhaps you may not care to stay any longer in your lonely abode in the Black Lake Wood," she remarked sympathetically. "I will, therefore, consider how I can serve you."
He drew himself up with a military air, and said with some pride—
"I have been a soldier, and duty with me is a watchword. I served your husband faithfully, and I will serve you faithfully. The woodland life is the only one I care for, and I feel I can be of most service to you by remaining where I am."
As he wended his way back a sense of his loneliness came upon him with almost paralyzing effect. The daughter, who had been his companion for so many years, and of whom he was so proud, had gone from him; had fallen from his high regard. Clever as he had always considered her to be, she had proved that she was no match for a designing and crafty man. No mortal woman is. Her very femininity renders her so innately weak when a man begins to play upon her feelings that he is certain to win if he but perseveres.
Jopling could not bring himself to think for a moment that the crafty scoundrel, Pym, would make an honest wife of her, and the father's feelings were lacerated the more by this dreadful doubt. There was another thought that gave him much concern—why had Bob Pounds deserted him; was there some deep design in that? Had Bob victimized him as well?
It is a terrible experience for any one, whether he be peasant or peer, to be disillusioned; and this rough man, rough in degree, was no exception. Dick Jopling was conscious of his own demerits, or at any rate of many of them; but he was far above the average of his class in a keen appreciation of what he himself might have described as "fair dealing man to man." It is true he had fallen a little under the spell of Pym, but it must be remembered that he looked up to Pym as a subordinate should look to a person in a high social station; nor could he be quite indifferent to the fact that young Pym had been a great favourite with the late Mr. Lacey. That fact in itself had had a good deal of weight with Jopling.
As the stricken man moodily made his way through the wood towards his dwelling he met one of the under keepers, who welcomed him back. The man was in ignorance of all that had happened, but he saw by his master's manner that something was wrong, and began to question, but Dick stopped him with a curt "Oh, it's nothing. I'm out of sorts."
Then the keeper incidentally mentioned that "A strange chap had come with a letter," that is, a letter for Jopling, and "it was up at th' cottage."
This item of information interested Dick so little that he asked no question, notwithstanding that for him to receive a letter was an exceptional occurrence. At long periods his sons wrote to him, but their letters were generally sent out from Ministerfield by the official letter-carrier. Under different circumstances a message conveyed by "a strange chap" might have aroused his curiosity; but at this moment he was depressed and glum. Life had lost its savour. He reached his cottage. It seemed terribly lonely now. Never before had he felt its loneliness. He was used to it. The woodland was his home. Its sights and sounds were the essence of his existence. He would have pined in a crowded town. He thoroughly understood the voices of the forest. They were in tune with his nature. But now his home looked desolate and dreary. The being who had made it bright and cheerful was lost to him, and one of the strongest links that had bound him to it had snapped.
As he entered his little parlour he glanced at the guns in the rack, and for a moment a thought born of despair and desperation, came to him. There to his hand was a speedy means of ending the cares of life. But also to his hand on the table was the letter the keeper had referred to. He grasped it. It was sealed; he broke the seals, unfolded the sheet and read—
"Don't worry too much. All will be well. I will bring her back to you. I promised you I would keep my eye on her.—Bob from London."
This brief message was slightly puzzling, but somehow it seemed to remove a load from the man's heart, and a little of the savour of life came back. He was elated, for, after all, things might not be as bad as they seemed.
THE elation, however, was only temporary, for, as Jopling scratched his head over those few lines, his brains seemed to tangle up. What did it all mean? How was it that Bob was able to speak with such certainty and say: "All will be well. I will bring her back to you?" Where Dick got fogged was in trying to theorize how it was Bob was mixed up in the affair. If he knew of Pym's rascality, why did he not prevent him taking the girl away? Why should he have waited until the deed was done? Then another question that shaped itself was: What power or influence had Bob to take the girl from Pym? Dick did not forget that his daughter had told him she could mould Pym as she wished; nor that she had talked of becoming a great lady, by that implying she would become the wife of Pym. Now supposing that desire of hers had been realized and a marriage had taken place, it was pretty clear, even to the fogged intellect of Dick Jopling, that he had made a consummate ass of himself. He had caused a scene at Sir Yardley Pym's house and had committed a serious assault on Tinker which had brought him within the grip of the law, and though he had been released on bail, the consequences might be very serious for him yet, for the end was not in sight.
Thus for many hours after reading Bob from London's mysterious message was he troubled in his mind, and he could get no rest. He was a plain-speaking, blunt countryman; unsophisticated in a large measure, and ignorant of intrigue and double-dealing. Up to the time that Pym had endeavoured to corrupt him he held him in high regard. After that his regard lessened, and he became suspicious of him. If he had deceived and misled Martha, then he was an unmitigated black-guard; but if he had really married her, Dick's opinion would have to be changed, and in common fairness he would be compelled to admit that he had done the Hon. Randolph Pym a great wrong, and committed an unwarrantable outrage on Tinker.
If Dick derived any comfort at all from his reflections and cogitations, it was in the thought that Martha was a match for Pym in cleverness. He had such tremendous faith in her cleverness, but of course he overrated her. In his fatherly pride he gave her credit for too much.
Two days after he had returned to his woodland home another surprise was sprung upon the unhappy man. There came a pompous menial to him—an emissary from gouty old Sir Yardley Pym. The pompous menial had doubtless been charged to deliver a simple message, but he adopted his own style and manner of doing it.
"I say, fella, are you Dick Jopling?" he demanded to know of Dick, who smoked in sorrow and silence on the wooden bench in front of his cottage.
Looking up and taking the measure of the flunkey, and imitating his drawl, he answered—
"Yes, fella, I'm Dick Jopling; and who the devil are you?"
The pompous individual turned green; to be addressed in such a manner was a deadly blow to his pride. But there was a fine scorn on his fat face, and his nose was elevated several degrees at the tip, as he relieved his feelings.
"Haw," he sneered. "You're demned impertinent, fella, 'pon my snivey you are; demned impertinent. Remember, fella, you are addressing a superior."
"Look here, if you've got anything to say to me, say it, puddinghead," thundered Dick, and added, "If I'm not mistaken I've seen your ugly mug before. It was on the day I went to old Pym's house and you shut the door on me. Now I've a good mind to hammer some of the stuffing out of you. You'd better be careful."
There was such a minatory expression in Dick's eyes that the flunkey backed towards the gate, an in order to revive his drooping spirits he drew a battered silver snuff-box from his pocket and took a huge pinch of the dust. Then with his handkerchief he flicked the spillings from his gorgeous red waistcoat, and again curled his lips in scorn.
"Yass, I have got something to say," he retorted; "but I would remind you, my man, that when you speak of Old Pym, you mean Sir Yardley Pym, baronet of Wold Hall, and formerly M.P. for—"
Dick cut him short by rising up threateningly. The flunkey got the other side of the gate which he closed and kept his hand on it. He evidently deemed discretion the better part of valour.
"What do you want here?" demanded Jopling, with such peremptoriness that it was obvious he was in no humour to be trifled with. He was dangerous, and the sight of the over-fed pompous menial aroused his disgust.
"I've been sent here to command your presence at my master's house to-morrow at three of the clock, punctually," answered the servant in the most offensive terms and manner he could think of. "Fail to come at your peril."
"Commands, eh?" growled Dick sullenly. Then like a flash it dawned upon him that probably Sir Yardley had got news of his son's marriage to Martha.
This thought not only subdued him but changed his disposition for the time being. Again he asked the mental question if he hadn't been making an ass of himself. In an altered tone he called after the flunkey who was moving off, only too anxious to place a safe distance between himself and the sturdy woodman.
"Hi, hi," hailed Dick; "look here, I've been a bit rough, perhaps. Stop a minute, I want a word with you."
The flunkey stopped and again had recourse to his battered silver snuff-box which he handled with the exquisite grace of a gentleman of fashion.
"Eh, what is it?" he asked.
"Can you tell me why Sir Yardley Pym wishes to see me?"
"Perhaps I could if I were so disposed, but you've been so demned impertinent."
"Well now, never mind that; I'm in deep trouble, as you know," pleaded Dick.
"Ha," exclaimed the menial, softening, "no doubt, no doubt you are, but you should be civil."
"So I am, so I will be. Now come and sit down and have some brandy and water."
The pompous one readily accepted the invitation, with the remark that a little liquid refreshment and a yard of day would be very agreeable, for his nerves had been upset by the roughness of his reception. Dick speedily provided the wherewithal for the nerve-soothing process, and under the influence of the brandy and the tobacco the flunkey became communicative, though he did not abate his patronizing manner. He regarded Dick as very much his inferior.
