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Title: The Black Patch Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700771h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2017 Most recent update: August 2017 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore 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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Chapter 1. - In The Garden Of Eden
Chapter 2. - The Hints Of Durban
Chapter 3. - Mr Alpenny’s Proposal
Chapter 4. - Seen In The Lightning
Chapter 5. - Mrs Snow’s Discovery
Chapter 6. - The Inquest
Chapter 7. - The Inquest—continued
Chapter 8. - The Will
Chapter 9. - Lady Watson
Chapter 10. - Mrs Lilly’s Story
Chapter 11. - Major Ruck
Chapter 12. - Vivian Explains
Chapter 13. - The Ex-Butler
Chapter 14. - Mrs Snow’s past
Chapter 15. - A Curious Coincidence
Chapter 16. - An Interruption
Chapter 17. - A Story Of The Past
Chapter 18. - What Orchard Knew
Chapter 19. - Durban Speaks At Last
Chapter 20. - A Great Surprise
Chapter 21. - Lady Watson’s Story
Chapter 22. - Revelation
Chapter 23. - Nemesis
Chapter 24. - The Necklace
Chapter 25. - Waterloo
Chapter 26. - What Took Place
“Of course he’s a wretch, dear; but oh!”—with an ecstatic expression—“what a nice wretch!”
“I see; you marry the adjective.”
“The man, Beatrice, the man. Give me a real man and I ask for nothing better. But the genuine male is so difficult to find nowadays.”
“Really! Then you have been more successful than the majority.”
“How sarcastic, how unfriendly! I did look for sympathy.”
Beatrice embraced her companion affectionately. “You have it, Dinah. I give all sympathy and all good wishes to yourself and Jerry. May you be very happy as Mr and Mrs Snow!”
“Oh, we shall, we shall! Jerry would make an undertaker happy!”
“Undertakers generally are—when business is good.”
“Oh! you are quite too up-to-date in your talk, Beatrice Hedge.”
“That is strange, seeing how I live in a dull country garden like a snail, or a cabbage.”
“Like a wild rose, dear. At least Vivian would say so.”
“Mr Paslow says more than he means,” responded Beatrice, blushing redder than the flower mentioned, “and I dare say Jerry does also.”
“No, dear. Jerry hasn’t sufficient imagination.”
“He ought to have, being a journalist.”
“Those are the very people who never imagine anything. They find their facts on every hedge.”
“Is that an unworthy pun on my name?”
“Certainly not, Miss Hedge,” said the other with dignity; “Jerry shan’t find anything on you, or in you, save a friend, else I shall be horribly jealous. As to Vivian, he would murder his future brother-in-law if he caught him admiring you; and I don’t want to begin my married life with a corpse.”
“Naturally. You wisely prefer the marriage service to the burial ditto, my clever Dinah.”
“I’m not clever, and I really don’t know how to answer your sharp speeches, seeing that I am a plain country girl.”
“Not plain—oh! not plain. Jerry doesn’t think so, I’m sure.”
“It’s very sweet and flattering of Jerry, but he’s mercifully colour-blind and short-sighted. I am plain, with a pug nose, drab hair, freckles, and teeny-weeny eyes. You are the reverse, Beatrice, being all that is lovely—quite a gem.”
“Don’t tell my father that I am any sort of jewel,” remarked Beatrice dryly, “else he will want to sell me at an impossible price.”
Dinah laughed, but did not reply. Her somewhat flighty brain could not concentrate itself sufficiently to grasp the subtle conversation of Miss Hedge, so she threw herself back on the mossy stone seat and stared between half-closed eyelids at the garden. This was necessary, for the July sunshine blazed down on a mass of colour such as is rarely seen in sober-hued England. The garden might have been that of Eden, as delineated by Martin or Doré, from the tropical exuberance of flower and leaf. But the buildings scattered about this pleasance were scarcely of the primitive type which Adam and his spouse would have inhabited: rather were they expressions of a late and luxurious civilisation.
And again, they could scarcely be called buildings in the accepted sense of the word, as they had been constructed to run on iron rails, at the tail of a locomotive. To be plain, seven railway carriages, with their wheels removed, did duty for dwellings, and very odd they looked amidst surroundings alien to their original purpose. A Brixton villa would scarcely have seemed more out of place in the Desert of Sahara.
Placed in an irregular circle, like Druidical stones, the white-painted woodwork of these derelicts was streaked fantastically with creepers, which, spreading even over the arched roofs, seemed to bind them to the soil. Titania and her fastidious elves might have danced on the smooth central sward, in the middle of which appeared a chipped sundial, upheld by three stone ladies, unclothed, battered, and unashamed. At the back of these ingeniously contrived huts bloomed flowers in profusion: tall and gaudy hollyhocks, vividly scarlet geraniums, lilies of holy whiteness, and thousands—as it truly seemed—of many-hued poppies. The wide beds, whence these blossoms sprang, stretched back to a girdle of lofty trees, and were aglow with the brilliant flowers of the nasturtium. The trees which shut in this sylvan paradise from the crooked lane rose from a tangled jungle of coarse grasses, nettles, darnels, and oozy weedy plants, whose succulence betrayed the presence of a small pond gorgeous with water-lilies. Paths led through the miniature forest, winding in and out and round about, so as to make the most of the small space; and the whole was bounded by a high brick wall, mellow and crumbling, but secure for all that, seeing it was topped with iron spikes and bits of broken bottles. One heavy wooden gate, at present bolted and barred, admitted the outside world from the lane into this Garden of Alcinous.
Almost the entire population of the Weald knew of this Eden—that is, by hearsay—for no one entered the jealous gate, unless he or she came to do business with the eccentric character who had created the domain. Jarvis Alpenny was a miser, hence the presence of disused rail carriages, which saved him the trouble and cost of building a house. In The Camp—so the place was called—he had dwelt for fifty years, and he was as much a recluse as a man well could be, who made his income by usury. It seemed odd, and was odd, that a money-lender should not only dwell in, but carry on his peculiarly urban profession in, so rural a locality as the Weald of Sussex. Nevertheless, Alpenny did as large a business as though he had occupied some grimy office in the heart of London. Indeed, he really made more money, as the very seclusion of the place attracted many needy people who wished to borrow money secretly. As the local railway station was but three miles distant, these secretive clients came very easily to this rustic Temple of Mammon. Any one could stay in Brighton without arousing the curiosity of friends; and it was surely natural to make excursions into the bowels of the land! Jarvis Alpenny showed a considerable knowledge of human nature in thus isolating his habitation; for the more difficult people find it to obtain what they want, the more do they value that which they obtain.
Alpenny called Beatrice his daughter. He would have spoken more correctly had he called her his stepdaughter, for that she was. And apart from the difference in the name, no one would have believed that the wizen, yellow-faced, sharp-featured miser was the father of so beautiful a girl. She dwelt in The Camp like an imprisoned princess, and no dragon could have guarded her more fiercely than did Durban, the sole servant and factotum of the settlement, as it might truly be called. Alpenny himself might have passed for the wicked magician who held the aforesaid princess spell-bound in his enchanted domain. But as the Fairy Prince always discovers Beauty, however closely confined, so had Beatrice Hedge been discovered by Vivian Paslow. He was a poor country gentleman who dwelt in a two-miles distant grange; and his only sister, confessing to the biblical name of Dinah, was the decidedly plain girl who had just whispered to Beatrice how she had become engaged, on the previous day, to Gerald Snow. That Gerald was the son of a somewhat needy vicar, and possessed an objectionable mother, made no difference to Dinah, who was very much in love and very voluble on the subject.
“Of course,” resumed Miss Paslow, after a pause in the conversation, “I and Jerry will be horribly poor. Vivian has no money and I have less. Mr Snow the vicar has only a fifth-rate living, and Mrs Snow is a screw like your father.”
“Dinah!” Beatrice winced and coloured at these plain words.
“Well, Mr Alpenny is a screw, and only your stepfather after all. As to Mrs Snow—oh, my gracious”—with expressive pantomime—“I’m glad Jerry and I won’t have to depend upon her for food. Whenever the poor famished darling comes to Convent Grange, I simply rush to make him a glass of egg and milk in case he tumbles off his chair.”
“That may be emotion, caused by the sight of you Dinah.”
“How nasty, how untrue! No! I did the tumbling when he proposed yesterday. He proposed so beautifully that I think he must have been reading up. I was in the parlour and Jerry came in. He looked at me like that, and I looked at him in this way, and afterwards—” Here Dinah, who was at the silly boring stage of love, told the wonderful story for the fifth time, ending with the original remark that for quite three hours after Jerry left her, Jerry’s kisses were warm on her maiden lips.
“Why didn’t you bring Mr Snow in, Dinah?” asked Beatrice, who had listened most patiently to these rhapsodies.
“Oh, my dear!” fanning a red and freckled face with a flimsy handkerchief, “he’s much better in the lane, minding the horses. You see he will make me blush with his looks and smiles and hand-squeezings, when he thinks that no one is looking—which they usually are,” finished Miss Paslow ungrammatically.
“And you came over to tell me. That is sweet of you.”
“Well, I did and I didn’t, dear, to be perfectly candid. You see, Jerry and I were going for a ride this morning, just to see if we entirely understood how serious marriage is; but Vivian is such a prig—”
“He isn’t!” contradicted Beatrice indignantly.
“Oh yes, he is,” insisted Dinah obstinately; “he doesn’t think it quite the thing that I and Jerry should be too much alone—as though we could make love in company! He wouldn’t like it himself, though he did insist on my coming here with him, and rode in the middle, so as to part Jerry and me. So poor, dear, darling Jerry is holding the horses in the lane, while Vivian is doing business with your father in there,” and Miss Paslow pointed a gloved finger at a distant railway carriage, which was so bolted and barred and locked and clamped that it looked like a small dungeon.
A grave expression appeared on the face of Beatrice. “Do you know what kind of business Mr Paslow is seeing my father about?”
“Oh, my dear, as though your father—which he isn’t—ever did any sort of business save lend money to people who haven’t got any, as I’m sure we Paslows haven’t. We’ve got birth and blood and a genuine Grange with a ghost, and Vivian has good looks even if I haven’t, in spite of Jerry’s nonsense; but there isn’t a sixpence between us. How Mrs Lilly manages to feed us, I really don’t know, unless she steals the food. Our ancestors had the Paslow money and spent it, the mean pigs!—just as though our days weren’t more expensive than their days, with their feathers and lace and port wine.”
“Then Mr Paslow is borrowing money?” remarked Beatrice, when she could get in a word, which was not easy.
“Mr Paslow!—how cold you are, Beatrice, when you know Vivian worships the ground you tread on, though he doesn’t say much. Borrowing money, do you say? I expect he is, although he never tells me his business. So different to Jerry, who lets me know every time he has a rise in his salary on the Morning Planet, which isn’t often. I think the editor must be a kind of Mrs Snow, and she—well—” Dinah again expressed herself in pantomime.
It was quite useless speaking to Miss Paslow, who was only nineteen and a feather-head. Besides, she was too deeply in love to bother about commonplace things. Beatrice felt nervous to hear that Vivian contemplated borrowing money, as she knew how dangerous it was for anyone to become entangled in the nets of her stepfather. She would have liked to question Dinah still further, but thinking she would get little information from so lovelorn a damsel, it occurred to her that Jerry Snow should be brought on the scene. Then the lovers could chatter nonsense, and Beatrice could think her own thoughts, which were greatly concerned with Mr Alpenny’s client. The means of obliging Dinah and gaining time for reflection suggested themselves, when a bulky man showed himself at the door of the carriage which served as a kitchen. He wore, as he invariably did, summer and winter, a suit of white linen, and on this occasion an apron, to keep the steaming saucepan he held from soiling his clothes.
“There’s Durban,” said Beatrice, rising and crossing over; “he can hold the horses and Mr Snow can come in.”
Dinah gave a faint squeal of delight, and shook the dust from her shabby riding-habit while Beatrice explained what she wanted.
Durban was of no great height, and so extremely stout that he looked even less than he really was. His lips were somewhat thick, his nose was a trifle flat, and his hair had that frizzy kink which betrays black blood. Even a casual observer could have told that Durban had a considerable touch of the tar-brush—was a mulatto, or perhaps one remove from a mulatto. Apparently he possessed the inherent good-humour of the negro, for while listening to his young mistress he smiled expansively, and displayed a set of very strong white teeth. Nor was he young, for his hair was touched at the temples with grey, and his body was stout with that stoutness which comes late in life from a good digestion and an easy conscience. He aped youth, however, for he carried himself very erect, and walked—as he now did to the gate—in an alert and springy manner surprising in one who could not be less than fifty years of age. It seemed remarkable that so kindly a creature as the half-caste should serve a sour-faced old usurer; but, in truth, Beatrice was his goddess, and her presence alone reconciled him to an ill-paid post where he was overworked, and received more kicks than halfpence. He would have died willingly for the girl, and showed his devotion even in trifles.
Before returning to Dinah, whose eyes were fixed in an hypnotic way on the gate through which her beloved would shortly pass, Beatrice cast an anxious glance at the dungeon which did duty as Mr Alpenny’s counting-house. The girl had never been within, as Jarvis was not agreeable that she should enter his Bluebeard chamber. For the rest he allowed her considerable freedom, and she could indulge in any fancy so long as the fancy was cheap. But she was forbidden to set foot in Mammon’s shrine, and whether the priest was without, or within, the door was kept locked. It was locked now, and Vivian Paslow was closeted with the usurer, doubtless handing over to Alpenny the few acres that remained to him for a sum of money at exorbitant interest. That the man she loved should be a fly in the parlour of the money-lending spider annoyed Beatrice not a little. Her attention was distracted by another squeal from Dinah, whose emotions were apt to be noisy.
“Jerry! oh Jerry!” sighed the damsel, clasping her hands, and in came Mr Snow, walking swiftly across the grass, apparently as frantic for Dinah as Dinah was for him. At the moment neither lunatic took notice of the amused hostess.
“My Dinah! my own!” gasped Jerry, devouring his Dulcinea with two ardent eyes, the light of which was hidden by pince-nez.
Jerry assuredly was no beauty, save that his proportions were good, and he dressed very smartly. He possessed a brown skin which matched well with brown hair and moustache, and had about him the freshness of twenty-two years, which is so charming and lasts so short a time. Dinah with her freckles, her drab hair, and nose “tip-tilted like the petal of a flower”—to mercifully quote Tennyson—suited him very well in looks. And then love made both of them look quite interesting, although not even the all-transforming passion could render them anything but homely. Beside the engaged damsel, Beatrice, tall, slender, dark-locked and dark-eyed, looked like a goddess, but Jerry the devoted had no eye for her while Dinah was present. Had he been Paris, Miss Paslow decidedly would have been awarded the apple. Not having one, he stared at Dinah and she at him as though they were meeting for the first time. Beatrice, impatient of this oblivion to her presence, brought them from Heaven to earth.
“I have to congratulate you, Mr Snow,” she remarked.
“Mr Snow!” echoed Dinah, jumping up as though a wasp had stung her; “you ought to be ashamed of yourself, Beatrice! Haven’t you known Jerry for—oh! for ever so long?
“For quite three years, dear; but, you see, I don’t visit at the Vicarage,” and Beatrice spoke with some bitterness, as Jerry’s mother had always been unkind to the lonely girl, for reasons connected with what Mrs Snow regarded as her anomalous position.
Jerry coloured and blinked behind his glasses. “I know what you mean, Miss Hedge,” he said regretfully, “but don’t worry. Call me Jerry as usual; what does it matter what mother thinks?”
“Ah,” said Dinah, quivering with alarm, “what does she think of us?”
“Well, she”—Jerry hesitated, and finally answered the question with a solemn warning—“I don’t think I’d call at the Vicarage for a few days, Dinah sweetest. She—she—well, you know mother.”
“Why does Mrs Snow object?” asked Beatrice very directly.
“I know oh, none better!” almost shouted Dinah; “no money!”
Jerry nodded, with an admiring glance at her cleverness. “No money.”
“I thought so; and Mrs Snow wants you to marry a millionairess?”
Jerry nodded again. “As though a millionairess would look at the likes of me!” said he, with the chuckle of a nestling.
“I wouldn’t give even the plainest of them a chance!” cried Dinah jealously; “you could marry anyone with the way you have, Jerry dear.”
Miss Hedge laughed gaily. “Show me the way you have, Jerry dear!” she mimicked, whereat the young lover blushed redder than the poppies.
“Oh, what rot! See here, girls both, we’re all pals.”
“Dinah is something more than a pal since yesterday,” observed Beatrice pointedly.
“Oh, you know what I mean. Well, then father is pleased and would marry us himself, to save fees; but mother—oh, Lord!”
“Will she part us, Jerry?” demanded Dinah in a small voice.
Bashful as he was, Mr Snow rose to the occasion, and taking her in his strong arms kissed her twice.
“That’s what I think!” said he, with the air of Ajax defying the lightning. “We’ll be cut off with a shilling by mother; but we shall marry all the same, and live on the bread and cheese and kisses provided by the Morning Planet.”
“Thank you,” said Miss Paslow tartly, “I provide my own kisses.”
“No, darling heart!” gurgled the ardent Jerry, “I do that!” and was about to repeat his conduct when the ceremony was interrupted.
From the dungeon came the sound of a shrill voice indulging in abusive language. A few moments later and the narrow door was flung violently open. Vivian Paslow came out quietly enough, and was followed by a bent, dried-up ape of a man who was purple with fury. The contrast between the money-lender and his client was most marked. Alpenny was the missing link itself, and Vivian appeared beside him like one of a higher and more human race. Without taking any notice of the furious old creature, he walked towards the startled Beatrice and shook her by the hand.
“Good-bye, Miss Hedge,” he said loudly; then suddenly sank his voice to a hurried whisper. “Meet me to-night at seven, under the Witches’ Oak.”
“Leave my place!” cried Alpenny, hobbling up, to interrupt this leave-taking; “you shall not speak to her.”
Paslow took his amazed sister on his arm and crossed to the gate, while Jerry, blinking and puzzled, followed after. Beatrice, as startled by Paslow’s request as she was by the scene, remained where she was, and her stepfather chased his three visitors into the lane with opprobrious names. But before he could close the gate, Vivian turned suddenly on the abusive old wretch.
“I came to do you a service,” said he, “but you would not listen.”
“You came to levy blackmail. You asked—”
“Silence!” cried Paslow, with a gesture which reduced Alpenny to a stuttering, incoherent condition. “I never threatened you.”
“You did—you do! You want your property back, and—”
Vivian, with a swift glance at Beatrice, silenced the man again. “If I lose my property, I lose it,” said he sternly; “but the other thing I refuse to lose. And, remember, your life is in danger.”
Alpenny spluttered. “My life, you—you scoundrel!”
“Father! Father!” pleaded Beatrice, approaching anxiously.
Paslow took no notice, but still looked at the angry old man with a firm and significant expression. “Remember the Black Patch,” said he in a clear, loud voice. The effect was instantaneous. Alpenny, from purple, turned perfectly white; from swearing volubility, he was reduced to a frightened silence.
Beatrice looked at him in amazement, and so—strange to say—did Vivian, who had spoken the mysterious words. For a moment he stared at the shaking, pale-faced miser, who was casting terrified looks over his shoulder, and then went out of the gate. Alpenny stood as though turned into stone until he heard the clatter of the retreating horses. Then he raised his head and looked wildly round.
“The third time!” he muttered; and Beatrice was sufficiently near to notice his abject fear. “The third time!”
Beatrice meditated in the parlour-carriage on the scene which had taken place at noon between her stepfather and Paslow. Without vouchsafing the least explanation, Alpenny had crept back to his den and was there still, with the door locked as usual. Twice and thrice did Durban call him to the midday meal, but he declined to come out. Beatrice had therefore eaten alone, and was now enjoying a cup of fragrant coffee which Durban had lately brought in. At the moment, he was washing up dishes in the kitchen, to the agreeable accompaniment of a negro song, which he was whistling vigorously. The girl, as she wished to be, was entirely alone. Durban could not explain the reason for the quarrel, and Alpenny would not; so Beatrice was forced to search her own thoughts for a possible explanation. So far she had been unsuccessful.
The tiny parlour was entirely white in its decorations, and looked extremely cool on this hot, close day. The walls were hung with snowy linen, the furniture was upholstered with the same, and the carpet, the curtains, the ornaments, even the cushions were all pearly white. Everything, when examined, was cheap in quality and price, but the spotlessly clean look of the room—if it could be called so—made up for the marked want of luxury. Beatrice herself wore a white muslin, with cream-hued ribbons, therefore no discordant colour broke the Arctic tone of the parlour. Only through the open door could be seen the brilliant tints of the flowers, blazing against a background of emerald foliage. The Snow Parlour was the name of this fantastic retreat, and the vicar’s wife took the appellation as a personal insult. Rather should she have regarded it a compliment of the highest, as this maiden’s bower was infinitely prettier than she was or ever could be.
Since it was impossible to learn anything definite from Durban or his master, Beatrice was striving to possess her soul in peace until seven o’clock: at that hour she intended to meet Vivian by the Witches’ Oak, and there ask him bluntly what he had said or done to make stepfather so furious. Having settled this in her own mind, she lay back in the deep chair, sipping her coffee, and allowing her thoughts to wander; they took her back over some five-and-twenty years, and into a life barren and uneventful enough. Beatrice should have been happy, for, like the oft-quoted nation, she had no history.
All her life Beatrice had never known a mother’s love. According to Alpenny, who supplied the information grudgingly enough, Mrs Hedge with her one-year-old baby had married him, only to die within three months after the ceremony. Then Durban had taken charge of the child; since the miser, for monetary and other reasons, would not engage a nurse. For two years the old servant had tenderly cared for the orphan, and it was a great pain to him when Alpenny placed the little Beatrice in charge of a Brighton lady, called Miss Shallow. The spinster was in reduced circumstances, and apparently under Alpenny’s thumb as regards money matters. She received the child unwillingly enough, although she feared to disobey a tyrant who could make things disagreeable for her; but later, she grew to love her charge, and behaved towards the orphan with a devotion scarcely to be expected from a nature soured by misfortune.
For twenty years Beatrice had lived with the old gentlewoman in the poky little Hove house, and from her had received the education and upbringing of a lady. Every week Durban came over to see his darling, and Beatrice grew attached to the kind, good-natured old servant, who lavished all his affection on her. Alpenny, not anxious to be bothered, and having little love for his stepdaughter, whom he regarded as an encumbrance, visited Miss Shallow more rarely, and even when he did, took scant notice of the tall and beautiful girl, who had been instructed to call him “father.” This she did unwillingly enough, as there was always an antagonism between the cold nature of the one and the warm humanity of the other. When Miss Shallow died, the girl was ill-pleased to take up her abode at The Camp, in close association with a man she mistrusted and disliked, although she could assign no tangible reason for the feeling of abhorrence which possessed her.
How well Beatrice remembered her first sight of the place. It was then but a neglected wilderness, and she recoiled at the sight of such uncivilised surroundings. Alpenny slept in one carriage, and Durban in another; two other carriages were used as counting-house and kitchen; while the remaining three were in a rusty, ruinous state, almost buried in rank grass and coarse vegetation. And it was a wet day, too, when the girl, grieving for her dear friend, came to view her future home, so that everything was dripping with moisture, and the outlook was infinitely dreary. She could have cried at the idea of living amidst such desolation; but her courage was too high, and her pride too great, to admit of her indulging in such futile lamentation before the cold-eyed usurer.
Durban, always sympathetic and watchful, was quick to see her grief, although she tried to conceal it, and at once began to suggest interesting work, so that she should have the less time to eat her heart out in the wilderness. He deftly pointed out how she and he could make the place a paradise, and how Nature could solace the sorrow of the girl for the loss of her guardian. Having obtained unwilling consent from Alpenny, the kind-hearted servant painted and repaired the ruined carriages, and turning one into a dainty bedroom, made the remaining two into a parlour and dining-room. In some way sufficient money was extorted from Alpenny to admit of cheap furnishing, and Beatrice, more contented, came to take up her abode in the strange locality. She was now twenty-five, and for three years had dwelt in this hermitage.
The garden afforded her endless delight and occupation: Durban was the fairy who procured the seeds, and who turned up the coarse, weedy ground for the planting of the same; Durban had dug the pond, and had conducted the water thereto through cunningly contrived pipes; and Durban had planned the paradise with her aid. The smooth lawn, the beds of brilliant blossoms, the pond with its magnificent water-lilies, the many winding paths, and the mossy nooks which afforded cool retreats on hot days, were all the work of herself and Durban. No millionaire could have created a more delightful spot than had these two by their indefatigable industry and eye for the picturesque. A portion of the wood Beatrice left to Nature, so that its uncultured look might enhance the civilised appearance of the blossoms; and the contrast was really charming. But that Jarvis Alpenny jealously kept the gates closed, The Camp would have become a show place, as everyone in the neighbourhood had heard of its rare floral beauties; and not a few young men had heard of another beauty still more rare and desirable.
It was at this point that Beatrice began to think of Vivian and his sister, who were the only friends she possessed. Jerry certainly might be included, seeing that he was a constant visitor at Convent Grange, and the future husband of Dinah Paslow; but there was no one else in the parish of Hurstable with whom she cared to exchange a friendly word. She had met Mr and Mrs Snow once or twice; but although the vicar was willing enough to speak with so pretty a girl, the vicar’s wife objected. She was the tyrant of the place, and ruled her husband, her son, “her” parish—-as she called it—and her friends with a rod of iron. But for this aggressive despotism, Mr Snow might have called at The Camp; but the vicaress ordered her vicar not to waste his time in visiting a girl who rarely came to church, and who occupied what the lady described as “a degraded position.” On the several occasions upon which Mrs Snow had met the usurer’s daughter, she had behaved disagreeably, and had never said a kind word. Yet Mrs Snow called herself a religious woman; but like many a self-styled Christian, she read her own meaning into the Gospel commandments, and declined to obey them when they clashed with her own snobbish, sordid nature. Beatrice Hedge, according to Mrs Snow, was beyond the social pale, seeing that her father was a money-lender; so she paid no attention to her, and many of “her” parishioners followed her example. It is to be feared that the lady and her followers quite forgot that one of the apostles was a tax-gatherer and a publican.
Beatrice cared very little for this boycotting; she was accustomed to a lonely life, and, indeed, preferred it, for she found the conversation of Mrs Snow and her friends extremely wearisome—as it was bound to be, from its aggressive egotism and self-laudation. She had books to read, the garden to tend, Vivian to think of, and sometimes could indulge in a visit to Convent Grange, the home of the Paslows. Dinah she liked; Vivian she loved, and she was certain in her own mind that Vivian loved her; but of this, strange to say, she could not be sure, by reason of his attitude. It was a dubious attitude: at times he would pay her marked attentions, and frequently seemed to be on the verge of a proposal; then he would draw back, shun her society, and turn as chilly as an Arctic winter, for no known reason. Beatrice fancied that it might be her relationship to Alpenny that caused this young gentleman of old descent to draw back; and then, again, she felt sure that he was above such a mean spirit. Moreover—and this might be his excuse—Vivian was but an impoverished country squire, and might hesitate to conduct a wife to the half-ruinous Grange. Had he only known how gladly Beatrice would have shared his bread and cheese when sweetened by kisses, surely, as she often thought, he would have proposed. But something kept him silent, and seeing how he changed from hot to cold in his wooing—if it could be called so—she had too much pride to inveigle him into making a plain statement, such as her heart and her ears longed to hear. The position was odd and uncomfortable. Both the man and the woman could not mistake each other’s feelings, yet the man, who could have arranged matters on a reasonable basis, refused to open his mouth; and it was not the woman’s right to usurp the privilege of the stronger sex, by breaking the ice.
The appointed meeting for this night puzzled her more than ever. Never before had she met him save at the Grange or at The Camp, and more often than not in the presence of Dinah. Now he asked her to talk with him in a lonely spot, and under an ill-omened tree, where, it was locally reported, the witches of old days had held their Satanic revels. In answer to his request she had nodded, being taken by surprise; but now she began to question the propriety of her proposed action. She was a modest girl, and occupied a difficult position, so it was scarcely the thing to meet a young gentleman on a romantic summer night, and under a romantic tree. But her curiosity was extremely strong. She wished to know why Alpenny had grown so white and had appeared so terrified when Paslow pronounced four mysterious words. What was the “Black Patch”? and why did it produce such an effect on the usurer, who, as a rule, feared nothing but the loss of money? Vivian could explain, since he had brought about the miser’s terror, therefore did Beatrice make up her mind to keep the appointment; but she smiled to think what Mrs Snow would say did that severe lady know of the bold step she was taking.
“Some more coffee?” said a voice at the door, and she looked up to see the smiling servant.
“No thank you, Durban,” she replied absently, and setting down the empty cup; then, seeing that he was about to withdraw, she recalled her scattered thoughts and made him pause, with a question. “What is the Black Patch?” asked Beatrice, facing round to observe the man’s dark face.
Durban spread out his hands in quite a foreign way, and banished all emotion from his dark features. “I do not know.”
“My father appeared to be startled by the words.”
“He did, missy, he did!”
“Do you know the reason?”
“I am not in your father’s confidence, missy.”
“That is strange, seeing that you have been with him for over twenty years, Durban.”
“For twenty-four years, missy.”
“You never told me the exact time before, Durban.”
The man shrugged his shoulders. “You never asked me, missy.”
“That is true.” Beatrice leaned back again in her chair, and remembered that she and Durban had talked but little about the past. “I should like to know about my mother,” she said after a pause.
“There is nothing to know, missy. She married master—and died.”
“I was then about a year old?”
“I am twenty-five now, and you have been with Mr Alpenny for four-and-twenty years; so it seems, Durban, that you first came here with my mother, and remained in Mr Alpenny’s service.”
“It is so, missy; I remained for your sake.”
“Then you were my mother’s servant?”
Durban’s face might have been that of a wax doll for all the expression it showed. “I was, missy.”
“And you know all about my parents?”
“What there is to know, missy, which is very little. You have never asked about them before; why do you question me now?”
Beatrice mused. “I hardly know,” she confessed. “I suppose Mr Paslow’s remark about the Black Patch, whatever that may be, made me ask now. Mr Alpenny was afraid when Mr Paslow spoke.”
“So you said before, missy; and, as I replied, I do not know the reason at all. I am simply a servant.”
“And my friend,” said Beatrice, extending her hand.
Durban’s face lighted up with passionate devotion, and his dark eyes blazed with light. Falling on one knee he imprinted a reverential kiss on the small white hand: “I love you with all my heart, missy. I love you as a father—as a mother; as the Great God Himself, do I love you, my dear mistress.”
“Then you will help me?”
“You have but to ask, and I obey,” said Durban simply, and rose to his feet with a light bound, strangely out of keeping with his stout person. “What would you have?”
“The key of the little gate.”
Durban stared, for Beatrice was making a very serious request. There were two gates to The Camp, a large one opening on to the lane, and a smaller one hidden in a corner of the wall, through which admittance could be gained to a narrow woodland path, which arrived, after devious windings, at the cross-roads. Alpenny’s clients usually entered from the lane, but were always dismissed through the—so to speak—secret path. The miser kept the key of this small gate, and, indeed, of the larger one also, so that if any one had to go out, or come in, Alpenny had to be applied to. It was therefore no easy matter for Durban to oblige his young mistress.
“Why do you want the key, missy?”
Beatrice did not answer at once. It suddenly crossed her mind that if she acknowledged how she intended to question Vivian about the Black Patch, that Durban would make some difficulty over obtaining the key. After his admission that he knew nothing, she had no reason to think that he would raise any objections; but the thought came uninvited, and she obeyed it. Wishing to tell the truth, and yet keep Durban in the dark as to her real errand, she determined to go to the Grange and see Dinah; then she could meet Vivian there, and could question him at her leisure. “Miss Paslow is engaged,” she said suddenly.
Durban nodded and grinned. “To young Mr Snow,” he replied. “I saw.”
“Well, I want to go to Convent Grange this evening at six, to see Miss Paslow, and talk over the matter.”
Durban shook his head. “Master is angry with Mr Paslow for some reason, and will not let you go. Besides, at night—” Durban shook his head again very sagely.
“That’s just it,” said Beatrice, rising; “I know that my father would object, therefore I wish to slip out of the small gate secretly, and return about nine; he will never know.”
“He will never know, certainly, missy; but the way to Convent Grange is dark and lonely.”
“Not on a summer night; the moon is out, and there will be plenty of people on the road.”
“Would you like me to come, missy?”
“If you will,” assented Beatrice carelessly. She would rather have gone alone, but since the Grange was now her goal, and not the Witch Oak, Durban’s presence did not matter. “But there is no need.”
“Oh, I think so; there will be a storm to-night, and then it will grow dark. Besides, people may not be about, and the path to Convent Grange is lonely. I shall come also.”
“Very good; and the key—
“I can get it. Master keeps it hanging up in the counting-house, but I can get it.” Durban grinned and nodded, and then was about to go away, when he suddenly stopped, and his dark face grew serious. “One thing tell me, missy, and do not be angry.”
“I could never be angry with you, Durban. What is it?”
“Do you love Mr Paslow, missy?”
“Yes,” replied Beatrice without hesitation. She knew that whatever she said to her faithful servant would never be repeated by him.
“And does he love you?”
This time she coloured. “I think so—I am not sure,” was her faint reply, as she cast down her eyes.
Durban came a step nearer. “Does he love any one else?” he asked.
Beatrice raised her head sharply, and sent a flaming glance towards the questioner. “What do you mean?”
“If he doesn’t love you, does he love any one else?” persisted Durban.
Beatrice twisted her hands. “I am sure he loves me, and no one else!” she cried passionately. “I can see it in his eyes—I can read it in his face. Yet he—yet he—oh!” she broke off, unwilling to remark upon Paslow’s strange, wavering wooing, to a servant, even though that servant was one who would readily have died to save her a moment’s pain. “Do you think he loves any one else?” she asked evasively.
“No.” Durban’s eyes were fixed on her face. “I have no reason to think so. If he loves my missy, he can never be fond of other women; but if he plays you false, missy “—Durban’s face grew grim and darker than ever—“you have a dog who can bite.”
“No! no!” said Beatrice, alarmed—since Durban could make himself unpleasant on occasions, and, from the look on his face, she feared for Vivian—“he loves me, and me only; I am sure of that!”
The man’s face cleared. “Then we will go to the Grange this evening, and you can see him.”
“But if my stepfather hates him, Durban, he will place some obstacle in the way, should Mr Paslow ask me to marry him.”
“If he asks you to be his wife, you shall marry him, missy.”
“But my father—”
“He will say nothing.”
“Are you sure? When Mr Alpenny takes an idea into his head—”
“He will take no idea of stopping your marriage, missy. You shall be happy. I promised him that.”
“Your real father,” said Durban, and departed without another word. It would seem as though he were unwilling to be questioned. Beatrice began to think that there was some mystery connected with her parents, which Durban knew, but which Durban would not reveal.
Shortly after Durban resumed work, Beatrice received a surprise which rather pleased her. This was none other than an invitation to enter the counting-house. She had always desired to do so, being filled with that curiosity which led her grandmother Eve to eat apples, but hitherto Alpenny had declined to admit her. Now the door of the dungeon was open, and Alpenny, standing before it, beckoned that she should come in. In the bright sunshine he looked more decrepit and wicked than usual. He could not have been less than eighty years of age, and his spare figure was bowed with Time. That same Time had also robbed him of every hair on his head, and had even taken away eyebrows and eyelashes. As the old man was clean shaven, his gleaming head and hairless yellow wrinkled face looked rather repulsive. Nor did his dress tend to improve his appearance, for it was a shepherd’s-plaid suit cut in the style of the early fifties, when he had been young, and presumably something of a dandy. In spite of the antiquity of the clothes, there was a suggestion of juvenility about them which matched badly with his Methuselah looks. Like an aged ghost he beckoned in the sunshine, and the white-painted erection behind him assumed, in the eyes of Beatrice, the look of a tomb.
Wondering that she should be invited into Mammon’s Shrine, the girl walked across the lawn. In her white dress, with her beautiful face shaded by a coarse straw hat, she appeared the embodiment of youth and grace, contrasting markedly with the senile old villain, who croaked out his orders.
“Come in,” said Alpenny testily, and with the screech of a peacock, as he pointed to the open door. “I wish to speak to you seriously.”
Beatrice, ever sparing of words with crabbed age, nodded and entered the counting-house, glancing comprehensively around to take in her surroundings—as a woman always does—with a single look. The space naturally was limited. All the windows had been boarded up save one, which opened immediately over a rather large desk of mahogany which was piled with papers. The walls were hung with faded red rep. In one corner stood a large green-painted safe; in another stood a pile of tin boxes which reached quite to the roof. A paraffin lamp dangled by brass chains from a somewhat smoky ceiling; and at the far end of the carriage, in front of a dilapidated bookcase, was an oil stove, crudely set on a sheet of galvanised tin. A ragged carpet, disorderly in colour and much faded, covered the floor; and there were only two chairs, one before the desk, and another beside it, probably for the use of clients. The one window was barred, but not covered with any curtain; the others were sheathed in iron and barred strongly outside. From without, as has been said, the carriage looked like a dungeon: within, its appearance suggested the home of a recluse, who cared very little for the pomps and vanities of civilisation. This barren room represented very fairly the bare mind of the miser, who cared more for money itself, than for what money could do.
Motioning Beatrice to the client’s chair, Alpenny seated himself before his desk, and from habit presumably, began to fiddle with some legal looking documents. Apparently he had got over the shock caused by Vivian’s strange speech, and looked much the same as he always did—cold, unsympathetic, and cunning as an old monkey. In the dungeon Beatrice bloomed like a rose, while Alpenny resembled a cold, clammy toad, uncanny and repulsive. He began to speak almost immediately, and his first words amazed the girl. They were the last she expected to hear from the lips of one who had always treated her with indifference, and almost with hostility.