"The fact is," he began, "all Ministerfield has been wagging its tongue about my young master taking up with your gal, and I suppose it's reached Sir Yardley's and Lady Pym's ears. It aren't to be supposed, of course, that my master and his lady are pleased."
"But why do they want to see me?" asked Jopling anxiously.
"They haven't told me, but it seems to me that it's likely they desire you to get your gal back and stop the tongue-wagging."
"But I expect that Pym has married my girl."
The flunkey's sleek, fat face took on a peculiar smile, as smacking his lips after a draught of brandy he said with an ironical intonation—
"Ha, do you! Blessed is he that expecteth little, for to him shall it be given." The anger light flared up in Dick's eyes once more. The visitor was not indifferent to it, and tried to take the sting out of his remark, though it is doubtful if he succeeded. "Of course," he added, "there's no telling what's happened. Privately, between you and me, Mr. Jopling, young master's fool enough for anything."
If Dick was conscious of the sneer, only partially concealed in his expression, he did not betray his knowledge, but gasped out quickly—
"Then you think young Pym may have married my daughter?"
The flunkey no doubt deemed it advisable, having regard to his bodily comfort and his dread of physical pain, to give a very diplomatic answer to this question; so after some moments of reflection he said—
"My good fella, what I think is of so little importance one way or the other, that I prefer not to commit myself to an opinion. When you see Sir Yardley you may get information, and 'pon my snivey, I shall esteem you if you will let me know what happens. Perhaps you will accept an invitation from me, in the name of the hupper servants of Wold Hall, to dine with us after you have seen Sir Yardley."
Dick became self-absorbed once more. His thoughts were conflicting. He made some sort of promise to gratify the curiosity of the "hupper servants of Wold Hall" on the morrow, and the flunkey having helped himself to another measure of brandy and knocked the ashes out of his pipe, patronizingly bade adieu to Jopling and took himself off.
Dick sat for a long time pondering, until suddenly he sprang up, and then with a view to turning the current of his thoughts into another channel he went off into the depths of the wood to examine some stoat traps. He found, however, that it was by no means easy to put aside the subject that so vitally concerned him. The sun of his life was, for the time being, entirely obscured, and he was like one groping in darkness.
Punctually to the time named he wended his way to Wold Hall after a restless and anxious night. His reception was very different from what it had been on the previous occasion when he called there. The tall footman in silk stockings and pumps, who gave him admission, ushered him into a gorgeously-furnished room where he felt ill at ease, for his hobnail boots, his leather gaiters and his moleskin jacket did not harmonize with the splendid mirrors, the massive candelabra, the purple velvet of the chairs and sofas, the gilt and glass, and the rich carpets. This evidence of wealth and luxury bewildered him. It was all in such violent contrast to his homely cottage and the scenes of nature amid which his days were passed.
While he yet wondered and pondered the door opened, and old Sir Yardley hobbled in, supporting himself with an ebony stick, and at his heels followed his proud and haughty lady. Her face was a study in scorn, and her lips were curved at such an angle that it suggested she had filled her mouth with vinegar.
"Sit down, sit down," Sir Yardley growled to Dick, who stood in an attitude of deference. The old gentleman lowered himself with difficulty, and with many a grunt and groan, into a ponderous chair, and his lady poised herself on the extreme edge of a sofa and folded her hands across her breast.
"Now, Jopling," began the baronet, "I've something to say to you. When you came here last I was angry, I was outraged. It was natural, perfectly natural. I couldn't believe it possible that my son could have been guilty of conduct unbecoming a gentleman. But now, as I learn, the town is ringing with the scandal, and I am afraid Mr. Randolph has disgraced himself and his family by—"
"Yardley," screamed his wife with a shiver, "don't for gracious sake be so absurd. Randolph would never be so mad as to forget his high station—"
"My dear, you had better keep silent for the present," commanded her lord. "Well, I was going to say, Jopling, that my fears are my son may actually have married your daughter."
Jopling began to feel more at his ease. The baronet's fears were Jopling's hopes.
"Well, Sir Yardley," answered Dick bluntly, "unless your son is a blackguard he will marry my girl if he hasn't done so already."
Lady Pym uttered a gasp, snatched her scent-bottle from the velvet bag which hung on her arm, and applied it to her nostrils; and having sniffed vigorously, she said:—
"It is shameful, fellow, that you should suggest even the bare possibility of my son being a black-guard. He is a gentleman of the highest honour, and I don't believe for a moment that he has gone off with your girl."
"Oh, don't you," replied Dick gruffly, as he fixed his eyes on the haughty dame.
"My dear, my dear, do for goodness sake keep quiet," pleaded her husband.
"You must make allowance, Jopling, for Lady Pym's outraged feelings," continued Sir Yardley. "No doubt you are a sufficiently intelligent enough fellow to appreciate what I am going to say. If my son has really so far forgotten his position as to enter into a matrimonial alliance with your daughter, it is, and must ever remain, an infelicitous and ill-assorted marriage."
Lady Pym groaned and mumbled something about going to faint, but as her husband ignored her presence, she retained her stiff attitude on the edge of the sofa and sniffed freely at her scent-bottle.
"If he's married my girl, sir, she'll make him a good wife," remarked Jopling in his blunt fashion.
"He wouldn't dare bemean himself by entering into such a marriage," Lady Pym snapped out with fiery vehemence.
"Tut, tut, my dear," said her husband reprovingly. "Pray leave me to deal with this delicate matter."
Up rose her ladyship, quivering in wrath.
"I protest, I protest," she cried. "It's monstrous to imagine even that my noble and high-souled boy would disgrace his family name in such a manner. Nor will you make me believe for a moment that my dear Randolph has gone with this horrible girl. Or if he has, then depend upon it the deceitful wretch has lured him to his doom. Oh, it's wicked, wicked to try and bring my pure-minded, chivalrous son into a disgraceful alliance of this nature. Poor sweet, he has had trouble enough already with that iniquitous and treacherous youth, Jim Spedwick, who ought to have been hanged long ago for murdering Mr. Lacey. I tell you, it's a plot against my son, who is incapable of a wrong thought, let alone of a wrong deed. But there, I will not stay another second to hear even the faintest charge against his honour."
The angry and inconsistent lady had rattled on despite her husband's attempt to stop her, and at last, with a menacing shake of her ponderous head-dress, and a swish and swirl of brocaded, silken skirts, she sailed majestically and haughtily out of the room, casting a look of withering disgust at the moleskin-clad woodman, as though she wished to blight him and slay him where he stood. Old Sir Yardley gave a sigh of relief as the door closed behind her, and recuperated his flagging spirits with snuff from his gold and bejewelled box. He himself had been inconsistent when Dick had first called. Now it was his lady's turn; but now he was subdued and humbled. From what he had gathered, and what had come to him by common rumour, he was chastened by the fearful fear that his son had really married the woodland beauty. But his object in requesting Dick to call there was twofold.
"You know, Jopling," he began when they were alone, "youth is the time of folly and lack of wisdom, and my misguided boy may have become infatuated with your daughter, who, as I understand, is a charming young woman, but not fit to wed with my son."
"As for that," put in Jopling, "I say as she's fit to wed a king's son."
"Well, well, well, we won't argue the point. It's a serious matter to me and Lady Pym, and has caused us much agony. But now what I want to say is this: supposing, I only say supposing, Randolph has done your girl a wrong, he must be separated from her, and she shall be compensated, very amply compensated, and provided for for life—"
"Look here, Sir Yardley—" began Jopling angrily, his eyes emitting fire, as it was suggested his daughter's honour was a thing of marketable value, but the old baronet stopped him by holding up his beringed hand and exclaiming—
"Hush, hush, let me finish. I only said supposing, and now I say supposing again, supposing my son has really married your girl we shall have to bow to the inevitable; but mark you this, Jopling, and this is what I want to impress upon you, I shall disinherit him; I shall, by God. At the same time I will settle a small income upon him, so that instead of his bringing your daughter up to his social level, he will have to descend to hers. Such alliances, however, are rarely productive of happiness, and, mark my word, this one will be no exception. Now if you know where Randolph and your girl are, and you think you can be in time to prevent a union, if he contemplates one, travel night and day to reach them and stop it. All expense I will defray. If he has not committed himself yet, then remove your girl, by force if necessary, and I will insist on Randolph leaving the country."
"Sir Yardley," answered Jopling firmly and proudly, "I want none of your money. I am a humble man, but my honour is as dear to me as yours is to you, and I love my girl as much as you love your boy. I have no idea where he has taken her to, but he will have to answer to me, under heaven, for any wrong he may do her. He tried to corrupt me by wanting to bribe me to swear false evidence, but he will corrupt my daughter at his peril."
"What do you mean," gasped Sir Yardley, "by saying he tried to corrupt you?"
Jopling related what had taken place, and the old baronet was so horrified: and pained that he covered his eyes with his hand to hide his tears. Never in all his life had he suffered such a shock to his pride.
"This is an awful revelation," he mumbled as he staggered to his feet, "an awful revelation. It strikes a blow at my faith in my son's unsullied honour. Leave me, pray; forgive me if I seem weak; forgive me if I have been rude. I will send for you again soon. Something must be done. But try and find your girl; try and find her, Jopling; and above all, stop the scandal if you can. As a father with a father's feelings screen my unhappy son's misdeeds as far as you can. Now good-bye, good-bye; I cannot talk any more; good-bye."
Jopling got out of the room somehow. As he reached the hall he was confronted with the flunkey who had visited him in his woodland home.
"Well now, come downstairs and tell us the news; we are dying to know," said the flunkey.
Jopling did not deign even to answer the menial, but utterly ignored his presence. He opened the great hall door himself and went down the steps, and made his way towards his dwelling-place like one who walked in a dream.
MR. ROBERT POUNDS was not a man who could, with any sense of fairness, be charged with fickleness. He had a very marked personality. Physically, he was sturdily built, but to the casual observer he seemed a dreamy, non-observant person, who could be easily hoodwinked and gulled. But it was only in the seeming, for the person who could gull him would have to be singularly alert. He had only one pair of eyes, like all normally constituted human beings, but he probably saw more with those two eyes than a dozen average people would see with their twenty-four. Another excellent characteristic was, that what came in his way to do, he did with a faithfulness beyond praise. His motto was thoroughness. He had a contempt for the slovenly person who scamped his work and did it without feeling any interest. Bob scamped nothing that he undertook. He might fail, but that wouldn't be his fault. Where he failed ninety per cent. possibly of other men would have failed.
Bob had made the human mind a lifelong study. The faculty for such a study was inborn, and he had schooled and cultivated it, until ignorant people might have been led to think that he was uncanny, or had dealings with the evil one. It wasn't often he was out in his calculations. He judged the acts and motives of people with something like mathematical precision. This faculty was to serve him in good stead in the part he was called upon to play in Ministerfield affairs. There was no doubt that the local, official intellect had been unequal to unravelling the truly remarkable murder of Mr. Lacey. The oldest inhabitant could not recall a case which was so mysterious. It puzzled Ministerfield as nothing else had ever done. The authorities had been openly accused of bungling, but that charge was the charge of the ignorant. They certainly would have bungled had they, in deference to popular clamour, arrested Jim Spedwick. Although certain circumstances placed him in a suspicious position, no scrap of evidence such as the law demands could be gathered, so the services of "Bob from London" were secured. His reputation as an investigator was great, hence it was hoped he would succeed where others had failed.
Necessarily Bob's chief aim and object when he was brought upon the scene was to find the criminal who had done poor Mr. Lacey to death and yield him to the law, if it were possible to do so, so that the law might have its revenge. But herein even Bob might have failed, clever as he was, but for one remarkable circumstance. That circumstance was the adder under the bundle of faggots at the scene of the murder. Human destiny is often influenced by mere trifles, and in this instance a seeming trifle developed into a link of the utmost importance. The person who gathered together that bundle of sticks little dreamed that it would be like handwriting on the wall, when a wise man was found who could read it. It will be remembered that when the reptile under the sticks threatened Bob, he killed it, and in striking it he also struck a piece of metal, and when after a search he found that piece of metal, it proved to be a ring. No ordinary ring by any means. It was silver, and of Indian make. In his youth he had been in the East Indies, and he had seen many rings of this kind. They were much affected by the better classes of natives of that country. And yet its workmanship was of the crudest. A massive piece of silver had been shaped and beaten into a circle, and the ends roughly welded. Then a hole had been bored through the silver, and into the hole a ruby inserted. Such a thing could be purchased in India for two or three rupees at any cheap jeweller's stall in any bazaar in the land. But in England it was a novelty. The ring was chiefly remarkable for its size. Bob had fairly large fingers, yet this particular ring could be slipped on and off his second finger with ease. It would be labouring the obvious to say that there were two conclusions he came to. One was that the person who had gathered the sticks together had worn the ring; the other that that person had large hands.
It has already been stated that the moment he trespasser, had gone to him in the hollow; an altercation ensued, resulting in the death of Mr. Lacey. That the criminal carried a weapon was in favour of the theory that he was an habitual poacher, and it was highly probable that he had his dwelling at no great distance off, as it could hardly have been his intention to carry the bundle of sticks far.
Working on these facts and theories Pounds began, with the energy and secrecy characteristic of him, to follow up the trail he had struck. He remembered Jopling telling him that, a labourer named Welter had at one time been in Mr. Lacey's employ, and having incurred that gentleman's displeasure, Mr. Lacey had administered a horse-whipping to him. Subsequently Welter enlisted and went out to India. It was almost impossible to avoid connecting Welter with the Indian silver ring. That again suggested the likelihood of his having returned to England, and treasuring enmity against his former master, had shot him. Moreover, an ex-soldier would know the use of firearms, and no doubt be a good marksman with a pistol; and circumstances were in favour of a pistol having been used. A pistol could be concealed; a gun would render the person carrying it very conspicuous. None but a very incautious person would have run the risk of a gun.
Pound's first step was to endeavour to ascertain if Welter had returned, and with that end in view he set off for London by express, post-chaise, and did not rest until the Metropolis was reached. He then addressed himself to the headquarters of the East India Company. There was much reference to books and departments before he was furnished with the following information.
Frank Welter; age nineteen, native of Yorkshire. Enlisted voluntarily in London. Sailed three months later in the Indiaman, "The Star of the East," for Madras. Drafted as a private to the Ninth Madras Fusiliers. Moved up the county with his regiment, in August of the same year, to aid in quelling an outbreak at Secunderabad. Killed in action on the 10th of December. His effects and arrears of pay remitted to his father, James Welter, of 19, Castle Street, York.
Killed in action! That disposed of the theory of Frank Welter being the murderer. This information and the due turned Pounds upon other lines, and having passed a day or so in town and attended to some of his private affairs and received a letter by express from Mr. Saunders, the attorney of Ministerfield, marked "Extremely urgent," he once more set out for the north, on this occasion travelling by the stage-coach, which arrived at Peterborough a quarter of an hour or so after the arrival of the coach from the north on its way to London. Bob hurried into the commercial room, eager for his luncheon. The passengers by the up stage were still regaling themselves. As Bob threw his eyes over the assembly he started back, for to his amazement he beheld Martha Jopling seated in a corner, apart from the others, with a companion, a young woman with red hair. His first impulse was to go forward and greet her, but an anxious, half-scared look in her face, and an evil expression in the face of the red-haired girl, aroused his caution, and he drew back and made his exit from the room.
All was not well, he was sure. He would watch and wait. He ordered some ale and bread and cheese to be served to him in a small coffee-room on the other side of the passage. By keeping the door open he could see any one who came out or went into the commercial room, while a bay window enabled him to command a view of the road, which presented a busy scene; the coach from the north was being horsed with a fresh team, ready to resume the journey when the interval of rest and refreshment had expired, and vehicles were constantly coming and going. He had nearly completed his frugal meal when a commotion outside drew him to the window. A post-chaise had dashed up in hot speed. The horses were sweat-covered and blown. The post-boy was splashed from head to heels with mud. From the chaise a traveller alighted, and that traveller was none other than the Hon. Randolph Pym.
This was a revelation indeed, and pointed to mischief being abroad. Bob saw that he'd double business on hand now. Martha was in imminent danger he was sure. She had fallen under the evil spell of Pym. But by a fortunate chance, a coincidence, Mr. Robert Pounds had arrived in the nick of time to frustrate the game, whatever it was. Bob saw Pym enter the commercial room. Presently he came out again in company with the red-haired girl, with whom he entered into deep and animated conversation. In a few minutes they walked out together to the road and stood under a tree with large spreading boughs. Money passed between them; from him to her; bank-notes; so much was visible to the watcher from his coign of vantage. The watcher would have given a good deal could he have overheard the conversation; but that was impossible without revealing himself. Their faces, however, were an index to their minds, and Robert Pounds was too good a reader to fail to glean something of the thoughts passing in those plotting brains. It meant mischief, wickedness.