“Have you ever thought of marriage?” asked the usurer, examining his visitor’s face with two small sharp eyes, chilly and grey.
“Marriage!” she gasped, doubting if she had heard aright.
“Yes, marriage. Young girls think of such things, do they not?”
Wishing to find out what he meant, Beatrice fenced. “I have no chance of marrying, father,” she observed, regaining her composure.
“I grant that, unless you have fallen in love with Jerry Snow; and I credit you with too much sense, to think you could love a fool.”
“Mr Snow is to marry Miss Paslow,” announced Beatrice coldly, and kept her eyes on the wizen face before her.
“Oh,” sneered Alpenny, “Hunger wedding Thirst. And how do they intend to live, may I ask?”
“That is their business, and not ours.”
“Paslow hasn’t a penny to give to his giggling sister, and very soon he won’t have a roof over his head.”
“What do you mean by that, father?”
“Mean!” The usurer stretched out a skinny hand, which resembled the claw of a bird of preys as he looked like. “Why, I mean, my girl, that I hold Vivian Paslow there,” and he tapped his palm.
“Still I don’t understand,” said Beatrice, her blood running cold at the malignant look on his face.
“There is no need you should,” rejoined her stepfather coolly. “He is not for you, and you are not for him. Do you understand that?”
It was unwise for Alpenny to meddle with a maiden’s fancies, for the girl’s outraged womanhood revolted. “I understand that you mean to be impertinent, Mr Alpenny,” she said, with a flaming colour.
“‘Mr Alpenny’? Why not ‘father,’ as usual?”
“Because you are no father of mine, and I thank God for it.”
He gave her a vindictive look, and rubbed his hands together, with the croak of a hungry raven. “I brought you up, I educated you, I fed you, I housed you, I—”
Beatrice waved her hand impatiently. “I know well what you have done,” said she; “as little as you could.”
“And common sense, Mr Alpenny. I know nothing, save that you married my mother and promised to look after me when she died.”
“I promised nothing,” snapped Alpenny.
“Durban says that you did.”
“Durban is, what he always was, a fool. I promised nothing to your mother—at all events, concerning you. Why should I? You are not my own flesh and blood.”
“Anyone can tell that,” said Beatrice disdainfully.
“No impertinence, miss. I have fed and clothed you, and educated you, and housed you—”
“You said that before.”
“All at my own expense,” went on the miser imperturbably, “and out of the kindness of my heart. This is the return you make, by giving me sauce! But you had better take care,” he went on menacingly, and shaking a lean yellow finger, “I am not to be trifled with.”
“Neither am I,” retorted Beatrice, who felt in a fighting humour. “I am sorry to have been a burden to you, and for what you have done I thank you; but I am weary of stopping here. Give me a small sum of money and let me go.”
“Money!” screeched the miser, touched on his tenderest point. “Money to waste?”
“Money to keep me in London until I can obtain a situation as a governess or as a companion. Come, father,” she went on coaxingly, “you must be sick of seeing me about here. And I am so tired of this life!”
“It’s the wickedness in your blood, Beatrice. Just like your mother—oh, dear me, how very like your mother!”
“Leave my mother’s character alone!” said Beatrice impatiently, “she is dead and buried.”
“She is—in Hurstable churchyard, under a beautiful tomb I got second-hand at a bargain. See how I loved her.”
“You never loved anyone in your life, Mr Alpenny,” said the girl, freezing again.
Alpenny’s brow grew black, and he looked at her with glittering eyes. “You are mistaken, child,” he said, quietly. “I have loved and lost.”
“Perhaps,” said he enigmatically, and passed his hand over his bald head in a weary manner. Then he burst out unexpectedly: “I wish I had never set eyes on your mother. I wish she had been dead and buried before she crossed my path!”
“She is dead, so—”
“Yes, she is dead, stone dead,” he snarled, rising, much agitated, “and don’t think you’ll ever see her again. If I—” He was about to speak further; then seeing from the wondering look on the girl’s face that he was saying more than was wise, he halted, stuttered, and sat down again abruptly, moving the papers with trembling hands. “Leave the past alone,” he said hoarsely. “I can’t speak of it calmly. It is the past that makes the future,” he continued, drumming feverishly on the table with his fingers, “the past that makes the future.”
Beatrice wondered what he meant, and noticed how weary and worn and nervous he seemed. The man did not love her; he had not treated her as he should have done; and between them there was no feeling in common. Yet he was old, and, after all, had sheltered her in his own grudging way, so Beatrice laid a light hand on his arm. “Mr Alpenny, you are not young—”
“Eighty and more, my dear.”
The term startled her, and she began to think he must indeed be near the borders of the next world when he spoke so gently.
“Well, then, why don’t you go to church, and feed the hungry, and clothe the naked? Remember, you have to answer for what you have done, some day soon.”
Alpenny rose vehemently and flung off her arm. “I don’t ask you to teach me my duty, girl,” he said savagely. “What I have done is done, and was rightly done. Everyone betrayed me, and money is the only thing that did not. Money is power, money is love, money is joy and life and hope and comfort to me. No! I keep my money until I die, and then—” He cast a nervous look round, only to burst out again with greater vehemence. “Why do you talk of death? I am strong; I eat heartily. I drink little. I sleep well. I shall live for many a long day yet. And even if I die,” he snapped, “don’t expect to benefit by my death. You don’t get that!” and he snapped his fingers within an inch of her nose.
“I don’t want your money,” said Beatrice quietly; “Durban will look after me. Still, you might let me have enough to keep me while I try to find work.”
“But if you die, I’ll be a pauper.”
“Without a sixpence!” said Alpenny exultingly.
“Have I no relatives who will help me?”
“No. Your mother came from I know not where, and where she has gone I don’t exactly know. She married me and then died. I have kept you—”
“Yes—yes. But if my mother was poor and came from where you knew not, why did you marry her?”
“My kind heart—”
“You haven’t got one; it’s in your money-chest”
“It might be in a woman’s keeping, which is a much worse place.”
Beatrice grew weary of this futile conversation, and rose. “You asked me to see you,” she said, with a fatigued air; “what is it you have to say?”
“Oh yes.” He seemed to arouse himself from a fit of musing. “Yes! I have found a husband for you.”
Beatrice started. He announced this startling fact as though it were the most natural thing in the world. “You—have—found—a—husband—for—me?” she drawled slowly.
“Yes. You won’t have my money, and I may die.” He cast a look over his shoulder nervously. “I don’t want to, but I may: one never knows, do they? You will be poor, so I think it best to get you married and settled in life.”
“Thank you,” she returned icily. “It is very good of you to take so much trouble. And my future husband?”
“Ruck! Major Ruck—Major Simon Ruck, a retired army officer, and a handsome man of fifty, very well preserved, and with a fine fortune.”
“How alluring! And suppose I refuse?”
“You can’t—you daren’t!” He grasped her arm entreatingly. “Don’t be a fool, my dear. Ruck is handsome and well off. He is coming down on Saturday to see you. This is Wednesday, so you will have time to think over the matter. You must marry him—you must, I tell you!” and he shook her arm in his agitation.
Beatrice removed her arm in a flaming temper. “Must I indeed?” said she, flashing up into righteous anger. “Then I won’t!”
“I won’t. I have never seen the man, and I don’t wish to see him. You have no right to make any arrangements about my marriage without consulting me. You are neither kith nor kin of mine, and I am of age. I deny your right to arrange my future.”
“Do you wish to be left to starve?”
“I shall not starve; but I would rather do so, than marry a man of fifty, whom I have never set eyes on.”
“If you don’t marry Ruck, you’ll be a pauper sooner than you expect, my girl. Marry him for my sake?”
“No! You have done as little as you could for me: you have always hated me. I decline.”
Alpenny rose in his turn—Beatrice had already risen to her feet—and faced her in a black fury, the more venomous for being quiet. “You shall marry him!”
“I shall not.”
They faced one another, both angry, both determined, both bent upon gaining the victory. But if Alpenny had an iron will, Beatrice had youth and outraged womanhood on her side, and in the end his small cruel eyes fell before her flashing orbs.
“I want you to marry Ruck—really I do,” he whimpered piteously.
“Because”— he swallowed something, and told what was evidently a lie, so glibly did it slip out. “Because I should be sorry to leave you to starve.”
“I shall not starve. I am well educated, and can teach. At the worst I can become a nursery governess, or be a companion.”
“Better marry Major Ruck.”
“No. It is foolish of you to ask me.”
“If you don’t marry him I shall be ruined. I shall be killed. No”—he broke off suddenly—“I don’t mean that. Who would kill a poor old man such as I am? But”—his voice leaped an octave—“you must marry the husband I chose for you.”
“I chose for myself.”
“Ah!”—the miser was shaking with rage—“it’s Vivian Paslow: no denial—I can see he is the man; a penniless scoundrel, who is at my mercy!”
“Don’t dare to speak of him like that,” flamed out Beatrice. “As to marrying him—he has not asked me yet.”
“And never will, if I can stop him. I know how to do so—oh yes, I do. He will not dare to go against me. I can ruin him. He—” At this moment there came a sharp rap at the door, which made Alpenny’s face turn white and his lips turn blue.
“Who is there?”
“A telegram,” said the voice of Durban; and Alpenny, with a smothered ejaculation of pleasure, went to open the door. As he did so, Beatrice noticed on the wall near the desk two keys, one large and one small. The little one she knew to be the key of the postern gate, and without hesitation she took it down and slipped it into her pocket. As Alpenny turned round with the telegram and no very pleasant expression of countenance, she felt that she would at least be able to see Vivian Paslow on that evening without arousing the suspicions of her stepfather. It was unlikely that any one would come that night, and he would not miss the key, which she could get Durban to replace the next day. As this thought flashed into her mind, she saw the face of the servant at the door. He looked puzzled, but probably that was because he beheld her in the sanctum of his master, hitherto forbidden ground both to him and to her. The next moment Alpenny had closed the door, and Durban went away.
“This telegram is from Major Ruck,” said Alpenny. “He is coming down on Saturday, so be ready to receive him.”
“I shall leave the place if he comes.”
“You won’t: you’ll wait and see him—and accept him also. If you don’t, I’ll make things hot for Vivian Paslow.”
This was, as Beatrice conceived, a game of bluff; so she replied boldly enough, “Mr Paslow is able to look after himself. I decline to speak to Major Ruck, whosoever he may be, or even to see him.”
“Saturday! Saturday!” said Alpenny coldly, and opened the door. “Now you can go. If you leave The Camp, or if you refuse Ruck as your husband, Vivian Paslow will reap the reward of his crimes.” And he pushed her out, locking the door after her with a sharp click.
Crimes! Beatrice stood in the sunlight, stunned and dazed. What did Alpenny mean? What crimes could the man she loved have committed? Almost before she could collect her thoughts she felt a light touch on her shoulder, and turned to behold Durban.
“Wasn’t master in his counting-house all this afternoon?” asked the servant. “You should know, missy, as the parlour is opposite.”
“Yes, he was,” she replied with an effort. “I never saw him come out.”
Durban wrinkled his dark brows. “Then how did he send the telegram, to which he has just now had an answer?” he demanded.
“How do you know that this wire is an answer, Durban?”
“The reply was prepaid, missy. How did master do it?”
Beatrice was equally puzzled. Alpenny had not been away from The Camp all the afternoon, yet had contrived to send a telegram, and prepay the reply.
It was truly a mystery. So far as Beatrice knew, there were but two ways of getting out of The Camp—by the large gate and the smaller one. Yet she in the parlour-carriage, facing Alpenny’s counting-house, had not seen him emerge; nor had Durban, busy in the kitchen, the door of which commanded a view of the postern, beheld his master depart. The telegraph office was at the railway station three miles away, and there was no one in The Camp save Durban and his young mistress to send with a wire. Yet the wire had been sent, and the reply had been received. Beatrice ventured an explanation.
“Perhaps my father sent the telegram yesterday.”
“No, missy. I took none, and master did not leave the place. No telegram has been sent from here for the last month.”
“Is there a third way out, Durban?”
“Not that I know of, missy, and yet—”
What Durban would have said in the way of explanation it is impossible to say, for at this moment the querulous voice of Alpenny was heard calling snappishly. Durban hastened to the door of the counting-house, and it was opened so that he could speak with his master. But he was not admitted within. Beatrice retired to her bedroom-carriage, which was near the parlour, and had only been there a few minutes when Durban came over with a crest-fallen face.
“We must put off going to Convent Grange, missy,” said he rapidly; “master wishes me to go to town. He is writing a letter which I have to take up at once. I shall catch the six train.”
“Very well, Durban. We can wait.”
The servant looked and hesitated, but before he could speak again Mr Alpenny interrupted. Appearing at the door of his dungeon he waved a letter. “Come at once!” he cried; “don’t lose time. What do you mean by chattering there?”
Durban gave Beatrice a significant look and hastened away. In another ten minutes he had left The Camp by the great gates and was on his way to the railway station. Alpenny saw him off the premises and then crossed over to his stepdaughter.
“What were you saying to Durban?” he asked suspiciously.
“You mean what was Durban saying to me?” she replied quietly; “you can surely guess. He was saying that you wished him to go to town.”
“There was no need of him to tell you my business,” grumbled the miser, looking ill-tempered. “What are you doing this evening?”
Had he any suspicions of her intention? Beatrice thought not. The question was put in a snarling way, and simply—as she judged—to show his authority.
“I intend to read,” she answered simply, “and perhaps I shall take a walk”—in the grounds, she ostensibly meant.
“Better not,” warned the usurer, looking up. “Clouds are gathering. I am sure there will be a storm.”
“Very well,” was her indifferent reply, although she wondered if he had missed the key of the smaller gate. “Will I come and say good-night to you as usual at ten?”
Alpenny nodded in an absent way, and walked into his counting-house with his hands behind him, and his form more bent than usual. Beatrice watched him cross the smooth sward, and then went to sit down in the parlour and meditate. In some way, which she could scarcely define, she scented a mystery. The episode of the telegram, the hasty departure of Durban, the proposal of marriage, all these things hinted—as she thought—at schemes against her peace of mind. And then, again, the words of Vivian Paslow. Those were indeed mysterious, and she was anxious to know what they meant. Finally, the hint that Alpenny had given as to Vivian having committed crimes, alarmed the girl. She felt that Alpenny was trying to inveigle Paslow into some trap, and from his words it was plain that he would stop at nothing to prevent the young man declaring the passion he felt for the girl. Also, from another hint, it would seem that the miser held—as, indeed, he had plainly stated—“Vivian in the hollow of his hand.”
These thoughts made Beatrice very uncomfortable, the more so as never before had any mystery come into her life. Hitherto it had been serene and uneventful, one day being exactly the same as another. But with the visit of Vivian on that afternoon everything had changed, for since he had heard those mysterious words, Alpenny had not been himself. In some queer way he had forwarded a telegram, and in a hurry he had sent Durban to London, which he had not done for months past. Undoubtedly something sinister was in the wind, and Beatrice shivered with a vague apprehension of dread.
It certainly might have been the weather which made her feel so ill at ease, for the hot day had ended in an even hotter evening. The air was close, the sky was clouded, and there was not a breath of wind to stir the leaves of the surrounding trees. Ever and again a flicker of lightning would leap across the sky—summer lightning which portended storm and rain. Beatrice, trying to breathe freely in the suffocating air, wished that the storm would come to clear the atmosphere. There was electricity in the dry air, and she felt as uncomfortable as a cat which has its hair smoothed the wrong way. On some such night as this must Lady Macbeth have received Duncan, and Nature hinted at a repetition of the storm which took place when the guileless king was done to death in the shambles.
Beatrice could not rest within doors. She put on a hat, and draped a long black cloak over her white dress. Attired thus, she walked up and down on the dry grass, trying to compose herself. Around gloomed the girdle of trees, without even a leaf stirring. The colours of the flowers were vague in the hot twilight, and the white forms of the seven railway carriages stood here and there like tombs in a cemetery. As she lingered near the sundial, she cast a look upward at the Downs, which rose vast and shadowy to be defined clearly against a clear sky. The foot of them was but a stone-throw away from The Camp, and almost it was in her mind to climb their heights in order to get a breath of fresh air. Here in the hollow, embosomed in woods, she felt stifling; but up there surely a sweet, fresh wind must be blowing, full of moisture from the Channel. Then the thought of a possible walk recalled her to a remembrance of her appointment: she intended to keep it, even though Durban had gone away. The key was in her pocket, and she could slip out of the small gate for an hour, and get back again without Alpenny being any the wiser. Already a light gleamed from the solitary window of the dungeon, as it had gleamed ever since she could remember when the darkness came on. Behind the discoloured blind the miser laboured at his books, and counted his gains. So far as she knew all his money was banked and invested, and he kept no gold in the dungeon. Perhaps he feared robbery; and it really was remarkable that, seeing he was supposed to be a millionaire, The Camp had never been marked by the fraternity of London thieves. A visit there would surely have proved successful, if all the tales of Alpenny were to be believed. But perhaps the thieves had heard, as the miser had vaguely hinted, of his cleverness in keeping no specie in his retirement. But be this as it may, Alpenny, all these years, had never hinted at a possible burglary.
After a glance at the Downs and at Alpenny’s lighted window, behind which he would sit until midnight, Beatrice entered one of the winding paths in the little wood and took her way to the gate. The large gates were locked, and Alpenny alone possessed the key; but she could open the smaller gate, and now proceeded to do so.
The lock was freshly oiled, and the postern swung open noiselessly. Standing on the threshold within The Camp, Beatrice paused for a moment. Some feeling seemed to hold her back. Into her mind flashed the sudden thought that if she went out, she would leave behind her not only The Camp, but the old serene life. It was like crossing the Rubicon; but with an impatient ejaculation at her own weakness, she shook herself and passed out, leaving the gate locked behind her. Then she stole through the glimmering wood, fully committed to the adventure. As she did so, a distant growl of thunder seemed to her agitated mind like the voice of the angel thrusting her out of Paradise. Truly, she had never before felt in this strange mood.
By a narrow path she gained the lane, and here the light was a trifle stronger, although it was rapidly dying out of the hot, close sky. It was close upon half-past six, so Beatrice knew that if she walked quickly she could arrive at the Witches’ Oak almost at the time appointed. Owing to the late hour of starting she had quite given up the idea of going to Convent Grange, which was two miles away. She would meet Vivian, as she now arranged in her own mind, at the Witches’ Oak, and would ask for an explanation. When he gave it, she could return rapidly to The Camp escorted by him; then slipping in, she would be able to say good-night to Alpenny at ten o’clock, and go to bed. For a moment, she wondered if Durban would return that night, or stop in town. If he came back, he would be angry if he found that she had left The Camp unattended and in the twilight. But she would be in bed even if Durban did return, and then she could decide whether to tell him or not. Also, the chances were that as he had gone to town so late he would remain there till the next morning to execute Alpenny’s business, whatever that might be.
Passing along the lane, Beatrice had to run by the great gates, which were locked securely. In the twilight she thought she saw a small figure crouching before them, but in the semi-darkness could not be certain. However, the sight of the figure, if figure it was, troubled her very little. Probably it was that of some tramp, as there were many in the Weald of Sussex. But if the tramp was waiting at the gates in the hope of getting a crust or penny from the miser, he would be woefully disappointed. Beatrice, passing swiftly, hardly gave the matter a thought, but sped rapidly along under the deep shadows of the trees, and along the white dusty lane, between the wilted hedges, dry with summer heat. A quarter of a mile brought her to a side path, and down this she went calmly, congratulating herself that she had met neither tramp, nor neighbour on the road. The path wound deviously through ancient trees, and at length emerged into a rather large glade in the centre of which was a pond, green with duckweed. Over this spread the branches of the Witches’ Oak, an old old tree, which must have been growing in the time of the Druids, and which had probably played its part in their mystic rites. A fitful moonlight gleamed occasionally on this, as the planet showed her haggard face, and under the tree Beatrice saw a tall figure waiting patiently. She crossed the glade in the moonlight, but the clouds swept over the face of the orb, as Beatrice paused under the oak. Then again came a growl of distant thunder, as if in warning.
“I knew you would come,” said Paslow, stepping forward, and for the moment it seemed as though he would take her in his arms.
In the darkness the cheeks of the girl flushed, and she stepped lightly aside, evading his clasp. Her heart told her to throw herself into those strong arms and be protected for ever from the coming storms of life, but a sense of modesty prevented such speedy surrender. When she spoke, her voice was steady and cool. There was no time to be lost, and she began hurriedly in the middle of things.
“Yes, I have come,” she said quickly; “because I want to know the meaning of the words you used to my father to-day.”
“I don’t know what they mean,” confessed Paslow calmly.
“Then why did you use them?”
“I received a hint to do so.”
“I can’t tell you that. Miss Hedge—Beatrice—I asked you to meet me here, so that no one should interrupt our conversation. If you came to the Grange, Dinah would have prevented my speaking; and now that Mr Alpenny is angry with me, I cannot come to The Camp. You must forgive me for having asked you to meet me here at this hour, and in so ill-omened a spot, but I have something to say to you which must be said at once.”
“What is it?” Her heart beat rapidly as she spoke, for although she could not see his face in the darkness, she guessed from the tones of his voice that he was about to say all which she desired to hear.
“Can’t you guess?” He came a step nearer and spoke softly.
Beatrice, feeling strange, as was natural considering the circumstance, laughed in an embarrassed manner. “How can I guess?”
“Because you must have seen what I meant in my eyes, Beatrice. I want you to be my wife.”
Her heart beat loudly as though it would give Vivian its answer without speech.
“I don’t understand,” she said abruptly.
“Surely you must have seen—”
“Oh yes, I saw,” she interrupted rapidly, “I saw that you loved me. I also saw that you held back from asking me to marry you.”
“I had a reason,” he said, after a pause; “that reason is now removed, and I can ask you, as I do with all my heart and soul, to be my wife. Dearest, I love you.”
“Can I believe that?”
“I swear it!” he breathed passionately.
“But the reason?”
Paslow hesitated. “It was connected with money,” he confessed at last. “Your father—or, rather, your stepfather—had a mortgage on nearly the whole of my property. I have lately inherited a small sum of money, and went to-day to ask Mr Alpenny to arrange about paying off part of the mortgage. He accused me of wishing to rob him.”
“But why, when you desired to pay off the mortgage?”
“I can’t say. I think”—Vivian hesitated—“I think that he wishes to get possession of the Grange.”
“And his reason?”
“I can’t tell you that. But the moment I offered to pay the money he burst out into a rage and said that I wanted to rob him. Then I warned him as to something I had heard against him in London.”
“What is that?” she asked in startled tones.
“I dare not tell you just now.”
“Is it connected with the Black Patch?”
“Not that I know of. And what do you know of the Black Patch?”
“I know nothing. I heard it mentioned—whatever it is—for the first time to-day, and by you. The effect on Mr Alpenny was so strange that I wish to know what the Black Patch means.”
“I do not know myself,” said Vivian earnestly. “Listen, my dear girl. The other night I found on my desk a scrap of paper, and on it was written—or, rather, I should say printed, for the person who wrote printed the letters—’If Alpenny objects, say “Remember the Black Patch.”‘“
Beatrice listened, bewildered. “What does that mean?”
“I can’t say. But when driven into a corner by his language I used the very words on the scrap of paper. You saw their effect.”
“It is strange,” said Beatrice; then remembering what the miser had said to her, she grasped her lover’s arm. “Vivian, he told me that you had committed crimes.”
“What a liar! I have committed no crimes, save that I have indulged in the usual follies of a young man whose parents died before they could guide him properly. What does he mean?”
“I can’t say. But I think he wished to make me mistrust you.”
“I can guess that, for I asked him to-day if I could marry you. He refused, and raged worse than ever. It was then that he turned me out of his counting-house, and—well, you saw what happened. I suppose he wants you to marry someone else?”
“Yes. He told me so to-day. Major Ruck.”
“Who is he?” demanded Paslow in a tone of anger.
“I don’t know. Major Simon Ruck, a retired army officer with a fine fortune, and who is fifty years of age, and—”
Here there came a flash of blue lightning, and then a loud crash of thunder. Afterwards the strong wind hurtled towards them, bearing on its wings the drenching rain. Vivian was startled, and caught Beatrice to his breast in the darkness.
“Darling, will you marry me?” he asked, although she was scarcely mistress yet of her emotions in the storm and gloom.
Before she could answer, the pent-up feelings of the day found relief in a burst of hysterical tears. Pulling out her handkerchief she pressed it to her eyes, and at the moment felt the key, entangled in the handkerchief, fall out.
“Oh,” she gasped, “the key! it has fallen out of my pocket!”
“I’ll find it!” and Paslow dropped on to the grass, now wet, while the rain came down in torrents. “I have it!” he said, wondering at this queer disconnected wooing, and rose with the key in his hand. “My dear, let us stand further under the tree, and then we can talk.”
“No! no!” Beatrice was quite unstrung by this time. “I must go home at once. It is late, and my father—my—ah! who is that?”
Flash after flash of lightning, blue and vivid, illuminated the haunted tree, as though once again the witches were holding their demoniac revels. A short distance away stood a small man. Neither of the lovers could see his features in the fitful illumination. Vivian, with a cry of anger, ran straight towards the figure, and it disappeared. Tales of the spectres said to haunt the tree occurred to the mind of Beatrice, and, unstrung, and not mistress of herself, she left the oak and hurried across the glade. The lightning was flashing incessantly, and the thunder roared like artillery, while the steady rain spattered through the trees’ tops. Trying to find the path which led to the lane, Beatrice ran on. She fancied she heard the voice of Paslow shouting, but again pealed the thunder to drown what he said. Losing her head—and small wonder, so terrific was the storm—Beatrice scrambled on through many paths, and finally, when there came an unusually vivid flash, she sank with a cry of terror under some bushes, and fainted on the streaming ground. How long she remained unconscious she did not know.
When she did regain her senses, a mighty wind was blowing through the woods, bending the stoutest trees like saplings. Through the swaying boughs, the girl could see the flicker of lightning racing across the sky; and every now and then boomed sullen thunder, loud and menacing. With an effort she gathered her aching limbs together and staggered forward blindly through the wood. She could not tell what the hour was, or guess where she was going, but by some miracle she managed to arrive at the lane. Even then, she did not recognise where she was, but ran blindly along in the hope of finding The Camp. There was no sign of Vivian, or of the man who had been watching them under the Witches’ Oak. All around was the roaring darkness, laced with vivid lightning and alive with furious rain and wind. Like a demented creature, Beatrice sped along in mud and slush, kilting up her petticoats to run the faster. And ever overhead screamed the storm, while the wild winds tore and buffeted the tormented trees.
She bitterly regretted having kept the appointment She had learned little save that Vivian loved her, which she had known long ago. And now she had lost the key: Paslow possessed it, since he had not given it back to her before he ran after the watcher. So how was she to re-enter the jealously-guarded Camp? Alpenny would know that she had been out, that she had met Vivian, and there would be great trouble. These thoughts made the head of the girl reel as she ran along blind and breathless.
Then came several flashes, and before her, unexpectedly, she beheld the gate of The Camp. It was wide open, but, without thinking, she ran in at once, only too thankful to arrive home. As she passed the posts, she sprang unseeingly into the arms of a man. With a cry she tore herself away, and stared. In a flash of lightning she saw that he was tall, lean, clothed in black, and—the sight made her shriek—over his left eye he wore a Black Patch. Then the darkness closed down and she heard him brush past into gloom, running swiftly out of the gate, which he closed after him. She heard the click, and in some way managed to scramble across the wet lawn to her own bedroom-carriage. As she dropped on the threshold she saw that the light in the counting-house was extinguished. What did it all mean? she asked herself; and who was the tall man with the dark patch over his left eye?
After a few minutes’ lying on the threshold of her carriage-bedroom with the rain beating upon her soaking dress, Beatrice rose with an effort and opened the door. It was never locked, as no one would be likely to enter. The matches and a candle were on a table by the bed, where she had left them, and soon she had a light. Beside the candlestick lay a folded piece of paper, and opening this, she read a line or two in Alpenny’s crabbed handwriting.
“I find you have gone out. I am going also, and will not be back for three days. Durban will return to-morrow and look after you.”
There was no signature, but of course she recognised the calligraphy easily, as it had a distinctive character of its own. The contents of the note rather surprised the girl. In the first place, Alpenny made no remark as to her having taken the key; and in the second, it was strange that he should depart thus unexpectedly, leaving The Camp absolutely unguarded, even by a dog. Beatrice knew well enough that her stepfather frequently went away on business, and at times very unexpectedly, but she had never known him to take so hasty a departure. However, after a glance at the note, she determined to go to bed, being too weary to think of anything; too weary even to reflect that she was alone in that lonely Camp, and that the gate had been open when she arrived. A memory of the stranger with the black patch over his eye certainly made her lock her door, and see that the windows were well fastened; but when she had accomplished this for her own safety, she had only sufficient strength remaining to throw off her wet clothes and get into bed. And there she speedily fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, while the storm raged louder than ever. Her last thought was a hope, that Vivian had reached the Grange in safety.
When she awoke next morning it was ten, as the tiny cuckoo clock on the wall told her, and the sun was streaming in through the chinks of the window-shutters. She still felt weary, and her limbs ached a trifle, but for a moment or so she could not think how she came to be so tired. Then the memory of all that had happened rushed in on her brain, and she sprang from bed to open the door and windows. In a minute the sunlight was pouring cheerfully into the bedroom, and Beatrice was rapidly dressed, feeling hungry, yet at the same time anxious.
And much need she had to be. Her stepfather knew that she had gone out, and must have known that she had taken the key of the smaller gate, for which he would immediately look. He would certainly make himself most unpleasant, and she anticipated a bad quarter of an hour when he returned. Also, Vivian might have got into trouble with the man who had watched them meet under the Witches’ Oak. Then, again, the gate of The Camp had been open when she returned, and a stranger had left the place hurriedly. All these things were very strange and disquieting, and Beatrice ardently wished that Durban was back, so that she might speak to him and be reassured. But it was probable that Vivian would come to The Camp that morning in order to learn if she had arrived safely; then they could renew the interrupted conversation, and come to an understanding.
The interview with Paslow perplexed Beatrice when she thought over it. Vivian’s talk had been disjointed, and he had given her no satisfaction, answering her questions in a vague manner. That he should have proposed at so awkward a moment, and in so awkward a manner, also puzzled the girl. From what she could recall of the scrappy conversation it had been like one in a nightmare; and, indeed, the whole episode was far removed from the commonplace. The meeting-place under the ill-omened tree—the few hurried words—the rush of Vivian towards the strange man—and then her own headlong flight through the damp, dark woods—these thoughts made her very uncomfortable. It was more like romance than real life, and Beatrice did not care for such sensational events.
When dressed, she said her prayers and felt more composed; then stepped out into the broad, bright sunshine. After the storm everything looked fresh and vividly green: the world had a newly washed look, and the air seemed to be filled with vital energy, as though it were indeed the breath of life. But Beatrice soon saw evidence of the storm’s fury. Huge boughs were stripped from the trees round The Camp, the flower-beds presented a draggled appearance, and the sundial had been blown down. For the rest, everything looked the same at usual. When she glanced at the dungeon, she saw that the door was closed and the blind was down, although this latter was a trifle askew. Beatrice could have gratified her curiosity by looking into the counting-house through the twisted blind; but she had seen sufficient of it on the previous day, and felt more inclined to eat than to waste her time peering into Alpenny’s sanctum. With the idea of getting breakfast, she went to the kitchen, and speedily had the fire alight. Durban never locked the door of the kitchen carriage, so there was no difficulty in entering.
Beatrice found plenty of food in the cupboard, and made herself some strong coffee and an appetising dish of bacon and eggs. It was too much trouble to take the food to the dining-car, so she spread a cloth on the kitchen table, and made a very good meal. When she had finished, she washed the dishes and put them away; then went out again, feeling much better, and all signs of fatigue disappeared from her young and elastic frame. But for the evidences of the storm, she would have thought the past events of the night, those of a dream.
To pass the time, Beatrice swept out her bedroom and made the bed, then attended to the garden. Every now and then she would glance at the gate, expecting that Vivian Paslow would enter. But by twelve o’clock he had not come, and she felt very disappointed. Then she began to feel alarmed. What if he had met the man and had fought with him? What if the man had hurt him? She asked herself these questions, and half determined to go over to Convent Grange in order to get answers. But she did not wish to leave The Camp until Durban came back, since Alpenny was absent. Still the desire to hear and see Paslow was overwhelming, and she was just about to yield to her curiosity and leave The Camp to look after itself when she heard the rapid vibration of the electric bell, and knew that someone was at the gate. In a moment she was flying across the lawn, her heart beating and her colour rising.
“Vivian! Vivian!” sang her heart, and she threw open the gate, which was still unlocked. To her surprise, she beheld outside no less a person than Mrs Snow!
The vicar’s wife looked more amiable than usual and less grim. She was not very tall, and was dressed in dull slate-coloured garments very ugly and inexpensive, and likely to wear well. A straw hat trimmed with ribbons of the same sad hue surmounted her sharp, thin face, which was that of the miser species, hard and sour. Mrs Snow had never been a pretty woman, and never an agreeable one, and as she faced Beatrice with what was meant to be a smile, she looked like a disappointed spinster. Yet she was the wife of the vicar, and the mother of Jerry, so she certainly should have looked more pleasant. But Mrs Snow was a woman who took life hard, and made it hard for others also. If she could not enjoy herself, she was determined that no one else should. Whatever sins the vicar had committed—if any—the poor man was bitterly punished by having such a household fairy at his fireside.
“Mrs Snow!” gasped Beatrice, who was immensely astonished, as well she might be, seeing that the vicaress had never before deigned to pay The Camp a visit.
“Yes, my dear Miss Hedge,” said the lady, with a suavity she was far from feeling, as the girl’s fresh beauty annoyed her. “You are no doubt surprised to see me. But I have come to see Mr Alpenny as my husband’s richest parishioner. Last night’s storm has damaged the spire of our church, so I have started out at once to collect subscriptions for its repair. There is nothing like taking Time by the forelock, Miss Hedge.”
“My father is out,” said Beatrice coldly, “and will not be back for a few days. Then you can ask him, Mrs Snow.”
“May I not put you down for a trifle?”
“I have no money,” replied Beatrice, annoyed by the greed and persistence of her visitor. “Will you come in?”
She did not wish to invite the lady in, but Mrs Snow showed so very plainly that she intended to enter, that Beatrice could do no less. In silence she led the way to the Snow Parlour, and the vicar’s wife was presently seated on the linen-covered sofa, glancing with sharp eyes round the pretty place. It need hardly be said that she glanced with inward disapproval and outward praise. She wanted money for the spire, and therefore had to be polite; but that did not withhold her from inwardly finding all the fault she could.
“A most charming place,” said Mrs Snow, still trying to make herself agreeable.
“I am glad you think so,” replied Beatrice, wondering why her unexpected visitor was so very polite; and mindful of Mrs Snow’s past behaviour, the girl could not think that the vicaress was making herself thus pleasant in order to get money for the spire. Besides, the spire had only been damaged on the previous night, and it seemed strange that the woman should begin to hunt for subscriptions for its restoration already. No! Beatrice came to the conclusion, and very rightly, that Mrs Snow had another motive in paying attention to the girl she had so severely snubbed.
“I have intended to call ever so many times,” went on Mrs Snow, not to be daunted by the frosty manner of her hostess, “but my husband, poor man, is not very well, and I have to attend to a great deal of the parish work.”
“There is no need to apologise, Mrs Snow. I see very few people.”
“But those you see are really charming!” gushed the vicaress. “I, of course, allude to Mr and Miss Paslow.”
“They are friends of mine.”
“And of mine also, Miss Hedge. Though I will say that this engagement of my son to Miss Paslow does not please me. I really thought”—here Mrs Snow cast a searching look on the girl’s face—“that my son admired you.”
“Oh no. He has always been devoted to Miss Paslow.”
“His devotion is misplaced,” snapped Mrs Snow, some of the veneer of her gracious manner wearing away. “I shall never consent to such a marriage.”
“You must tell that to Miss Paslow and to your son,” said Beatrice coldly; “I have nothing to do with it.”
“Well”—Mrs Snow hesitated—“I thought that you, being a friend of Miss Paslow’s, might point out how foolish her conduct is.”
“It is not my place to interfere,” said Miss Hedge in a frosty manner, and beginning to gain an inkling as to why the vicaress had paid this unforeseen visit.
“Of course not. I should never ask you to do anything disagreeable, Miss Hedge. I hope you will come and see me at the Vicarage. Now that I have found you out, I really must see more of you.”
“It is very kind of you, Mrs Snow; but I never go out. My father does not wish me to.”
“So eccentric dear Mr Alpenny is!” murmured the vicaress. “I was in town only two weeks ago, and Lady Watson mentioned how strange he was. You know Lady Watson, of course?”
“I never set eyes on her. I don’t even know the name.”
“That is strange,” and Mrs Snow really did look puzzled; “she knew all about you.”
Beatrice started. “What is there to know about me?”
“Oh, nothing—really and truly nothing. Only that Mr Alpenny married your mother and adopted you when she died. I was not here when Mrs Alpenny died, but I believe she is buried in our churchyard.”
“I have seen the tombstone,” said Beatrice coldly. “And how does this Lady Watson come to know about me?”
“She was a school friend of your mother’s—so she said.”
“Oh!” Beatrice felt her face flush. Here was a chance of learning something that neither Durban nor Alpenny would tell her. “I should like to meet Lady Watson.”
“You shall, my dear Miss Hedge. She is coming in a few weeks to stop at the Vicarage.”
“I shall be happy to see her.” Beatrice had to swallow her pride before she could say this, as Mrs Snow had really treated her very badly. But she was anxious to learn something of her mother, and to find out if she had any relatives, as she was determined not to marry Ruck, and knew that if she did not, Alpenny was quite capable of turning her out of doors. Of course Durban would always look after her, but Beatrice wished to be independent even of Durban. At the moment she never thought of Vivian and his hasty proposal, but it came back to her memory when Mrs Snow introduced his name.
“I hear that Mr Paslow is thinking of moving from this place,” said Mrs Snow. “Such a pity! so old a family. The Paslows have been in the Grange since the reign of Henry VIII. It was originally a convent, you know, and the Paslow of those days was presented with it, by the king—so shocking, wasn’t it? He turned out the nuns and lived in the place himself. That is why it is called Convent Grange.”
“So Miss Paslow told me,” responded Beatrice, rather weary of this small-talk, and wondering why it was being manufactured.
“But Mr Paslow is poor,” pursued Mrs Snow, “and can’t keep the place up. I expect he’ll go to the colonies, or some such place. So you can easily see why I don’t want my son to marry his sister.”
Beatrice felt very much inclined to tell her garrulous visitor that Vivian had inherited money, and would probably clear off the mortgages and live in the style of his forefathers. But she restrained her inclination, as it was none of her business, and rose to intimate that the interview was at an end. But Mrs Snow still sat on.
“Really a lovely place, Convent Grange,” she chattered, “although sadly out of repair. Haunted, too, they say, although I don’t believe in ghosts myself. But I hear an Indian colonel was murdered there some twenty-four years ago, and his ghost is said to haunt the room he was killed in.”
“I never heard that,” said Beatrice, wondering why Dinah had never imparted so comparatively modern a tragedy to her.
“I dare say not,” said Mrs Snow tartly; “the Paslows don’t like talking about the matter. I heard about it from an old shepherd who keeps sheep on the Downs. Orchard is his name, and he was the butler of Mr Paslow’s father, who was alive when Colonel Hall was murdered.”
“I never heard of a shepherd being a butler.”
“You mean that you never heard of a butler turning a shepherd,” said Mrs Snow; “neither did I. But I understand that the poor man’s nerves were so wrecked by the sight of the dead body that the doctors of those days ordered him to take the open-air cure. So he became a shepherd. A most superior man.”
“Who murdered Colonel Hall?”
“No one ever found out. His throat was cut, and he was discovered dead in his bed. I believe a casket of jewels was stolen at the time, and was never found. But even if the Paslows didn’t tell you about this, I wonder your father did not, dear Miss Hedge, as he was here at the time, and a visitor at the Grange.”
“My stepfather never tells me anything.”
“How dull you must be. He really is so eccentric. Lady Watson knew him years and years ago, and says that he is quite a gentleman. He was at Rugby with her husband, Sir Reginald, who is dead. But he took up this money-lending business, which really is not respectable, besides which, it is quite forbidden by the Mosaic law. Well, I must be going.” Mrs Snow rose, still smiling. “But you really must come over to the Vicarage, and let me make your life more gay. I shall also try and induce your father—no, stepfather—to come over.”
“I don’t think you’ll be able to manage that,” said Beatrice dryly, and wondering what all this alarming sweetness meant; “my stepfather never goes out.”
“He did over twenty years ago. Ask him about his visit to Convent Grange, and about Colonel Hall’s murder. It caused a great sensation, although the criminal was never found. But who is this?” Mrs Snow stepped out into the sunshine as she spoke, and pointed her slate-coloured parasol towards Durban, who was standing near. He must have approached very softly, and must have heard every word the vicaress said for the last few minutes. His dark face looked unnaturally white, and he cast a nervous glance at the visitor. Beatrice noticed nothing, however, and ran to him at once.
“Oh, Durban, I am so pleased to see you. Father has gone away. See, he left this note, and—”
“I’ll take my leave, so as not to interrupt you,” said Mrs Snow graciously; “then you can talk to the man. What a charming place!” She looked round severely and walked from one carriage to another. “Your bedroom, a dining-room, another bedroom”; then she stopped at the dungeon and tried the door. “Oh, Bluebeard’s chamber! I must not look in here.”
“It is the master’s counting-house, lady,” said Durban, who was close at her heels and seemed anxious for her to go.
“How delightful! A counting-house in a dark wood—just like ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ May I look in at the window? Mr Alpenny is from home, so he can’t object,” and before any one could stop her she was peeping through the window, where the blind was askew. Then she gave a cry of alarm. “Miss Hedge, your father is within. He is lying on the floor.” She stood on tiptoe. “Oh! he is dead. I see blood!”
“Impossible!” cried Beatrice, rushing forward and pushing the meddling woman aside.—“Yes Durban!—Oh, great Heavens!”
The servant came running up and also glanced in. Then, with an exclamation of horror, he ran into the kitchen and came out with a bunch of skeleton keys. Both the women, pale and terrified, stood beside him while he fitted these into the lock. None would open the door, and he flung them away with a smothered oath. For a moment he paused, then ran into the wood. Mrs Snow turned to Beatrice.
“Your father has been murdered. I shall tell the police.”
“Yes, do!” said Beatrice, clasping her hands. “I never knew. When I came home last night, he left a note saying that he would go away for a few days, and—”
“Here is the man with a log,” interrupted Mrs Snow.
Indeed, it was Durban who came, dragging after him a large beam. With a strength of which Beatrice had never thought so stout a man was capable, he caught this in the middle, and, retiring for a few paces, made a run at the door. It burst open with the shock, and, dropping the beam, Durban went inside. Mrs Snow drew Beatrice back.
“It is not for you to see,” she said sharply.
“How dare you stop me!” said the girl, angry at the liberty, and pushing Mrs Snow away, she ran forward.
Durban tried to keep her out, but she managed to gain a glimpse of a stiff figure lying on the floor under the mahogany desk.
“Oh, good Heavens!” shrieked the girl; “his throat has been cut!”
“So was Colonel Hall’s!” muttered Mrs Snow, and stole a glance at Durban, which made the man turn even greyer than he already was.
After eighty years, halting Nemesis had at last caught up with Jarvis Alpenny. He had buried himself in seclusion; he had surrounded himself with bolts and bars and other precautions; but the order that his sordid career should end had come from the Powers that deal with evil-doers, and he was as dead as a door-nail. And very unpleasantly he had died too, for his wrinkled throat had been cut from ear to ear. Who had done it no one seemed to know.
Beatrice might have supplied a clue; but for reasons connected with the Paslow family she held her tongue, and feigned ignorance when the rural police came on the scene, which they did very speedily, owing to the zeal of Mrs Snow. The sergeant of the district questioned and cross-questioned Miss Hedge, with very little success. She told him that, on the previous evening, she had gone for a walk in the woods round The Camp, but did not mention with what object. There, as she stated very truly, she had been caught in the storm, and at some unknown time had stumbled home wet and weary, and so tired that she had at once slipped into bed. The note from her stepfather was produced, and confiscated by the sergeant; the details of Mrs Snow’s curiosity leading to a discovery of a crime, were given; and then Beatrice professed that she could tell no more. The bucolic constable believed her readily enough, and informed his Inspector who came that Miss Hedge had told the truth and nothing but the truth. This might have been so, but she certainly had not told the whole truth, else might the sergeant have added to the note left by the dead man, a certain gentleman’s handkerchief, marked with three initials—“V.R.P.”
This piece of evidence Beatrice had picked up so near the body, that a corner of the handkerchief was soaked in the life-blood of the miser. Her quick eye had seen it almost the moment she had entered the dungeon at Durban’s heels, and when falling on her knees by the dead she had mechanically picked it up, without lynx-eyed Mrs Snow seeing the action. Durban would only allow the women to remain for two minutes in that place of death. Then he drove them out, and insisted that Beatrice should retire to her parlour. She did so while he reclosed the door of the counting-house, and while Mrs Snow, almost too excited to speak, ran for the nearest constable, who in his turn summoned his sergeant.
Alone in the parlour, Beatrice, still mechanically grasping the handkerchief, suddenly remembered how she had found it, and at once examined the corners. It was with a gasp of terror that she realised to whom it belonged. “V.R.P.” could only stand for Vivian Robert Paslow, and he—as she knew only too well—was the enemy of the deceased. Could it be that Vivian had killed the miser to settle the question of marriage, and secure his threatened property from getting into the cruel clutches of his victim? In that first moment of horror Beatrice was inclined to think so. Then, with a revulsion of feeling, she recoiled with horror from so base an idea. The man she loved was not a midnight assassin: however much he may have hated Alpenny, he certainly would not have put the old man to death in so barbarous a fashion. Finally, he had been with her under the Witches’ Oak last night, and could not possibly be guilty.
Then, again, on further thought it occurred to her that such an alibi could scarcely serve in this case. The meeting at the haunted tree had taken place about seven o’clock, and had lasted, so far as she could reckon from confused recollection, for a quarter of an hour. Then had come the episode of the pursuit of the watcher by Paslow, her own flight through the woods, the breaking of the storm, and her fainting-fit. She might have been hours unconscious; she might have been hours getting home, for she had very little recollection of that mad passage through the furious wind and rain. Only she remembered reaching The Camp between the gates, and blindly falling into the arms of a lean, tall man with a black patch over his left eye. Had that man been Vivian? Was it truly her lover who, in the intervening time, had stolen to the deserted Camp, and using the key of the small gate (which she knew he possessed) had gained access to the dungeon, there to commit his crime? No! It was impossible. If she could only remember the time when she came back! This was hard to do, and yet it was done, for chance came to her aid.
Besides the cuckoo-clock which had awakened her, Beatrice possessed an old silver watch, given to her on some far-distant birthday by Durban. It stood on a small stand beside the bed, and she remembered that in slipping between the sheets, weary and half asleep, she had knocked this down between the table it stood on and the wall. Some instinct must have directed her to look for it at the moment. She thrust the incriminating handkerchief into her pocket, and ran to the bedroom carriage. There she found the watch—found also that it had stopped at the hour of nine o’clock. It was just possible that the stoppage had occurred when she had knocked it over. She certainly had wound it up as usual on the previous night, and twice before, when knocked off its stand, it had stopped dead.
“Yes,” thought the girl, inspecting the yellow dial, “it must have been stopped by the fall, unless”—she shook it vigorously—“unless it has run down”; but a steady ticking told her that the main-spring was not yet fully unwound, and she replaced the watch on its stand, with a firm conviction that she had entered the bedroom at nine on the previous evening. Vivian had left her to follow the spy at a quarter past seven, so he could easily have committed the crime, so far as time and opportunity went, as one hour and three-quarters had been taken up by her in getting home. An alibi, therefore, was little good in this case, and on the evidence of the handkerchief he would assuredly be hanged.
“No! no! no!” murmured Beatrice with rising inflection, and speaking aloud in her agitation; “it is untrue. Vivian would never commit so cowardly a deed as to kill an old man of eighty, however much he may have hated him. I shall hide the handkerchief—but where? The police are sure to search the place, and—and—” A sudden thought struck her. “I’ll keep it in my pocket,” she decided, and thrust it, neatly folded up, to the very bottom of that receptacle. Later, she intended to cautiously question Paslow, and learn if he had been to The Camp on that night. But the conversation would be between their two selves. She would tell no one else of the handkerchief she had picked up, not even Durban, faithful servant though he was.
It was at this moment, and as though in response to her mental mention of his name, that Durban appeared. He looked much shaken by the tragedy, and was green with scarcely concealed fright. Beatrice eyed him with astonishment, as she had never deemed him to be much attached to the old tyrant who had gone so violently to his long rest. Durban evaded her searching glance, which was perhaps fortunate, as the girl herself did not wish her own countenance to be too closely scrutinised.
“I’ve shut it up in the counting-house,” said Durban, his eyes on the ground, and jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “The police will be here soon. Mrs Snow will tell them; she’ll be glad of the chance.”
“Why? Did she know my—the late Mr Alpenny?”
“That’s right, missy.” Durban raised his eyes with approval, and dropped them again. “Never call him your father.”
“He was my stepfather,” Beatrice reminded him.
“Ah—hum—yes,” gurgled Durban. “Yes, missy, Mrs Snow knew master before you were born—at Convent Grange.”
“I heard her say that Colonel Hall’s throat had also been cut.”
Durban shuddered, and leaned against the door. “Yes,” he whispered faintly, “that was so, missy.”
“Mr Alpenny’s throat has been cut in the same way.”
Durban half smiled, but his expression was wry and twisted. “There is only one way to cut a throat, missy.”
“Ugh!” Beatrice turned pale, and threw up her hand. “Don’t!”
“It is a nasty subject, missy. I—I’m sorry for the master. And yet,” he added, half to himself; “if ever a man deserved what he got, master was that man.”
“What do you mean?” asked Beatrice, taking a step towards him.
“Master had many enemies,” went on Durban, again casting his eyes on the ground; “a money-lender always has.”
“Then you know—”
“I know nothing,” snapped the man angrily, and wiping his swarthy face with a duster. “Master sent me to London last night, as you knew, missy. I only came down by the morning train, and walked here, in time to find you with Mrs Snow. What did she want?”
Beatrice smiled faintly in her turn. “Subscriptions for the church spire, which was blown down last night.”
“Oh! That was the excuse?”
“Excuse for what, Durban?”
“To see you, missy, and learn— But there!” Durban turned away. “She came here to make mischief between you and master. Thank Heaven he is dead, and you will get the money. Mrs Snow can’t harm you now.”
“Why should she wish to harm me, Durban?”
“That’s a long story, missy. Now that the master is dead, I can tell it to you. But first we must learn who killed—”
“I know,” interrupted Beatrice quickly; “a tall man, with a black patch over his left eye.”
Durban turned greener than ever. “How do you know that, missy?” he asked in a strangled voice.
“I saw him when the gates were open, about nine o’clock last night.”
Durban looked at her sharply. “Then you did go for that walk, missy?”
“Yes, I had to. Mr Paslow wished to see me. Durban”—she made a step forward, and clutched his arm tightly—“I’ll tell you what I don’t intend to tell any one else,” and without giving the man time to make an observation, she related the whole story of her adventure, suppressing only the episode of the handkerchief. This she did, so as to avert any possible suspicion from Vivian, since Durban, knowing that Paslow had been with her, would not connect him with the crime—that is, if he was stupid enough not to calculate the time, and thus prove the futility of the alibi.
Durban listened quietly enough. “I am glad that Mr Paslow will marry you, missy,” he said at last, and removed her grasp from his arm. “You will inherit a lot of money from the dead master. It ought to be twenty thousand a year!”
“But, Durban, Mr Alpenny told me very plainly that if he died, I would be a pauper.”
“I don’t believe it,” burst out the half-caste; “he would not dare to—to—” Here he halted and stammered, “C—c—curse him!”
“Durban!” She stepped back a pace in sheer amazement at the savagery of the tone.
“Dead, or alive, curse him!” cried Durban, his voice gathering strength from the intensity of his hate. “He was a scoundrel—you don’t know how great a scoundrel. Missy”—he grasped her arm in his turn—“you shall have the money, I swear it. Then marry Mr Paslow, and go away for a few years, till all blows over.”
“Till what blows over?” asked Beatrice anxiously.
“Hush!” Durban let go her arm, and controlled himself by a violent effort. “The police! Say as little as you can. You know nothing—I know nothing.”
“Durban, are you afraid?”
“Of Mrs Snow. Hush!”
The last words were scarcely out of his mouth when the two policemen, who had entered the gates left open by Mrs Snow, came up to them with important airs. The sergeant was stout and short, the constable lean and tall.
“We take possession of this place, miss,” said the stout man breathlessly.
“In the name of the King and the law,” finished the lean person.
“And anything you say will be used in evidence against you,” they both murmured in a breath, then stared sternly at the startled girl and the green-hued half-caste.
“Do what you like,” said Beatrice, drawing herself up; “neither myself nor Durban know anything.”
“But—” began the sergeant, snorting with excitement.
“I will answer all questions at the proper time, and at the proper place,” said Miss Hedge, cutting the plethoric man short. Then she retired into her bedroom and shut the door.
The constables grumbled at her sharpness of speech, but went to work. They examined the body, searched every inch of The Camp, made plans, took notes, asked innumerable questions of Durban, and finally insisted that Beatrice should submit to an examination. This she did composedly enough, but said as little as she well could. It was her intention to reserve an account of what she had seen for the inquest. She did not even tell the Inspector, when he arrived to take charge of the case.
There was immense excitement in Hurstable. The quiet little Sussex village had never before been defiled by a crime of this brutal kind. Sparsely populated as the district was, a great number of agricultural labourers gathered in a remarkably short space of time. Their wives and children came also, and the police had much difficulty in keeping them out of the precincts of The Camp. Then by next day the news had reached Brighton, and crowds of tourists—it being the holiday season—poured into the Weald on foot, on bicycles, in motor cars and carriages, and by train. With them came the reporters from various newspapers, London and local, and the whole place buzzed like a hive at swarming-time.
Beatrice remained in The Camp under charge of Durban. Dinah Paslow came to offer her the hospitality of Convent Grange; but, much to the surprise of Beatrice, the man who had proposed to her on that fatal night never made his appearance. Without any embarrassment, Dinah told her friend that Vivian had gone to town as soon as he heard that Alpenny was dead.
Beatrice was both surprised and alarmed when she heard of Vivian’s abrupt departure without seeing her. It argued that he was guilty, and feared to face her. Yet, try as she might, it was impossible for her to believe him to be a murderer.
“Why didn’t he come to see me?” she asked Dinah.
“He wanted to,” replied the freckled girl. “But then he said that he had important business to attend to, connected with you, and went up to town the day before yesterday. I have not heard from him since, and don’t know when he is coming back.”
“Business connected with me!” repeated Miss Hedge, much perplexed. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I, dear. But don’t worry. Vivian loves you, and whatever he does will be for your benefit. I do wish you’d come to the Grange, Beatrice, and let Mrs Lilly look after you—she knows about herbs and things, and you look so pale. And no wonder, seeing what a shock you have had. I wouldn’t stop in this place for anything, seeing ghosts and spooks—ugh!” and Dinah ended her somewhat incoherent speech with a shudder.
“I cannot come until the inquest is over,” said Beatrice, rapidly surveying the situation.
“Then, perhaps. It depends upon Mr Paslow.”
“Vivian, you mean,” said Dinah quickly.
“I have no right to call him Vivian,” replied Beatrice proudly.
“Yes, you have. Vivian told me that he had asked you to be his wife, and that you had accepted.”
“Dinah”—Beatrice looked directly at the girl “did he tell you where he proposed?”
“Yes; under the—”
“Hush!” Miss Hedge sank her voice to a whisper as she saw a blue-coated constable moving heavily round the garden, and gradually drawing nearer. “Not a word. Hold your tongue about that meeting.”
“But why?” asked the amazed Dinah.
“I’ll tell you later,” said Beatrice hurriedly; “that is, when I have seen Vivian. Have you his address?”
“No. He went away, and said he would be back soon. Oh dear!” cried Dinah fretfully; “there is such a lot of mystery about Vivian, and has been for ages and ages. Sometimes he’s jolly, and then he’s as dismal as a sick cow. I thought it was love, for Jerry often is the same—silly boy. But I don’t believe it is love,” concluded Dinah decidedly. “Vivian has something on his mind.”
“What do you mean?”
“Something horrid. I don’t know what it is, but I fear the worst.”
“Don’t be a fool, Dinah,” said Beatrice impatiently, for she winced at hearing her own doubts put into speech. “It’s money troubles that annoy him, and probably, now that Mr Alpenny is dead, he has gone to see the executors, to know how his mortgage will stand.”
“As if he couldn’t ask you,” cried Dinah, rising and throwing her riding-skirt over her arm. “You’ll get the money, of course. It ought to be a lot, Beatrice, for Jerry, who has had dealings with money-lenders, says they make heaps and heaps.”
“I know nothing until the will is read. Go away, dear, and come back after poor Mr Alpenny is buried.”
“Poor Mr Alpenny!” mocked Dinah. “Well, you are forgiving, Beatrice. He was a nasty old man, and never did any good in his life. He is more useful to me and Jerry dead than alive.”
“Oh, I know it’s horrid of me,” said Miss Paslow penitently, “but we must live—I mean Jerry and I must think about our marriage. His father won’t allow him any money, and Mrs Snow is a cat. Our only chance of getting married, and living in a tweeny-weeny house, with a general servant, is for Jerry to get a rise. Now, if Jerry writes something picturesque about this murder, he’ll get the rise and—”
“Oh, go away,” cried Beatrice, for this disconnected talk grated on her over-strung nerves, “and don’t tell even Jerry that I met Vivian—I mean Mr Paslow—under the Witches’ Oak.”
“I won’t say anything,” promised Dinah firmly; “and I suppose it was improper for you to meet Vivian so late without a chaperone. But you will marry Vivian, darling, won’t you?” she went on coaxingly. “He is so poor, and loves you; and then Mr Alpenny’s money—I mean your money—can set up the family again, and—”
The patience of Beatrice was at an end. She took Dinah firmly by the arm and led her out of the gates past the sleepy policeman, who blinked in the sunshine like an over-fed cat. “Go and assist Jerry to write paragraphs,” she said sharply; “you are a tiresome girl.”
“It’s your nerves,” said Dinah, not at all annoyed by this abrupt dismissal. “I feel that way myself, when Jerry is irritating. He is such a— Well, I’m going. There’s Tommy Tibbs holding Fly-by-Night. Hi, Tommy, bring her here. Good-bye, darling: keep your spirits up. I’ll come and see you later. You must come to the Grange, and—”
Beatrice closed the babbling lips with a kiss, and went inside, while Dinah argued with Tommy about the price of holding her horse for one long hour. The policeman opened his eyes and looked at the tall, slim young lady with approval as she went past him. He thought she was a trifle too pale, and she had black circles under her eyes; but otherwise he approved, and smiled graciously. Beatrice took no notice of him, but went to her parlour, to think over the strange conduct of Vivian Paslow.
Dinah was right He certainly had something on his mind, and did not seem to be a free agent. Something hampered him in every way. He had long desired to propose to her, and yet had only done so when some cause, which he declined to explain, had been removed. Again, he had gone up to town on hearing of Alpenny’s murder, and without ascertaining whether she had reached home, or not, on that fearful night. He had not even left a message; and then in her pocket was his handkerchief, dyed with the life-blood of the miser. These things were strange and disquieting, and Beatrice resolved that before reaffirming her decision to marry him, he would have to explain what underhand causes were at work to make him behave so mysteriously.
No time was lost in holding the inquest on the body of Jarvis Alpenny. The weather was hot, and it was just as well to place the remains underground as speedily as possible. A doctor was summoned from Hurstable to examine the body, and pronounce if possible the hour when the murder had taken place. Then the corpse was conveyed to the solitary inn of Hurstable, a few miles away, and there the jury looked it over. Afterwards the Coroner summoned them into the inn parlour, and Inspector Grove related all that had been discovered by the police.
It was not much, and threw no light on the authorship of the crime. The deceased—so ran the official narrative—was a money-lender of great repute, and that none of the best. He possessed a small office in London—52 Trunk Street, Cheapside—but seldom went there, as he preferred the quiet of the country—probably on account of his age, which was considerable. Nevertheless, from habit apparently, Mr Jarvis continued to do business up to the very hour of his death. He died in harness, as might be said; for on the table, whereunder he lay, were letters from people—who need not be mentioned—asking for loans of money. These he was apparently considering, when he was struck down.
“I understood, and I have seen,” said the Coroner emphatically, “that the deceased’s throat was cut.”
Inspector Jones assented, but pointed out that the old man was first felled by a blow from behind, as was apparent from a wound at the back of the head. The assassin had evidently entered stealthily, and had taken his victim by surprise. The murder was very deliberate, as the criminal had first stunned the old man, and then had cut his throat in a most brutal and thorough fashion. Therefore, as the Inspector suggested, the motive of the crime was more than mere robbery. A robber, having stunned his victim, could have taken what he desired, and escaped before Mr Jarvis regained consciousness. But the death had taken place from the throat-cutting, and not from the blow on the head.
“Has anything been taken from the room?” asked a juryman.
“You mean the railway carriage,” corrected the Inspector, who was pedantic in speech, and particular as to facts. “Yes; the safe was opened with the keys of the deceased—probably taken by the assassin from the dead body—and all, the papers have been taken away.”
“What do you mean, exactly?” asked the Coroner.
Inspector Jones held up his right hand. “I mean,” he declared emphatically, “that the safe was as bare as the palm of my hand. All papers were removed, the drawers were emptied, and nothing was left—absolutely nothing.”
“The assassin must have carried quite a load?”
“As the safe is a large one, and probably was fairly filled, it is extremely likely,” replied the Inspector. Then he went on to state that the fact of the death was discovered the next morning by Mrs Snow, the vicar’s wife, who was paying a visit to Miss Hedge. The police were called in, and everything had been done to discover the whereabouts of the assassin, but in vain. Villagers, labourers, railway officials, chance folk travelling in carts and motor-cars and on bicycles had been questioned, but no suspicious character had been observed. The assassin had stolen in upon the old man out of the night; and when his detestable task had been executed, he had again vanished into the night with his plunder, leaving not a footprint behind by which he could be traced.
“Yet the night was rainy,” said the Coroner sapiently.
“And the grassy sward,” retorted Jones, “runs right up to the railway carriage wherein the crime was executed. I have inquired at the Trunk Street office, and cannot learn from the confidential clerk there that Mr Alpenny was threatened in any way, or feared for his life or property. The affair is a mystery.”
“And is likely to remain so, with such an ass as you at the head of affairs,” murmured the Coroner, as the Inspector, severely official, stepped down to give place to a rosy little man.—“Well, doctor,” he asked aloud, “what do you know about this sad business?”
Dr Herman knew very little, save from a medical standing-point He lived in Hurstable, some miles distant from the scene of the crime, and drove round all the surrounding district to see his patients. A constable stopped him on the day after the crime had been committed, and he had been asked to examine the corpse. He found that it was that of an old man. The body was badly nourished, but healthy enough for a man who certainly was over eighty. The blow on the head would not have killed a man with such vitality, old as he was. Death had ensued from the cutting of the throat. “Which was neatly done,” said the doctor, with professional approval. “I should think a very sharp instrument was used, and a very dexterous hand had used it. No bungling about that affair,” concluded Dr Herman.
“Humph!” said the Coroner doubtfully; “and what does that mean? Do you insinuate that a doctor cut the throat and used a surgical instrument to do so?”
“I insinuate nothing of the sort,” said Herman hotly, for he did not like the sneer of the Coroner; “it might have been a butcher, who is quite as dexterous with a knife as a medical man, although not quite in the same way.”
“Pooh! pooh! We’re all animals, doctor,” laughed the Coroner, “and you are all butchers, whether you are called so or not. Come, now, at what time did Mr Jarvis Alpenny meet his death?”
“I cannot be sure of that—I cannot commit myself to an exact opinion,” said the little doctor doubtfully. “I should say the crime was committed between eight and nine of the previous night But, as I say, I cannot be quite certain.”
“Between eight and nine of the previous night,” wrote the Coroner, and called the next witness.
This was Mrs Snow, who gave her evidence with much volubility. She had called on Miss Hedge to ask for money in order to get the spire of Hurstable Church mended. Miss Hedge had stated that her stepfather was from home, but she—witness—had glanced into the railway carriage which was called the counting-house of Mr Alpenny. There she had seen the deceased—dead, lying in a pool of blood. At once she gave the alarm, and Durban, the servant, burst open the door with a beam.
“The door of the carriage was locked, then?”
“Oh yes,” assented Mrs Snow. “I tried it myself. I expect the assassin killed poor Mr Alpenny, and after robbing the safe, went out with his plunder, and locked the door after him. He had the keys.”
“One moment,” said Durban, rising in the body of the room. “My master carried the keys—all the keys, including that of the counting-house, on a single ring. The keys were in the safe, and—”
“We’ll hear you later,” said the Coroner sharply.—“Go on, Mrs Snow.”
“I have nothing further to say,” said the vicar’s wife, trying to convey a sympathetic look in her eyes, “save that I am sorry for Miss Hedge. And I may add,” she continued, after a moment of hesitation, “that Colonel Hall was murdered at Convent Grange twenty-five years ago, in the same way.”
“I remember the case,” said the Coroner, who was an old resident of the neighbourhood. “And what do you infer?”
“That the assassin of Colonel Hall and the assassin of Mr Alpenny are one and the same,” said Mrs Snow promptly.
“Why should you connect the two?” asked the Coroner coldly, and very much puzzled.
“Colonel Hall and Mr Alpenny had much to do with one another,” said Mrs Snow, “and did some business together. That their two throats should be cut, is a coincidence.”
“Only that and nothing more, Mrs Snow. I cannot see what the old crime has to do with the new one.”
“I am sure there is some connection,” snapped the sour woman, and then stepped down from the witness-box with a triumphant glance in the direction of Beatrice. Why that glance, and one of such a nature, was sent, Beatrice could not guess. But then the conduct of Mrs Snow was perplexing her more and more.
Durban’s evidence was to the effect that he had been absent when the crime took place. Mr Alpenny had sent him to town with a letter, and he had returned the next morning to find the old man dead. Mrs Snow had first informed him of the fact. He had burst open the door with a beam, as it was locked, and then had discovered that Mr Alpenny’s throat was slit from ear to ear. “And I saw,” added the witness quickly, “that the keys of the deceased, including the key of the counting-house, were on the ring which dangled from the key used to open the safe.”
“Then you do not think that the assassin could have locked the door after him?”
“Certainly not, seeing that the key was left behind.”
“Was there not another key?”
“No. My master had the only key of the counting-house; it was one of a most peculiar make, and there was no duplicate. Mr Alpenny was always careful to lock up his papers, and to keep the door of the counting-house locked.”
“Then there must be another way of getting into the counting-house.”
Inspector Jones rose to assure the Coroner that the place had been thoroughly examined. “There is no way of entering the railway carriage which is called the counting-house, save by the door.”
“But if the door was locked, and the key inside, the assassin must have got out by another way. What about the window?”
“It’s so small and so barred that a child could not get through it.”
The Coroner scratched his head, and looked at Durban. “You were the confidential servant of the deceased,” he said helplessly; “perhaps you can explain?”
“I can explain nothing,” said Durban promptly, and quite at his ease; “certainly I was Mr Alpenny’s servant, but he made no confidant of me. I took letters to the London office, but what was in them I never knew. I was cook and general servant—that is all.”
“You were often in the counting-house?”
“I was never in the counting-house in my life, sir. Mr Alpenny would not allow either Miss Hedge or myself to enter.”
“Humph!” said the Coroner again; “the whole mystery seems to centre round the counting-house. Had Mr Alpenny enemies?”
“The usual sort a money-lender is bound to have,” said Durban, with a shrug. “People sometimes came and called him names; and he told me that many borrowers objected to the high interest he charged.”
“Did the deceased ever give you to understand that his life was in danger?”
“Never. He appeared quite happy in his own way.”
“Was he expecting any one on the night he was murdered?”
“I cannot say. He sent me to town with the letter, and I was to come back next morning—which,” added the witness pointedly, “I did.”
“Mr Alpenny did not expect to be killed?”
“No. He would have taken some precautions had he thought that, as he feared death.”
After this several jurymen asked questions, and the Coroner cross-examined the half-caste. But he could tell nothing likely to lead to a discovery of the assassin. He simply declared that he was not in his late master’s confidence, and knew nothing: that he had gone to town on the night of the murder, and had only learned of it through Mrs Snow. The Coroner and, incidentally, Inspector Jones were annoyed; they had quite counted on a solution of the mystery when Durban was examined. But he could tell nothing, and they saw no reason to doubt his evidence.
Beatrice was called as the final witness, and told very much the same story as she had related to the sergeant. Only on this occasion she stated the time when she had returned. The Coroner asked her how she knew that she had entered at nine, whereupon she detailed the episode of the fallen watch. “I am sure that when I knocked it down, it stopped at nine,” she said; “at that hour I returned.”
“Why did you not go in and see Mr Alpenny?”
“In the first place, I was worn out,” said the witness; “in the second, there was no light in the window of the counting-house; and in the third, I found the note left by Mr Alpenny, which I handed to the sergeant. And in the fourth place,” added Beatrice, before the Coroner could make an observation, which he seemed inclined to do, “I saw the assassin!”
Everyone was startled, and a confused murmur filled the room. “You saw the assassin?” said the Coroner, aghast.
“When I entered the gates of The Camp at nine o’clock. He is a tall man, with a black patch over the left eye.”
“A black patch!” cried Mrs Snow, rising, much excited. “Colonel Hall was also murdered by a man with a black patch. I swear it.”
The words rang piercingly through a dead silence. Beatrice, startled by persistent introduction of a bygone crime, stared at the lean-faced woman who made the outcry. The Coroner blinked furiously, and nursed his chin in his hand, considering what to say and what to do. Finally, he made up his mind to rebuke Mrs Snow. “You have given your evidence,” said he, frowning a trifle, “and now you must be silent.”
“You should note what I have told you,” said Mrs Snow calmly, but her bosom heaved impatiently; “the one crime may help the other.”
“As how?” asked the Coroner politely.
“Because you may strike down two birds with one stone.”
“I should rather put it, if what you say is true, Mrs Snow, that we may strike down one bird with two stones. I understand that you say the man who murdered Colonel Hall—I remember him well—also murdered Mr Alpenny?”
“You heard what Miss Hedge said about the black patch, Dr Arne: and you know that Colonel Hall’s throat was also cut.
“There was some stealing also,” said Dr Arne musingly, “which makes the parallel more complete.”
“There was a diamond necklace stolen,” said Mrs Snow quietly; “at least I remember that. I was not married then, and Mrs Hall was my dear friend.”
“I never saw her,” said the Coroner coldly, and a trifle rudely. “All this is not to the point—Miss Hedge, will you go on?”
“What would you have me tell you?” asked the witness, who had been listening eagerly to Mrs Snow’s account of the earlier crime.
“How could you see this man, seeing that the night was dark and very stormy?”
“I saw his face in a flash of lightning,” explained Beatrice, and then related the momentary meeting. But she suppressed the fact that on the same night she had met Vivian under the Witches’ Oak. It was not pertinent to the case, she thought. Moreover, with the knowledge of whose handkerchief was in her pocket, she thought it best to keep Paslow’s name out of the matter.
“The gates were open?” asked the Coroner, when she ended.
“Mr Alpenny had the key, I believe?”
“Yes; but that key was not on the ring to which the others were attached. It hung on the wall.”
“Along with the key of the smaller gate,” put in Durban.
Then Inspector Jones spoke. “The key of the large gate,” said he, “I found in the lock the next morning, where it had been left.”
“The man with the black patch closed the large gate after him, as he ran out,” said Beatrice.
“Ah! then, probably he opened the gate from the inside, and when he met you he was too startled to take it out of the lock.—And the smaller key—that belonging to the little gate, Mr Inspector?”
“It is hanging on the wall of the counting-house now.”
Beatrice started, and grasped the chair near which she stood to keep herself from falling. Vivian had picked up the key when she dropped it under the Witches’ Oak. He must have replaced it in the counting-house himself, when he was inside. He had also left the handkerchief which she had in her pocket. Surely he was guilty, and yet—and yet—oh! it was too terrible. A word from the Coroner recalled her.
“You look pale, Miss Hedge?” he remarked suspiciously.
“And no wonder,” said the girl faintly; “the whole affair is so very terrible.”
“Well, well!” said Arne, relenting, and believing this excuse, which was feasible enough. “I shan’t keep you much longer. Why did you not see Mr Alpenny on that night?”
“I have told you: the note—”
“Ah! yes. I was about to remark on that when you spoke last—Mr Inspector, why has not this note been put in evidence?”
Inspector Jones, with profuse apologies, laid the note on the table.
“I quite forgot,” he said, looking ashamed, “but here it is. As you will see, Mr Alpenny says that he is going away for three days.”
“Where did you find the note, Miss Hedge?”
“Beside my bed on that night. I naturally thought that, as the light was out in the counting-house, and the note explained, that Mr Alpenny had gone away as he intended.”
“Quite right—very natural—hum—hum. When you found the body”—he spoke to Durban—“what clothes was it dressed in?”
“Mr Alpenny always wore one suit,” and Durban explained the old-fashioned dress; “but when I found the body, it was clothed in a loose cloak which he used to wear in rough weather.”
“And a hat?”
“The hat was on the desk, sir.”
“Humph!” said Dr Arne thoughtfully; “then it would seem that he was struck down, just as he was going up to town. Could Mr Alpenny have caught a train so late?”
“Yes, sir, if he left The Camp at nine o’clock. There was a train at half-past ten to Brighton; and he could have caught a late one on the main line, or he could have stopped at Brighton all night. He sometimes did.”
“It is nearly three miles to our local station,” said Dr Arne. “Could an old man like Mr Alpenny walk that distance?”
“He often did,” declared Durban emphatically; “he had a wonderful constitution, had the master.”
“Marvellous vitality,” cried Dr Herman from his seat, and was rebuked by his enemy the Coroner.
Arne asked a few more questions, and then addressed the jury. He pointed out that, on the evidence before them, they could not arrive at any conclusion as to who was the actual murderer.
“The man who murdered Colonel Hall,” cried Mrs Snow.
“Quite so,” said the Coroner smoothly; “but that man escaped, and was never discovered. If it is the same man—and certainly, Mrs Snow, it seems as though your surmise is right—he may escape again. Mr Alpenny apparently was about to start on his journey, after leaving the note for Miss Hedge, and probably was turning over some necessary papers, when he was struck down. Regarding the locked door, I can offer no explanation: nor have the police been able to find this masked man, who assuredly must be the assassin. The case is full of mystery, and I do not see what can be done, save that the jury should return an open verdict.”