The precious pair returned to the tavern and re-entered the commercial room. Twenty minutes later the horn of the up coach was sounded and the passengers hurried out, the red-haired girl and Pym and Martha bringing up the rear. Martha's eyes were dimmed, she had been crying. She was obviously in great distress. She hung on Pym's arm, and Bob by dint of ear-straining caught these words: "Remember my father will break his heart if he does not hear from me soon. It is wicked and cruel of me to deceive him, but don't you be cruel to me, Randolph. Think of my father's state of mind when he discovers my flight."
What Randolph's answer was Bob could not make out, but in a few moments Martha and the red-haired girl walked to the coach. Then suddenly the red-haired one ran back into the passage as if she had forgotten something, but in reality to speak to Pym, who still lingered in the passage; and as she turned to go out once more, he said in a half whisper, but it was audible to the acutely keen ears of the listener—"Remember the reward I've promised, and how much I depend upon you. Do not fail me."
"I won't fail you, never fear," she answered as she hurried off, rejoined Martha, and they entered the coach together, and as it drove off Martha waved her handkerchief from the window.
Soon after the passengers of the down coach began to take their seats, but Bob was not one of them. Those words of Martha's, "Remember my father will break his heart if he does not hear from me soon. It is wicked and cruel of me to deceive him. Think of my father's state of mind when he discovers my flight," were pregnant with ominous meaning.
Pounds slipped out of the room, and going to the inn-keeper asked if he could have a post-chaise in the course of an hour wherewith to return to London, as he remembered some important business he had to transact, and which, in the hurry and excitement of leaving town, he had neglected. There was no difficulty about the chaise, and he next requested to be allowed the use of a bedroom in order that he might refresh himself with a wash and a change of clothing. The chambermaid conducted him upstairs, and he asked for a room in front of the house. From the window he could see who came and who went. In the course of an hour he saw Randolph Pym depart with fresh horses, but in the same chaise he had arrived in. As the chaise had remained in the road Bob had inferred that Pym intended to continue his journey by it. He had come to Peterborough in time to meet Martha and the red-haired girl with some definite object, and that object not a good one. So thought Bob Pounds, and thinking so, he watched. All the instincts which made him what he was had been called into the greatest activity. He was endowed with a faculty which might almost be described as prescience. As a naturalist is able to build up a prehistoric animal from the examination of a single bone, so was this man able to draw deductions from a single clue, which in nine cases out of ten were, in the main, accurate.
Bob descended from the room. He had seen what he had expected to see—Pym set off somewhere. His next step was to ascertain where he was going to. This was an easy matter. The owner of the post horses gave the desired information. The traveller was a Mr. Robert Tupper, "a commercial gent." He had posted express, in the rear of the coach, from York, as he had some business transactions with a passenger by the coach; and he had just left for Stafford. The Hon. Randolph Pym, masquerading as "Mr. Robert Tupper, a commercial gent," was ominous, so Pounds thought. He was quick to act in emergencies, and now his course of action was rapidly determined. Martha had fallen into a trap. So much was clear. It was no less clear she had fled without her father's knowledge. In view of this he penned that reassuring note to Dick Jopling, and entrusted it to a post-boy journeying to York, who received a special fee to convey it to Ministerfield. There he was to take means to speed its delivery to Jopling. He next indited a very businesslike communication to Mr. Saunders, giving him a full and detailed account of what he had witnessed. He wound up with saying—"I don't think there is much doubt about my being able to play check to Mr. Pym. Knowing what I do of this young gentleman, it would be absurd to suppose that his intentions are honourable to Martha. And the girl with the red hair, Amelia Godwin, as you name her, is evidently his tool. However, I shall follow in the wake of Martha, and take care not to lose sight of her. On your part you will perhaps inform yourself, if possible, of Mr. Pym's movements. He has hired a chaise here ostensibly to proceed to Stafford, but he is an expert in duplicity and a slippery customer, but the coils are gradually tightening around him."
That matter settled, Pounds set his face once more towards London. With a post-chaise he could easily overtake the coach, and he determined to be there when the coach arrived at its destination.
IT is hardly necessary to say that when Randolph Pym left Peterborough he was entirely ignorant of the fact that his dastardly plot had been discovered. He had always believed himself to be supremely clever, but his cleverness had overreached itself at last. His mother, with the blindness peculiar to mothers, had never been able to see any failings in him; and his father—good easy man—was so occupied with his "epicureanism," to say nothing of his being frequently, and for long periods, away from his home, troubled himself but little, if at all, about Randolph's comings in and goings out. He had been very pleased to learn that his own son and his neighbour's daughter were to be united. He rather looked down—for the baronet was an excessively proud man—on Mr. Lacey, whom he had been heard to stigmatize as "That fellow of no family," while as for Mrs. Lacey, he considered her "A horror." Nevertheless, Sir Yardley, being very worldly, was delighted at the prospect of the union, for though Lacey could not boast of pedigree, he was accounted rich, and many a broad acre of which he was the owner was conterminous to Pym's land. Sir Yardley had often cast an envious eye over the fat pastures, the well-stocked streams, the prosperous farms, and the great stretches of woodlands, of his pedigreeless neighbour, and it caused him to chuckle with satisfaction to think that they were destined to come into his family's possession by marriage. When Lacey and the baronet discussed the question of the marriage, the latter exclaimed bluffly:—
"I'm willing, Lacey, subject to your dowering your girl well. The youngsters must be enabled to live in style, you know. I shall give my lad plenty, rest assured."
So for the time the matter was settled. Sir Yardley went on with his epicureanism, and was content to think that everything was progressing well. He was told nothing about the Spedwick episode; but the murder of his neighbour, and the revelations consequent on that deed, shocked him terribly. He did not know, however, for he was not told, and he did not inquire, that the love-making between his lad and Lacey's lass was interrupted. By a mental effort which upset his digestion and caused him to forget his dinner for a day or two, he grasped the fact that the murder would of necessity cause the marriage to be postponed. But "the youngsters would enjoy themselves all the same," and so he turned his attention to his eating and drinking again, the most important business of life with him, and was pleased with himself. He and his lady did not live altogether in harmony. She complained that he was so wrapped up in himself, and spent so much time at the table, that he had no leisure to think of his family affairs. He on his part charged her with being a confirmed gossip, and having no mind for anything but what she should wear. The consequence of this divergence of views was, Sir Yardley spent as much of his time as he could in London, where he rented a small but snug house and lived his life as he desired to live it.
These few details, not without interest to those who have followed the varying fortunes of the dramatis personae of this history, will make it clear how it came about that Sir Yardley knew nothing, or next to nothing, of his son's doings. Of course the Hon. Randolph Pym being the son of a baronet and a wealthy man was judged by a standard different from that applied to Jim Spedwick, for instance. What were considered glaring faults in the latter were merely venial shortcomings in Pym. Ministerfield was a particularly snobbish place, and money and social position counted for much. Lady Pym being a doting, unsuspecting mother would tolerate no breath of scandal against her Randolph, and he was enabled to throw a great deal of dust in her eyes, as the saying is. Indeed she considered Randolph to be a paragon of all the virtues.
It will not be difficult to understand how Randolph Pym, having vicious tendencies to begin with, and left to follow his own devices without any control, came to mess his life up and drift into the shady ways of the trickster and adventurer. One man understood him and used him to his own advancement. That man was Ralph Tinker, who, being avaricious and utterly unprincipled, regarded Pym as a plump pigeon, designed for his own especial plucking. Anyway, he set to work to pluck him, and growing in boldness as he deepened in sin he began to weave a net round about the foolish and weak young man, freedom from which would have to be bought at a heavy price.
As the Hon. Randolph rapidly descended the road that leads to Avernus he came to believe that Tinker was invaluable as an adviser and tool. And when finally he had compromised his position still more seriously by endeavouring to intrigue with Jopling and his pretty daughter, Tinker appeared to him to be, in that crisis of his fate, as the angel of his salvation.
Human folly knows no bounds, no limits; it cannot be gauged nor plumbed. Some of its most astounding exponents in the human story have been rich and educated people. Randolph Pym's folly was of a common enough type, and it led him step by step, grade by grade, into such difficulties, that he became desperate and clutched at Tinker as a drowning man might clutch at a straw.
When Tinker brought the wretched creature, Amelia Godwin, on to the scene as a lure it seemed as if the wicked plans that had been, as it seemed to the plotters, so skilfully arranged, would be carried out to a most successful issue. What the sequel might be did not, at that stage, trouble them. That Martha could have been induced to proceed to London, and that once there she might be got out of Pym's way, was probable enough. But, as in the calculations for all such plans, there was one little, but important, factor which was entirely overlooked. That factor was—CHANCE. It had not been foreseen that Martha would call in business hours at Mr. Saunders' office and ask for Tinker. The curious thing is she might have called twenty times and Mr. Saunders would have been none the wiser. As chance willed it, however, when she did call on that particular occasion Tinker was closely engaged with "the governor." Thus the governor came to know that Martha was in his office.
Mr. Saunders had been in touch with Robert Pounds; he was holding, so to speak, not literally in the legal sense, a brief for the widowed Mrs. Lacey, but perhaps more particularly for Norah, whose sorrows had stirred him. Mr. Saunders was an exceedingly fair dealing and honourable man. At one time he had been a little prejudiced against Jim Spedwick, but when it was demonstrated to him beyond any possibility of doubt that Jim certainly did not commit the murder, and that the young fellow had been badly treated, his, sympathies went out to him. Saunders also came to learn that there was some mysterious bond between his clerk and the Hon. Randolph Pym; and being a lawyer, conviction grew upon him that the bond was a bond of wickedness. So with the aid of Bob Pounds he kept an eye on both of them, and what he saw with that eye rather astonished him. He had hitherto regarded Pym as a somewhat weak young man, engaged in the youthful occupation of sowing wild oats. When he had got through with the sowing he would be a saddened, but probably not a much wiser man, for he had no intellectual gifts, no mental power that would enable him to stand out from the common herd. But Saunders saw reason to change his views as to Randolph's future, and he came to the conclusion that the road on which the young man had set his feet would inevitably lead him to a criminal jail and perdition. So deeply impressed was he with this idea that he penned "a private and confidential" communication to Sir Yardley, asking that gentleman to accord him an interview, "as I feel it my duty," wrote the lawyer, "to place certain particulars concerning your son before you."
The testy old baronet was angered by this communication. He entertained no love for Saunders. He had been known to speak of him as "A pettifogging attorney who pokes his nose into everybody's business." And when he got the letter he growled, "What right has the fellow to interfere in my family affairs? Randolph must have his fling. Hell do nothing terrible, that I'm sure of. If he likes to mildly flirt with a serving-wench or two, or lose a few hundreds at cards, what care I? A high-born youngster must have his amusements. He cuts his wisdom teeth in time."
Such was Sir. Yardley's poor philosophy, and tossing the letter indignantly into the fire, he troubled himself no further. Mr. Saunders, having waited a reasonable time and receiving no answer, concluded that he had been snubbed by the gormandizing old baronet, but he felt that he had done his duty, and continued to keep his eye on Randolph and Tinker. From time to time he received items of information from Bob Pounds, who, though giving almost undivided attention to the unravelling of the Black Lake Wood mystery, still found a little time to concern himself with other matters, and particularly such matters as affected the welfare and future of Martha Jopling. Ralph Tinker in his capacity of clerk did not give his employer much cause for complaint; but the common gossip of the little town begot in Saunders an impression that his clerk's doings out of office hours were not of a nature that could be described as creditable. Ralph was a frequenter of the Half Moon tavern and much given to playing cards and throwing dice, two forms of gambling very much in vogue at the time, and in nine cases out of ten they spelt "Ruin" if indulged in to any great extent. By reason of this knowledge Mr. Saunders was induced to exercise ceaseless vigilance over Tinker's accounts, as the attorney did not consider that his business ought to be drawn upon to meet the clerk's gambling liabilities. Tinker, however, had got a much safer source of supply in Randolph Pym, and his accounts were always found accurate; but the intimacy between his clerk and the baronet's son set Mr. Saunders pondering. It meant mischief, he felt sure. This view was confirmed by the secret meeting at the Woodman's Rest in Dene Hollow, when Bob from London cleverly contrived to be present. Then came the visit of Pym and Martha Jopling to the same hostelry and the prearranged arrival of Tinker and Amelia Godwin. These matters were made known to Saunders, and when Miss Jopling called at the office to see Tinker, Saunders knew that there was devilry in the air. Martha's disappearance from the town, and a request on the part of Tinker to be allowed a fortnight's holiday' in order that he might proceed to London on urgent private business, showed the attorney the form the devilry was taking, and forthwith he despatched a trustworthy and confidential agent, at express speed, with a vital message to Robert Pounds. A portion of that message ran thus—
"It is certain that Amelia Godwin and Martha Jopling hive arranged to leave the town together, for what purpose it is not difficult to conjecture. They intend, I fancy, but on that point I am not certain, to proceed to London. At any rate my clerk Tinker has requested leave of absence to visit London on, as he avers, urgent private, business. I am a little in the dark as to the part Pym is playing. At present he is at his father's house. However, armed with this information you will act accordingly. It is probable you will be back before the two young women start. If it is otherwise I am afraid we may not be able to defeat the plans of the plotters. Dick Jopling, unfortunately, is away."
That letter reached Pounds in London a few hours after it was sent off, and he left immediately for Ministerfield, with the result already chronicled. He met the runaways at Peterborough, and keeping his other business in abeyance for the moment he followed them towards London. Pym himself believed that he had so arranged matters that failure was out of the question. He gave out in the bar of the Half Moon that he was going to pay a visit to Stafford. It was known that he had some family connexions there. To state anything in the bar-room of the Half Moon was practically to publish it from the house-tops. He knew that, hence his reason for mentioning it. He stupidly imagined that it would divert suspicion from him when Martha Jopling's flight became known. He really intended to go to Stafford, and he would take care that his presence there should be in evidence. In a few days he would return to Ministerfield. How, then, could any one connect him with Martha's going away? It was sophistry this, but it satisfied the by no means brilliant intellect of the Hon. Randolph Pym. Between him and Tinker was a secret compact that the latter was to reach Stafford by a roundabout route; meet Randolph there within a week of Martha's departure; receive a stipulated sum of money, and then hurry on to London. In the meantime the red-haired Amelia Godwin would be careful not to let her prey out of her grasp.
Thus it seemed to the plotters that their plans had been so carefully and cautiously laid that failure was practically impossible. But they forgot the factors of chance. Pym had said, referring to Bob Pounds, "That meddling hound, Pounds, is fortunately not here, so that we have nothing to fear from him. I hate the fellow myself. He's as cunning as a snake."
Tinker agreed that it was a fortunate circumstance Pounds had left the town. He expressed his dislike for him in much stronger terms than Pym did, and with an exalted opinion of himself he added: "However, I think I'm a match any day for Mr. Robert Pounds. He's a sleepy sort of fool, and I'll wager I could take his eyebrows off without his knowing it. I've had to do with men of his kidney before to-day." This was comforting to Mr. Pym, and also to Mr. Tinker. Each felt that he was ensuring his future, and the calculating attorney's clerk inwardly chuckled as he appraised what the Hon. Randolph's value was to him as a plucking pigeon. And when Miss Norah Lacey had become Mrs. Pym his hold on the baronet's son would be still greater. But Tinker determined that it would be more to his advantage to commute the income he would derive from Pym by accepting a substantial round sum, when he would settle in the Metropolis and have a glorious time of it. Of course this calculation failed to attach the slightest importance to Dick Jopling. He might storm a bit, but his storming would break no bones. Anyway, Mr. Ralph Tinker didn't care "a brass button" for Jopling, and his future days were going to be days of revelry and enjoyment.
IN spite of all this self-congratulation the wicked scheme which the plotters were so sanguine of carrying through to a successful end came near to miscarrying owing to Martha's fears and misgivings. She could not make up her mind to deceive her father, and said at last that she would not leave Ministerfield, so Pym was hastily brought to her, and he played the passionate lover with good effect, while with many a solemn vow he assured her that she had nothing to fear. Without the slightest unnecessary delay he would marry her in London. She could then return to Ministerfield, go back to her woodland home, and remain quietly there until the time was ripe for the announcement that she was the lawful wife of a baronet's son. It would be a splendid triumph over the carpers and scandalmongers, and Ministerfield, which had turned up its nose at her, would then bow down to her.