He made a few more observations, but what he said was not very much to the point. The jury—what else could be done?—returned a verdict of murder against a person or persons unknown, with an observation to the effect that the police should hunt down the man with the black patch. This last remark was rather irregular; but, to say the truth, everyone was so puzzled over the aspect of the case that no one had any very clear idea of what to say or do. However, the verdict—such as it was—resolved itself into the terms above stated, and the jury betook themselves severally to their homes, there to puzzle over the matter. Beatrice went back to The Camp with Durban, and both felt glad that the corpse was still left in an outhouse of the hotel. Neither wished that gruesome relic of mortality to remain in The Camp.
“That is all right, missy,” said Durban, when the two were walking along the lane towards The Camp; “master will be buried to-morrow, and we won’t think of him any more.”
“I’ll never get the sight of that body out of my head,” said Beatrice, with a shudder. “Durban, who could have killed him?”
“I cannot say, missy,” said the half-caste stolidly; “you heard what evidence I gave.”
“Yes. But did you speak truly?”
“I spoke what I spoke,” said Durban sullenly; “the least said, the soonest mended.”
Beatrice felt a qualm of terror at the memory of the replaced key and the handkerchief in her pocket. “Then you have some idea who killed Mr Alpenny?”
“No, I have not, missy—that is, I cannot lay my finger on the man.”
“Then it was a man?”
“It might have been two men or three, missy. Master had dealings with very strange and dangerous people: I don’t wonder he was killed. And,” cried the half-caste, stopping to emphasise his words, “if I knew who killed him, I would shake that man’s hand.”
“Durban! Why, in Heaven’s name?”
“Because—because—missy,” he broke off abruptly, “let the past alone, my dear young lady. Mr Alpenny was a bad man, and came to a deserved end. I did not kill him, you did not kill him, so we had better think no more of him. When he is buried, you will have the money, and then you can marry Mr Paslow and be happy.”
“I shall never marry Mr Paslow—never, never,” cried Beatrice bitterly, and lifted a wan face to the mocking blue sky.
“But he loves you.”
“And I love him. All the same—Durban,” she broke off in her turn, “I want to hear all you know about Mr Paslow.
“I know nothing, missy,” said Durban, looking profoundly surprised; “he is poor but good-hearted, and I like him.”
“You don’t think that he—he would commit a crime?” asked Miss Hedge faintly, and clinging to the servant.
“No!” cried Durban, with great assurance. “What makes you think that?”
“Mr Alpenny said—”
Durban did not give her time to finish. “Master would accuse any one of anything, to gain his ends,” he said quietly. “He did not wish you to marry Mr Paslow, because it was to his interest that you should marry Major Ruck.”
“So he said. Do you know this Major?”
“Yes,” said Durban, with some hesitation, “and a wicked man he is. If he comes to marry you, missy, tell Mr Paslow, and he’ll settle him.”
“I don’t expect that I shall see Major Ruck.”
“I don’t know,” muttered the servant doubtfully; “the Major won’t let you slip through his fingers if he can help it.”
“Durban, you seem to know much that you will not tell me?”
“I do know a lot; but it is useless to tell you, missy.”
“Not even about Colonel Hall’s death, Durban?”
The half-caste turned green, and winced. “Not even about that, missy,” he said coldly. “Get the money, marry Mr Paslow, and go away from this place.”
“Do you think Mrs Snow is right?” persisted Beatrice, wondering at his nervous looks. “Did the man who killed Colonel Hall, kill Mr—”
“I don’t know—I can’t say,” interrupted Durban, gloomily; “it might have been another one of them.”
“Are there then two men who wear black patches over the—”
Durban clenched his long, nervous hand. “You’ll drive me mad with these questions,” he said fiercely, and with less of his usual respect. “I tell you, missy, I know much, and yet I know nothing which it would do any good for you to hear. I have watched over you in the past, and I shall watch over you in the future. You have been surrounded by devils. Master was the worst; but now that he is dead, all danger is at an end. You have the money, and you can go away.”
“You speak in riddles.”
“Let them remain riddles if you have any love for me,” said Durban moodily; and Beatrice, although anxious to hear more, held her peace.
After all, she had her own cross to bear. In some way Vivian was mixed up with this horrible crime. He could not possibly be guilty of it, in spite of the evidence. Moreover, Mrs Snow said that the assassin was the same as he who had killed Colonel Hall, which would put Vivian’s innocence beyond a doubt. In spite of her desire to obey Durban to whom she owed so much, Beatrice had to insist on an answer to this question. “I won’t ask you anything more,” she said to the sullen man—and he was sullen—“only this: Is the assassin of Colonel Hall the assassin of Mr Alpenny?”
“I think so,” muttered the man, “but I cannot be sure.”
“You must be sure, for my peace of mind, Durban.”
“Your peace of mind, missy?” he asked, surprised.
“Yes. I must tell you, as I know you will hold your tongue. But I think—I believe—no, I don’t: but I fancy, that is. Durban”—she caught the man’s shoulders and shook him in the roadway—“did Vivian Paslow murder Mr Alpenny?”
“Missy!” Durban looked startled, but his eyes sparkled. “No! no! One thousand times no! What makes you think that?”
“The handkerchief—the key,” and Beatrice, producing the handkerchief, told Durban the whole of what had happened. “And I am thankful that Mrs Snow did not see me pick it up,” she finished.
“Wait till we get to The Camp, missy,” said the old servant kindly, and led her along the short distance that intervened between where they had stopped and The Camp itself. Once there, Durban took her to the parlour-carriage and went away. He returned with some orange-blossom water, which is a good nerve tonic, and made her take it. When the girl was more composed, he stood before her with raised finger.
“Missy,” he said gravely, “I have been, and I am, a good friend to you.”
“Yes—yes, I know you are,” she said, with a sigh.
“The reason of my fidelity you shall know some day,” he went on, “and a good reason it is. But you must ask me no more questions until I voluntarily tell you all that it is needful you should know. With regard to Mr Paslow, you can set your mind at rest. He is quite innocent. The handkerchief you found was left behind by him on the day he had that quarrel with Mr Alpenny.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am absolutely certain. I saw it on master’s desk when I went in to get that letter which I was to take to town. As to the key, I got it from Mr Paslow himself.”
“When did you see him?”
“Later on in the day—on that day when we found out the murder,” explained Durban fluently. “I went outside, and found that Mr Paslow was coming in, to see if you had got home safely. He told me that he possessed the key of the small gate, which you had dropped, and gave it to me. I replaced it on the nail in the counting-house, where the Inspector found it. Mr Paslow went to London whenever he heard of the crime, and at my request.”
“But why, Durban?” asked Beatrice, relieved to find that Vivian had not been so callous or neglectful as she had thought.
“I wanted him to see Mr Alpenny’s lawyer, and look after the will,” said Durban steadily. “He wanted to see you; I would not allow that, as you were quite worried enough.”
“But the sight of Vivian would have done me good,” protested the poor girl faintly, for she was quite worn out.
“I can see that now,” said Durban regretfully, “but I thought at the time that it was wiser to keep you quiet. If I had thought that you suspected him, I should have spoken before: but you never mentioned his name, so I deemed it best to be silent. But he is perfectly innocent, and, when he comes back, will be able to tell you where he went after he left you on that night. Meanwhile he is seeing after the will.”
“Is there any need?”
“Every need. I tell you, missy, that even though Mr Alpenny is dead, you are surrounded by scoundrels. But if you get the money—and master swore to me that he would leave you the fortune—you will be absolutely safe.”
“From what, Durban?”
“From the wicked schemes of these people. Major Ruck—” Here Durban checked himself and spoke softly and soothingly. “There! there, missy, ask no more questions. Some day your foolish, old, silly Durban will make things plain. Just now, think only that you will be rich, that you will marry Mr Paslow, and that everything will go well with you.”
Beatrice raised her arms, and dropped them with a helpless air. She seemed to be more than ever surrounded by mysteries, and Durban, who was able to explain, insisted upon holding his tongue. At all events, her mind was set at rest regarding the honesty of Vivian; and she thought it best to take the old servant’s advice, and possess her soul in patience until such time as he chose to tell her the truth, whatever that might be. But it was all very puzzling, and her head ached with the effort to think matters out. After a time Durban persuaded her to lie down, which she did very willingly, being quite prostrate after the terrors of the past few days.
She fell into an uneasy doze, and was awakened by the sound of a much-loved voice. At once she put on her dressing-gown and opened the door. Vivian, looking weary and dispirited, was talking to Durban near at hand, where she could overhear plainly.
“Yes,” he was saying, “Beatrice gets nothing. All the money—quite twenty thousand a year—has been left by Alpenny to Lady Watson.”
“Lady Watson!” cried Beatrice, opening the door; “my mother’s friend?”
Vivian turned away. Durban changed to his usual green pallor, and seemed deeply agitated.
“Yes,” said Durban, “your mother’s friend.” He paused, and then spat on the ground. “Curse her!” said Durban fiercely.
Beatrice stared. At Vivian’s grey drawn face, bereft of youth, and at Durban’s savage green countenance, she looked spell-bound. A pause ensued. Beatrice did not know what to make of the men: Paslow’s averted looks, and worn paleness; Durban’s curse for Lady Watson. Would the fact that she did not inherit the money account for such emotions? She thought not, and so requested information.
“What is it?” she asked, looking from one to the other; but she looked longest at Vivian.
“You have heard, missy,” said Durban, recovering himself somewhat. “We have lost the money.”
“I can bear that, if I lose nothing else,” said Beatrice, her eyes still on Paslow’s grey face.
“But that she should get it!” cried Durban, shaking impotent fists in the air, “after all she has done. And I can do nothing to force her to be fair. Who would have thought the foul old thief would have squandered his gold on her silly face? I could—” Here he caught sight of the frightened looks of Beatrice, and let his hands fall. As he walked past Vivian towards the kitchen, he breathed a sentence in the young man’s ear. “She may know much,” said Durban imperatively, “but not all.”
“Great Heaven! Could I tell her all, do you think?” groaned the man.
Beatrice caught the drift, if not the exact words of these whispers, and came towards Vivian. Durban was already within the kitchen, and had shut the door. The two were alone—she eager to know the worst; he silent, and tortured with much that he could not explain. “Vivian, Vivian,” she continued, and laid her hand on his arm. He shook it off with a shudder. “My dear!” said Beatrice, shrinking back; “oh! my dear,” and she stared with fast-locked hands.
“Not that,” whispered the man, with dry lips. “You might have called me so when we stood under the Witches’ Oak, but now”—he made a despairing gesture—“that is all at an end.”
“Do you take back your proposal of marriage?” asked the girl, colouring.
“I do, because I must.” Vivian looked at her hungrily, as though he would have given his life to take her in his arms—as was, indeed, the case. “If I did not love you so much,” he said hoarsely, “I would lie; but loving you as I do, I must speak the truth.”
“The whole of it?” she asked bitterly.
“So much as I may tell Miss Hedge.”
“I have no right to call you otherwise now,” said Paslow sadly. “I told you of a bar which prevented my asking you to be my wife?”
“Yes; and you said that it had been removed.”
“I was wrong. It is not removed. I had no right to speak.”
“What is this bar?”
“I cannot tell you, Beatrice.” He caught suddenly at her hands. “If I could lie down and die at your dear feet, I would, for my heart is sick within me. I have sinned, and bitterly I am paying for my sin. When I spoke to you under the oak, I was then able to be your true lover, and hoped to be your loving husband. But now”—he flung away her hands—“that barrier which I thought removed, is still between us. I am not a free agent. I dare not ask you to be my wife.”
“But you have asked me, and I have consented,” she panted, red with shame and anger. “Why are you playing with me like this?”
“Why are the gods playing with both of us, you mean,” he said, with a mirthless laugh. “Were you and I on the other side of the world, we might be happy—and yet, even then it would be impossible. I love you, but you have every right to hate me.”
“I don’t understand one word you are talking about,” said Beatrice sharply, and tried to resolve some sense out of his wild words. “Is it that you committed this crime?”
“I!” He started back amazed. “Beatrice, I may be bad, but I am not so evil as that. I hated Alpenny, and had every reason to hate him, but I never laid a finger on the poor wretch. I did not kill him myself, nor can I tell you who killed him. Ah,” he went on, half to himself, “Durban said something of this—about the key of the small gate—but he explained.”
“Is what he said true?”
“Perfectly true. I am innocent. It is not the murder that is a bar to divide us. I could face that out; but there are other things which prevent my being a free agent.”
“Have you a master, then?”
“I have those about me who know too much,” said Vivian fiercely, “and if anything would make me stain my hands with blood, it would be the knowledge that I am the sport of thieves and vagabonds. How it will all end I do not know—for me, that is. But for you, my best and dearest”—he made a step forward, but she evaded him.—“for you, I know the end. You must come to Convent Grange and—”
“Go to the Grange, after what you have said?” she flamed out.
“I shall not trouble you. I shall go to town. You can stay with Dinah and with Mrs Lilly for a time. Then Durban and I will see if we cannot get you some money from Mrs—that is, from Lady Watson.”
“Why should she give it to me?” asked Beatrice, shrugging.
“Because”—he began, then ended abruptly—“I cannot tell you.”
“Vivian”—Beatrice moved swiftly forward and laid a firm hand on his shoulder—“I do not understand all this. Mr Alpenny, poor wretch, hinted at crimes on your part.”
“Do you believe him?” asked Vivian, turning his haggard young face towards her.
“No,” she said firmly. “I love you too well for that.”
“God bless you!” A tear dropped on the hand, which he kissed.
She drew it away. “But you are not open with me; you are not honest with me. If you have troubles, I have a right to share them. Tell me of this barrier.”
“No,” said Vivian firmly. “I cannot. I dare not. All I can say is that the barrier may be removed in time. Only trust me.”
“Has the barrier to do with this crime?”
“In some ways.”
“And with the death of Colonel Hall?”
“What do you know of that?” asked Paslow, amazed.
“Very little; but Mrs Snow hinted—”
“That woman! She’ll make mischief if she can. Don’t trust her. She hates you, Beatrice.”
“Why should she? I hardly know her.”
“But she knows you—that is, she knows of you. To explain what it all means would be to tell you much that I would rather you did not know—that you must never know.”
“I am not a child—”
“You are the woman I love, and therefore I shall not allow your mind to be tainted with—with—with what I could tell you,” he ended rather weakly.
Beatrice reflected for a few minutes. Apparently Vivian was in some trouble connected with other people; possibly—as she guessed—with those scoundrels who surrounded Alpenny, and of whom Durban had talked. For some reason, which she could not guess, he was trying to keep from her things which were vile and evil. She could not think how a young country squire could be involved in Alpenny’s rogueries—which it seemed he was. And then his—but she gave up trying to solve the problem on such evidence as was before her. It only remained that she should use her own eyes, her own intelligence, and maybe, sooner or later, she would arrive at an understanding of things. Then, perhaps, she would be enabled to remove this barrier which stood between them. Strange though Paslow’s conduct was, and open to dire suspicion, she still loved him, and knew in her heart of hearts that she would love him until he died. This being the case, she made up her mind with the swiftness of a woman who is fighting for what she loves best, and looked at him searchingly. He was watching her with anxious eyes, but shifted his gaze to the ground when she looked at him.
“Will you answer me a few questions?” she asked quietly.
“If I can,” he replied, hesitating.
Her lip curled in spite of herself. “You need not be afraid. I shall respect your secret, whatever it is—for the present, that is. Meanwhile, perhaps you will tell me if you know who killed Mr Alpenny?”
“No. I told you before that I did not know.”
“Have you any suspicion?”
“Not even a suspicion,” he answered frankly, and he looked at her as he spoke, so serenely, that she believed him.
“Will you tell me about Colonel Hall’s murder?”
“I know very little about it. I was a child at the time. Mrs Lilly can tell you anything you wish to know. Why do you ask?”
“Because, from what Mrs Snow said, I believe that the first murder of Colonel Hall is connected with the second murder of Mr Alpenny.”
“I don’t believe that,” muttered Vivian, uneasily.
“I do. The murders—both of them—were committed by the man with the black patch. What do you know of that?”
“Nothing, save that I used the words to frighten Alpenny, and found them on the paper laid on my desk.”
“Do you know who laid that paper there?”
“I have not the least idea. The desk is near the window, and that was open. Any one could have passed the paper through the window. I asked Dinah and Mrs Lilly, but neither one of them knew how the paper came to be there.”
“If you remember,” continued Beatrice slowly, “Mr Alpenny muttered something about it being the third time. Well, then, I truly believe that the words you used unconsciously were a warning. Twice he was warned, and on the third warning he expected to be killed. That was why, I believe, he arranged to go up to town, when he was struck down. You were used by someone as the unconscious instrument to give him the warning.”
“I might have been, but—”
“That is,” she added, coming so close to him that he felt her breath on his cheek, “if you really and truly are ignorant of the meaning of the words.”
“I swear that I am,” stammered Vivian, turning red.
“Then your secret has nothing to do with the black patch?”
“No. I am as puzzled as you are over that. Well?”
“Well,” said Beatrice, looking over her shoulder—she had moved towards the door of her bedroom as he spoke—“I intend to go to the Grange, and I do not care whether you stop there or not. The worst is over now. I know that you love me—”
“God knows that I do,” he said hurriedly.
“And He knows that I love you,” she went on steadily. “I don’t care what crimes you have committed, or what stops you from again asking me to be your wife. I love you, and I intend to marry you—”
She threw up her hand to keep him at his distance. “Wait! I intend to solve the mystery of these murders myself. The two are connected; and when I find out who killed these two men, I shall be able to marry you. Is that not so?”
“You need say no more. Tell Dinah that I shall come to the Grange this evening. For the present, good-day.” And she went in and shut the door.
Paslow stood where he was for a moment, then flung himself forward to kiss the wood of the door. “Oh! my love—my love—my heart!” he murmured; “what a dreary, weary way you have marked out for yourself. But I shall follow you along the path of shadows, and perhaps we two will emerge at length into the sunshine.”
He turned away, and, passing the kitchen carriage, knocked at the door sharply. Durban appeared. “I heard everything,” said the servant, who was now more composed.
“And what do you say, knowing what you do know?”
“I say, let missy go on. It may be that God intends her to learn the truth, and right matters.”
“But Lady Watson has the money,” Vivian reminded him.
“She has everything,” said Durban bitterly; “she always did have everything.” Then, with an afterthought, “But what she really wanted, she never got, Mr Paslow.”
“And what was that?”
“Never mind. Least said, soonest mended. I will tell missy nothing, and you must hold your tongue also. Only let us guard her from danger.”
“I don’t think there is danger for her, Durban.”
“Ah—hum—one never knows. There are those—but no matter. Let her go her ways. It may be that she may learn the truth, and put things straight.”
“She can never put them straight for me,” said Vivian bitterly.
“I can do that,” said Durban. “Let missy go to the Grange. I go to London. You will have news from me.”
Paslow caught his arm as he turned to go. “You will not—”
“I am too fond of my neck for that,” said Durban, and went into his kitchen, while Vivian, full of sore thoughts and yet with a certain glimmer of hope, now that Beatrice was to take a hand in the game, went home to Dinah.
Beatrice packed her boxes and got ready to go. By five o’clock she was hatted and cloaked, and a trap was waiting at the gates to take her to Convent Grange along with her luggage. Alpenny was to be buried on the morrow, but it was just as well that Miss Hedge should leave The Camp to-night. But she was not to go yet for an hour, for scarcely had she reached the open gates, when a small lady, fashionably dressed, entered, and came straight towards her. When Durban saw her, he frowned. “Lady Watson!” he breathed in the ear of his young mistress.
“She seems anxious to take possession of her property,” said the girl bitterly, and looked carefully at the woman who had supplanted her in the race for Alpenny’s wealth.
Lady Watson looked—in the distance—like a child, so small and delicate and slender did she appear. But when she came close, which she did, with an engaging smile, Beatrice saw that her face was covered with innumerable fine wrinkles, and that she was painted and powdered, and made up—as the saying is—to within an inch of her life. Her hair was dyed a golden colour; she wore a veil to hide the too obvious make-up of her face; and the only young thing about her were a pair of sparkling eyes, of a bright brown. At one time she had been—without the aid of art—an extremely pretty woman: even now—with the aid of art—she looked attractive and youthful, providing she was looked at from a safe distance, like an oil-painting. Her dress was ultra-fashionable, and she wore it with the air of a woman accustomed to spend no end of money in drapers’ shops. Her teeth were good, but probably were false, as was her smile. Beatrice, a straightforward person herself, took an instinctive dislike to this gushing little mass of affectation, which came mincing towards her. She had no wish to cultivate the acquaintance. But Lady Watson gave her no time to express her dislike, either by looks or in words.
“My dear child—my sweet Beatrice,” she cried, in a rather shrill voice, and sailing forward with eager, outstretched hands, “how glad I am to see you at last! That dreadful Mr Alpenny—he never would allow me to come and see you, although I was your mother’s dearest—very dearest and closest friend. But then the poor creature is dead; and he really wasn’t a nice person, when all is said and done.”
“Mrs Snow told me that you were my mother’s friend,” replied Beatrice gravely, and surrendering her hands to the eager grasp. “I am glad to see you, as I wish to talk about my mother.”
“Oh!” Lady Watson started, and cast a suspicious look on the grave young face. “Then you are not glad to see me on my own account?”
“I scarcely know you, Lady Watson.”
“Ah, but you will soon. I am a very easy person to get on with, as Durban knows. Dear old Durban”—she turned a smiling glance at the half-caste, who looked gloomily at the ground—“he is as young as ever.—It is long since we met, Durban?”
“Very long, madam,” said Durban coldly, his eyes still on the ground, and Beatrice saw his hands opening and shutting as though he could scarcely keep them from Lady Watson’s throat.
“Well, well, we won’t talk of the past just yet—it is unpleasant, my dear Durban,” and she gave a pretty little shudder. Durban made no reply in words, but, raising his eyes, looked at her meaningly. She shuddered again, this time with genuine terror, and turned pale under her rouge. Beatrice wondered what secret there could be between the two—the fashionable lady and the poor servant.
“Still the same gloomy thing,” tittered Lady Watson, passing her flimsy handkerchief across a pair of dry lips; “you always were, you know, Durban. The Colonel—but there”—as Durban looked at her again—“we’ll not talk of the past, but of the future.—Of course, dear Miss Hedge, you know that poor Mr Alpenny left me his money?”
“I understand so,” said Beatrice coldly.
“And, naturally, you are annoyed?”
“No. Before his death Mr Alpenny gave me to understand that he would not leave me any money. You perhaps had a greater claim on him than I, Lady Watson.”
The other tittered, and avoided Durban’s eyes. “Oh dear me, no. The poor creature—Mr Alpenny, you know—was in love with me ages and ages ago, long before I married Sir Reginald. But Reginald is dead, and so is Mr Alpenny—everyone seems to die—so dreadful, you know, Miss Hedge—or rather I should say Beatrice. I shall call you Beatrice, since we are to be friends, and live together.”
“Oh! haven’t I told you? I am such a feather-head. Yes. Whenever I found that poor Mr Alpenny—queer creature, wasn’t he?—had left me his money, I said I would come down and ask you to be my companion—my child, in fact, if I may put it so. You shall have everything you want. I must have someone to look after the house, as the servants are so tiresome, and I am a lonely woman without a chick or child.”
“Miss Hedge is going to Convent Grange,” said Durban thickly.
Lady Watson started and again turned pale. “That horrid place!” she said faintly.
“Why do you call it that?” asked Beatrice quickly.
“There was a horrid murder committed there ages ago. I was in the house at the time, and—”
“Madam,” interposed Durban sharply; “please do not tell Miss Hedge anything more. She has had enough horrors for the time being.”
Lady Watson looked straight at Durban, and he looked straight at her. The situation was adjusted between them without words, and although Beatrice protested that she wished to hear about the earlier crime, the frivolous little woman declined to say another word.
“How can one talk of such things in the midst of such lovely scenery as you have here?” she cried, and put up a tortoise-shell lorgnette to survey The Camp. “Quite delicious. I shall make this a kind of country-house. So odd, you know, with all these railway carriages. Dear Mr Alpenny! he was so very queer in his tastes. But I’ll come here with you, dearest Beatrice, and we’ll garden and live like milkmaids—like Marie Antoinette, you know. Rural life—delicious.”
“I am going to live at the Grange, Lady Watson.”
“But I want you to be my companion. I insist.” Lady Watson spoke with some sharpness, as apparently she was a lady not accustomed to be thwarted in her wishes.
“I have arranged to live at the Grange,” said Beatrice, and Durban nodded his approval; “for a time, that is. Afterwards, I intend to go out as a governess.”
“What! With that face and figure? You foolish girl, I won’t allow it. You must enter society on my money—or rather on that poor creature’s, Alpenny’s, money—and marry and—”
“I don’t think you have any right to tell me what to do, Lady Watson,” said Beatrice, annoyed by this imperious air.
“As your mother’s dearest friend?”
“I don’t recognise that as an authority. But if you will give, me your address in town, I’ll come and see you and talk about my dear mother. I want to know everything about her.”
“I can tell you nothing,” said Lady Watson tartly; “that is, I won’t, unless you come as my companion.”
“Lady Watson, I thank you very much for your offer; but I go to the Grange, and as I am already overdue, I must leave you now. Good-day.”
She held out her hand, which Lady Watson waved aside. “You provoking girl, I won’t say good-day. I am stopping with Mrs Snow, and will come and see you at the Grange. Give me a kiss”; and before Beatrice could stop her, Lady Watson kissed her warmly. When the little woman drew back, Beatrice saw to her surprise that the bright brown eyes were filled with tears.
The funeral was over, and Jarvis Alpenny was buried beside the wife whom—according to rumour—he had so cruelly neglected. The excitement about his mysterious death was apparently buried with him, and Hurstable again became a somnolent hamlet, devoid of news and intelligence. In spite of every effort, the police were unable to trace the man with the black patch. No one seemed to know anything about him, and he had vanished as completely as though the earth had swallowed him up. The local and London papers made their usual crass remarks about the inactivity and uselessness of the police, and, save in a rare paragraph, ceased to notice the matter. The murder was only a nine hours’ wonder after all.
Lady Watson went away from the Rectory without calling upon Beatrice, as she had promised. Perhaps this was because she had unpleasant recollections of Convent Grange, or perhaps on account of a short conversation she had with Durban after Beatrice left The Camp. But whatever might be her reason, she did not again ask Miss Hedge to become her companion, nor did she call or even write. With her twenty thousand a year she returned to London, and left The Camp in charge of Durban, who still continued to inhabit his old quarters. Sometimes he came over to see Beatrice, and appeared to be more devoted than ever to the girl. But he said nothing about the various mysteries he had hinted at, nor did Beatrice inquire very closely what they might be. She saw very plainly that both Durban and Vivian were determined that she should know as little as possible—for what reason she could not imagine—and therefore, in pursuance of her determination, she cast about to find some path which might lead to a discovery of the truth, whatever that might be. She wished to learn who had killed Alpenny, and thought that, by examining into his past life, she might be able to learn something of his enemies. Once she discovered who disliked him, and the reason of such dislike, she fancied that she might lay her hand on the assassin. But there was no one to tell her of Alpenny’s past, as both Durban and Vivian kept silent. But as, according to Mrs Snow, the murderer of Colonel Hall was the assassin of Jarvis Alpenny, Beatrice determined to learn all she could about the earlier crime, in the hope that her discoveries in that direction might enable her to elucidate the mystery of the later murder.
Mrs Lilly was the best person to apply to for a history of Colonel Hall’s untimely fate, as she had been housekeeper to the Paslows for many, many years. Beatrice, during the first fortnight of her stay, hinted that she would like to hear about the tragedy, and Mrs Lilly, after some hesitation, promised to tell her what she knew. Accordingly, Beatrice, two weeks after the burial of her stepfather, was seated in the Grange garden waiting for the housekeeper. Mrs Lilly had first to attend to her work, but promised that as soon as it was ended she would come out and chat. As Dinah had gone over to the Rectory to see Mrs Snow, Beatrice was quite alone. She did not count Vivian, as he scarcely stopped an entire day at the Grange, and very rarely a night. Some business took him constantly to London, but what it might be the girl could not guess. After that abrupt conversation in The Camp, the two said very little to one another. It was a strange wooing, and extremely unsatisfactory.
The garden of Convent Grange was delightful, as was the house, although both were somewhat dilapidated. The ancient red brick mansion had been—as Mrs Snow had informed Beatrice—a convent in the reign of that arch-iconoclast, Henry VIII. When his greedy hand was laid upon ecclesiastical property, he had bestowed the convent on Amyas Paslow, who promptly turned out the nuns, to house himself and his family. But there was some curse on the place and on the race, for the family never prospered overmuch, and when the property came to Vivian Paslow, he was as poor as an English gentleman of long descent well can be. Nevertheless, he still clung to the old mansion, although he could have sold it at an advantageous price to an American millionaire. In some wonderful way he managed to scrape enough money together to pay the interest on the mortgage to Alpenny, and thus had kept a roof over his head and that of Dinah. Lately, as he had told Beatrice under the oak, he had inherited a small sum of money from an aunt, and thus things were easier with him. The girl fancied that it must be business connected with the paying-off of the mortgage that took him so often to London; but on this point he gave her no information.
The day was hot and drowsy, and Beatrice, clothed in black—for she paid her stepfather the compliment of wearing mourning—sat on an old stone seat, between two yew trees cut in the shape of peacocks. Before her, on a slight rise, rose the mellow brick walls of the Grange, covered with ivy. A terrace ran along the front of the house, and over the door was the mouldering escutcheon of the Paslow family. What with the queer pointed roofs, the twisted stacks of chimneys, the diamond-paned casements, and the prim gardens, the place looked particularly delightful. A poet could have dreamed away his days in this rustic paradise, and Beatrice felt as though she were in the land of the Lotos-eaters. But even as she slipped into vague dreams, she pulled herself up, and shunned the enchanted ground. There was sterner work to do than dreaming. Before she could become the mistress of this castle of indolence, and wife of its master, it was necessary to lift the cloud which rested on the place. To do so, she would have to begin by questioning Mrs Lilly, and impatiently awaited the arrival of that worthy soul.
Towards noon Mrs Lilly appeared on the terrace, and sailed down the broad garden-path between the lines of brilliant flowers. She was stout and comely, with white hair and a winter-apple face. A very honest, pleasant old woman was Mrs Lilly, but behind the times. It was her boast that she had never been away from the Weald of Sussex for one solitary day out of a long length of years; and she had no patience—as she frequently stated—with the new-fangled notions of modern life (of which, it may be remarked incidentally, she knew no more than a child unborn!). Beatrice looked at the housekeeper’s worn black silk dress, at her lace cap and voluminous apron, and acknowledged that Mrs Lilly was a picturesque figure, who might have stepped out of the pages of a Christmas Number. The very model of a pompous, narrow-minded, honest, kindly old English servant.
“Well, my dear,” said Mrs Lilly, who looked on the three young people as children and addressed them accordingly, “I’ve got through my work. And a wonder it is, seeing that Polly and Molly”—these were the two servants—“are so lazy. But I have had the rooms brushed, and the dinner is ordered, and everything is in apple-pie order; so here I am ready for a rest.” And she sat down beside Beatrice with a groan, remarking on the stiffness of her joints.
“You won’t have much rest with me, Mrs Lilly,” laughed Beatrice, who, knowing the old lady well for some years, was quite familiar with her. “Have you got your knitting?” Mrs Lilly was always knitting when off domestic duty. “Oh! here it is. Now make yourself comfortable, you dear old thing, and talk.”
“What about?” asked Mrs Lilly, mounting her spectacles, and beginning to click the needles.
“Colonel Hall’s death.”
“Oh! my dear,” said the housekeeper with dismay; “do you really wish me to tell you about that horrid thing?”
“Of course; and you promised to do so.”
“But wouldn’t you rather hear about the ghost?” said Mrs Lilly in coaxing tones; “that’s an old family legend, and ever so much nicer.”
“No. Colonel Hall’s death, or nothing.”
“Why do you wish to know?”
Beatrice evaded this question dexterously, not thinking it wise to admit Mrs Lilly into her confidence too largely. “Oh! Mrs Snow talked a lot about it at the inquest.”
“I heard about that, my dear. Strange that your stepfather should have been murdered by a man with a black patch over his left eye!”
“You agree with Mrs Snow, then?”
“That the same man committed the other murder?” queried Mrs Lilly musingly. “I can hardly say that. Certainly a black patch, that could have been worn over an eye, was found on the grass under Colonel Hall’s window the morning after his murder, but—”
“The man was not seen, then?” interrupted Beatrice.
“No. Only from the presence of the black patch, the detective who had charge of the case thought it had been worn for the purpose of disguise. There was a great stir about the matter, as Colonel Hall was well known as a Government official. He came from some West Indian island, I believe, where he was Administrator or something,” ended Mrs Lilly vaguely.
“Well, then, tell me all from the beginning. Mrs Snow has very little to go on, if that is all about the black patch. I saw Mr Alpenny’s murderer wearing it, you know; but neither Mrs Snow nor any one else saw Colonel Hall’s assassin with it on.”
Mrs Lilly nodded. “I heard of your experience. My dear, you should not run about the woods at night: it isn’t ladylike I wonder you didn’t faint with horror when you saw the man!”
“I should have, had I known of this theory about Colonel Hall having been killed by such a man. As it was, I felt too worn-out to be startled by anything. Where ignorance is bliss. Go on, Mrs Lilly; tell me all Mrs Snow does not know.”
“I think she knows a very great deal,” remarked the housekeeper viciously. “I never could bear that lady—a sour, bad-tempered woman if ever there was one. She was a governess, you know. Yes; she and Mrs Hall were at school together, and Mrs Hall made her a kind of companion. After the murder, and when Mrs Hall went back to the West Indies, Mrs Snow—a Miss Duncan she was then—stopped on and married the rector, who was a fool. I am quite sure he has regretted ever since that he made her his wife.”
“I don’t like Mrs Snow myself,” said Beatrice thoughtfully. “And who is this Lady Watson who knew my mother?”
“I cannot tell you. I have never set eyes on her. Some school friend of Mrs Snow’s, I dare say. Mrs Snow always said everybody had been to school with her. I believe she told lies,” finished Mrs Lilly with great contempt.
“Tell me about Mrs Hall and the Colonel?”
“He was a tall, handsome man, very kind, and stately in his bearing, my dear. Mr Paslow—the father of Master Vivian—knew him very well, and asked him to stop here.”
“With Mrs Hall?”
“Yes. But Mrs Hall only came for one night, and that was the night of the murder. I don’t think she got on well with her husband.”
“What was she like to look at?”
“A small dark woman, very grave, and sparing of words. I think she had something on her mind. She seemed to be very much afraid of her husband, and rarely spoke to him. She came down with a one-year-old baby, and a nurse—a delicate-looking woman, far gone in consumption, poor soul.”
“Just like my mother,” said Beatrice; “she died of consumption, you know, Mrs Lilly. At least Mr Alpenny said so.”
“I never saw your mother, my dear. Mr Alpenny married a few weeks after the murder, and took Mrs Hedge, as I understand she was called, to The Camp. She never came out, and no one ever saw her. When she was buried, everyone was quite amazed to hear that Mr Alpenny had a wife—though, of course, it was hinted that he had married. He was deeply in love with Mrs Hall, you know.”
“Lady Watson says he was deeply in love with her.”
“I don’t believe the man was deeply in love with any one save himself,” declared Mrs Lilly sharply. “I detested him, and say so, even though he is dead and your father.”
“My stepfather,” corrected Miss Hedge. “I did not like him myself, Mrs Lilly. He was a cruel man.”
“He was, and had far too much influence with the old master. It was then that he got the mortgage on the Grange, which is such a trouble to Master Vivian. But perhaps Lady Watson will not be so hard to satisfy as Mr Alpenny, and Master Vivian may be able to arrange, as he has inherited this little sum of money from his aunt. I wish he was clear of all these difficulties,” ended Mrs Lilly, with a sigh.
“Go on. You have not said a thing about the murder.”
“I wonder Durban did not tell you about the matter. He was Colonel Hall’s servant, you know.”
Beatrice started to her feet, quite amazed by this intelligence. “Do you mean to say that Durban was Colonel Hall’s servant?” she asked.
“Didn’t you hear me say so?” said Mrs Lilly tartly.
“Yes; but he never explained that to me.”
“There was no need to. Besides, Durban doesn’t like to speak of the murder of his master. He was the Colonel’s servant, and came with him from the West Indies. Any one can see that Durban has black blood in him.”
“It is all very strange,” murmured the girl, sitting down again.
“Well, I thought so myself, as Durban never liked Mr Alpenny. However, when the Colonel was buried, and Mrs Hall went back to the West Indies with the baby, Durban stopped on, and when Mr Alpenny married Mrs Hedge, went to serve at The Camp.”
“He has been a good friend to me,” said Beatrice ponderingly. “I wonder why?”
“He was a good friend to your mother also, I heard. I asked Durban about your mother’s marriage, and about your real father, Mr Hedge, but he never would tell me anything.”
“It is strange,—strange,” mused Beatrice, quite perplexed over this tangled story. “And the murder?”
Mrs Lilly wasted no more time, but plunged at once into the middle of the story, which Beatrice heard to the end without interrupting her more than was absolutely necessary. “Colonel Hall came down here to stop, as I said,” resumed the old lady, “being a dear friend of my late master. Durban was with him, and Mr Alpenny was in the house at the time. Later on, Mrs Hall came down with the baby and the nurse, and with Mrs Snow, who was then Miss Duncan; but that was not for a week. Colonel Hall had a necklace of diamonds that he had brought from the West Indies; it was valued at ten thousand pounds, and was called the Obi necklace, as there was some legend attached to it.”
“Obi is African witchcraft,” said Beatrice.
“Like enough,” said Mrs Lilly indifferently. “Colonel Hall had a lot to do with the black people. My master, Mr Paslow, warned the Colonel that he might have the necklace stolen; but the Colonel laughed at him. It was in a green box which he kept beside his bed. The box contained official papers, and also the Obi necklace. I understand that Colonel Hall intended to give it to his wife; but as there was some difference between them, he did not give it to her. But when she came down, she asked him for it. He refused, and was sharp with her, so she went to bed in tears. Colonel Hall also retired at ten o’clock. The next morning he was found dead in his bed with his throat cut, and the Obi necklace was gone.”
“What happened, then?” asked Beatrice, breathlessly.
“The police were called in. Mrs Hall was in a fright, and grew so ill that she had to be taken up to town and put in some hospital. I know that she went from one fainting fit into another, and the doctor said that she would die unless she was taken out of the house. So she and the baby and the nurse were bundled off to town. Mrs Snow—Miss Duncan, that is—stopped on with Durban. The police could find nothing.”
“They found the black patch?”
“Yes; and there were rumours of a man wearing such a patch having been seen in the neighbourhood. Colonel Hall always slept with his window open, as he was mad on the subject of fresh air. His bedroom was on the first floor of the west wing, and the ivy offered a foothold to any one who wanted to climb up. As the black patch was found on the grass below the window, it was believed that the assassin climbed up the ivy and tried to steal the necklace. Colonel Hall must have awakened: but before he could give the alarm, he was stunned in some way.”
“Just like Mr Alpenny,” murmured Beatrice.
“When he was stunned, the assassin cut the poor man’s throat,” continued Mrs Lilly, shuddering. “Ugh! it was a sight. Then the murderer went off with the necklace. The police tried to trace him by that, but could not do so. I expect the necklace was broken up and the stones were sold separately.”
“The assassin was never caught?”
“Never. And it is nearly five-and-twenty years ago, so I don’t expect he ever will be caught.”
“He may be, now that he has committed a second crime.”
Mrs Lilly laid down her knitting and removed her spectacles. “Do you believe it is the same man?”
“The crimes are so similar, that I believe it is,” said the girl earnestly. “Colonel Hall was stunned, and then his throat was cut; Mr Alpenny was treated in the same way. Colonel Hall was robbed of this necklace; Mr Alpenny was robbed also. And yet,” added Beatrice, looking at Mrs Lilly, “I don’t believe that in either case robbery was the motive for the crime.”
“What other motive could there be?” asked Mrs Lilly, amazed.
“Revenge of some sort, in both cases. Both the victims were stunned, and so the plunder could have been easily carried off safely. But in each case the assassin cut the throats of his victims. That looks like revenge.”
Mrs Lilly resumed her knitting and shook her head. “I can tell you nothing more,” she said, after a pause. “Orchard might know a lot—I always thought that he did.”
“Who is Orchard?”
“He was our butler at the time, and afterwards went to be a shepherd on the Downs yonder,” and Mrs Lilly nodded towards the high range of hills spreading fair and green in the sunlight.
Beatrice started. “Mrs Snow said something about that,” she observed, thoughtfully. “Why did the man become a shepherd? So odd!”
“It is odd—I always thought it was odd,” said Mrs Lilly; “but, you see, the sight of the body—Colonel Hall’s body—gave poor Orchard a kind of fit, and the doctor said he would have to live in the open air. At all events he left the house, and when we next heard of him he was a shepherd on the Downs. He is well known, I believe, and is alive still. I have never seen him from that day to this, but I daresay if you went up yonder and inquired, you would see him. He may know something more than I do.”
“I shall certainly see him,” said Beatrice. “I want to learn all I can about this case.”
Before Mrs Lilly could reply, a shadow fell on the sward before them. They looked up to see a small, dirty, red-haired man leering at them in an affable way.
“Morning, lydies,” said this creature; “I’m Waterloo!”
“A tramp!” said Mrs Lilly, with dignified disgust. “However did he get in here?”
“I ain’t no tramp, lydies,” said the man, twisting a piece of straw in his rabbit mouth. “I’ve got a ‘ouse in town, an’ a box in Scotlan’, an’ a yatsh at Cowes, I ‘ave. Blimme me, if I ain’t a gent at large, and devoted”—he bowed and leered—“to the genteel sect.”
Beatrice looked at him with a shiver. He wore a suit of clothes too large for him, a dirty red wisp round his lean throat, and carpet slippers bound with string to his large feet. He was of no great height, and his shock of red hair made him look even smaller. His face was clean-shaven, or rather it ought to have been, for apparently it had not been touched by a razor for quite a week. Twisting the straw in his mouth, and a ragged cricketing cap in his hairy hands, he straddled with his short legs and leered impudently. It was the animal eyes of the man that made Beatrice shiver: they were green and shallow, like those of a bird, and the expression in them was evil in the extreme. The creature evidently had been steeped in iniquity from his cradle, and the foulness of his presence marred the perfect beauty of that still garden sleeping in the sunshine, so clean and wholesome.
“What do you want?” asked Miss Hedge sharply and shortly.
“I wos jest atellin’ y’,” said Waterloo—as he called himself—and his voice rasped like a file. “I wants t’see Mr Paslow.”
“He is in town,” snapped Mrs Lilly, surveying the creature with still deeper disgust. “Have you a message for him?”
Waterloo laid a warty finger on one side of his pug nose, and winked in a horribly familiar manner. “Thet’s tellin’s,” said he, grinning, “an’ not evin’ to th’ sect I’m so fond of, does I give myself away. Oh no, not at all, by no means, you dear things.”
“Go away,” cried Beatrice, putting her handkerchief to her nose, for the atmosphere was tainted by the presence of the man; “if you don’t, I’ll call Durban.” This was a happy inspiration, as she knew that Durban was on the premises.
The man’s eyes flashed still more wickedly. “Ho, yuss! by all means, miss. Call ‘im, and you’ll see wot you’ll see.” He spat out the straw, and produced a black pipe, which he stuck in his mouth. “I kin wyte.”
“You’ll be ducked in the horse-pond, you beast,” said Mrs Lilly, growing red with anger. “I’ll hand you over to the police, and—”
“Durban! Durban!” called out Beatrice, who caught a glimpse of the servant round the corner of the terrace, and at once he came running down the steps. “Who is this man, Durban?”
“How dare you come here?” said Durban, advancing threateningly on the small man, who cringed and whined. “You were told not to come here at least a dozen times.”
“Lor’!” whimpered the little man, now subdued and servile; “wot a fuss you do meke, Mr Durban, sir. I come fur Mr Paslow, I does.”
“Send him away, Durban,” cried Beatrice with great disgust.
Durban lifted one finger, and at once the tramp went slinking away like a dog with its tail between its legs. And like a dog he halted at the hedge which divided the drive from the garden, and showed his teeth in an evil snarl. Beatrice could see the flash of white, and could guess that he was snapping like a mad cur.
“Who on earth is that?” she asked Durban, when the man finally disappeared behind the hedge.
Durban looked pale, and wiped his face with a shaking hand. “He’s a creature who did some dirty work for the late master.”
“For Mr Paslow?” demanded Mrs Lilly, who always spoke of Vivian’s father in that way.
“For Mr Alpenny,” explained Durban, becoming more himself. “He is an old scoundrel of nearly sixty years of age.”
“He doesn’t look it,” said Beatrice.
“Strange as it may seem to you, missy, Waterloo has his vanity. He wears a wig, and his teeth are false. But he is old and wicked, and has been no end of times in prison. Mr Alpenny employed him to do some business in the slums, and he was several times down at The Camp. I think he’s a thief.”
“I never saw him before, Durban.”
“And you’ll never see him again, missy,” said the old servant emphatically. “Mr Alpenny, as I told you, had to do with a lot of rogues and vagabonds, as many a money-lender has. But that sort of thing is all done with. Waterloo will never trouble you again.”
“I am glad of that,” said the girl, who was quite pale. “His presence seemed to taint the air. What a horrible man!”
“Why does he want to see Mr Vivian?” asked Mrs Lilly sharply.
Durban wheeled quickly. “He wants to see Mr Paslow, does he? H’m! I wonder why that is?”
“I am quite sure you can explain,” said Beatrice, who was piqued at being always kept in the dark.
Durban cast a look of pain on her, but replied quietly enough, “Perhaps I do, missy. Mr Paslow, as I told you, had something to do with my late master’s business.”
“I never knew that,” said Beatrice, remembering what Alpenny had hinted about Vivian’s crimes.
“Ridiculous!” cried Mrs Lilly, bristling. “Master Vivian is a gentleman, and would not meddle with your Alpennys and Waterloos.—Begging your pardon, my young lady, since Mr Alpenny was your father.”
“My stepfather,” corrected Beatrice again.—“Well, Durban, if you won’t tell me, I’ll ask Mr Paslow myself.”
“Do, missy; I am quite sure he can explain. And don’t trouble your pretty head any more about Waterloo, as there is trouble enough in the house now.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked the girl, her heart giving a bound.
Durban pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “I was coming to look for you,” he said, “and I am glad that you called me. Major Ruck is in the drawing-room.”
“Who is he?” asked Mrs Lilly.
“He was a friend of my late master’s.”
“Then I hope he is a more respectable friend than the one we have seen,” said the housekeeper indignantly. “Mercy me and all the silver and china ornaments in the drawing-room!” and she hurried towards the house.
“It is all right, Mrs Lilly; you will find Major Ruck quite a gentleman, and very presentable. He is a friend of Lady Watson’s too.”
But Mrs Lilly never waited to hear this explanation. As fast as her stoutness would allow her, she ran up the steps of the terrace and disappeared round the corner. Left alone with Durban, Beatrice asked the question which had been burning her lips ever since she heard that the Major was within. “Why has he come, Durban?”
“To ask you to marry him,” said Durban grimly.
“But I don’t know him,” said Beatrice, alarmed.
“He knows you, missy—that is, he has seen your picture. Mr Alpenny promised him that you should be his wife, and, as I told you, he will not let you slip through his fingers if he can help it.”
“Durban,” said the girl, after a pause, “I quite understand that Major Ruck wanted to marry me when I was supposed to be the heiress of Mr Alpenny; but now that I am poor—”
“He has seen your photograph,” said Durban again, and meaningly.
“And you think that he is in love with me?”
“Yes, missy, so far as he understands love.”
“What is the meaning of all these things?” said Beatrice sharply. “I don’t understand what is at the back of such mysteries. What do you know, Durban? Be open with me.”
“I will be this much open,” said the half-caste, his nostrils dilating, and his fist opening and shutting, “that there are rogues about. I cannot tell you everything, because it would be dangerous.”
“To me?” said the girl, placing her hands on his shoulders.
“To you, to me, to Mr Paslow, to others of whom I could tell you. Never ask, missy. When the time comes you will know all, and then you will find a very good reason for my caution.”
“I am in the dark,” said Beatrice, letting her hands fall from the man’s shoulders. “I do not understand. Do you wish me to accept Major Ruck’s proposal?”
“No! no! no!” cried Durban vehemently; “refuse him. Mr Paslow will be here within half an hour. I wonder that he has not come before now, as he must have returned here by the same train as Major Ruck came down by. Wait for Mr Paslow, missy. “
“For what reason?” asked Beatrice, more bewildered than ever.
“You will see—you will see,” said Durban eagerly. “All will be well if you refuse to listen to Major Ruck. Come in; he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
In his eagerness, Durban caught her hand and drew her unresistingly along the lawn in the direction of the terrace. Beatrice allowed him to do so. Notwithstanding the mystery which involved the actions of Durban, she had known him too long, and had experienced his devotion too often, to mistrust him. But she felt like an actress playing a part in a drama, of which she did not know the plot All she had to do at present was to refuse Major Ruck—which was easy, as she never in her wildest dreams had contemplated the idea of marrying a man whom she had never seen. Then she would wait for the arrival of Vivian, and demand from him an explanation. But of one thing she was certain—that in some way she must learn the dreadful truth that lurked at the back of all these mysteries, if she was to enjoy a quiet life.
When she entered the drawing-room, she found her visitor standing before the window with his hands behind his back, looking out approvingly at the green lawns which bordered the drive. He was a gigantic man of six feet four, and stout in proportion. His face, when he wheeled round at the sound of her footsteps, was like a red sun, large and round, and set off by a long pair of tawny moustaches touched with grey. His closely-cropped hair was also fair and mixed with grey. He had twinkling blue eyes and a jovial expression, and his tweed suit was well made in a moderately fashionable style. In fact, the Major looked what Alpenny declared him to be—a retired army officer, of a kindly disposition.
“Miss Hedge?” said the giant, advancing with an easy grace astonishing in so large a man.
“I am Beatrice Hedge,” replied the girl, looking at him keenly, and taking in every detail of his personality.
“ I am Cornelius Ruck—that is, Major Ruck,” said the visitor. “No doubt my poor friend, Mr Alpenny, spoke of me?”
“He did,” said Beatrice, resolved to say as little as possible.
“Will you not permit me to offer you a chair?” said Ruck, casting an admiring glance at her beautiful face. Beatrice, seeing no good reason to refuse, accepted the seat he brought forward. Then Ruck sat down on a near sofa with his back to the window, and resumed the conversation with great coolness. Beatrice, although prejudiced against him from what her stepfather had said, liked his voice and the well-bred manner he possessed. All the same she was on her guard. No doubt Major Ruck would betray the cloven hoof before the interview was at an end.
“Poor Alpenny!” said the Major, leaning back on the sofa and twisting his gloves idly. “I was at school with him, and with Mr Paslow also.”
“Vivian?” asked Beatrice involuntarily.
Major Ruck laughed. “With his father. My dear young lady, I am old enough to have Vivian for a son. Paslow, Alpenny and myself were at Rugby a very long time ago. I am old enough to be your father, and yet,” said the Major insinuatingly, as he leaned forward with a smile, “I have come to offer myself as a husband.”
“Mr Alpenny told me before he died that you were likely to do so,” said Beatrice, quite at her ease, and mistress of the situation; “but I cannot guess, Mr Ruck—”
“Major Ruck—retired!” said that gentleman.
“I cannot guess, Major,” replied Beatrice, making the amendment, “why you should wish to marry me, whom you have never seen.”
“Pardon me. I have seen your photograph, which was shown to me by my late friend, poor Alpenny. Also,” said the Major, with emphasis, “one day I came to The Camp, and Alpenny showed you to me.”
“That is impossible,” said Beatrice, wondering if he was lying. “I have always been at The Camp, and I never saw you.”
“You were asleep, my dear young lady—asleep in a hammock under the trees. My friend Alpenny,” added the Major, smiling, “was good enough to offer me a sight of the Sleeping Beauty. I fell in love with you on the spot. Mr Alpenny, as we were old friends, was not averse to my asking you to be my wife; and, indeed, but for his untimely death, I should have come down to propose in a more reasonable way.”
“No way can be reasonable in this case, Major. You say you know me?”
“From a sight of you in the hammock, from your photograph, and from the fact that my late friend, poor Alpenny, gave me a very vivid conception of your charming character.”
“You seemed to have talked me over thoroughly between you,” said the girl, her face flushing.
“We did,” confessed Ruck candidly. “I wanted to know if your character was as charming as your face, and as fine as your figure. I was told by Mr Alpenny that your character transcended both.”
“I think you must be Irish, Major, you speak so glibly”
“I was quartered in Ireland once,” said Ruck coolly, “and not far from the celebrated Blarney Stone. At least, Miss Hedge, I hope I speak sufficiently glibly to explain thoroughly the reason I wish you to be my wife.”
In spite of her vexation, Beatrice could not be angry with the man. His manners were so charming, his voice so fascinating, and his whole attitude so devoid of anything approaching rudeness, that she was compelled to keep her temper. “I don’t think I quite understand,” she said at length, and suppressed a smile.
Ruck lifted his eyebrows. “Surely, my dear young lady, your glass tells you the reason? I have an eye for beauty. I have also an independent income of two thousand a year, and a small house in Yorkshire. I belonged to a good club; and you will find my career is well known, as regards the army.”
“You are a very eligible suitor!” said Beatrice, with some scorn.
“In that case, I trust you will accept me,” said the Major, with easy assurance, “and especially as your late father wished that the marriage should take place.”
“I must decline, Major. Mr Alpenny was my stepfather, and no blood relation of mine. There was little love lost between us. Again, I am poor—Lady Watson has Mr Alpenny’s money.”
“A very charming lady, whom I know intimately. I am glad she has the money and not you, Miss Hedge, as you can acquit me of mercenary motives.”
“Yes. But I don’t see why you wish to marry me.”
“I can give you three reasons. Your beauty, one”—the Major checked off his remarks on his fingers; “the wish of my late friend, poor Alpenny, two; and the strong desire of Lady Watson, three.”
“What has Lady Watson to do with my marriage?” asked Beatrice in a fiery tone.
“She was your mother’s best friend, and—”
“That gives her no right to interfere,” cried Miss Hedge, rising. “I thank you, Major Ruck, for your proposal, but I must decline.”
“No! no! Don’t send me away with a broken heart, Miss Hedge.”
“Men like you do not break their hearts, Major.”
“There’s some truth in that,” admitted the Major; “our hearts are too tough. But, seriously speaking,” he added, and his jovial countenance became grave, “you will be wise to marry me.”
“On the three grounds you mentioned?” asked Beatrice disdainfully.
“On a fourth ground—or rather, I should say, for a fourth reason, Miss Hedge—I can protect you.”
“I’ll tell you when you are Mrs Ruck.”
“I have no intention of being Mrs Ruck,” retorted the girl, her courage rising, as she felt that she was being driven into a corner; “and I do not understand these hints of danger, which are given to me so freely.”
“I gave you only one hint,” said Ruck, his eyes on her face.
“Mr Paslow and Durban have given me others. What does it all mean?”
“I should advise you to ask the two men you have mentioned,” said Ruck, taking up his hat, “unless, indeed, you will change your mind and become the star of my life. As my wife, you will know everything; as Miss Hedge, I fear you must be kept in the dark. Come now, Miss Hedge, be advised. I am speaking for your good. I am a gentleman, well-off and passable in looks. Why do you refuse me?”
“I can explain very shortly. I am engaged to Mr Paslow.”
“You will never marry Mr Paslow,” said Ruck, his face darkening.
Before Beatrice could ask the reason for this remark, the door opened, and Vivian, very pale and defiant, entered. “I heard your last words, Ruck,” he said calmly, “and beg to tell you that you are quite wrong. Miss Hedge will become my wife in two weeks—that is”—he bowed to Beatrice—“if she will accept me as her husband.”
Major Ruck made no remark, but stood silent and motionless, ever smiling, according to his custom. Beatrice, on the contrary, uttered an exclamation of surprise, and ran forward to throw herself into Vivian’s arms. Suddenly she stopped.
“Do you mean what you say?” she asked, hesitating.
“I do,” he replied firmly. “The obstacle I spoke of has finally been removed, and I am free to marry you.”
“Can I believe this?” murmured Beatrice, clasping her hands and looking down doubtfully. “For a long time you held back from asking me to be your wife, although you must have seen that I loved you. On the night Mr Alpenny was killed you proposed, and I accepted you.”
“Ah!” said Major Ruck, smiling more broadly than ever.
“Then,” continued Beatrice, still addressing Paslow, “you again changed your mind, and said that some obstacle, which you then declared was removed, again prevented our marriage. Now you come once more and say much the same as you said before. How do I know but what you may change your mind again?”
“I have never changed my mind throughout,” cried Vivian impetuously; “there was an obstacle. I thought that it was removed, and then I discovered that it still remained: Now I have made strict inquiries, and I learn that I am free.”
“What is the obstacle?” asked Beatrice, very pale, and still doubtful.
“I can tell you that,” remarked Major Ruck, changing his attitude for the first time; “this young gentleman is married.”
“I was married,” said Paslow, as Beatrice shrank back with a cry of amazement, and, as Vivian thought, of anger; “but my wife is dead.”
Ruck shrugged his shoulders. “So you say!”
“So Durban says—so this death certificate says. I heard all about my wife’s illness, as I went to the house where she died. I have seen her grave, and the doctor gave me this.” He held out a certificate to Beatrice. “Do you not believe me?”
“It is so strange,” she murmured, taking the paper, and glancing at it in a scared manner.
“And so untrue,” said Major Ruck coolly.
“I am not accustomed to be told that I lie,” said Ruck, and his eyes narrowed to pin-points.
Paslow turned his back on him contemptuously. “I care very little for that,” he said. “You and your creatures betrayed me into difficulties, for which I have suffered bitterly. But now I am free, and you can harm me no longer.”
“Don’t be too sure of that, Mr Paslow.”
Beatrice saw Vivian wince, and came forward. “Whatever Mr Paslow has done,” she said, with dignity, “I am certain that he is an honourable man.”
“Bless you for those words, my darling.”
Major Ruck gave a short laugh, and did not seem so good-tempered as he had been. “An honourable man!” he repeated. “I fear if you knew all Mr Paslow’s life, you would see fit to change your opinion.”
Vivian restrained himself from violent words. “Of course you talk like that, because it is to your interest to stop my marriage. But I trust to a woman’s instinct,” and he stretched out his hands toward Beatrice with an anxious smile.
She waved him back. “I must have an explanation first”
“Vivian, I love you, I shall always love you; but can you expect me to blindly believe, when I am so much in the dark as to what all these things mean? There must be an end to these hints and mysteries. If you really love me, you will explain fully, so that I know where I stand.”
“I think I can do that,” said Ruck, fondling his moustache.
“Then do so,” said Paslow, throwing back his head. “We know a great deal of one another, Major, so it may be to your interest to speak the truth,” and he looked meaningly at the other man.
“I never tell lies, unless they are necessary,” said Ruck calmly. “In this instance the truth will suit me very well.”
Beatrice sat down, still holding the certificate of Mrs Paslow’s death, which seemed to be quite in order. “I am waiting to hear the truth,” she said, “and hear it I will.”
Without any invitation, Major Ruck sat down. “I may as well be comfortable,” he said lazily, and smiled in his most genial manner. Vivian did not sit down, but stood near the window looking out at the fair prospect unseeingly. Knowing that his past was about to be revealed, he seemed nervous, and did not look at the girl he loved. Major Ruck was much the coolest of the trio.
“I can tell you the truth very briefly,” said Ruck, stretching out his legs. “As I said, I was at school with Mr Paslow’s father, and also with Alpenny. Some eight years ago this gentleman”—he glanced towards the silent Vivian—“came to town. I did what I could to give him pleasure, as his father was dead, and I desired to do what I could for the son of my old friend.—That is true, I think?” he added, turning politely to Paslow.
“You were extremely kind,” said Vivian, stiffly and guardedly.
“Thank you. Mr Paslow then had money, and I think I showed him London very thoroughly. We had a great time.”
“Pray go on with your story,” said Beatrice, icily.
“Oh, it’s the truth,” replied Ruck, with a genial chuckle “I think Mr Paslow will bear me out in that.”
“I have yet to hear what you have to say.”
Ruck raised his eyebrows. “What can I say, save that which happened, my dear fellow?—Mr Paslow”—he now addressed himself to Beatrice—“”met in town at the house of a friend of mine, a certain young lady called Maud Ellis. He fell in love with her—”
“I was trapped by a scheming woman, you mean,” put in Paslow brusquely.
“Fie! fie! fie!” said Ruck good-humouredly. “Don’t blame the woman, my dear fellow; that is mean. But trapped, or not, you married her.”
“I did; and found that she only married me because she thought that I had money.”
“So you should have had, and a great deal of it, but that Alpenny managed to collar the estates. But you loved her.”
“I did not, save in the way one loves such women at an early age.”
“Oh!” sneered Ruck; “she was perfectly respectable.”
“I should not have married her else,” said Vivian quickly, and not daring to glance at Beatrice. “I have nothing to say against her, save that she was heartless, and left me within six months. But I repeat that I was young and foolish at the time, and that she schemed to marry me. I fell into her toils, and bitterly have I had to pay for doing so; but for her I should have long ago have married Miss Hedge.”
“I don’t think Alpenny would have permitted that, Paslow.”
“Perhaps not; but he is dead, and cannot harm me now.”
“The evil that men do lives after them,” scoffed Ruck. “Alpenny had the power when alive; someone else may have the power now.”
“Not you, at all events, Ruck.”
Beatrice rose quickly. “Am I to hear the rest of the story?” she asked Ruck. “Is this all you have to bring against Mr Paslow?—that while a young man he was entrapped into marriage by an adventuress?”
“Oh, Maud Ellis was no adventuress,” said the Major, easily, “but a very nice girl. Lady Watson knew her well.”
“Lady Watson seems to know everyone,” retorted Beatrice; “but who knows Lady Watson?”
“I do, very well,” said Ruck quietly; “but we are not discussing her. Later on, should you desire to learn about her, I can supply you with all necessary information. Meanwhile—”
“Meanwhile,” repeated Beatrice, “I should like to hear what Mr Paslow has to say.”
“What can I say?” said Vivian, with a look of despair. “I married Maud Ellis, as I said, and she left me after six months of a miserable life. Some times since I saw her, but she never would come back to me.”
“Did you wish her?” said Beatrice quickly.
“She was my wife,” said Vivian calmly, “and I wished to behave as her husband, little as I loved her; but she always refused to come back to me. I met you, and said nothing about my fatal marriage. There was no need to.”
“It would have been better had you been open.”
“I see that now; I did not see it at the time. But you know that I loved you always, and you know now why I did not dare to ask you to be my wife. A few weeks ago I heard that Maud was ill. I went to see her, and found that she was suffering from influenza. I saw her several times: then I heard that she was dead. I proposed to you, Beatrice, under the oak. Later on, when I went to town to look after your property, and learn if Alpenny had done you justice, I again went to the house, and learned that what I had heard was false. Maud was extremely ill, but still alive. Then I came down, and you know what took place between us. I went again and again to town, and saw the doctor.”
“And your wife also?”
“No—yes, once; but she was so ill, and my presence disturbed her so much, that the doctor would not let me see her again. Then I went one day, and heard that she was dead and buried.”
“Why did you not go to the funeral?” asked Ruck sneeringly.
“I did not know that she was dead. I remained away from the house—it was in Kensington—for a long time, as it was useless for me to go and see her; and the doctor always kept me advised as to how she was going on. However, he gave me no notice of her death, and she was buried when I next heard news.”
Beatrice expressed surprise. “But surely the doctor was wrong in not telling you she was dying? You should have been with her.”
“I should; but the doctor neglected to inform me. I had a row with him about the matter. However, I got the certificate, which you hold, and saw the grave; so I am now free to marry you—that is, if you will have me after what you have heard.”
Beatrice did not reply immediately to this question. “We can talk of that when we are alone,” she said, and glanced towards Ruck, who still lounged in his chair.
“That is a hint for me to go,” he said, rising lazily. “Well, I shall go—unless you will marry me?”
“Were you the last man in the world I should not marry you,” said the girl quietly; “and I do not see why you wish to.”
“We talked about that before,” said Ruck, taking up his hat; “but now that the real Prince Charming has come on the scene, I see that there is no chance for me. I will allow you to marry Paslow—”
“Allow me!” cried Miss Hedge indignantly. “Allow me!” echoed Vivian, clenching his fists.
“I will allow you,” repeated the Major smoothly, “on condition that you give me the Obi necklace.”
“What?” asked Beatrice, starting back, “Colonel Hall’s—”
“It was his property. I knew him very well,” interrupted Ruck. “He gave that necklace to Mrs Hedge.”
“To my mother? Impossible! The necklace was stolen when Colonel Hall was murdered in this very house.”
“So it was thought, but I know otherwise. Colonel Hall gave the necklace to Mrs Hedge, who was his cousin, just before the murder. I learned that from Alpenny, who was in the house at the time; and that was why Alpenny married Mrs Hedge—he wanted the necklace. And that is why I wished to marry you,” added Ruck, smiling blandly, “as I want the necklace. It is valued at ten thousand pounds, and Alpenny promised to give it to you when we married.”
“I don’t know how much of this is true, or how much is not,” said Beatrice, looking puzzled, and pressing her hands to her head; “but I have not got the necklace. I never knew that my stepfather had it. There is no need for you to get angry, Major Ruck. I know nothing about the necklace save what I heard from Mrs Lilly; and she told me that Colonel Hall was murdered, and the necklace was stolen.”
“The necklace was given to Mrs Hedge,” said Ruck, who was now very angry, “and Alpenny promised to give it to you. If you give it to me, I will go out of your life and you can marry Paslow; if not, I can stop this marriage.”
“I defy you to do your worst,” said Paslow savagely.
“Don’t do that; it might be dangerous,” said Ruck, with a meaning look. “Well, Miss Hedge?” He turned to Beatrice.
“I know nothing about the necklace,” she replied. “If you married me you would marry a pauper. Lady Watson has Mr Alpenny’s money; and if he did receive the necklace from my mother, he certainly never gave it to me, or even spoke of its existence.”
Ruck turned pale and looked at the ground. “Can Lady Watson have secured it?” he muttered.
“You had better ask her. And now, Major Ruck, that I know your real reason for wishing to marry me, I may tell you that I would willingly have given the Obi necklace to escape such a match!” and she turned her back on him scornfully.
The Major, notwithstanding that he was in the house, and in the presence of a lady, put on his hat. He had quite lost his suave manners, and looked thoroughly angry. “I shall take my leave, Miss Hedge,” he said, bowing ironically. “Marry Paslow whenever you choose; he is free now, as he says; but if trouble comes of your marriage, do not say that I did not warn you.”
“What trouble can come?” asked Beatrice, turning like a lioness.
“Don’t say that you have not been warned,” said Ruck, backing towards the door. “As to myself, I shall search for the necklace, and get it. Lady Watson may know of its whereabouts.—Paslow, I congratulate you on a possible marriage—”
“You cannot stop it, Ruck,” said Vivian coolly.
“Oh, I have no desire to do so. All I wanted from this lady was the Obi necklace. As she has not got it, there is no need for me to sacrifice my freedom. Miss Hedge, good-day; Paslow, good-day;” and with a bow, the Major took his gigantic figure out of the room.
The two young people looked at one another in silence. “What does it all mean?” asked Beatrice helplessly.
“You heard what Ruck said,” answered Vivian. “He wanted to marry you for the necklace. As you have not got it, he will trouble you no more.”
“In any case, he would not trouble me,” cried Beatrice indignantly. “Does Major Ruck think me a child to be driven into a match about which I care nothing? What influence can he have to make me do what he wanted?”
“He was playing a game of bluff,” said Vivian eagerly. “He cannot force you to marry him, nor can he stop my marriage. He could have done so before, because he knew that my wife was alive; but now that she is dead, his power ceases. And, Beatrice”—he paused and looked down—“how can I ask you to be my wife after what you have heard?”
The girl looked at him in silence. Had she loved him less, she might have refused to answer his appeal. As it was, her love overcame the momentary anger which she felt at having been kept in the dark. At once she moved towards him, and placed her arms round his neck.
“We are all sinners,” she whispered; “and I love you too well to let you go.”
“God bless you, my darling,” faltered Vivian, pressing her to his breast.
“Let the past alone,” said Beatrice, kissing him. “We shall marry, and live for one another. Look with me, Vivian, to a happy future.”
“My darling—my darling!” and Paslow fell on his knees.
It really did seem as though the course of this true love was about to run smooth. Durban, to whom Beatrice explained all that had taken place during Ruck’s visit, heard what she had to say in silence, and seemed relieved when he heard the whole.
“I am glad that Mr Paslow arrived at the moment,” said Durban, when the story was ended. “He and the Major now understand one another.”
“I never knew that Vivian was acquainted with Major Ruck.”
“He met him at Mr Alpenny’s town office, missy.”
“The Major seemed to threaten Vivian,” observed the girl thoughtfully.
Durban shrugged his fat shoulders. “That is so like the Major,” he retorted carelessly; “he is all stage thunder. Now that he knows you have not the necklace, he will trouble you no more. Mr Paslow is not rich, missy; and you have lost the master’s money; still, I should like you to marry the man you love, and go away.”
“Why do you want me to go away?” she demanded peremptorily.
“It will be better,” murmured Durban, uneasily.
“You are still keeping something from me, Durban?”
“Nothing that is necessary for you to know, missy.”
Beatrice saw very well that the old servant was fencing, and wondered what it was that he feared. “The necklace?” she said suddenly.
“I do not know where it is, missy.”
“Did you ever see it?”
“Once. Colonel Hall showed it to me—a very fine set of diamonds.”
“Where did Colonel Hall get it?”
“I cannot say—somewhere in the West Indies, I think.”
“You were Colonel Hall’s servant in the West Indies, Durban?”
“I was, missy.” Durban looked at her with fire in his dark eyes. “He was the best of masters, and I loved him. He brought me to this place with him, and here he met with his death.”
“Do you know who killed him?”
“No, missy, I do not.”
“Why did you take service with Mr Alpenny?”
“I was poor,” said Durban, with a shrug, “and my master, the Colonel, was dead. I had no home, and I was thankful to accept the situation. I might not have stayed in it for so long, missy, but that Mr Alpenny married. It was you who have kept me at The Camp all these years.”
“And what about Mrs Hall?”
“Nothing, missy. She was a silent lady. I know very little about her.”
“Durban”—Beatrice looked at him keenly—“are you telling me the truth?”
“I am, missy. Why should I tell you a lie? All I know of Mrs Hall is, that she was the daughter of a West Indian planter, who was my father’s master in the time of slavery. I was born on the estate, and afterwards entered the service of Colonel Hall—a captain he was then—to whom I became greatly attached. He saw Mrs Hall, and fell in love with her. They married, but did not get on well together, for what reason I cannot tell you. They came here to see Mr Paslow’s father, who was an old friend of the Colonel’s. Mrs Hall stopped in London for a time, and then came down for one night with the nurse and her child. My master was murdered, and the necklace disappeared. That is all I know.”
“But, Durban, Major Ruck says that the Colonel gave the necklace to my mother before his death.”
“That is not true,” cried Durban vehemently, and his eyes blazed. “There was no reason why he should give it to—to—Mrs Hedge. And I saw the necklace in the Colonel’s hands on the very night the crime was committed. Yes, and I saw him place it in the green box beside his bed. Next morning the window was open, the Colonel was lying dead with a cut throat, and the Obi necklace was gone. I can tell you no more, and I don’t know why you wish to know all this.”
“Because,” said Beatrice slowly, “it is my belief that the same man with the black patch who murdered Colonel Hall murdered Mr Alpenny; and in both cases I believe that the murder was committed for the sake of this necklace.”
“I did not know that Mr Alpenny had it, missy.”
“Major Ruck says that he had, and married my mother for the sake of the necklace, which doubtless—as it has not been found after his death—he turned into money.”
“It might be so,” murmured Durban moodily. “Major Ruck knew a great deal about Mr Alpenny which I did not know. He was a kind of decoy duck to the master—a man about town who brought foolish youths to borrow money. A dangerous man, missy, and one you are well rid of. Missy”—he laid his hand on her arm—“be advised; seek to know no more. Mr Alpenny’s life was not a good one or a clean one. Marry Mr Paslow, and go away.”
“I’ll think of it, Durban,” said Beatrice, after a few moments of thought, and there the conversation ended for the time being.
All the same, Beatrice had no idea of going away. She even thought that she would not marry Vivian Paslow until things were made clear, and she—so to speak—knew where she stood. What with Vivian’s marriage to Maud Ellis, and the late Mr Alpenny’s hints that the young man had committed crimes, there was much in Paslow’s life which she did not understand. Had she loved him less, she would have had nothing more to do with him. But she did love him with all her heart and soul; consequently she believed that he was more sinned against than sinning. It was nothing out of the common that a young man in London should be entrapped into such a marriage; and, after all, it was not unusual that Vivian should strive to hide from her—the woman he really loved—the folly of which he had been guilty eight years ago. That she could forgive, and did forgive, and was ready to marry her lover as soon as he wished. But she could not rid herself of a vague fear that if she did marry him, it would only be the beginning of fresh misery. Durban’s desire that the young couple should go away, seemed to her ominous; and Vivian, although under stress of circumstances had confessed the marriage, did not seem to be communicative regarding the other mysteries. What if at the back of all these things lurked some terrible scandal which might ruin her happiness and that of Paslow’s?
While thinking thus, it occurred to Beatrice that she had never learned what Vivian had done on that night when he left her under the Witches’ Oak. They were together walking in the garden after dinner when she considered this question, and she asked Vivian at once to explain. He removed his cigar and looked at her searchingly.
“What a woman you are to ask questions!” he said, with a forced laugh.
“I want them answered,” said Beatrice rather imperiously.
Vivian shrugged his shoulders. “I am not averse to doing so,” he said in a weary manner. “Well, on that night I left you and ran to see who was watching. It was a red-headed little beast called Waterloo, employed as a spy by Mr Alpenny!”
“I know him—I have seen him.”
“Seen him?” Vivian started and looked uneasy. “When?—where?”
“In this very garden.” And Beatrice related how the tramp had suddenly appeared to mar the beauty of the scene. “He wanted to see you,” she concluded, “but Durban sent him away.”
“Had I seen the brute I should have horsewhipped him,” cried the young man angrily. “He was a spy of Alpenny’s.”
“On me?—on you?”
“On us both. Alpenny knew that I loved you, and did not want us to meet. He told Waterloo, who was hanging round The Camp, to keep his eye on you and on me. Waterloo confessed—”
“Did you catch him?”