The argument told with poor Martha. She was fascinated. She was a woman! She had certainly played to win Pym, and believed now she had really won him. She yielded herself to Amelia Godwin's companionship without further questioning and departed on the memorable journey; and fortunately for herself, although she was not aware of it at the time, "the sleepy sort of fool," according to Mr. Tinker, to wit Robert Pounds, met her at Peterborough. He might there and then have foiled the plot, though she might have resented his interference; have proved hard to convince, and have claimed her right to act as she thought proper. What could he have said? What could he have done? He saw her and Amelia depart for London and Pym go off towards Stafford. He had no purpose to serve in following Pym, but he felt it to be a matter of life and death that he should follow Martha. And while he hurried on again towards London the Hon. Randolph Pym hurried to Stafford. So far as it seemed to him everything was going well. Amelia of the red hair had won his full confidence. She was likely to prove invaluable, and as soon as Tinker joined him, and the little matter of the monetary settlement had been finally arranged, he need concern himself no further about the future.
In this frame of mind and in excellent spirits Mr. Pym entered the town of Stafford. He was only a young man, bit he had had a pretty full life, though there was little to be placed to his credit. He had fallen under the fascination of vicious habits; vice had claimed him, and he had given virtue the go-by. In Stafford a lady cousin of his resided, a Mrs. Fielding, a comparatively young woman with a large family. Her husband occupied the position of town clerk. To his cousin's house Pym went, and was accorded a hearty welcome. He explained that he wanted a little change, and thought he couldn't do better than run over to see her and the children. She was delighted, she said. It was a pity he did not run over more frequently. The Fieldings represented the poor relations' side of the family, and Mrs. Fielding was only too glad to have as her guest her cousin, the son of a baronet.
One of Pym's first acts was to post a letter to his mother, to inform her where he was, and so allay any anxiety she might feel when she came to know of his absence. Then for the next day or two he enjoyed himself immensely. The town clerk and his wife couldn't do enough for their distinguished guest, and the best they had was at his disposal.
The time came for Ralph Tinker to put in an appearance, but he didn't arrive. Pym thought it strange, but concluded that Ralph had found it difficult to get off at the time he had arranged. Some business had interfered with his plans, but he would be sure to come. Of course he would, for wasn't there money waiting for him, and Tinker loved money. Besides, if he had found that he couldn't come he would have sent a message. He was a lawyer's clerk and had business habits. Thus it was that Pym felt no uneasiness at first; but gradually as the time lengthened out uneasiness began. It was curious that Tinker had failed him. It seemed incapable of explanation, because he had so much to gain by coming to Stafford. But he didn't come, and the Hon. Randolph Pym lapsed into a restless and nervous state which alarmed his cousin and her husband, and they questioned him.
He didn't quite know what was the matter, he answered. He was a little out of sorts. He was afraid Stafford didn't agree with him. Perhaps he had caught a fever. He had been told that it was rather an aguish sort of place. Mrs. Fielding protested. It was a libel on the town; but perchance it was that he, coming from such a fine healthy place as Ministerfield, had felt the comparative confinement of the town somewhat. Yes, that was it, he thought. He was awfully sorry, because he had enjoyed himself so much. However, it would be better, perhaps, if he departed; but his relatives could count upon his visiting them again, and that shortly. So with many adieux and good wishes ringing in his ears he left Stafford behind him. He had told his friend he was going home, but that wasn't quite his intention. He had come to the conclusion something was wrong. There had been some hitch, and he deemed it advisable to try and discover what it was. So he drove to a small place within a dozen miles of Ministerfield. Thence with all speed he despatched a messenger, who was the bearer of a letter, to Tinker. It was an exceedingly brief letter. It consisted of four words—"Why have you failed?" After a good deal of inquiry and with some difficulty the messenger reached Ralph Tinker in the hospital and delivered his note, and in a little while was conveying the answer back. "I have been knocked to pieces almost by that brute Jopling." So much and no more was the answer, but it was like a thunderbolt to Pym. It was ominous of trouble. Jopling must be mad about his daughter. The Hon. Randolph Pym was not a courageous man, and couldn't muster up pluck enough to face a madman in the first outburst of his frenzy. It was a situation that tried the nerves of Pym severely. He was not prepared for such an unexpected development as this. For a time he was distracted. Jopling had no doubt made a scene, and must have resorted to severe measures to have sent Tinker to the hospital.
This naturally suggested itself to Pym. Of course the fat was in the fire and all would be known in Ministerfield. What was to be done? Pym didn't know. What was the state of mind of his father and mother? He didn't care. His father would be furious, and he was no more disposed at that stage to confront his father than he was to confront Jopling. And as for Norah Lacey, he saw no grounds to hope that she would countenance his advances any more.
Pym's feelings beggar description. It was such a sudden collapse of the scheme. All had seemed to be progressing so well, and now he was face to face with social ruin. The mental strain proved too much for him. His villainies had not yet hardened him sufficiently, and for two days he was prostrated. He had concealed his identity so far, but he felt he was too near Ministerfield to be comfortable. So on the third day he bucked himself up and hurried back to Stafford. He scarcely knew why he went there, unless it was he felt that he wanted comforting and companionship. In a sense it seemed to offer him sanctuary. He told his cousin some very lame story as a reason for his return. It was so obviously an invention that her suspicions were aroused and she began to question. He tried prevarication, but she was persistent, and at last, in desperation, he said he had quarrelled with his father about money matters and the old man had driven him away. That seemed feasible to the cousin, for she knew he had been wild, so she tendered him sympathy, and endeavoured to assure him that the baronet's anger would soon pass. He was a peppery old gentleman, but would soon settle down again.
If Pym's story had been true he might have derived comfort from this line of argument. As it was he was plunged in despair, and the following day placed him in possession of a heart-broken letter from his mother. It had been written immediately after that notable interview with Dick Jopling.
"Return immediately," wrote the distressed lady, "and refute the horrible things that are being said about you. Remember the honour of the family is in your keeping. You can give the lie to all the scandal and calumny, so come back with all speed. The ignorant country clown Jopling must be effectually silenced, and any bad impression that Norah Lacey may have received will have to be removed, and the sooner the marriage takes place the better. I will see her and put things right, but don't keep away or it will make your father angry. You may have been foolish, but you haven't been bad, have you? I will never believe you have. Of course if it hadn't been for that dreadful low wretch Jim Spedwick coming back to Ministerfield nothing of this would have happened, and you would have been on the eve of your marriage with Norah. A plague take the Spedwicks say I. But you need not concern yourself any further about them, and if you come at once I haven't a doubt that all will be well between you and Norah, and I will do everything I can to hurry the marriage on, for the wedding will effectually still the tongues of all tattlers."
The Hon. Randolph Pym was not callous enough to be indifferent to this pathetic letter from his mother, but he felt that it was utterly hopeless to expect that Norah would now consent to become his wife. He realized the depth of his own infamy, and could not hope to rise out of it and be regarded henceforth as clean. This was a conviction. It was forced home to him, and in his abject misery he exclaimed, "Oh, what a gilded serpent I have been!" Perhaps nothing on earth could have stirred him so much as did his mother's letter. He had but little regard and not much respect for his father, but he was greatly attached to his mother. Had she been less blind and more sensible she might have influenced him to a better destiny.
Now it is not a little curious that when he began to recover from the effects of the shock he had received, his thoughts were not of Norah Lacey, but Martha Jopling. She, in that hour of his debasement, seemed to shed a light on his path. A mésalliance now could make no difference in his position, and though his father might disinherit him, he was sure his mother would not let him go penniless. She had money of her own, and would see him provided for. And time might even soften his father. Anyway, he rose up, strong in determination. He would go to Martha. He would snatch her from the clutches of the infamous creature Amelia Godwin and make her his wife. He had wronged her, but he would do what was in his power to repair the wrong.
This resolution formed, he despatched a few lines to his mother. Few they were, but all powerful to crush his mother's pride and stab her to the heart.
"I deserve all that is being said about me," he wrote. "I am blacker even than you think; but I hope not wholly bad. I shall return ere long, I trust, as the prodigal son. In the meantime try and dismiss me from your thoughts. I intend to try and make some amends for the evil of my ways."
Having got that business over, he said to his distressed cousin: "I have been a blackguard. I have deceived my family and I have deceived you, but think kindly of me." He gave her no details, and she was not disposed to attach too much importance to his confession. She did not realize the full measure of his evil. The worst she thought was he had been guilty of youthful follies, which could be laughed at when he had grown older. So bidding him a kindly adieu, she invoked a blessing on his head, and he set off in hot haste for London. But little did be dream of the surprise that awaited him there—Martha Jopling had gone, and once more he was plunged into despair. He felt that he must have excitement or he would go mad. He entered one of the seductive gaming salons then so numerous in the Metropolis. He began to gamble, and suffered loss after loss. Then he resorted to cheating and was detected. In the scene of confusion that followed he seized a chair and felled his accuser to the ground; that night with gyves upon his wrists he was dragged to the common bridewell, and before the night had given place to day he had succeeded in strangling out his own life. A sense of ignominy and horror had overcome him in the loneliness of his cell and he shrank from facing the future. Death had fewer terrors for him than life. And so when his brain could endure, no longer he threw himself into the arms of death.
IN pursuance of his plan Robert Pounds was at the General Post Office when the York stagecoach, which he had been following, arrived. He saw Martha Jopling and the red-haired one alight. He saw the red-haired one engage the services of a hackney carriage driver, and he followed that hackney carriage to a notorious street in Westminster. It stopped at the door of a house in the street; the passengers alighted; their luggage was conveyed into the house; they followed. The street had an evil reputation. What of the house? It did not take Robert Pounds long to get the answer to that question. The records in the archives of Bow Street supplied it. The house was in the occupation of a "Monsieur Favre;" nationality, French-Swiss. He resided there with a woman, who passed as his wife. Record of both, bad. Both had been convicted of theft and crimes. With restless energy and without sparing himself, Pounds proceeded with his business. As a well-known officer of the investigation department of the secret service, he swore "an information" to the effect that "a young woman had been inveigled from Yorkshire, and was in that house against her will." Armed with a warrant he, in company with four Bow Street men, lost no time in presenting himself at Monsieur Favre's residence. A demand on the part of the unwelcome visitor to see a Miss Martha Jopling, who arrived but a few hours before, called forth from Monsieur a storm of protest. He was a foreign gentleman of unblemished respectability. Why was he subjected to this annoyance? He knew nothing of a Miss Martha Jopling. Two young ladies, a Miss Amelia Godwin of Lincoln, and a Miss Martha Norris of York, had arrived. A correspondent of his in the City of York, knowing his high respectability and the kindness and conscientiousness of Madame, his wife, had recommended the young ladies to him, as they had come to the Metropolis to seek situations. They would have the advantage of the advice of himself and Madame, and be secure under their protection. For his honesty to be suspected moved Monsieur to tears. It was very touching and pathetic, but it had no effect on Bob beyond exhausting his patience. So he left the weeping gentleman in charge of one of his men who, being armed, would be able to hold his own in case Monsieur, moved by excess of indignation, should be led to forget himself. Bob and the rest then proceeded to an exploration of the premises, despite a torrent of fiery abuse from Madame, who narrowly escaped being haled to Bow Street for obstructing the officers of the law in the execution of their duty.
Martha was duly discovered. Notwithstanding her cleverness, smartness and superior intelligence, she had allowed herself to be trapped. Her femininity and her vanity were responsible for this. But she had already begun to have her doubts that all was not well. Notwithstanding this, however, when the first shock of surprise caused by Bob's appearance had subsided, she seemed disposed to resent his interference in her affairs; though it did not take him long, nor need much argument to convince her of the dangerous position into which her error of judgment had drifted her. When her eyes were opened to the facts she showed how thoroughly womanly her nature was by becoming hysterical, and weeping copiously. Mr. Robert Pounds' dispositions were soon made; Martha was conveyed in a carriage to the house of his only sister, a married lady living with her husband, a merchant of standing, in Finsbury; while the red-haired one, "Miss Amelia Godwin," to her indignation and astonishment, was marched without ceremony or consideration to Bow Street, where she was charged with a very serious offence.
For two days Martha was prostrated. A recognition of her own weakness, a sense of shame and indignation, and suffering from wounded pride and vanity, overcame her. But in Bob's sister, Mrs. Cartwright, and her husband, she found true friends, while as for Bob himself, he seemed to be possessed of some extraordinary magical power which had a singularly soothing effect on the girl's agitated nerves. She had the good sense, too, not to attempt to conceal or even to minimize her own stupidity. She made full and unreserved confession of it. She had been in a sort of dream; she had seen things in a dream; the idea of becoming the wife of a baronet's son had steeped her senses, in a kind of drunkenness, as it were, in which she had been deprived of her usual will power, and rendered incapable of seeing things as they were. But she was all right now. She had been humiliated, and her spirit had been chastened, though she was none the worse. On the contrary it was more than probable her experience and narrow escape from a danger she had recked not of, had cured her of a certain levity, and added the required amount of staidness to her character. That was all that was required to render her particularly charming.
On the third day she and Robert Pounds were posting back to Ministerfield. On parting from the Cartwrights she felt as if she was going from old friends. Mrs. Cartwright said—
"We shall see you again before very long."
Martha did not attach much importance to the remark at the time, but it was a prophecy which, unlike most prophecies, was to come true. Bob elected to travel by post-chaise, as he did not care for the public stage-coach, and, moreover, it was so much more expeditious. It was also much more expensive; but then personally he was on Government business, so his own expenses were provided for; and as far as Martha was concerned he did not consider expense any object. He was well off. He had always been highly paid for his services, and being a fairly careful bachelor, with no luxurious or expensive habits, he had spent but a relatively small proportion of his income.
Mr. Robert Pounds was particularly attentive to his companion during the journey, and in order that her disillusionment should be complete as far as Pym was concerned, he made clear to her what a depraved and unprincipled rascal the baronet's son was. Martha remained silent. She felt it was the wisest policy, though she was convinced. She passed into another frame of mind, when, as Ministerfield was neared, Robert Pounds remarked, as a fitting climax to a conversation he had been holding with her—
"I've knocked about a good deal, and have come in contact with many charming women, but not one has ever impressed me as you have done."
A drooping of the eyelids, an enhanced colour in her face, and a soft sigh evinced the fact that Bob's words did not fall on deaf ears.
Pounds had arranged that Ministerfield should be reached when darkness had fallen. The Ministerfield folk were such gossips, and did so dearly love a scandal that he was resolved in this instance that the reputation of Miss Martha Jopling should not afford a morsel for the evil tongues to twist about.
Martha felt a little nervous as she approached her woodland home, but her escort reassured her; and when they came into the presence of the astonished father, Pounds said—
"Well, my friend Jopling, I've brought Martha back safe and sound, as I said I would. I always try to keep my word. Altogether she's had a pleasant little jaunt, and though she hasn't had time to see much of the Metropolis, she can say she's been to London, and unless I'm mistaken she'll go again some day."
Dick's feelings of thankfulness and gratitude were incapable of adequate verbal expression, but there was significance in the powerful, vice-like grip of his as he grasped Mr. Robert Pounds' hand. Bob was for departing immediately, but Dick would not hear of it. He would be lodged there for the night. Long after the tired but happy Martha had retired to rest, the two men sat, smoked, chatted, and quaffed a brew. Nor did Bob fail to paint the Hon. Randolph Pym in his true colours. At that time, of course, Bob was not aware of the fate that had overtaken Pym.
When they were separating for the night Dick Jopling said with considerable feeling—
"Look here, my friend Bob, I don't lay claim to much, but I am honest in my way, and I know how to appreciate a service. Now, I love my gal, as you know; she's got her faults, as we all have, but she's jannock, I tell you, and she'll make a bonnie wife for some chap. Now if, as how it's to be, you're the chap, you shall have my blessing. And may God Almighty bless you both."
There was a world of eloquence and meaning in Bob's simple and expressive reply of—
"Thank you." In those two words he spoke a volume.
MR. ROBERT POUNDS had had a very pleasant journey down from London, and he had enjoyed the society of his companion so much that he could have wished the journey to have been three times as long. But now that a lucky chance had enabled him to defeat a wicked and cruel plot, and to restore a temporarily foolish young lady to her distressed father, he had to turn once more to the more serious affairs of his calling, and if possible help justice to exact her due for the terrible crime done in the Black Lake Wood.
Piece by piece he began to fit in the parts of the puzzle. The victim of the crime was hurrying to the scene of an encounter in which his daughter's lover was concerned, when in a lonely spot of his estate he encountered somebody who slew him. Under a bundle of faggots which it was reasonable to assume had been gathered together by the criminal, a silver ring lay, a ring of Indian workmanship. A man who had been in the victim's employ and had a grievance against him had gone to India. The ring suggested the probability of his having come back and carried out an act of vengeance. But inquiry proved that the man with a grievance had died a soldier's death on India's burning plains. Was the ring, therefore, a mere coincidence? Pounds didn't think so. He hadn't got very far in his efforts to piece the puzzle, but he was resolved to find the missing parts.