“Yes, I did, and nearly broke his neck. He confessed that he had been set to watch by Mr Alpenny, and had been lurking outside the great gates of The Camp.”
“I saw him,” said Beatrice, recalling the vague shadow which she had seen crouching in the shade on that fatal night.
“He saw you go past,” went on Paslow, “and followed to the Witches’ Oak like your shadow. When I caught him he told me all this, so I gave him a kicking and let him go. The dog was not worth fouling my hands with. Then I went back to the Oak to find you. You had gone, so I fancied that you had gone home. I did not follow, as I thought that I might run up against Alpenny and that there would be more trouble. I went home to the Grange, and then was coming along the next morning to see you, and give you the key, when I met Durban.”
“It was then that you heard of the murder?”
“Yes; and afterwards went up to town to see Alpenny’s lawyer about your chances of getting the money. You see, Beatrice, Major Ruck, and other creatures employed by Alpenny, were quite capable of destroying the will, so as to get the money themselves.”
“But how could they do that?”
“By bribing or blackmailing the lawyer of Alpenny. The man is not above reproach, as he did much dirty work for Alpenny. Ruck knows of many of these underhanded dealings; and on hearing of Alpenny’s death, it struck me that Ruck might try to force the lawyer—Tuft is his name—to destroy any will that might be made in your favour, by threatening to communicate with the police. However, I saw Tuft, and he produced the will. It was genuine enough, as I know Alpenny’s handwriting very well. The money was left, as you know, to Lady Watson. I believe that years ago Alpenny admired her, although I do not see why he should leave her such a large fortune and cut you out.”
“He hated me,” said Beatrice sadly; “he always did. Before he died he told me to expect nothing, and I am a pauper, as you know. Vivian,” she said suddenly, “let us put off our marriage for a time. I can go out as a governess, and we can wait.”
“Why should we wait?” he asked quickly, and his arms went round her in a firm embrace.
“Are you sure,” murmured Beatrice, “that if I marry you, all trouble will be at an end?”
“Quite sure. My first wife is dead, so I can take a second. Ruck and those other beasts cannot harm me now. No, Beatrice, we shall marry in a week as you promised.”
“I have no wedding-dress!”
“That does not matter. I marry you and not your clothes. If we postpone our marriage, it may never take place.”
“Because there are those who would stop me from marrying you. Not Ruck—he can do nothing. Beatrice,”—he caught her hands and looked deep into her eyes—“I own to you that I have been a fool. My marriage with that adventuress introduced me into strange company. I will not tell you now what straits I have been in and what trouble I have undergone. Only trust me and marry me. I shall then tell you the whole of my life’s history. Believe me, there is nothing in it for which you will cease to love me. My worst sin is having kept this first marriage from you.”
“I will trust you,” whispered Beatrice, who was much perplexed; “but is it not possible to clear up these mysteries?”
“You may clear them up,” said Vivian, after a moment’s hesitation. “I cannot help you—I dare not,” he ended, and abruptly left her.
What did it all mean? Beatrice asked herself that question again and again, but without receiving any answer. But for her overwhelming love, she would have hesitated to step forward in the dark, as she really was doing when consenting to this marriage. But she felt that Vivian needed her aid, and that only when they were man and wife would that aid be of any real service. She made no attempt to continue the conversation when they met again in the drawing-room, nor did she seek out the old servant to ask questions. But since Vivian hinted that by her own unaided efforts she might arrive at the truth, whatever it might be, she determined to search on. In one way or another she was resolved with all the force of her strong nature to put an end to these provoking mysteries.
It was for this reason that the next morning found her climbing the Downs. Vivian had gone with Dinah into Brighton, and Beatrice, alleging the death of her stepfather as a reason for retirement, had remained at home. In reality, she wanted to trace out Orchard the ex-butler, who had turned shepherd, and whom Mrs Lilly had told her of. From that elderly dame Beatrice obtained the information that Orchard lived on the Downs in a little wooden hut, like the savage maid in the popular song, and having gained a fair notion of its whereabouts, she set out to seek the man. He had been in the house at the time of Colonel Hall’s murder, and apparently had seen something. Had he not done so, his nerves certainly would not have been so shattered as to make him give up the comfortable profession of a butler for the hard life of a shepherd. Certainly he might refuse to speak out, as he assuredly had not told the police anything likely to lead to the discovery of Colonel Hall’s assassin. But Beatrice had great faith in her woman’s wiles and in the power of her tongue to get what she wanted. It was the sole way in which she could do so, as she had no money wherewith to tempt the old man. But then so patriarchal a person might be above bribery and corruption.
It was a divine day, and the breezes were blowing freshly across the spacious Downs from the distant Channel. Beatrice loved to look on these wide spaces of green, and to watch the sheep moving across the close-shorn turf, which they kept in such good order. A mile’s walk brought her into the vicinity where Mrs Lilly had informed her that Orchard watched his flock, and she speedily saw the hut, a tiny box of a house roofed with turf and standing on the Downs, without railing, or fence, or garden round it—just like a house that had lost its way.
Fate favoured her, and she took it as a good omen when she saw the old man seated at the door eating his midday meal. He was bent and white-headed, and had a long white beard. In fact, he might have passed for Father Christmas had he been appropriately dressed. His eyes were faded, blue and mild, and he seemed in no wise disturbed when she approached. “Good day, miss,” said the ex-butler.
“Good day,” responded Beatrice. “Will you let me sit down? I have been walking for some time.”
“Certainly, miss,” said Orchard, with the deference of a former indoor servant; “but the air will do you good. I suppose, miss, you are one of the gentry from Brighton? They often come up here to breathe the air and get appetites. Sit down, miss.”
By this time he had brought out a stool, and Beatrice sat down with a weary air, for she really was tired. “I come from the Weald,” she said, waving her hand towards the luxurious verdure of the valley below. “I live there.”
“A very nice place, miss. I lived there once myself.”
“At Convent Grange?” said Beatrice, glad to see that Orchard was disposed to be communicative.
He turned a mild look of surprise on her, and considered her face attentively. “Why, yes, miss,” he replied, “although I don’t know how you come to know that.”
“Mrs Lilly told me.”
Orchard let a glimmering smile rest on his pale lips. “Sarah Lilly?” he said musingly. “Ah, I have not seen her since we were fellow-servants together—and that was long ago. I might have married her, miss, as we liked one another. But she was married and I was married, so we couldn’t come together.”
“I should think not,” said Beatrice, smiling at the grave way in which the old shepherd spoke. “Mrs Lilly is a great friend of mine.”
“Is she, miss? And no doubt”—he considered her still more attentively—“Mrs Lilly told you how I came to be a shepherd?”
“Yes, she told me that.”
“I did it for my nerves,” said Orchard, looking away at the treeless green expanse; “they were shattered by the terrible calamity which happened in that house. The air here cured me.”
“Do you know who killed Colonel Hall?”
“You are the first person who has asked me that question for many years, miss. Time was when many did so, but the Colonel has been buried these five-and-twenty years, and his terrible death is quite forgotten. I don’t know who killed him—for certain, that is, miss.”
“Have you no suspicion?”
“Oh yes,” said Orchard calmly. “I believe that Mr Alpenny murdered Colonel Hall to get a certain necklace.”
“That cannot be true,” said Beatrice aghast; “a Major Ruck—”
“I don’t know him,” interpolated Orchard.
“Well, he says that Colonel Hall gave the necklace to my mother.”
“And who was your mother, miss?”
“Who married Mr Alpenny?” cried Orchard, rising suddenly to his feet and really startled out of his mildness.
“Yes. Mr Alpenny is now dead, and—”
“I know—I know,” said Orchard, waving his hand; “he met with the due reward of his wickedness. I can talk of him later, and I’ll tell you why I suspect him. Mrs Hedge’s daughter—the Colonel’s child—”
“What?” cried Beatrice, springing to her feet.
“Mr Alpenny never told you, I suppose,” said Orchard coolly; “but he married Mrs Hall, who took the name of Mrs Hedge because she was suspected of being concerned in the crime. You are Miss Hall—Miss Beatrice Hall!”
Beatrice waited to hear no more. As a sensible woman, she should have remained where she was to question the old shepherd, and learn why he stated so firmly that she was the daughter of Colonel Hall who had been murdered so cruelly at the Grange; but the mere fact of the announcement startled her, and without pausing, she rushed away, as though to escape from her thoughts. Orchard looked after her in mild surprise, but did not call her back, although her action must have puzzled him. The ex-butler seemed to have outlived all curiosity, or else the Downs had cured his nerves so thoroughly that he did not feel startled. However, be this as it may, he returned to his dinner, and sat watching the slowly-moving sheep without giving a thought to the young lady who had called upon him.
How Beatrice descended the slope of the Downs into the valley she never knew. Her brain was filled with the information she had so strangely gained. She was not Beatrice Hedge, but Beatrice Hall, the daughter of the dead man who had owned the necklace. Ruck asserted that the Colonel had given the necklace to his wife before the murder. As Mrs Alpenny, who called herself Mrs Hedge and who really was Mrs Hall, had been the wife of the Colonel, this was not unlikely. Alpenny, finding that she possessed the necklace, might have married her to gain possession of the same. But what Beatrice could not understand was, why her mother should have married the usurer. It was true that he had always been her admirer, as Durban himself had stated; but from accepting attentions to marrying the man who paid them, was a long step. Mrs Hall had taken it, under the name of Mrs Hedge, and again Beatrice wondered what the reason could be.
Durban must have known this truth. He had been the faithful servant of Colonel Hall, and had always spoken of him with love and admiration. If she—Beatrice—were the Colonel’s child, the adoration of Durban for herself would be explained. He loved her, because he had loved her dead father. But why had Durban held his tongue over the marriage, and had allowed everyone to think that Alpenny had married a Mrs Hedge? Durban, as Beatrice well knew, had no love for Alpenny, yet he had said nothing likely to prevent such a match. Certainly Durban might not have had the power; but there appeared no reason why he should have concealed the truth from his dead master’s child. Beatrice was beginning to see light. There was some mystery concerning her, which had to do with her father’s murder, with the missing necklace, and probably with the murder of Alpenny himself. Durban now might tell the truth and explain matters seeing that she already knew so much. Then, again, he might refuse to speak out, and she would be as much in the dark as ever.
Major Ruck doubtless knew the truth from Alpenny, although he had declared that Mrs Hedge was the cousin of Colonel Hall. But Beatrice, remembering his hesitation in making the statement, was certain that Ruck was cognisant of the real state of affairs. Was Vivian Paslow likewise enlightened? She could not be certain of this. Vivian might or might not know, but he assuredly had some secret on his mind which he refused to impart to her until the marriage took place. Had that secret to do with her real parentage which had been revealed to her by Orchard? Beatrice was minded, then and there, to ask Vivian for the truth. But she could not do so on the spur of the moment, much as she wished to since Vivian was at Brighton with Dinah and would not be back for some hours. Durban certainly was at The Camp, but Beatrice, very naturally, considering his attitude, was doubtful if he would speak out At the foot of the Downs, and when on the road leading to Hurstable village, she paused to think what was best to be done. She half regretted that she had not stopped with Orchard to learn more. It would be just as well, she thought, to go back: but a glance at the steep wall of the Downs led her to change her mind. She could not face that weary climb again, as her nerves were shattered by the communication which had changed her life.
Then it occurred to her that Mrs Snow knew her mother. Mrs Snow—then Miss Duncan—had been at Convent Grange when Colonel Hall was murdered. She must have known that the so-called Mrs Hedge was really Mrs Hall, and must have known also the reason why Mrs Hall under a feigned name had married Jarvis Alpenny. Mrs Snow declared herself to be a dear friend of Mrs Hall. Why, then, did she hate Beatrice, who was the daughter of that same dear friend? That Mrs Snow hated her Beatrice was convinced, as she had pointedly neglected her throughout five and twenty years. Yes Mrs Snow would be the best person to question; and having made up her mind rapidly, the girl took her way to the Vicarage of Hurstable.
Mrs Snow, looking more sour and elderly than ever, was in the garden, engaged in the Arcadian pastime of gathering roses for decorative purposes. She was a good housekeeper, and liked to see a dainty dinner-table. Notwithstanding her disagreeable nature, she made the vicar and his son comfortable enough, and really loved them both in her sour way. Jerry, indeed, was the apple of her eye, and it was for this reason that she resented his engagement to Dinah Paslow. With any other girl it would have been the same. It was not the individual maiden that Mrs Snow hated, but the girl who took her son to be a husband. For the sake of her own selfishness, which she miscalled maternal love, she would have liked Jerry to remain a bachelor all his life, just to please her, and bestow all his affection on his dear mother. But the young man himself had not found that affection, although it really existed, strong enough to fill his life. Therefore he had asked Dinah to marry him, and so strongly had he held his own on the subject, that Mrs Snow had been won over so far as to receive Dinah as a future daughter-in-law.
“Mrs Snow,” said Beatrice, when she entered the pretty grounds of the Vicarage, “I wish to speak to you particularly.”
The vicar’s wife looked sourly at her visitor. She hated Beatrice because of her beauty, amongst other things; and when she saw that same beauty was somewhat worn and haggard, that the girl looked ill and had lost her vivacity, she felt pleased. “Quite washed out,” said Mrs Snow to herself, and thus became more amiable. Laying down the scissors, with which she had been clipping the flowers, she advanced with what was meant to be an ingratiating smile. “My dear Miss Hedge, I am so pleased to see you. This is the first time that you have called. Come inside, please.”
“Thank you. I prefer to remain in the garden and take up as little of your time as possible.”
Mrs Snow stiffened. “What an extraordinary tone to take with me,” she said, with the offended air of a thorough egotist.
“Can you wonder at it? We know so little of one another.”
“That is, as it may be,” snapped Mrs Snow, wondering what her visitor had come to see her about “I may know more of you than you think.”
“For that reason I come to see you,” said Beatrice calmly.
Her hostess started, but speedily recovered her calmness. “I really do not know what you mean, Miss Hedge,” she said composedly.
“I think you know this much, that I am not Miss Hedge.”
“Oh!” said Mrs Snow, her sallow face flushing an uneasy red. “Will you not be seated?”
“Thank you.” Beatrice moved towards a garden seat at the far end of the lawn; but Mrs Snow touched her arm, and pointed to a side-path.
“I have a very secluded arbour there,” she said significantly, “where we cannot be overheard.” And she led the way down the path.
“The whole world may hear what I have to say,” declared Beatrice boldly, and resolved to be a party to no mystery.
“But the whole world,” said Mrs Snow, stopped with a disagreeable smile, “may not hear what I may have to say—that is, if you press me.”
“I want to hear everything,” said the girl sharply; “for that reason I have come to you.”
“I fear you will go away less easy in your mind than you came.”
Beatrice shrugged her shoulders. “My mind has been uneasy ever since the death of my stepfather,” she retorted. “Is this the place?”
“This is the place,” assented the vicaress.
It was—as Mrs Snow had stated—a very secret place. The path ended in a kind of semicircular enclosure surrounded by a high hedge of hawthorn. The arbour faced the path, so that any one seated therein could see an intruder advancing along the path. The haven of rest was of light trellis-work overgrown with roses, and had a comfortable wooden seat at the back, and two basket chairs in front of this, with a small green-painted table between. Beatrice sank into one of the chairs, and Mrs Snow subsided into the other. The table was between them, and the two glanced at one another when seated. Mrs Snow looked as sour as ever: but there lurked a watchful look in her eyes, which a more discerning person than the visitor would have seen at once. Beatrice on her part, having nothing to conceal, was perfectly open; and caring very little for what Mrs Snow had to say, resolved that, whatever it might be, she would bind herself to no secrecy. The scene being set, the actresses spoke. Beatrice politely waited to give Mrs Snow a chance of opening the conversation, while Mrs Snow was equally determined that her visitor should speak first. Under these circumstances a silence ensued which lasted for quite two minutes. Mrs Snow, being the most impatient, yielded first to the desire to use her tongue.
“You spoke very strangely just now, Miss Hedge,” she said, and purposely uttered the name to evoke frank speech from Beatrice.
“Miss Hall, if you please,” said the girl, falling into the trap.
“Oh! Miss Hall,” replied the other, flushing. “I never knew that your mother was called Hall.”
“As she was your dearest friend—you told me as much—I fancy you must have had some idea.”
“Perhaps,” said Mrs Snow, looking down uneasily. Then she raised her face with a frown. “Who told you this?”
“A man called Orchard. You may know of him, Mrs Snow?”
“I have no reason to deny that I know of him. He was the late Mr Paslow’s butler, and became a shepherd on the Downs, because the doctor said he would have to live in the open air.”
“Did he not tell you? His nerves were so shattered by that horrid murder which took place at the Grange twenty-five years ago.”
“You allude to the murder of my father?”
“To the murder of Colonel Hall,” corrected Mrs Snow snappishly.
“My father was Colonel Hall.”
“So this man Orchard says?” sneered the other, her face flushing and her hands opening and shutting.
“And so I believe. Come now, Mrs Snow, you must tell me what you know of this matter?”
“I know nothing.”
“Perhaps Miss Duncan may be able to tell me?”
“Ah!”—the vicar’s wife laughed carelessly—“you know my maiden name, and perhaps my occupation before I married my husband?”
“I heard that you were a governess.”
“Who said so?”
“In that case, since he has been so frank, I wonder that he did not tell you how Mrs Hall—your mother—killed the Colonel.”
Beatrice started to her feet. “You dare to say that?”
“Yes, I do,” cried Mrs Snow venomously. “She killed your father to gain possession of a diamond necklace, and married Alpenny because he could have accused her of the murder.”
“That is not true,” said Beatrice, closing her eyes with horror.
“It is true. I can prove it.”
“Why did you not do so twenty-five years ago?”
“Because your mother was my friend.”
“Mrs Snow”—Beatrice opened her eyes, and leaned across the table—“you were never my mother’s friend.”
The woman moved uneasily, and her hands were restless. “Had I not been so, your mother would have stood in the dock.”
“Ah! you had your own reason for keeping quiet.”
“Do you mean to accuse me of being her accomplice?” said Mrs Snow, rising, and scowling.
“Sit down, please.” Beatrice pushed her back into the chair.
“How dare you!” gasped Mrs Snow. “I was never treated before so in the whole course of my life!” And she made to rise again.
Again Beatrice pushed her back. “I am stronger than you, Mrs Snow,” she said scornfully; “you shall sit down, and you shall tell me everything you know.”
“And if I do not?”
“I’ll go at once to the police.”
Mrs Snow turned white. “To the police?”
“Yes. Listen. I believe that the man with the black patch who murdered my father, Colonel Hall, also murdered Mr Alpenny. My mother is entirely innocent, and were she alive she would say so.” Mrs Snow laughed at this remark, but in a hollow manner. “Yes, you may laugh, Mrs Snow, but what I say is true,” resumed Beatrice firmly; “and if you don’t tell me all you know, I shall tell the police that you accuse my mother and say that you can substantiate your accusation. When arrested, you may be forced to speak out.”
“Arrested? How dare you!” Mrs Snow was furious. “How can I be arrested when the murder of your father took place twenty-five years ago? It is ridiculous.”
“Oh no; this second murder has to do with the first, so that will bring the death of my father up-to-date. Speak out, or I go at once to Brighton, and then—”
“You will not dare—” gasped the vicaress in a cowed tone.
“I give you three minutes to make up your mind, Mrs Snow.”
“I don’t want one minute. I shall tell you all I know—all I believe to be true: your mother is guilty.”
“Was guilty, since she is dead,” corrected Beatrice quietly; “and I do not believe one word. You hated her, in spite of the fact that she was—as you say—your dearest friend.”
“You are right!” cried Mrs Snow with hysterical vehemence; “I did hate her—always—always! She took from me the man I loved. Yes, you may look and look, but I loved George Hall, your father, with all my heart. I was only a governess, poor and plain; your mother was a planter’s daughter, rich and beautiful. We were at school together. I was her companion afterwards; but I always detested her, and now—”
“Now you detest her daughter,” finished Beatrice.
“You have your mother’s beauty,” said Mrs Snow, and cast a venomous look on the girl’s pale face.
“So this is the reason you kept away from The Camp, and spoke of me to others so bitterly as you did?”
“Yes. You may as well know the truth: I hate you. You have the beauty of your mother, who stole George Hall away from me. But you have not the money; I saw to that.”
“How could you prevent my inheriting the money? I suppose you allude to Mr Alpenny’s fortune.”
“Because I told Mr Alpenny if he left the money to you that I would accuse him of being an accomplice of Mrs Hall in her murder of the Colonel. Miss Hedge, or Miss Hall, or whatever you like to call yourself, I hate you so much that I would like to put the rope round your neck.”
“Yet I am the daughter of the man you loved!” said Beatrice, wondering at this bitterness.
“All the more reason I should hate you. His daughter—yes, and the daughter of Amy Hall, whom I loathed with all my soul.”
“If so, why did you not accuse her of the murder?”
“I gave her a chance of repentance.”
“No, Mrs Snow, that was not the reason. You did not tell the police, because you could not prove your accusation. For all I know—for all the police know—you may have murdered my father yourself.”
Mrs Snow laughed scornfully. “I murder George Hall? Why, I loved the very ground he trod on. You can prove nothing against me.”
“Nor can you prove anything against my mother.”
“Can I not?” Mrs Snow rose and flung her arms about exultingly. “I was stopping at the Grange. I was lying awake on that night, wondering when my misery would end.”
“The misery of loving your father, and of seeing him with your mother. But I sowed dissension between them: they were never happy.”
“You wicked woman!”
“I am a woman, and that answers all,” said Mrs Snow sullenly. “I don’t mind telling you all this, as you cannot accuse me of anything. If you did say that I told you what I am now telling you, I should deny it; and who would believe you, against a respectable woman like me?”
“You are a wicked woman!” said Beatrice again. “Go on with what you have to say. I want to get away from you as soon as possible.”
“You may not be in such a hurry to leave me on a future occasion,” retorted Mrs Snow. “You and I have not done with one another yet. I know much that you would like to know.”
“What is that?”
“I’ll tell you later. Meanwhile, I tell you that I was lying awake and heard a noise. I stole out, and saw Mrs Hall ready dressed to go out into the passage. She was at the head of the stairs, and with her was old Alpenny, for he was old even then. They stopped talking for a time, as I saw, and he apparently was persuading her to do something. Then they went along towards the wing where Colonel Hall slept. I went back to bed, wondering what Mrs Hall meant by keeping a midnight appointment with old Alpenny. I never suspected the truth. Next morning the necklace was gone and George Hall murdered. And she did it!” shouted Mrs Snow savagely; “she—you mother! Alpenny was her accomplice. He wished to get the necklace. He was afraid to kill George Hall himself, and made a woman do it. Then she got the necklace after she cut poor George’s throat, and Alpenny made her marry him under a threat of denouncing her as what she was, a murderess—a murderess—you—you daughter of one!” jeered Mrs Snow, pointing a mocking finger at the pale girl.
“You lie!” said Beatrice, shaken but not convinced.
“A black patch was found under the window of my father’s room. It was open; and now that a man with a black patch killed Mr Alpenny (for the necklace, for all I know), I believe he also killed my father.”
“You admit that Mr Alpenny had the necklace. How did he get it?”
“Orchard said that Alpenny killed my father.”
“No; your mother did. Alpenny was merely the accomplice.”
“Wait. Major Ruck declared that Colonel Hall gave the necklace before his death to Mrs Hedge. Now I know that Mrs Hedge was really Mrs Hall, I believe him. Father gave my mother the necklace, and doubtless what else you say is true. My mother was forced to marry Alpenny, because he threatened to denounce her, She must have been suspected of the crime. I can see that plainly, else she would not have changed her name to Hedge. I wonder she was not recognised.”
“No one knew her here,” said Mrs Snow gloomily. “She was only one night at Convent Grange, and on that night her husband was murdered. Pshaw! She is guilty.”
“I don’t believe it,” insisted Beatrice, rising defiantly; “but I will prove the truth of what you say. Durban must speak out now.”
“And he will accuse your mother as I accuse her. Why did Durban go to serve Alpenny for nothing? Because Alpenny, wishing to get a faithful servant for nothing, said he would denounce Mrs Hall unless she married him and brought Durban with her. Durban knows the truth, but he has kept silent all these years because he dared not speak out without hanging Mrs Hall.”
“She is dead now, so nothing can be done,” said Beatrice sadly; “but at least her memory can be cleared, and I shall clear it.”
“If you delve into your mother’s past, you will find more things than murder in it,” said Mrs Snow sneeringly. “She loved Major Ruck.”
“She loved Major Ruck, I tell you. He also was at Convent Grange on the night the crime was committed, and I believe that your mother was about to elope with him when I saw her dressed at midnight, with Alpenny talking to her.”
“Oh,” said Beatrice coldly, “I thought that she was there—as you say—to murder my father.”
“She intended to do so, and then elope with Ruck; but Alpenny caught her in his toils. For all I know, I may have seen her talking after the murder, and Alpenny may have gone with her to get the necklace.”
“You make out a very pretty case, Mrs Snow,” said Beatrice, her heart beating loudly and quickly, for the weight of evidence did seem to be against Mrs Hall. “However, I shall see Durban, and then come again to see you. Good day,” and she moved away, while Mrs Snow laughed.
It was all very strange, thought Beatrice, as she walked towards Convent Grange. She had learned much from Orchard and from Mrs Snow, yet apparently there was more to learn. Who had killed Colonel Hall? Who had murdered Jarvis Alpenny? Was the assassin one and the same? And if she found the assassin, would she learn who possessed the necklace, which seemed to account for both crimes? Finally, did she discover the identity of the assassin and the necklace, would she be able to learn the mystery which lurked in the background of Vivian’s life? These were the questions which Beatrice asked herself on the way home.
In spite of Mrs Snow’s assertion and significant tale of the midnight meeting with Alpenny, the girl could not bring herself to believe that her mother was guilty. A woman would never think of cutting a man’s throat, and probably when a frail little woman such as Mrs Hall was reported to have been, would not have the power. Then again, Alpenny was murdered in the same way, and Mrs Hall had been lying in Hurstable churchyard for years. Also, if Mrs Hall was guilty, what had the black patch which had reappeared in the second crime to do with the first one? It seemed impossible that these riddles could be answered.
On arriving at the Grange, Beatrice found Dinah and Jerry Snow walking down the avenue. Apparently they had been quarrelling, for they did not walk arm in arm as usual, and Jerry was as sulky as Dinah was tearful. “Whatever is the matter?” asked Beatrice, stopping.
“It’s Jerry’s cruelty,” mourned Dinah, whose sorrow made her look even plainer than usual.
“It’s Dinah’s foolishness,” retorted Jerry, and walked on.
“Come back,” cried the girl, “or I’ll never, never, never speak to you again. Do you wish to break my heart?”
“You’re breaking it yourself,” grumbled the young man. All the same, he returned to where the two girls were standing.
“And after all I have put up with from your mother,” complained Dinah.
“Oh! leave my mother alone.”
“I wish she would leave me alone. She is always highly disagreeable to me. I believe it is a family failing,” concluded Dinah spitefully.
“Don’t marry me, then.”
“I don’t intend to—you—you bear!”
Beatrice listened to all this with covert amusement. She knew that the two loved one another too well to think of parting, whatever might be the grounds of their quarrel. “Come, come,” she said soothingly, and prepared to play the part of peacemaker. “What is the matter? Is Jerry jealous?”
“No,” snapped Dinah. “I am—very jealous. He”—she pointed to Jerry, who still looked sulky—“has been flirting with another girl. I was in the village an hour ago, and there was Jerry as bold as brass talking to a red-haired minx, who squinted.”
“She doesn’t squint,” growled Jerry.
“There, you see; he defends her.”
“Dinah!” cried Jerry in desperation, “how can you be so silly? I love you and you only.”
“You love that horrid girl. I saw her looking at you.”
“A cat may look at a king.”
“She certainly is a cat, though you’re not a king.”
“Well,” said Beatrice, preparing to move on, “I am going back to the house, and you two can settle it yourselves.”
Dinah clung to her friend. “No. I won’t be left alone with Jerry.”
“Well, then, explain,” said Beatrice impatiently, for she had too many worries of her own to take any profound interest in the frivolous ones of these milk-and-water lovers.
“I’ll explain,” said Mr Snow defiantly. “There is a young lady I know in London—”
“Young!” cried Dinah; “she’s thirty-five, and painted.”
“Well, then, she came down here to the inn, and I met her outside. She exchanged a few words with me, and said that she wanted to know the nearest way to the Downs. It seems that her father is a shepherd on the Downs—a man called Orchard.”
“What?” cried Beatrice, disengaging herself from Dinah’s too fond embrace. She could scarcely believe her ears. That she should come from seeing the ex-butler for the first time, to stumble—so to speak—across his daughter, was indeed an extraordinary coincidence.
Jerry looked at her amazed, as he could not understand her tone. “Why do you look so astonished?” he asked.
“I have only lately come down from seeing Orchard,” she said. “Oh, by the way, Dinah,” she added, turning to the girl, “Vivian came back with you from Brighton?”
“No,” said Dinah crossly; “he had to see someone, and will not be back until late. I came home myself, and passed through the village to see Jerry making love to that horrid girl. And Jerry had the coolness to follow me.”
“Only to explain,” urged Jerry. “Come, Dinah, don’t be silly. I know the lady only a little; she is on one of the papers belonging to our editorial firm, and does the fashion column.”
“She might dress better, then,” retorted Dinah crossly, and determined not to be appeased. “I saw cheapness in every line of her dress.”
“Ah,” said Jerry artfully, “she cannot set off a dress like you.”
“Don’t be silly,” cried Miss Paslow, but smiled for all that.
“What is this lady’s name?” asked Beatrice.
“Lady!”—Dinah tossed her head—“when her father is a shepherd, and, I dare say, a very bad one.”
“Miss Maud Carr is her name,” said Mr Snow, ignoring Dinah, much to her wrath.
“Maud!” Beatrice remembered that this was also the name of Vivian’s dead wife, and again wondered at the long arm of coincidence.
“I know very little about it or her,” said Jerry in an injured tone, “save that she writes about women’s fashions. We have met at journalistic clubs in London, and, of course, when I saw her I passed the time of day with her.”
“You passed an hour,” snapped Dinah, “and very pleasantly, I’m sure.”
“She’s not a bit ashamed of her birth,” continued Jerry, still ignoring Dinah as a punishment. “I never knew her father was a shepherd in London, but she confessed it to me here quite easily.”
“That’s her artfulness,” commented Dinah. “Why are you so curious about this woman?” she asked Beatrice.
The girl shrugged her shoulders. “I am not curious,” she denied; “but as I have just seen old Orchard, it is strange that his daughter should have been speaking to Jerry.”
“Not at all, Beatrice. Jerry is always fond of these painted, horrid women, who never pay for their dresses because they write for fashion papers. I should be ashamed to earn my living in that way.—Well”—she faced round to the impenitent Mr Snow—“and what have you to say?”
“Nothing,” said Jerry crossly. “You are always nagging, Dinah.”
“After that!” cried Miss Paslow, looking up to see why the heavens did not fall. “Well, I’m—I’m—” Words failed her, and she turned her back. “I’m going home. All is at an end!” and she sped up the avenue, glancing back meanwhile on occasions to see if Jerry followed.
But Jerry did nothing of the sort, and explained to Beatrice why he stood his ground. “Dinah needs a lesson,” he said gravely. “You have no idea how she nags at me. I can’t speak to any one without her getting into a pelting rage.”
“It shows how she loves you,” said Beatrice soothingly.
“I don’t want to be loved in that selfish way. It’s just like mother: she wants all one’s affection, and nags the whole time, saying it is for my good. I’ve had quite enough of that in mother, without taking it on in a wife. I want a woman who will cheer me up, and look upon me as something to be looked up to. But I’ll punish her,” said Jerry wrathfully. “She expects me to run after her. I won’t; I’ll stay here and talk to you.”
“I’m busy,” said Beatrice, taking a step or two away. “I have to go to The Camp to see Durban.”
“You needn’t. He’s at Convent Grange looking for you.”
“Oh! Then I’ll go to him at once.”
“Better wait to hear what I have to say,” urged Jerry; “it’s about the murder of Mr Alpenny.”
Beatrice stopped short, wondering what she was about to hear. “Have you discovered anything?” she asked breathlessly.
“I can’t say if what I have discovered is of any use,” explained Mr Snow, “but it might put the police on the track of the assassins.”
“What have you found out?”
“Well, I was down Whitechapel the other night,” said Jerry, “making an inquiry into some robbery that has taken place. There was a detective with me, and we saw all manner of queer things; also, we heard all manner of queer talk. In one way and another we picked up information about the Black Patch Gang.”
“The Black Patch Gang!” echoed Beatrice. “Yes!—yes?”
“It’s a gang of rogues, thieves, and vagabonds,” went on Mr Snow. “The police have never been able to lay hands on the head of the gang, or break it up. This gang goes about committing burglaries, and stealing things, and picking pockets. They must have a kind of academy like Fagin’s,” mused Jerry, “and they know one another by a black patch worn over the left eye.”
“Just like the man I saw?”
“Yes. I thought of that when I heard the story,” said Jerry, “and the detective thought the same. He is going to hunt out this gang and learn the whereabouts of their headquarters. And, Beatrice”—he moved forward to place a cautious hand on her arm—“it struck me—I don’t know if it struck the detective, but it struck me, that Alpenny, who was a precious scoundrel—I beg your pardon—”
“Go on,” she said impatiently. “I know he was my stepfather, but I always thought him a wicked man myself.”
“I believe he was a fence,” said Jerry solemnly.
“What is that?”
“The chap who disposes of stolen goods. Yes; I really believe that was why Alpenny lived in the country. The Black Patch Gang brought their stolen goods down here, and he got rid of them in some way. I expect the police will come down and make a thorough search throughout The Camp. There may be all manner of secret hiding-places.”
“But, Jerry,” protested Beatrice, who was very pale, as various thoughts rushed through her mind, “I never saw any London thieves in The Camp, or, indeed, any one disreputable.”
“Did you ever see any client?” asked Jerry impressively.
“No. Mr Alpenny kept his business very quiet.”
“He had need to if he was a fence. Beatrice, remember how the keys were in the counting-house, where the man was murdered, and how the assassin could not have got out unless he used the keys. I believe there is another entrance to that railway carriage, and the assassin came in by that way, along with the rest of Alpenny’s precious clients. I am quite sure the old man was the head of the gang.”
“There was Waterloo—”
“I know,” said Jerry quickly. “Dinah told me about him, and Mrs Lilly told her. Waterloo is a blackguard. The detective in Whitechapel explained what a scoundrel he was—one of the worst. Why did he come down here?”
“I don’t know,” murmured Beatrice, and then it flashed across her mind that the tramp had come to see Vivian. Coupling this desire with the speech of the late Jarvis Alpenny regarding Vivian’s crimes and Vivian’s secret troubles, which she was so anxious to find out, the girl suddenly turned pale. She wondered if Paslow himself was one of the Black Patch Gang. “It’s impossible,” said Beatrice, with a gasp, and leaned against a tree to support herself.
“What is impossible?” asked Jerry. “Here, hold up.”
“It’s all right,” she said, recovering herself with a violent effort; “a little weariness, that is all. I have been on the Downs, remember. I don’t see how you can connect this gang with Mr Alpenny.”
“Remember, he was murdered by a man with a black patch over his eye.”
“Yes, but—” the girl broke off. “I hope the police won’t come down here,” she said, with pale-lips, and wondering if Vivian’s conduct would bear investigation.
“They just will,” said Jerry bluntly, “and I hope so. I’ll be able to make a lot out of the matter, if any loot is found. Why, the editor may raise my salary.”
“You aren’t worth it,” cried an indignant voice near at hand, and Dinah appeared from amongst the trees. “How dare you treat me in this way, Jerry Snow? Why didn’t you come after me, and why didn’t—”
“Dinah,” asked Beatrice hurriedly, “have you been listening long?”
“No. All I heard was that Jerry wanted his salary raised. What has he been talking about?” and she eyed the two suspiciously.
“Are you jealous of Beatrice?” demanded Mr Snow scornfully.
“What nonsense, when you know she is going to marry Vivian! And I really don’t think I’ll marry you. Take back your ring, and—”
Beatrice waited to hear no more. Leaving Dinah pouring out her voluble wrath on the devoted head of her lover, she ran up the avenue, wondering what further revelations she would hear. This was a day of wonders. She had learned that she was the daughter of Colonel Hall; she had heard her dead mother accused of murder by Mrs Snow; and now she discovered that Alpenny—as was probably the case—had been connected with a gang of rogues. What would be the end of all these terrible things? She could not tell, and ran on, anxious to reach her own room in order to think matters over.
She quite forgot that Jerry had told her Durban was waiting to see her. But the old servant was on the watch. Hardly had she set foot on the terrace when he issued from the house; and came towards her with a smile. It died away, however, when he saw her pale face.
“Whatever is the matter, missy?” he asked anxiously, Beatrice looked at him calmly, and wasted no time in explaining herself. “I have learned at last what you would not tell me.”
“Missy!” cried Durban, and his swarthy face grew green, as it always did when he was startled.
“I am the daughter of Colonel Hall, who was murdered here. My mother was really Mrs Hall, who called herself Mrs Hedge and married Alpenny!”
Durban gasped. “Who told you this?”
“Orchard, who was the butler here, and now is a shepherd on the Downs.”
“It is true,” said Durban, flinging wide his hands. “I knew you would find out. I am glad you have found out.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
“I was prevented.”
“First by Alpenny, and then by Major Ruck.”
“The man with whom my mother was about to elope?”
Durban looked at her swiftly. “Orchard never told you that?”