His information was that the dead soldier's effects and arrears of pay had been remitted to James Welter, of 19, Castle Street, York. To this address Pounds went. It was a low and squalid neighbourhood; the home of poverty certainly, if not of vice.
Yes. James Welter, a poverty-stricken and somewhat gloomy man, had once eked out his miserable existence there. His wife had died practically of starvation, and he had an epileptic daughter in an asylum. It was remembered by some of the neighbours that James Welter had received news of his soldier son's death in India, and, as was believed, some money. Anyway, for a time the old man drank heavily; then he suddenly disappeared and was seen no more.
One item of information was startling in its significance. The silver Indian ring which Pounds displayed was recognized by a man who had been intimate with James Welter as one he wore after the news came from India. The same informant vouched for it that Frank Welter was a stout lad with very large hands, but old James Welter was a shrivelled man with skinny hands.
By a slow but exhaustive process Robert Pounds traced James Welter to a curious spot called Runnel Head. It was the source of the stream that flowed through Dene Hollow. A wild, desolate place on the top of a flat hill, and, exposed as it was to every wind that blew, it was so bleak that nothing would grow save stunted grass and lichens. It was a limestone region, and at one time lime had been burnt there; but the working had long since been abandoned, as it didn't pay. All that remained of the enterprise were a ruined hut and a few heaps of stones which marked the sites of the kilns. There was something more than a tradition that a strange, lonely old man had found shelter in the ruined hut; but he had gone; when and how, nobody knew. He certainly had not died there, or his skeleton would have been found.
Bob inspected the hut. There were the remains of burnt faggots on the hearthstone, an old iron pot that had been used for cooking, a very rusty Jack knife, on the blade of which was crudely scratched the initials "J. W.," an old pair of boots, and some shreds of clothing. The holes in the roof had been stopped with turves, and a heap of dead bracken and leaves, covered with a piece of sacking in one corer of the hut, had evidently been the sleeping place of the lonely occupant. Robert Pounds thought that his search had been exhaustive, yet for some reason he was induced to return to it again, and his thoroughness was rewarded by an unexpected find.
From the wall at one side of the hut a few stones had been removed to form a cupboard or recess, and there lay a small, rusty pistol, together with a powder flask and a canvas bag containing about a dozen bullets. These bullets fitted the weapon, and, as was proved a little later, they were identical with the one which had caused the death of the master of Runnel Hall. That one had been dug out of the dead man's brain, and retained by the police.
So far, then, the circumstantial evidence was pretty conclusive that old James Welter had murdered Mr. Lacey. But what had become of old James Welter? It was not very likely he had travelled far afield. A man circumstanced as he was would not be able to go far. What had become of him then? Was he living, or was he dead? Bob's opinion was, he was dead, and he felt that he could never rest until he had set the matter beyond question, or captured the man if he was living.
With strange persistency Robert Pounds haunted the region for many days, until one eerie, lowering day he entered a cave or hole from which chalk stone had been taken. But lying as it did, deep down in a hollow, and thus sheltered from the winds, a rank growth of briar and blackthorn which flourished in the swampy ground choked the entrance so much that no one would ever have suspected the existence of the place. That cave was the tomb of Mr. Lacey's murderer; kindly nature had sealed the entrance up, and save for the human sleuth-hound who, having got a scent, had run his quarry to earth, it might have remained undiscovered until the judgment day.
The skeleton of a man lay on the rocky ground. Near one of the dead hands was a soldier's leather pocket-book. It was mildewed and damp-stained, but much writing in it was decipherable and, in numerous instances, perfectly legible. On the fly leaf was the name Frank Welter, his regimental number, the date when he left England and the date when he arrived in India. After his death it had been sent to Frank's father, and there was an entry to that effect, though in quite a different handwriting from the rest. In this same handwriting but in pencil was an entry which brought Robert Pounds' labours in this case to a dose. This was the entry after giving the date and year—
To-day the Lord has afforded me an opportunity to avenge my wrongs, and I have slain the man whose brutality sent my precious son from me to die in a foreign land. Long have I haunted the Black Lake Wood, hoping and praying for such an opportunity. It came to-day unexpectedly, and the weapon I have nursed in the hope of being able to speed a bullet into his brain served me in good stead. He would have struck me, as he once struck my son, but I had my revenge. I shot him dead, and my poor boy's wrongs were thus atoned for by this man's blood.
Being at the point of death, I, James Welter, father of Frank Welter who died doing his duty at Secunderabad, like the brave soldier that he was, make this confession in order that no one else may be blamed for the work of my hand. I glory in my deed, for Roland Lacey was a cruel and hard-hearted man, and it was my privilege to send him to his doom. I now wait patiently for the time when I shall pass from a world where there is so much evil, and where man's brutality is responsible for so many broken hearts.
When Bob's discovery was made known the sensation it caused was only a little less than that caused by the murder itself, and at once there was some desire manifested on the part of the Ministerfield community to make amends for the wrong it had done to Jim Spedwick. People who had shunned poor old Mr. and Mrs. Spedwick now offered them congratulations And so high ran the feeling against Pym and Ralph Tinker that it might have fared ill with them had they fallen into the hands of the mob. But Pym, though it was not known in Ministerfield then, had passed into the night, and neither praise nor blame could affect him. His dastardly plans had miscarried, and he had paid the penalty. The shame and disgrace, however, that he had brought upon his family told so severely on the proud Sir Yardley Pym, that when the final catastrophe was made known to him it broke him, and he sank into his grave before the year was out.
Ralph Tinker, who had practically recovered from his injuries, in particular became an object of loathing and scorn; and ultimately when Dick Jopling was called upon to pay a small fine for the assault, and to satisfy the outraged law, the public raised a subscription and presented him with a testimonial.
Among those who hastened to show their sympathy with the Spedwicks was Mrs. Lacey. She had done them a grievous wrong, and she tried to make amends; and poor Norah, who had loved and suffered wrong and ignominy for her love, learnt with a joy that could find no expression in words that Jim Spedwick was nearing England. He had written to announce the death of his eccentric uncle who had made him his sole heir and left him a large fortune. He was hurrying home to make such arrangements for his parents as would enable them for the future to hold their heads high among those who had erstwhile scorned them.
And so in the restless tide of human affairs those who have figured in this narrative underwent strange changes of fortune. Ralph Tinker slunk away, and went to London to join Amelia Godwin as it was rumoured. But the red-haired one was proved to be a most notorious character, who, under different names, had twice suffered imprisonment for offences against the law. This time, thanks in a large measure to Bob Pounds, the law laid her completely by the heels, for she was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment in a convict settlement.
Thus justice was meted out, and virtue, in this instance anyway, found its reward. Jim Spedwick arrived in due course and returned to the home of his childhood. And what a surprise awaited him! He had gone away in sorrow and sadness and with the finger of scorn pointed at him. The scorn was unmerited, but he suffered nevertheless. Now as a man wronged he was received with something like acclamation, and he was entertained at a public dinner. But to him the joy of joys was to find that the woman he had loved and been true to had been true to him. The story of their love and their crosses was a pretty one, and it found its fitting consummation in their union of hands and hearts.
And Bob from London had added a little more lustre to his name besides finding his better half. Dick Jopling in his rough way had said to him when he brought the runaway back from London—
"I love my gal as you know; she's got her faults as we all have, but she's jannock I tell you, and she'll make a bonnie wife for some chap. Now if, as how it's to be, you're the chap, you shall have my blessing. And may God Almighty bless you both."
Now it came to pass in due course that Mr. Robert Pounds said to Dick—
"I say, Jopling, I want your blessing as you promised. Martha and I have decided to enter into the bonds of holy matrimony."
The blessing was given, and as Mrs. "Bob" Pounds Martha felt not a little proud; and she made no secret of it that she owed her life and happiness to "dear old Bob," who had so cleverly rescued her from the deadly fascination of A Gilded Serpent. Of Lady Pym it remains to say she was destined to live for many years after her husband's decease, a lonely, broken-hearted, humbled woman. She became a recluse, brooding over the fate that had taken from her everything that could make existence endurable. And yet she bore her existence, admitting that her pride and worldliness had been so great that she deserved her punishment; she endeavoured to make some atonement by deeds of charity and soothing the anguish of the sick and sorrow-stricken, until Death at last brought her the rest she yearned and prayed for.
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