“No. Mrs Snow told me.”
“You have seen her. Then you know?”
“I know that she accuses my mother of the crime—of the murder of my father, Colonel Hall.”
“That is a lie,” said Durban between his teeth. “But she would not stick at a lie to harm your mother.”
“How can she harm the dead?”
“She might harm the memory of the dead,” said Durban evasively. “And what else have you heard?”
“From Mr Jerry Snow, I have just heard that there is a gang of thieves in London called the Black Patch Gang.”
“Augh!” groaned Durban, casting down his eyes. “Go on.”
“Mr Alpenny is connected with them. Mr Snow says that he was a fence who disposed of stolen goods.”
“Where did Mr Snow hear this story?”
“From various people in Whitechapel.”
“Rumours only,” said Durban, striving to appear calm; “there is not a word of truth in it. Mr Alpenny was wicked, but not so bad as that, missy. I swear it.”
“I believe that Mr Snow has spoken the truth,” said Beatrice sharply. “You are still trying to keep me in the dark.”
“For your good, missy—for your good.”
“Or for Mr Paslow’s safety—which?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” gasped Durban hoarsely.
“I don’t know myself exactly, since you will not be candid,” said the girl wearily; “but I have found out much, and I shall find more. When I discover that necklace—”
“The Obi necklace? You have never found that?”
“No. But I am looking for it.”
“Missy, do not. I implore you, do not. There is a curse on that necklace. It caused the death of your father, the disgrace of your mother, and the murder of Mr Alpenny.”
“How do you know that? Had Mr Alpenny the necklace?”
“Yes. Your mother gave it to Alpenny for you.”
“Then where is it?”
“I don’t know—I cannot tell. And if I did know I would never tell, missy. Enough sorrow and trouble has come about over that necklace—the accursed thing! I—I—” Durban broke down, and, with a groan, fairly ran away, leaving the amazed Beatrice mistress of the field.
There was certainly enough to think about. Beatrice retreated to her room, and proceeded to reason out the meaning of all she had heard. It was evident that both Vivian and Durban were in some way connected with criminality in connection with Mr Alpenny’s vocation of “fence,” since both refused to speak. Waterloo, apparently, was a member of the Black Patch Gang, and had come down the other day to see Vivian. Beatrice remembered now how Vivian had hinted that he was connected with rogues and vagabonds, and how he appeared to be fearful as to what Major Ruck might say. Ruck himself probably was a member of this criminal association. In any case, as Durban had confessed, he was a decoy duck to lure the unwary into the late Mr Alpenny’s nets.
But the question which now presented itself to the puzzled girl was, whether, Alpenny being dead, the organisation would end. The old usurer had been extremely clever, and, wanting his brains, this association might disband for want of a competent head. Ruck certainly,—as he appeared to have some authority,—might become the moving spirit; but from what Beatrice had seen of him, she did not think he was capable of handling such difficult matters. And she did not much care. All she desired was to learn what Paslow had to do with these rascalities,—if Durban was implicated in the rogueries,—and, if so, to rescue both. She could not believe that either of these kind men, and whom she loved so dearly, would act in a blackguardly way. In some manner the two had become entangled in Alpenny’s nets, and knowing this, Ruck was making capital out of the knowledge. This was the conclusion which Beatrice arrived at, and she determined to force Vivian to explain.
“I love him dearly,” she assured herself, as she stared at her pale drawn face in the looking-glass; “but I cannot marry him until I know exactly what part he has taken in all these terrible doings.” With this resolve she went down to dinner, and found Vivian there in a very happy state of mind. Lately the cloud had passed away from his brow, and he seemed more like his old self, of the days when she had never guessed what an abyss there was under her feet—under their feet, indeed, as she could not separate herself, even in thought, from Vivian Paslow.
“My dear Beatrice,” he said, coming towards her with a smile: and then, when he saw her face, he stopped short, just as Durban had done. “Why, my darling, what have you been doing with yourself?”
“Nothing,” replied Beatrice quietly. “After dinner I’ll tell you.”
“Then there is something,” said Paslow, seeing how she contradicted herself, and trying to make her speak out.
“Yes,” she answered with an effort, “there is some thing. I have learned much to-day.”
“About what?—from whom?” Paslow gasped out the questions, and his heart beat violently. He felt sick with apprehension. What had she heard, and why did she look at him in this way?
“I’ll tell you after dinner.”
“But I want you to tell me now.”
“No,” said Beatrice very directly, and was spared further speech, for at that moment Dinah came into the room, followed by Jerry in evening dress.
“I’ve made it up with Jerry. He has asked my pardon,” she said in a cheerful voice, “so I invited him to dinner as a reward.”
“I hope it is a good dinner,” said Jerry blandly. “I deserve a big reward for having given in to you.”
“It is always a man’s duty to give in to a woman,” said Miss Paslow.
“I hope you don’t think it is the wife’s duty to bully the husband?”
“On occasions. A little storm clears the air.”
Further argument was cut short by the sound of the gong. Vivian, who had been watching Beatrice all the time, gave her his arm, and they led the way into the dining-room, while the lovers wrangled behind. The table looked dainty and neat, as it was brilliant with flowers and glittered with old silver and cut crystal. In spite of his difficulties Paslow had always kept up a certain state at the Grange, and, looking at the table, no one would have guessed that its owner was nearly bankrupt. Dinah, who with Mrs Lilly was responsible for the meal, pointed out to Jerry the various dishes set down on the menu, and described what share she had taken in preparing the same. “So you see, Jerry darling, I am a magnificent housekeeper.”
“On your brother’s income,” said Jerry, with a shrug, and enjoying the soup. “What will you be on mine?”
“On ours,” corrected Dinah. “I’ll be splendid, of course. Your income cannot be very much less than Vivian’s. We live here like Elijah, who was fed by ravens.”
“I am fed by a dove,” said Mr Snow gallantly.
“How sweet!” sighed Dinah sentimentally. Then feeling really hungry after her argument with Jerry, she began to eat, and laid all sentiment aside: that could come afterwards in the moonlight.
Beatrice and Vivian exchanged few words during the meal. They talked about the weather, about the various trifles in the newspapers which interested idle people, and made a light meal. But at the back of their thoughts lay the consciousness that a crisis was approaching in their lives, and neither one knew how it would end. Would love be strong enough to make the girl overlook youthful folly? That was what Vivian asked himself. And Beatrice wondered if Vivian’s love would be powerful enough to make him confess plainly what was the meaning of all these mysterious things which raised a barrier between them. The dinner was a mere farce so far as they were concerned; but Dinah and Jerry ate enough for four, and chatted meanwhile so gaily that any silence on the part of the remaining two was overlooked.
The meal ended, Vivian and Jerry did not linger over the bottle of old port which the host placed before his guest. Jerry was at an age when love was preferable to strong drink, and Vivian wished to have a confidential conversation with Beatrice as speedily as possible. Therefore by common consent they adjourned to the drawing-room, and found the two girls drinking coffee on the terrace. It was a deliciously warm night with a full moon, and countless stars gemming the heavens. Quite a night for Romeo and Juliet, meet for love and for soft whisperings. Nightingales sang in the thickets, and the trees were absolutely still owing to the want of the faintest breath of wind. Dinah, finishing her coffee, began to get sentimental again and beckoned to Jerry. The two went down the steps into the sleeping gardens, and Beatrice was left seated at the small table on the terrace with Vivian smoking at her elbow.
She glanced at him in the ivory moonlight while she made up her mind what to say. He looked slim and handsome in his well-cut clothes—a dark and somewhat stern man with a finely-featured face, Greek in its perfect lines. It seemed impossible that such a man could be involved in sordid roguery. He looked what Beatrice, in spite of circumstances, always believed him to be—an honourable English gentleman who was her lover and who would be her adoring husband. Vivian was staring at the retreating forms of Jerry and Dinah as they vanished down the avenue; but he became conscious that Beatrice was looking at him, and turned to look at her.
Surely a lover never saw a fairer maid. In her black dress, with her white neck and arms shining in the moonlight, she looked wonderfully beautiful. The pale glimmer of the moon concealed all the ravages which trouble had made, and she appeared like an angel ready to take flight. It was with difficulty that Paslow prevented himself pressing her in his arms; but until matters were cleared up between them, there was no chance that she would allow him to embrace her. He could see that, in the sad, stern way in which she looked at him, and so restrained himself with a violent effort “Well?” he said stiffly, and prepared to listen.
“What is it you wish to know?” she asked in a low voice.
“I wish to know what has changed you?”
“Am I changed?”
“Very much. This morning when I went to Brighton with Dinah, you were bright and happy; now you are sad, and look as though you had received bad news.”
“Only you can give me bad news,” said Beatrice in an embarrassed manner. “I want you to be plain with me to-night, Vivian. I have promised to marry you. I take that promise back—”
“Unless you satisfy me that you really and truly love me.”
“Oh, my darling, is there any question of that?”
“There is every question. It is easy for a man to say that he loves a woman; it is not so easy to prove it.”
“I can prove it, in any way you will.”
“Good,” said Beatrice, leaning forward and placing her arms on the small table between them. “I shall tell you what I have heard to-day; and then you must tell me what you know.”
“About what?” asked Paslow, lighting another cigarette with shaking hands, and not daring to look at her.
“In the first place, about my parentage.”
This time he did look at her, and in much amazement. “You are the stepdaughter of Alpenny,” he said quietly, “and the daughter of Mrs Hedge, whomsoever she may be.”
“Is that all you know?” she asked, looking at him.
“Yes. I have never heard anything else.”
“But I have. I heard this day, and from Orchard the shepherd, who was your father’s servant, that I am the daughter of Colonel Hall.”
Vivian dropped his cigarette and jumped up with an exclamation of genuine surprise. “Did Orchard tell you that?” he asked.
“He did. Mrs Hedge, my mother, was really Mrs Hall, and married Mr Alpenny because—because—” She hesitated.
“Because why? She must have had a strong reason to marry that old rascal.”
“She had. Alpenny, according to Mrs Snow—”
“What does Mrs Snow know about your affairs?” asked Vivian angrily.
“A great deal. She was my mother’s best friend,—so she says—and her bitterest enemy, as I have found out. Mrs Snow declared that my mother married Alpenny to prevent Alpenny accusing her of murdering her husband, and my father.”
“Oh! It is incredible,” muttered Vivian, clutching his hair.
“Wait till you hear details. I think my mother is innocent myself, but certainly the evidence seems to be against her,” and Beatrice, without giving Vivian time to intervene, told him all that she had heard from the old shepherd and from Mrs Snow. He listened in silence, although his amazement was too profound and too openly expressed, to be anything else than genuine. “What do you think?” said Beatrice, when she had finished.
“I don’t know what to think,” he muttered, glancing sideways at her and then away into the shadowy garden. “I believe Orchard is right, and that you are the daughter of the man who was murdered in this house. But I do not believe what Mrs Snow says. Your mother—or, indeed, any woman—would never commit a crime in so brutal a manner. I don’t believe any woman unless an Amazon would have the strength, for one thing.”
“So I think,” said Beatrice heartily; “and I am glad that you agree with me. However, the discovery of my parentage does not make any difference to my position.”
“I don’t know so much about that,” said Paslow, meditatively. “It might be that Colonel Hall left money. As he is dead, and your mother is dead—as Alpenny’s wife, any money that there is should come to you.”
“Well,” said Beatrice, watching the effect of her words, “it seems to me that the necklace is mine. I understand that it is valued—so Major Ruck said—at ten thousand pounds. If I can find that, I certainly will be an heiress. But Durban wants me to leave it alone.”
“For what reason?”
“He declares that the necklace is accursed.”
“Pooh!” said Vivian, with supreme contempt. “That is his African superstition. You must not forget, Beatrice, that Durban is half a negro. If the necklace can be found, it certainly must be given back to you, for your own sake. Not for mine,” he added quickly; “I don’t care if you are an heiress or a pauper. I marry you because I love you, my darling.”
He offered to take her in his arms, but she drew back. “One moment, Vivian,” she said rapidly. “Can you tell me where the necklace is to be found?”
“I!” He started back in great surprise, and met her gaze frankly but with a puzzled look. “How should I know?”
“Mr Alpenny, I truly believe, was killed for the sake of that necklace, as was my father before him. I do not believe that my father gave it to my mother. He was killed and robbed—so was Alpenny.”
“Beatrice, do you imply that I know anything of this murder?”
“I can explain,” she said, and came closer. “Alpenny was killed by a man who wore a black patch over his left eye. A black patch was found under the window of the room in which my father, Colonel Hall, was murdered. Both crimes were committed, if not by the same man, as I have hitherto believed, at least by a member of the Black Patch Gang to which Alpenny belonged.”
Paslow covered his face with a groan, unable to meet the vivid lightning of her eyes. “What do you know about the Black Patch Gang?” he asked in stifled tones.
“All that Jerry Snow could tell me. He was in Whitechapel, and heard many remarks about this gang of thieves which the police are always trying to break up. Now that the gang is concerned in murder as well as in thievery, the police will make every effort to capture the man who heads them. What is his name?”
“How should I know?” demanded Paslow hoarsely.
“Because you do know. Alpenny hinted that you had committed crimes.”
“He lied—he lied,” said Vivian passionately. “I am as innocent of evil-doing as you are; folly, perhaps, but never crime.”
“I believe that. I am certain that the man I love would never descend to sordid crime. But you have been drawn into the toils of this gang. I believe that Alpenny was the head—he decoyed you into his snares; or else Ruck—Major Ruck, his decoy-duck.”
“There is some truth in what you say, but—”
“No; you must speak out. I will stand by you to the end, and do all I can to reveal my love more and more. But I refuse”—she drew herself upright—“to marry you unless you tell me the whole truth.”
“Give me time,” he panted, and clenched his hands.
“No. You must tell me now, or to-night we part for ever.”
Paslow uttered a groan, and moved forward two or three steps as though about to seek safety in flight. “Beatrice!” he said brokenly.
“Your answer?” she demanded, making every effort to appear calm.
But the answer was not to come from Paslow. Even while he opened his mouth to speak, Jerry appeared on the lawn with two ladies. One was Dinah, as they could see by the evening-dress; the other a tall, slim, fair-haired woman, fashionably arrayed in walking-costume. The moonlight was strong, but neither Beatrice nor Paslow could tell who the strange woman was.
“Hullo, Vivian!” shouted Jerry; “here is Miss Carr, who wants to see you.”
He would have said more, but was drawn back by Dinah, who apparently was still jealous of the stranger. Beatrice remembered that this was the woman with whom Jerry had been speaking during the day, the same that had awakened the jealousy of Dinah. Also, she was the daughter of the ex-butler. She advanced with gliding steps, and looked like a beautiful lithe tigress stealing towards her prey.
With Dinah, still jealous, Jerry after that one abrupt introduction disappeared down the avenue, probably to be scolded. But Beatrice did not look at the retreating lovers, nor indeed at the advancing Miss Carr, whose foot was now on the lowest step of the terrace. All her attention was concentrated on Vivian Paslow, who stood at the top of the steps as though frozen into stone. The woman came up the steps, and was now so near that Beatrice could see the smile on her fair face.
“You!” said Vivian hoarsely, and fell back a pace.
“Myself,” said Miss Carr, “and no ghost either.”
Beatrice rose with a bound, and felt a sudden jealous anger surge in her heart. She looked from one to the other imperiously. “Who is this woman?” she asked the cowering man.
“My—my—wife,” he said in low, broken tones. “God help me, my wife come back from the dead!”
Miss Carr, or Miss Orchard, or Mrs Paslow—Beatrice thought of her by all these three names—smiled quietly when her husband made the confession, and sank gracefully into the seat he had vacated. She was certainly a handsome woman, and if not entirely a lady, was an extremely good imitation of the same. Vivian still stood as in a dream, staring at the wife he had believed to be dead and buried, and Beatrice stared alternately at him and at the strange woman. A silence ensued, for each of the three was thinking hard. Beatrice was the first to break silence.
“Will you explain?” she asked Vivian quietly.
“I think,” he answered in a harsh, dry tone, “that my wife had better explain. I have the certificate of her death, and—”
“And you can consider it so much waste-paper. The woman who was buried was my double,” said Mrs Paslow composedly.
“You cannot deceive me in that way, Maud. I saw you ill in bed.”
“And so I was. I had a bad attack of influenza,” said his wife, with a calm smile. “Oh, my illness was genuine enough; but I did not die,—although I appeared to do so, for reasons connected with a second marriage.”
“With Mr Paslow’s marriage to me?” asked Beatrice, striving to regain her calmness, and emulate the sang-froid of this cold, audacious woman, who appeared to have no feelings.
“Well, no,” drawled Mrs Paslow, “not exactly. I never did care to benefit my fellow-creatures to that extent. I refer to a marriage I wished to make with a rich American. However, his mother stopped the marriage, and I found myself without a natural protector. Therefore, as I heard from Major Ruck that Vivian proposed to make you his wife, I came here to save you, and stop him from committing bigamy.”
“Which you just now proposed to commit yourself?” said Beatrice, with cold contempt.
Mrs Paslow looked at her between half-closed eyelids, and shrugged her finely moulded shoulders. “Quite so,” she said politely; “but I have my reasons for risking imprisonment.”
“Reasons connected with money,” sneered Vivian.
“Connected with over a million—pounds, not dollars. Well?”
“Well,”—he faced her squarely—“and what do you propose to do now?”
“One moment,” interposed Beatrice, now perfectly calm, and determined to break down this woman’s composure; “I should like to know how you carried out this plot of a feigned death.”
There was a case of cigarettes on the table belonging to Vivian: Mrs Paslow cast a disdainful, and rather amused look on Beatrice, and lighted one of the little rolls of tobacco. When the smoke was wreathing round her fashionable hat, she spoke with great calmness and appeared in no way upset by the imperious tone of the woman whom her husband loved. “Certainly,” she replied in a low, sweet voice, which seemed to be one of her greatest charms, and she had many. “As I explained, I wanted to be free of Vivian to marry a richer man than he was, or is likely to be. When I was ill, and he came to see me, the plan suggested itself. I took the doctor into my confidence, and he agreed, for a consideration, to forward my aims. My double was really ill,—oh yes, with consumption; she could not live, so—”
“What do you mean by your double?” asked Beatrice abruptly.
“Vivian can tell you. He knew of my double.”
“I did,—I do: but I did not think you would pass her off as yourself, Maud.”
Mrs Paslow removed the cigarette from her mouth and smiled. “It was a capital plot,” she said musingly; “and but that I want you to be again my husband, would have succeeded.”
“What about your double?” asked Beatrice pertinaciously.
“Oh, she was not a twin sister, as you seem to think. I am the only daughter and only child of Joseph Orchard, who was a butler, and is a shepherd. You see,” she added, leaning her arms on the table and addressing her rival in an amused tone, “I have no false pride about me. When occasion serves I can say that I am the daughter of an army officer, or of a clergyman, or of anyone with a position. I have done such things in my time. But to you I can be frank, since there is nothing to be gained by telling lies.”
“Your double—your double, Miss Carr, or Miss Orchard?”
“Neither name is mine. Mrs Paslow, if you please. Unless”—she glanced contemptuously at Vivian—“my husband denies—”
“I deny nothing. I cannot,” he said savagely. “Say what you have to say, Maud, and then I shall tell Miss Hall how we met and into what troubles you led me.”
“Miss Hall!” echoed Mrs Paslow, with a glance at Beatrice. “Then you know that, do you?”
“How do you know?” asked Beatrice, pointedly.
“Oh, my father told me long ago. Later I might have made capital out of the affair, but now—” She shrugged again.
“I believe that you are a bad woman,” said Beatrice hotly.
“I am—what God made me,” retorted Mrs Paslow, in no wise disturbed by the speech. “But about my double. She was a girl on the stage extremely like me: in fact we might have passed for twins. I also went on the stage—I have done most things in my time; and we—that is Miss Arthur my double and myself—appeared in a play as twins. If you knew anything of the theatre, Miss Hall, you would be surprised to hear how successful that play was. The author was unknown and Major Ruck financed the play, and—”
“I want to hear nothing about that, Mrs Paslow. I know now how you carried out the deception, though it seems to me that as you did not let Vivian see the dead body, it was needless to have this double.”
“Well,” admitted Mrs Paslow apologetically, as though excusing a fault, “it was necessary to make sure. Vivian, after a few visits, never came near me—”
“The doctor would not let me,” said her husband quickly.
“Good old doctor,” murmured Mrs Paslow, selecting a fresh cigarette; “he knew what I wanted. However, to make a long story short, Miss Arthur died in my place and was buried under my name. You have the certificate, my dear Vivian, so all is well. You were so easily deceived that there was no fun in deceiving you. A clever man would have made more certain of his wife’s death before arranging to take another one, especially as you were cheated once before.”
“I did hear that you were dead before Mr Alpenny was murdered, and I then asked Miss Hall here to be my wife,” confessed Vivian; “afterwards, Major Ruck told me that you were alive, but ill. I went to see you, and you really seemed to be dying—”
“I am a good actress, Vivian. I was on the stage, remember.”
“So I thought, when I saw the doctor and got the certificate, that you were really and truly dead. Oh, I shall see that the doctor is punished for this deception.”
“I think not,” said Mrs Paslow, narrowing her eyes and looking at him very directly. “No doubt he will be punished in time, but not by your will, Vivian dear.”
The tone and words were so peculiar and significant that Beatrice looked straight at the woman, who now had a mocking smile on her face, and spoke quietly: “You have some power over Mr Paslow?”
“Why not call him Vivian?” sneered the stranger. “He was”—she emphasised the word—“to be your husband, remember.”
“If you speak like that,” said Paslow standing over her and speaking in a low, angry voice, “I shall forget that I am your husband.”
His wife glanced slightingly at Beatrice. “It seems to me that you have forgotten,” she scoffed.
What the infuriated man would have said or done on the spur of the moment, it is impossible to say; but he was dangerous. Beatrice saw that, and drew him back with an exclamation. “Don’t,” she said quickly; “let her say what she will. It cannot hurt me. And let me remind you, Mrs Paslow, that you have not answered my question.”
“Nor do I intend to,” said the woman, rising and throwing aside the cigarette. The contemptuous words of Beatrice stung her not a little. “This is my husband, and I want him to return to town with me.”
“You are my wife,” said Vivian in quiet anger, “and you were willing to commit bigamy after deceiving me by a feigned death. I refuse to have anything more to do with you.”
“The law will make you!” she threatened.
“The law will do nothing of the sort. As my wife, I will allow you enough to live on; but no law will ever make me have anything to do with you again.”
“Then I shall make you!”
“Ah,” interposed Beatrice, “you exercise this power?”
“I want my husband,” said the woman sullenly.
“I refuse to have anything to do with you,” retorted Paslow once more. His wife was rapidly losing her temper. She had come prepared for victory; and, meeting with this opposition, all the disdainful certainty of her assumed nature wore away, and the coarser feelings became apparent. Her face flushed a dark red, the expression changed, and instead of a quiet, ladylike person, Beatrice saw before her a virago of the worst. “You shall come!” she shouted, “or rather, I shall stay here. This is my house, and you,”—she turned on Beatrice,—“you shall leave it.”
“I am here with Mr Paslow’s sister, and I decline to leave it at the word of a disgraced wife.”
“I!” Mrs Paslow sprang forward with upraised fist. “You dare to say that to me, you—” Before she could strike, Vivian caught her arm, and flung her back with such force that she fell against the balustrade of the terrace. “Do you want me to commit murder?” he said savagely.
“Why not another, since you killed Alpenny?” she panted, and glared at him like a tigress losing her prey.
“That is a lie!” cried Beatrice before Vivian could speak. “Mr Paslow was with me on that night, and about the time the crime was committed.”
“Oh!” sneered the woman, seizing her advantage, “Vivian was with you, indeed? And what would be said were that known, Miss Hall, as you call yourself?”
“Be silent,” said her husband, catching her arm in an iron grip, and his face whiter than that of the dead; “you shameless creature! Go away at once, and cease your insults.”
“Leave me alone!” cried Mrs Paslow, wrenching herself free. “I intend to stop in my own house.”
“My house—not yours.”
“I am your wife.”
“And just now you confessed to a feigned death to commit bigamy? I have a great mind to give my lawyers instructions to apply for a divorce.”
“Give them to Tuft, then,” cried Mrs Paslow, her fair face convulsed with fury. “He is Alpenny’s lawyer, and knows all about me, and all about you. See! see!”—she pointed a mocking finger at Vivian who had turned away with a gesture of despair—“he dare not face the law!”
“If you mean that you will denounce him for having killed Mr Alpenny,” said Beatrice in a clear low voice, “you are wrong. I can clear Mr Paslow’s character. I can save him, and I will!”
“Because I love him. Why he married you, how he married you, I do not know; but I believe that you trapped him into—”
“Trapped him, indeed!” shouted Mrs Paslow. “I could have married a dozen better men than he. He is a coward—a milksop—a—a thief! Ah!” she cried as Beatrice recoiled with a shudder, “you know the truth now. This dainty, well-born gentleman—this honourable man—is a thief, who was tried for shoplifting.”
“And who was acquitted,” said Paslow, deadly pale. “It was you who were condemned, and rightly: God forgive me for saying so. After all, bad as you are, you are my wife.”
“Vivian,” said Beatrice, with her face drawn with agony, “is what this woman says true?”
“True—quite true. And I’ll thank you to speak of me more respectfully,” snapped Mrs Paslow.
“Is it true?” asked Beatrice again, paying no attention to this spiteful speech.
“Quite true,” said Vivian, drawing a long breath and prepared to face the worst; “this is the power she has held over me. That she can send me to prison is a lie; but she can disgrace my name, by telling my friends that I was accused of shoplifting.”
“But was it not in the papers?” asked Beatrice anxiously.
“No. I was accused under another name, Beatrice. I married that woman”—he pointed to Mrs Paslow, who was still fuming with rage—“when my father was alive. She was the daughter of our old servant, who became a shepherd. Afterwards, when a child, and when I was a child, she came here, and Mrs Lilly helped her for the sake of her father. I was a boy and foolish. She was clever and unscrupulous. She grew weary of this quiet life, and went to town. I thought that I loved her—”
“And you did,” panted Mrs Paslow.
“I did not,” said Vivian sternly. “I was entrapped, as you know well.—It was a year later that I met her, when in town, and then she was the associate of thieves and rogues. Alpenny had seen her here; he inveigled her into his nets, and used her in the West End as a decoy in the same way as he used Major Ruck. She met me. I believed that she was good—that she was still my old playfellow. I married her under my own name, but in order to save the feelings of my father, I lived with her as my wife under another name.”
“I wanted to take my own and come down here,” said the woman.
“I know you did, but I would not allow it,” said Vivian, and continued his story rapidly, while Beatrice, perfectly still, listened intently. “It would have broken my father’s heart. And then,” he added, turning to Beatrice, “I found out how vile she was.”
“I never deceived you—never,” said Mrs Paslow.
“No. You had that redeeming point,” said her husband; “as a wife I could find no fault with you in that way. Had you been good and kind, I might have come to love you, as I did when we were children together. But your nature was essentially false and wicked. Under the tuition of Alpenny you developed into an adventuress, and made the worst use of your talents.”
“But for Alpenny we should have starved,” she reminded him.
“I did not know that,” he retorted. “You said that the money had been left to you by your god-mother; only when it was too late did I learn that Alpenny gave you the money for having stolen things. And then I was dragged into your evil ways.”
“You did steal,” insisted Mrs Paslow.
“I did not. Beatrice, one day we were in a draper’s shop in the West End. This woman stole some lace; she was arrested, and I was arrested also as her accomplice.”
“Oh Vivian!” mocked Mrs Paslow. “You see he is a thief.”
“You lie,” said Paslow angrily. “Beatrice does not believe that.”
“No! no! I would never believe it,” said Beatrice.
“You fool!” scoffed Mrs Paslow.
“You angel!” cried Vivian fervently, and then proceeded rapidly with his nauseous story. “Under my feigned name I was tried—and thus, thank God! I was enabled to save my father from dying of a broken heart. I was accused, but Tuft, Alpenny’s lawyer, defended me—not from kindness. No. Alpenny, by this accusation of theft, secured a hold over me, which he used after my father’s death to extort the property from me. This is why I am so poor. Alpenny and my wife”—he laid a scornful emphasis on the word—“got all my money.”
“And we had a right to,” said Mrs Paslow. “I am your wife, and Alpenny, through Tuft, saved you from going to gaol.”
“For his own ends merely,” retorted Vivian. “I had to pay bitterly for his aid.—This woman”—he again pointed to Maud—“was condemned, as it was proved that she was an expert thief, and she was sentenced to a few months’ imprisonment.”
“To five months,” said Mrs Paslow shamelessly.
“I was acquitted; but the judge read me a lecture on the kind of society I kept. And Heaven help me!” cried Vivian, “then was the first time that I knew what sort of society my marriage had led me into.”
“You were always a greenhorn,” said Mrs Paslow, patting her hair into shape, and arranging her ruffled plumes.
Vivian turned his back on her. “I left the court without a stain on my character,” he said quickly; “and left England for the five months, telling my father that I was going abroad for my health. And my health was bad,” he added. “I broke down under the vileness of it all. My father never knew the truth; nor did any of my friends. The case, since I was accused under another name, passed unnoticed. But Maud knew the truth, and so did Alpenny; so did Tuft his creature, and Major Ruck, another of his minions. They tried to make me vile by threats of exposure; but so long as I could bribe Alpenny by giving him money, no action was taken by him or Ruck. Maud I also kept—”
“I had a right to the money. I am your wife.”
“I admit that you had the right,” he said. “Wicked as you were, I acknowledged you as my wife.”
“Not to the world,” she said sharply.
“Because that would have made the marriage known to my father, and he would have cut me off without a shilling. After his death, when you found that Alpenny had the money, you refused to be acknowledged, although I asked you to come here as my wife. I had not then met with Miss Hall,” ended Vivian significantly.
“I see. You love her?”
“With all my heart and soul.”
“And I love him,” acknowledged Beatrice. “From what I have heard, I can see that Vivian is not to blame, you wicked woman.”
“Here,” said Mrs Paslow, advancing, “get out of my house. I have come here to take up my rightful position. The house is mine.”
“You will leave this place at once,” said Vivian, his face dark with anger; “you can tell what you like and do what you like. Alpenny is dead, and I decline to be under your thumb any longer.”
“I shall stop here,” said Mrs Paslow, and sat down firmly.
Vivian placed his hand on her shoulder. She jumped up in a fury and struck at him. “You dare to touch me, you thief!” she stormed. “You have spoilt my life—you have—you have!” Her anger choked her, and she tore at the lace round her neck; in doing so, she ripped the dress, and her hand caught unknowingly at something within. To the amazement of Beatrice, a chain of glittering gems was pulled from its hiding-place round her neck, and fell on the pavement. The jewels were diamonds, and they flashed, pools of liquid light, in the moonlight.
“Oh!” cried Beatrice, guessing at once. “The Obi necklace!”
Almost before the words were out of her mouth, Mrs Paslow had snatched up the necklace and was flying across the lawn. Vivian would have followed, but Beatrice stopped him.
“Let her go,” said Beatrice, holding back the angered husband by main force; “only in this way can you keep her out of the house.”
“But the necklace,” said Vivian, pausing, while his wife vanished amongst the shadows of the trees. “Are you sure?”
“No. How can I be sure? I have never seen the necklace. But the diamonds were too lovely to be paste. You know I have seen many jewels pass through Alpenny’s hands, and sometimes he explained their particular beauties and values to me. I am sure the gems in that necklace are real: they flashed so wonderfully in the moonlight.”
“Diamond necklaces are rare in the Weald,” mused Vivian thoughtfully, “and Maud is not likely to possess such jewels, for she has little money. It must be the famous Obi necklace. Where could she have got it, Beatrice?”
“Who knows?” she replied, her cheek slightly paling. “Is she one of the members of this Black Patch Gang?”
“So far as I know anything of her life, she is,” replied Paslow, his eyes averted. Then he turned and seized her hands with vehemence, “Oh! my heart’s darling what can you think of me after this revelation?”
Beatrice did not pause an instant in making reply. “I think you were very foolish to keep the truth from me.”
“But how could I tell you of my sinful folly?” he pleaded, and his voice was very sweet in her ears. “See what a sordid tale it is: a foolish boy, and a clever woman! Yet God knows”—he broke off and cast away her hands—“it is not right that I should blame the woman, as men usually do. After all, Maud has some good points about her.”
“I did not see them,” responded Beatrice, with the bitterness with which one woman will always talk about another she hates.
“But, believe me, she has,” insisted Vivian quickly. “She has been a burden to me; she did her best to drag me down to her level of thievery and roguery; but I cannot forget that I knew her here, as a child—when she really was good and kind. And, Beatrice,” he added, with a flush, “on my soul I believe that in some things she is not what one might think her. You heard her say that she had been a true wife to me?”
“Yes,” answered the girl, not to be outdone in justice even to a rival; “and I believe what she said. But if you love her—”
“Don’t say that.” He sprang towards her, all his heart in his eyes and passion in every note of his voice. “I love you and you only; no other woman has ever made me feel what you have. I met Maud in London, and even before, I had a kind of boy and girl passion for her. Then we were playmates, remember, in spite of the difference of our position. I was sorry when she told me how lonely she was in London. I did not know that she lied in saying so. I was young and inexperienced, and she caught me with a tearful eye and a quivering voice and a tale of woe. I married at haste to repent at leisure. But, oh Heavens!”—he broke off, pressing his hands against his aching brow—“when I think of that horrible police-court, and the way in which I was accused of what I never did, I hardly dare to look you in the face. I am soiled with the mire of criminality. I must be an outcast, a scoundrel in your eyes.”
“You are in my eyes what you always have been,” replied Beatrice in a soft tone—“the man I love.”
“Still, still—you—you love me?” he stammered.
“Yes. No, do not touch me,” she added hastily, as Vivian flung himself forward. “You had a right before she came, as you were ignorant, and I see from her own confession how you were deceived; but now, she is your wife—she is alive. Until that barrier is removed, we can be nothing but friends to one another. I cannot stay here.”
“I cannot,” she answered steadily. “I love you, and I cannot see you day after day with calmness.”
“You can remain as Dinah’s companion,” he said entreatingly. “I shall pay you a salary, and then you will be independent.”
“No. Dinah has Jerry; she wants no companion. I will go to town, and to Lady Watson. She was my mother’s friend, and will be able to help me.”
“You will go as her companion?”
“Oh no. I don’t like her sufficiently for that. But she may be able to get me a position as a governess or something else. And also, I wish to ask her about my mother, whom she knew. Mrs Snow gives a cruel version of what my mother was. Lady Watson may be more truthful. And some day,” she added, drawing so near to Vivian that it took him all his powers of self-repression to refrain from taking her in his arms—“some day, when the barrier is removed, we may come together.”
Vivian shook his head. “Maud will never give me a chance of divorce, my dear,” said he bitterly. “She is too clever and—I may say it to you—too passionless.”
“Never mind, we can remain friends.”
Paslow groaned aloud with anguish. “Can there be friendship between us after all that has come and gone?”
“Yes,” said Beatrice quietly, “because we are soul friends, and do not love entirely after the physical. Come, Vivian,”—she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder—“let us commence our friendship by talking sensibly of these matters.”
“What matters?” he asked listlessly, for the man was worn out with the struggle which was going on in his breast.
“About the murders of my father and of Alpenny. We must learn who committed them.”
“What good will that do?”
“This much: it will destroy the power which this gang holds over your head. Major Ruck knows that you were accused of theft, so does Tuft the lawyer and your wife. For their own ends they will hold this in terrorem over you.”
“They have always done so,” said Vivian sadly. “They cannot hurt me so far as the police are concerned, as I left the court without a stain on my character. But socially, if they told my friends—”
“If your friends turn their backs on you, they are not worthy to be called friends,” said Beatrice quickly. “You must face this gang of people. Do you not know their secrets, and thus may be able to counterplot them?”
“I know nothing about them; but Durban may. The paper which was on my desk, and which told me to threaten Alpenny with the black patch, was—now I feel sure—in Durban’s handwriting.”
“It probably was,” said Beatrice thoughtfully. “I shall see Durban and ask him to be open with me. But did you not know anything about the Black Patch Gang, Vivian?”
“No,” he said earnestly; “I swear I did not. I fancied from what Maud let drop at times that Alpenny and herself and Ruck were all connected with some criminal organisation; but I never knew anything about the black patch, which seems to be their badge. I used the words on Durban’s paper—if Durban did write them—quite unknowingly. And now when I remember their effect, and remember also how your father was murdered, and how you also saw a man issuing from The Camp with a black patch over his eye, I feel sure that there is such a gang, and that Alpenny was connected with it. Probably I was used to warn him that he would be killed, for some reason. He may have betrayed them, or made personal use of the goods he received. But whatever it was, I certainly unconsciously gave him the warning; and he was killed—I am convinced of this—by a member of the gang.”
“I agree with you,” said Beatrice promptly. “Well, I shall see Durban to-morrow, and he may speak out. I shall insist on his doing so. Also, I shall see old Orchard.”
“Because I believe she got that necklace from him—your wife, I mean. That was why she came down, and why she acknowledged the relationship to Orchard.”
“You don’t think he killed Alpenny, Beatrice?”
“No. The man is too old, and, moreover, would not have the courage. But he may know something of the murder. In any case, if the necklace was in his possession, he will have to account for having it. Major Ruck insisted that my mother had it and left it to Alpenny, who should have given it to me. And he would have done so, in order to close Major Ruck’s mouth.”
“But how could he do that if he gave you the necklace?”
“Oh,” said Beatrice calmly, “it was to be my dowry, and I was to be made to marry Major Ruck. You heard yourself; Vivian, how the Major confessed that it was the Obi necklace he wanted. Perhaps he will make your wife give it up to him.”
“He will indeed be clever if he can manage that,” said Vivian, grimly. “My wife will not readily part with diamonds like that, and I fancy she knows enough about the Major to keep him silent. Well, Beatrice, let it be as you say: see Durban in the morning, and then Orchard. But I wish you would stay here.”
“No, you do not, Vivian,” said the girl, determinedly. “You love me too well for that.”
“Perhaps I do. I shall always love you. Oh Beatrice, if you can only get at the truth of these murders and bring home the crime to the Black Patch Gang, you will lift from my shoulders the burden of years. I will work also. I have been a weak fool, allowing myself to be blackmailed and humbled by these rogues. But you have put fresh life into me, my darling. I shall now assert my manhood.”
“I quite understand how you shrank from publicity,” she said in a soothing tone. “You are brave and manly, I know: but a man who would face a cannon’s mouth would, in a case like this, be fearful for his good name. Let me search out the matter.”
“But you will allow me to help?”
“When I want your help I shall ask it of you,” she replied. “And now, as our relations are changed,—for the present, at all events,—let us shake hands on the bargain of being friends.”
Vivian did so without a sigh. The position was a hard one for him, but he recognised that it was harder for the girl. And when he saw how bravely she faced these difficult matters, he cursed himself for the moral cowardice which had made him submit for long years to extortion and concealment. “You put new heart into me,” he said again, and they shook hands as friends, as Dinah came up with Jerry.
“Jerry and I have been talking about our new flat in London,” cried Dinah, long before she arrived on the terrace. “And we will live in West Kensington. I shall keep a saloon, and be a literary woman.”
“A drinking saloon?” asked Vivian, glad of the diversion.
“No, you stupid! A thing like Madame de Rambouillet—collecting all the wits of London, you know.”
“Goodness knows where you’ll find them,” said Jerry bluffly; “wit is an extinct art.—I say, Vivian, where is Miss Carr?”
“That horrid girl!” interpolated Dinah.
“You didn’t think her horrid once, Dinah, when you played with her.”
“I never did,” said Dinah, opening her eyes and following her brother into the well-lighted drawing-room; “a painted—”
“She was not painted then,” interrupted Vivian impatiently. “And what Jerry told you about Orchard being her father ought to have—”
“Oh!” cried Dinah, starting, “now I remember, Maud Orchard of course. She was a housemaid or something.”
“Not quite that. She attended on Mrs Lilly, who behaved like a mother to her.”
“Yes, yes. And then she went to London, and Mrs Lilly was very angry. So that was her! Why did she call herself Carr?”
“It’s a journalistic name,” said Jerry.
“Oh!” said Dinah again. “I hope Snow is your real name?”
“My very own,” said Jerry, with a grimace. “I would certainly have chosen a different name had I selected one. But I am born a Snow, and have to put up with it.”
“Where has Maud Orchard gone?” asked Dinah, irrelevantly.
“She had to see after some business and went away,” said Beatrice, as Vivian found it difficult to answer this question. “She only came here to see your brother and remind him who she was.”
“Well, I am stupid,” said Dinah, swallowing this white fib; “but I have such a bad memory for faces. I can only remember Jerry’s because it is so very plain.”
“I call that hard,” said Jerry plaintively.
“I call it silly,” retorted Dinah, tapping him on the face with her fan. “Now have a whisky and soda with Vivian, and go home. Beatrice and I are going to bed. And I am sure you want to sleep,” she said, glancing at her friend’s pale face; “you look quite worn out.”
“I am all right,” said Beatrice somewhat impatiently.
“Good night, Jerry—good night, Vivian,” and the two girls went up to their rooms; while Vivian played host to Jerry, and got rid of him as speedily as he could. He was in no mood for the young journalist’s aimless chatter.
Next morning Beatrice awoke at five o’clock. She could not sleep longer, although, owing to being worn out on the previous night, she had slumbered very soundly. It was a lovely fresh morning, and she felt inclined for a walk. It was too early to see Durban, as he would not yet be up, early riser though he was. After a few minutes’ thought, Beatrice decided to walk up to the Downs and see if old Orchard was about. She would get there about the time he was starting off with his flock, and in any event would be certain to find him in his hut at the morning meal. Hastily scribbling a note that she would return to breakfast and had gone for a stroll, Beatrice dressed herself and stole downstairs. Leaving the note on the dining-room table where it would certainly be found by Mrs Lilly, the girl went out of the back door. The house-dog in the yard barked joyously at her coming, as she was a favourite of his. Beatrice, for the sake of company, let him loose, and took him with her.
She literally danced along the road in spite of the troubles which environed her. She was young, and the morning air was like champagne. Also she felt a conviction that things would surely come right, and that she and Vivian would become man and wife. She did not wish for the death of Mrs Paslow, wicked as the woman was, nor did she wish Vivian to divorce her, which—as he had said—he could not do. But she felt that in some way the barrier would be removed, and that its removal lay in her own hands. Thus her heart began to grow light, and as she climbed the Downs amidst the glory of the dawn, she breathed a prayer to God that He would take all these troubles out of her life, and bring her to a safe haven.
Orchard was at the door of his hut as usual, and also he was eating, just as he had been when she saw him last. He might have been seated there all the time, for all she knew. The sheep were nibbling the dewy grass, and the sun was rising in splendour, when the old shepherd beheld her. He turned his mild eyes on her, and greeted her quietly.
“You’re the young lady as called to see me the other day?” he said.
“Colonel Hall’s daughter,” explained Beatrice, taking the stool he offered, “and I have come to see you about yours.”
“About my what?” asked Orchard quietly.
“About your daughter Maud. She came last night to see Mr Paslow.”
“Ah yes,” said Orchard, with such composure that Beatrice was certain that he knew nothing about the marriage, or his daughter’s life. “Maud and Master Vivian were playmates together. She’s a pretty girl.”
“She is,” assented Beatrice cordially; for no one could deny the beauty of Maud Paslow, marred as it was by artificial aids.
“And a good girl,” said the old man, slightly warming. “She ain’t ashamed of her old father, although she writes books and lives like a fine lady in London.”
“Yes, I hear she is a journalist,” said Beatrice, and then abruptly added: “She must make a lot of money to have so fine a diamond necklace as she showed Mr Paslow and myself.”
“Did she show that?” said Orchard, with a slight cloud on his brow. “It was foolish of her. It is a necklace like one that Colonel Hall had years and years ago. Durban said that there was some witchcraft about that necklace, else why should it have been missing for so long, only to turn up here two days ago on the neck of a sheep?”
“What?” asked Beatrice, amazed.
“And now I come to think of it,” said Orchard, whose memory was apparently going, “Colonel Hall was murdered by Alpenny for that necklace.”
“It is the same?”
“Of course it is, miss. I recognised the setting when I took it off the sheep’s neck.”
“But how could such a set of jewels get on a sheep’s neck?”
“Ah!” said old Orchard, with great mildness, “that’s what I want to find out. Mr Alpenny had the necklace, I am sure. Perhaps, as Durban said, there was bad luck about it, and Mr Alpenny put it on a sheep’s neck to get rid of the spell.”
“What rubbish!” said Beatrice impatiently.
“Rubbish or not, miss, I found that necklace on the neck of one of my sheep. The poor thing had broken its leg, and I went to put it out of its pain. The diamond necklace was round its neck, and I gave it to Maud, as it was no use to me. I hope it won’t bring her bad luck, since it is the Obi necklace.”
Beatrice did not remain long with Orchard, after she had learned how Maud Paslow became possessed of the Obi necklace. She was convinced that the old shepherd was speaking the truth, as he did not appear to have sufficient brains to be inventive, and, moreover, was rapidly growing senile. But on her way down to the Weald she thought it strange that the necklace should have been discovered by the man, round the neck of a sheep. Who had placed the gems there? and why had they been attached to the animal? An attempt to solve this problem lasted Beatrice all the way to The Camp.
It was now nearly ten o’clock, but Beatrice was too excited to think about breakfast. She found the great gates of The Camp wide open, and indeed since Alpenny’s death they had been rarely closed. The gardens looked as beautiful as ever, but the railway carriages appeared a little deserted and forlorn. Beatrice walked at once towards the kitchen carriage, where she hoped to find Durban preparing his morning meal. He certainly was there, and with him was a red-headed, dirty little man in whom she recognised Waterloo.
“Oh!” said Beatrice, recoiling from the door, for the mere sight of that evil face made her sick.
“Blimme!” cried Waterloo, turning his rat-like eyes on her, “if it ain’t old Alpenny’s gal!”
“Hold your tongue,” said Durban in a low, fierce voice.—“What is it, missy?”
“I have come to ask you for some breakfast,” said Beatrice, retreating still further, so as to get away from Waterloo, “and to have a chat.”
“We’ll all have a jaw,” cried Waterloo enthusiastically; “we’re all pals in the same boat.”
“What does this horrible creature mean?” asked Beatrice, looking appealingly at her old servant.
“‘Orrible critture!” yelped Waterloo. “Well, I likes that, I does. Oh yuss, not at all, by no means. Why, me an’ your par were old pals.”
“Are you talking of Colonel Hall or of Mr Alpenny?” asked Beatrice, taking a sudden step towards the man.
The result of her remark and action surprised her not a little, and indeed seemed to surprise Durban also. “Colonel ‘All!” muttered Waterloo, and his red hair rose on end over a rapidly paling face. “Oh! my stars, if you knows about him, it’s time fur me to cut my lucky.”
“You know something?” cried Beatrice.
“I know as old Alpenny murdered—murdered— Here!” cried Waterloo, with a snarl, “you lemme out!” and before Beatrice could stop him—she was blocking the doorway—he had darted under her arm, and was running noiselessly out of The Camp. Apparently he was frightened out of his wits. Yet the girl wondered that so bold a thief, and a man accustomed to being in tight places, should be seized by so sudden an access of genuine terror.
“What does it mean?” she asked Durban, but making no attempt to follow the man.
“I know no more than you do, missy.”
“Durban,” said Beatrice, entering the kitchen and taking a seat, “you have kept me in the dark long enough. You ran away just as this man has done, when I asked you about the Obi necklace. Now you must speak out, as I am leaving Hurstable.”
“Leaving this place, missy?” said Durban, startled. “Are you not to marry Mr Paslow?”
“How can I marry him when he has a wife living?”
Durban did not seem to be so surprised at this news as she expected. “So you have found that out, missy?” he said slowly.
“You knew about it?”
“Yes, I knew; but I thought—I thought that she was dead.”
“No. She pretended to die, for her own purposes. In fact she intended, in that way, to get rid of Vivian, and marry an American millionaire. But she is alive,—her double was buried.”
“Miss Arthur!” cried the servant quickly.
“You know that also?”
“I know everything. But I thought that Mrs Paslow was dead, and so I wanted you to marry Mr Paslow and be happy.”
“Durban,” said the girl quietly, “the discovery of this, which you should have told me, alters the position of myself and Mr Paslow. I can no longer remain at Convent Grange. To-morrow I go up to town to see Lady Watson.”
Durban’s face took on its greenish pallor. He made one stride forward and spoke to Beatrice with dry lips. “You must not; you dare not. Do not go, missy.”
“Take your hand from my arm, Durban,” said Beatrice sharply; and when he did so she resumed in hard tones, “Why should I not go?”
“Oh! how can I tell you?” Durban clapped his hands together in a helpless sort of way, like a great child. “She is bad: she will do you harm. She has got Alpenny’s money, which ought to be yours. For all I know, she may have the Obi necklace also. I hope she has, for its possession will bring her the worst of luck.”
“She has not got the necklace, Durban. Mrs Paslow has it. Yes, you may well look surprised, Durban. Mr Paslow and myself saw it on her neck last night, when she came to see him and prevent our marriage.”
“How could she have got it?” murmured Durban, but more to himself than to his mistress.
“She obtained it from her father.”
“Old Orchard the butler?”
“Old Orchard the shepherd. I saw him this morning. He recognised the necklace as having belonged to my father—to Colonel Hall; it seems the setting is peculiar.”
“But how did it come into his possession, missy?”
“He found it on the neck of a sheep.”
Durban did not look at all surprised. “I thought he would,” was his strange reply.
“You thought he would what?”
“I thought he would find it there.”
“Durban, did you know it was on a sheep’s neck?”
“Yes. I—well, missy, I may as well make a clean breast of it—I placed it on the sheep’s neck myself.”
“You? And where did you get it?”
“Come with me, missy, and I’ll show you.”
In silent amazement Beatrice followed the stout man out of the kitchen. He led the way across the lawn to the counting-house, and opened the door with a key which he took from the pocket of his white suit. She beheld the counting-house in exactly the same state as she had seen it when Alpenny had insisted on the marriage with Major Ruck. But much water had flowed under Westminster Bridge since that time, which now seemed so far away.
“Missy,” said Durban, pointing to the seat in front of the mahogany desk, “sit down and let us talk. I have much to tell you, for the time has come when you must know what I know.”
“Why have you kept information from me all this time?” said Beatrice, sitting down, while Durban stood at the door, his bulky form blocking up all exit.
“Why? Missy, I ask you, would it have been right for me, who love you, to overshadow your young life by telling you of the murder of your father, of the rascality of Alpenny, and of the terrible position in which Mr Paslow was placed?” Durban spoke vehemently, and with the very greatest earnestness.
“I am not a child,” said Beatrice. “I should have been told.”
“You were a child for a long time, and I loved you,” said Durban with exquisite sadness. “I wished to keep you in ignorance of the evil that surrounded you. I wished you to marry Mr Paslow, and go away, never to learn what the evil was. But, I knew—for I learned it from Major Ruck, who wished to marry you and get the Obi necklace—that Mr Paslow had married Maud Orchard (or Maud Carr, as she calls herself in town). When she died—or pretended to die—I thought that all would be well, and so kept silence. But you were determined to search out these matters for yourself. I placed no bar in the way of your doing so, as I thought that perhaps you were the chosen instrument to put all right. Since, unaided, you have found out so much, I think you are that instrument, so I am now going to make much plain, which has hitherto puzzled you.”
Beatrice crossed her feet and hands. “I shall be glad to hear what you have to say,” she said coldly.
“Ah, missy, do not be angry,” said Durban caressingly; “it was love that made me keep you in the dark.”
He was so genuinely moved that a large tear rolled down his dark face, and a profound emotion stirred him to the depths of his being. Beatrice was annoyed at the way in which she had been treated, but she was just enough to recognise that the man had kept silence out of pure affection. Impulsively stretching out her hand, she caught his, which hung listlessly by his side, and shook it heartily. “I believe you love me, Durban, and that you acted for the best.”
“Hush! Be quiet, and tell me what you know.”
Durban wiped his face with the duster which he carried, and, leaning against the door, spoke slowly and to the point. Indeed, he seemed glad that after his years of silence he was at last able to confess freely, and to a sympathetic listener.
“I was born in the West Indies, missy,” he said, “and knew your mother and father—”
“You told me that you were born on my mother’s estate. Begin from the time you came to Convent Grange.”
“Very well, missy. I came to Convent Grange with my master to see Mr Paslow’s father, who was an old friend of the Colonel’s. Master and your mother had quarrelled. He was severe, and kept your mother too quiet. She liked gaiety and pleasure, yet so severely had he trained her that she was always silent and demure. She came down with you and your nurse for one night. Then my master was murdered, as you know.”
“Can you tell who murdered him?”
“No, missy.” Durban spoke very earnestly. “I swear that I do not know who did that. But your mother was suspected. She cleared herself; but people still looked at her askance, so she changed her name to Hedge and married Mr Alpenny. Here”—Durban glanced out of doors”—in this quiet place she was safe, and here she lived until she died, worn out with grief, a few months later. Mr Alpenny then sent you to Miss Shallow at Brighton, and you know all your life since then.”
“Why did my mother marry Mr Alpenny?”
“Because she had the Obi necklace. Your father gave it to her, she told me.”
“And Major Ruck said the same thing.”
“It must be true, then,” muttered Durban, half to himself, “although I was never sure. But Alpenny said that he would accuse your mother of the murder unless she married him. She did so, and then died. Alpenny kept the necklace, and, being fond of jewels, he could not make up his mind to part with it even for money, of which he was equally fond. He kept it by him in this place.”
“In the safe?”
“No, missy. The safe—as Mr Alpenny, an associate of thieves, knew very well—was the first place where thieves would look. See here, missy”—Durban advanced to the wall, and pulled aside the faded red rep which hung there as a kind of arras—“here is a pocket behind this, made in the rep. The necklace was kept here, for no one would think of feeling the hangings. It was safer here than in the safe.”
Beatrice examined the pocket, and admired the ingenuity of the hiding-place, which—so to speak—was so public that even the most expert thief would never think of looking here for a valuable necklace of gems. An ordinary man would have kept the jewels in the safe; but Mr Alpenny, who must have got the hint from Poe’s story of “The Purloined Letter,” chose the least likely place to be searched.
“And you found the necklace here, Durban?”
“Yes, missy. I will tell you how I did. Mr Alpenny was a member, and the chief one, of the Black Patch Gang.”
“Durban! Then you wrote that paper which was on Mr Paslow’s desk?”
“I did, missy,” he admitted quietly. “Mr Alpenny, wanting all the money to himself, had several times played the Gang false. Twice he was warned, and was told that at the third warning he would be killed.”
“I remember how Mr Alpenny shivered when Vivian spoke,” said Beatrice, recalling the scene; “and he spoke of the third warning.”
“I was told to give him the warning,” said Durban calmly; “and I wanted to make Mr Paslow use it, in the hope that Mr Alpenny would be frightened into consenting to your marriage with Mr Paslow.”
“But you knew that Maud Paslow was alive?”
“She pretended to die twice,” said Durban, “and I was equally deceived along with Mr Paslow. He did not know what the warning of the Black Patch Gang meant; but I did, and made Mr Paslow unconsciously use it. But it proved useless.”
“Not to Mr Alpenny. He was murdered.”
“Yes, missy, and I believe by a member of the Black Patch Gang; but I do not know who. Listen, missy. I am about to place my life in your hands!” and the man looked cautiously round.
“Durban!” she exclaimed, frightened, “are you going to tell me that you were a member of the Gang?”
“No, missy, I was not. They tried to get me to join, but being an honest man, I refused. But I held my tongue for your sake. I loved you, and the Gang declared if I told the police about them, that they would kidnap you. Therefore I was silent.”
“Kidnap me!” cried Beatrice indignantly. “How could they?”
“The Gang are very clever, and could do what they wanted to,” said Durban drily; “and as Alpenny hated you, he certainly would have put no bar in the way of your being carried off. It was only I who stood between you and this danger.”
“Oh, Durban, how much I owe you!”
“Missy”—he kissed her hand—“you do not owe me so much as I owed your good father, who saved me from being lynched in the States. But we can talk of that afterwards,” he added hastily. “Let me go on. I was here on the night of the murder.”
“You! Why, you went to town?”
“I pretended to. But after the warning, Mr Alpenny intended to bolt, as he feared for his life—that was why he left the note on your table. But I came back here before you returned in the wind and the rain, and looked through the window of the counting-house, in which a light burned. I saw Alpenny lying dead, and knew that the Black Patch Gang had accomplished their vengeance.”
“Did you meet any one?”
“No, I saw no one. Then I entered the counting-house by the secret way, missy.”
“Is there a secret way, Durban?”
“Yes. I found it by chance. See!” Durban advanced to the end of the carriage and touched a spring which was concealed behind the rep hangings. At once there was a creaking noise, and the sheet of galvanised tin, upon which rested the stove, swung aside, to reveal a narrow flight of stone steps. “These,” said Durban, “lead along an underground passage into the shrubbery, and from there one can go out by the great gates, or the small one. I entered by this way, as I had a duplicate key of the great gates. I searched for the Obi necklace, and found it by looking everywhere for it. I felt the hangings, and so discovered the pocket. Then I left The Camp and climbed the Downs. On to the neck of the first sheep I could catch, I tied the necklace, and let it stray away.”
“But why did you do that?” asked Beatrice, astonished.
“Because there was a curse on the necklace,” said Durban with all the intensity of his negro nature. “And I did not want that curse to come upon you. You might have got the necklace, and then you would have had nothing but misery. Therefore, instead of throwing it away, for there was always the chance that it might be found, I bound it on the neck of the sheep, and lightly, thinking that the animal might lose it on the pathless Downs. I did it, missy, to save you from the curse. Well,” said Durban, throwing out his hands, “old Orchard found it, and has given it to his daughter. She will be unlucky for evermore, unless she gives it to another person. And I hope,” finished the half-caste vindictively, “that she will give it to Major Ruck in order that he may come to the gallows, as he has long deserved them.”
“What a strange story! And you do not know who killed Alpenny?”
“No more than I know who killed Colonel Hall. But, missy, now that I have told you this, you will not go to Lady Watson?”
“I must, Durban. I have to earn my living.”
“Then go to any one, but not to that woman”; and Durban fell on his knees. “I implore you!”
But the more he implored the more Beatrice was determined to go, and learn, if possible, why Durban feared Lady Watson so much. “I go to-morrow,” she said quietly, and twitched her dress from his grasp.
“It is Fate! Fate! Fate!” muttered Durban gloomily.
Beatrice kept her word in spite of all Durban’s protestation that her visit to Lady Watson would lead to trouble. Frank as the old servant had apparently been, Beatrice could not rid herself of the idea than even now he had not told everything. There was some mystery concerning Lady Watson which had a bearing on the other mysteries, and this she was determined to find out. Only by knowing everything would her mind be set at rest.
The girl was sufficiently unhappy in these days. The discovery of the evil by which she was surrounded made her recoil from everyone in terror. All people seemed to have skeletons in their various cupboards, and Beatrice dreaded the chance of becoming friendly with any one else who had a secret. Also, it was pain and anguish to her to stand aside, and know that Maud Orchard possessed Vivian. Of course Maud had returned to London, and Vivian—so he said—had heard nothing about her from the time she had fled with the Obi necklace. All the same this woman, wicked and lawless, was his wife, and, while she lived, Beatrice knew that Vivian could never be anything to her but a friend. Loving him as she did, and in spite of his manifold weaknesses, her heart ached as she thought of the long, dreary, desolate life that necessarily was before her when deprived, by a prior claim, of his society. But recent events had hardened the girl’s character, and she grasped her nettle firmly. In other words, she made all arrangements to go to London and see Lady Watson, on the chance of obtaining work. So long as she could earn her living, nothing else seemed to matter. Beatrice felt very unhappy and lonely.
What she greatly desired was a confidant. Dinah, being a scatter-brain, and wrapped up in Jerry, was useless, while, owing to the changed circumstances, she could not feel easy in the company of Vivian. Durban, after the short interview she had with him in The Camp, had vanished; for when Beatrice went again to question him still further, she found the place deserted and locked up. Where Durban had gone she did not know, and, needing him as she did, her state of mind was one of wretchedness and foreboding. However, as she greatly desired advice and comfort, she induced Vivian to come to the lonely Camp, and there told him all that Durban had told her.
Vivian heard her in silence, and wondered at the queer story. Durban, he thought, was deeper implicated in the doings of the Black Patch Gang than he chose to acknowledge, and he said this to Beatrice after some thought. The girl vigorously refused to believe in the guilt of the man.
“Durban has always been my best friend, Vivian,” she said, with a look of pain. “How can you accuse him, without evidence?”
“It seems to me that there is a great deal of evidence upon which to accuse him,” said Paslow grimly. “He had the necklace, and the crime was committed for the sake of the necklace.”
“No. It was a case of revenge. Alpenny evidently betrayed the Gang in some way, or took more than his fair share of the plunder, therefore he was sentenced to death; and you were used by Durban as the unconscious instrument to give him warning. You saw how terrified old Alpenny was, and how he muttered about the third time. Also, the note he wrote to me was a trick, to give him time to get away. He would have fled, but that he was killed.”
“Had he fled,” said Vivian judiciously, “or had he intended to fly, he would have taken his jewels with him. According to Major Ruck, he had a great many jewels.”
“I saw some,” replied Beatrice. “Well, perhaps he did make up a parcel of jewels, and these were stolen by the thief who killed him.”
“No,” insisted Vivian. “The necklace was left behind, or would have been. Had Alpenny intended to fly to the Continent with his plunder in order to escape death he certainly would have packed up the Obi necklace at once. As it was, he left it in its hiding-place, and Durban—as he says—found it there.”
“How do you mean—as he says?” questioned Beatrice, struck by the peculiar tone in which Paslow uttered the words.
“I mean that Durban may be telling a lie. Alpenny may have got the necklace ready to go away. Durban, coming back, as he confessed to you he did, probably killed him, and stole the necklace.”
“Nonsense!” said Beatrice quickly. “For what reason should he steal the necklace, and then hang it on the neck of a sheep?”
“Ah, that is Orchard’s story. You told it to Durban, and he seized the idea. Orchard’s daughter is connected with the Gang—my wife, that is,” added Vivian, with a grimace, “so it is probable that Orchard also is a member. Probably Durban, after killing Alpenny, went up the Downs and gave the necklace to Orchard for safe keeping. No one would expect to find it in the possession of the old man. I think that Orchard was to have returned it to Durban, so that money could be made; only his daughter—my wife—saw it and wheedled it out of him for herself. But I don’t think she’ll keep it long if Major Ruck sees it.”
“I don’t agree with you at all,” said Beatrice, defending Durban. “As Durban was supposed to be in town, he could have come back.”
“Which he did, remember.”
“Yes, but only to find Alpenny dead. Had he killed Alpenny for the sake of the necklace, he could have slipped it into his pocket and have gone away in safety. No, Vivian, I believe that Durban really believes that there is some spell attached to the necklace, and placed it on the neck of the sheep to prevent its doing further harm to anyone, especially to me. Had I found it, I certainly should have claimed it.”
“Lady Watson would have claimed it.”
“I know that, since she inherits all under the will. And that is one of the reasons why I go up to town to see her. I’ll tell her all that we know, and she will get the necklace from your wife.”
“That is if Major Ruck doesn’t get it in the meantime,” said Vivian coolly. “Maud is a clever woman, but she won’t be able to get the better of Major Ruck. Let us have a look at the secret passage.”
“We cannot open the door,” objected Beatrice.
“Durban opened it with a beam when the body was found dead,” said the young man, “and here is the beam left near the carriage all the time.” He picked up the heavy log of wood, and poised it against the door. The lock, mended but lightly, gave way at once, and the two had little difficulty in entering.
“Here is the spring,” explained Beatrice, and walked to the end of the carriage, followed closely by Vivian. In another minute the galvanised tin upon which the stove stood, slipped aside, and disclosed the damp steps. “Isn’t it ingenious?” said she, admiringly.
“Very,” assented Vivian. “Let us go down. Come on!”
“But a light. Oh”—she caught sight of a candle on the table—“here is one. You lead, Vivian.”
With the lighted candle the pair went down into the unwholesome passage. It descended by means of the steps for some distance, and then there was a trend to the right. The passage was perfectly straight, and had been dug out of the soft earth. Part of it was roofed with brick, but the whole was much dilapidated, and showed signs of collapse. Vivian, seeing this, and fearing a fall of earth, wished the girl to return, but this she refused to do. “I want to see where it leads to,” she said. “Go on, Vivian.”
Thus urged, he cautiously felt his way by the feeble glimmer of the candle. In a shorter time than either expected, they came to a second flight of steps, and scrambled upward. The steps ended at a kind of trap-door. Vivian placed his shoulder beneath this, and with a vigorous push, forced it outward and upward. The next moment he had leaped lightly on to the surface of the earth, and found himself in the wood, just outside the walls of The Camp.
“Oh,” said Beatrice, when she was assisted out of the bole, and began to recognise her surroundings, “Durban said that the exit was within The Camp.”
“Ah,” replied Vivian, with much significance, “Durban has told another lie. He is not to be trusted, Beatrice.”
“I am certain he is, although appearances are against him,” declared the girl impetuously. “He is cautious in speaking even to me, as he fears the vengeance of the Gang. Close the trap-door, Vivian. See!” she added, when he did this, “the surface is masked with moss.”
And so it was. The wood was ingeniously covered with ragged moss; and when the trap was down and a few leaves fell on the moss, no one could have told that a passage lay underneath. It was a most clever arrangement, and doubtless had been often used by the scoundrelly gang of which Alpenny, undoubtedly, had been a prominent member. The respectable clients, however, who had come to borrow money and be swindled by the old rascal, had always entered by the great gates, or, if they wished for especial privacy, by the smaller one.
“What a dangerous lot of people I have lived amongst,” said Beatrice, who was rather pale when they reclosed the door of the counting-house and left The Camp.
“Undoubtedly,” assented Vivian rather grimly; “it is a mercy that the police never came down here. You might have been implicated.”
“I can see that, and for the same reason I refuse to believe that Durban is mixed up with these rascalities. He served Mr Alpenny for my sake, and for my sake he held his tongue about the roguery which he must have known went on. But I do not believe that he took any part in the same, Vivian.”
“Well,” said Paslow, after a pause, “you may learn more when you see Lady Watson.”
“But she can have nothing to do with these things. She is a lady of rank and fashion.”
“She was a friend of Alpenny’s, or he would not have left her his money,” said Vivian, “and is the friend of Major Ruck. I don’t know a bigger blackguard in London.”
Beatrice said nothing more. She quite agreed with her lover, and began to be afraid as to what she might discover when she was in the presence of Lady Watson. All the same, as she was determined to learn everything, and if possible, to so get to know the doings of the Gang that Vivian would be safe from their threats, she left early the next morning for town. Vivian accompanied her to the local station, and took a formal farewell of her. It had to be formal, because of the publicity of the platform, and also because their relations with one another, since the appearance of the supposed dead wife, were so very difficult. So Vivian coldly shook hands, although his face belied the formal action, and Beatrice watched him through tearful eyes as the train steamed towards Brighton.
Dinah had given her a couple of pounds, or rather Beatrice had borrowed these from her, with the intention of repaying her out of the first instalment of a possible salary. This was all the money she had in the world, and she prayed on the way to London, that Heaven would see fit to make Lady Watson well-disposed towards her. At Victoria Station the girl sent a wire to the address which she had procured from Dinah, who got it from Mrs Snow. This telegram intimated that Miss Hedge,—she thought it best to keep to the name,—was coming to see Lady Watson on business. It was rather a strange thing to do; but Beatrice was new to social ways, and, moreover, could not, by reason of her scanty purse, run the risk of having to wait long in town without seeing her probable patroness.
Lady Watson lived in Kensington, and there Beatrice, not knowing the intricacies of the underground railway, drove all the way in a four-wheeler. But first, she went to a small and quiet hotel which was kept by a sister of Mrs Lilly’s. Here, thanks to the housekeeper’s letter, Beatrice was received by the counterpart of Mrs Lilly, and felt quite at home.
“You can stay here as long as you like, miss,” said the landlady, when Beatrice asked for cheap apartments. “My sister has told me all about you, miss. A bedroom and sitting-room are waiting for you, miss; and we’ll talk of payment on some future occasion.”
Beatrice, worn out and feeling intensely lonely, could have wept because of the kindness of this reception. But she restrained her tears, as she had no desire to make her eyes red for the meeting with Lady Watson. She had some luncheon, and then dressed herself in her best mourning and took her way to the great lady’s house, which was not very far away in a quiet square. Mrs Quail, the landlady, sent a small servant to show Beatrice where the square was, and once there, the girl soon found the house by its number. But when she rang the bell, and stood alone on the doorstep, she felt very nervous. All the same her courage did not give way. The interview meant much to her, and she was determined to carry it through, cost what it might.
The footman who opened the door said that his mistress was within, and conducted Beatrice up a well-carpeted flight of wide, shallow stairs into the drawing-room. The house was well furnished, and in a rather frivolous way, which reflected the spirit of its mistress. On all hands in the drawing-room Beatrice saw evidence of waste of money in little things. Lady Watson apparently liked comfort, and spent with a lavish hand. In the midst of this modern splendour the girl felt lost, accustomed as she was to the plainest of houses. (And, indeed, as a carping critic might have said, she was not accustomed even to houses, seeing that she lived in a disused railway carriage!) However, Beatrice had little time for thought. Hardly had she cast a glance round the apartment when Lady Watson entered with a rush. She looked as young and wrinkled as ever, and was dressed in a soft tea-gown exquisitely made. At the distance she looked twenty, but when near, and in spite of the blinds being down, she looked nearly forty. However her eyes, brown and bright, twinkled as merrily as ever, and, to Beatrice’s surprise, she flung her arms round her visitor’s neck.
“My dear child,” she rattled on, “I am glad to see you. I received your telegram, and stopped in, on purpose to see you. Of course you have come to be my companion? Your room is ready, and we will be such friends. Ah, you don’t know how I love you!”
“Why should you?” asked Beatrice, rather surprised by this gushing reception, and mistrusting its truth.
“Oh, there are a thousand reasons. I’ll tell you them later. Come, my dearest child, take off your jacket and hat, and—”
“No, Lady Watson. I have only come for a short visit I want you to get me a situation as a governess, and—”
“A governess with your beauty!” cried the little woman; “what nonsense! Let me look at you, dearest”; and she pulled up the near blind to let in the sunlight on the girl. It made Beatrice look like an angel, and Lady Watson aged in the golden splendour at least a dozen years.
“Oh, you are lovely, lovely! Why, what are you looking at? Oh, at my necklace! Beautiful diamonds are they not?”
“Yes.” Beatrice, with white lips, recognised the necklace at once as that stolen by Maud Paslow. “But where did you get it?”
“Why do you ask that?” questioned Lady Watson sharply.
“It is the Obi necklace. You got it from Maud Orchard—from Vivian’s wife.”
“I—that is—what do you mean?” stammered Lady Watson, growing pale under her rouge. “It is mine—mine. Mr Alpenny gave it to me.”
“No. You are in this plot too. You know about the murder. I shall tell the police, I shall—” Beatrice, hardly knowing what she did, was about to rush from the room when Lady Watson stopped her.
“Wait,” she said in a cracked scream; “if you denounce me, you ruin—your mother!”
“My mother!” Beatrice stopped short at the door, and caught hold of a chair to support herself. The shock of this discovery came upon her with overwhelming force. “Impossible!”
“It is true,” said Lady Watson, advancing towards her with outstretched arms. “I am your most unhappy mother.”
The girl suffered the little woman to embrace her, but did not return the caress. “My mother!” she repeated again faintly; “it is impossible, Lady Watson.”
“Don’t call me Lady Watson. I am your mother. I should not have told you: I promised Durban that I would not. But Nature is too, too strong,” cried Lady Watson theatrically; “my heart spoke, and I responded. Darling! darling!” She embraced Beatrice still more affectionately, and guided her to a low armchair, into which the bewildered girl sank unresistingly.
Was Lady Watson in earnest? Was she really her mother? Were these violent demonstrations genuine? Beatrice could not tell. The whole thing seemed to be beyond the bounds of possibility. What of the supposed mother who was buried in Hurstable churchyard? Revolving these things in a much-puzzled brain, Beatrice sat silently staring at the artificial little woman who claimed so sacred a relationship. Lady Watson, seeing the girl’s coldness—as she thought it was—squeezed out a few serviceable tears.
“Oh, cruel, cruel!” she wept. “My own child—the baby that I carried in my arms—to act like this! It is wicked, it is incredible.”
“Mother!” said Beatrice blankly. “Are you really and truly my mother?”
“Of course I am,” snapped the elder woman, drying her tears. “How often do you wish me to repeat it? I am not in the habit of calling other people’s children my children. Can’t you say something more affectionate, you cold-hearted girl?”
“It is all so strange—so new,” gasped Beatrice. “Tell me how it came about that I never knew this until now.”
“It’s Durban’s fault,” said Lady Watson sullenly. “Durban always hated me, though I’m sure I was always kind to him—the beast!”
“Durban is a good man,” said Beatrice quickly.
“Oh! dear me, that is exactly the exasperating sort of thing your father would have said. He was a good man also—the kind of man I most particularly hate. Never mind, I’ll make everything plain to you. I’ve held my tongue long enough. Now I am going to speak out, and take back to my hungry heart the baby girl I loved.”
“Did you really love me?” asked Beatrice doubtfully.
“Yes—really I did. You were all that I had to love, as my husband—the first one, your father—was a kind of stone image with no feelings and no affections. I loved you fondly, and wanted to be your dearest mother—which I certainly am—but that Durban and that horrid Alpenny were too strong for me. No, it wasn’t Alpenny. I don’t think he wanted to bring you up; but Durban insisted, and I gave way.”
“Why did you?”
“There were reasons,” said Lady Watson evasively, and a spot of red burned on either cheek.
“They must have been strong reasons to make a mother surrender her child to the care of strangers.”
“Durban wasn’t a stranger. He was in the house when you were born; and really you might have been his own child, from the fuss he made over you. But Colonel Hall—your father, my dear—saved Durban from being lynched in America, and Durban always pretended that he loved him dearly.”
“I am sure Durban did,” insisted Beatrice. “He is not a man who says one thing and does another.”
“That is just what he does do,” cried Lady Watson, fanning herself with a flimsy handkerchief all lace and scent. “Look at the way he has kept you in the dark all these years. And I am quite sure that he has told you heaps and heaps of lies! These niggers never can tell the truth.”
“Durban told me as little as he could,” confessed Beatrice; “but he never told me a deliberate lie, I am sure. But if you are my mother, who is the woman who is buried as you?”
“Not as me—the idea!” protested Lady Watson; “as Alpenny’s wife—and a nice bargain she got in that old scoundrel! She was Amelia Hedge, and called herself Mrs Hedge when she married Alpenny, to account for you. It wasn’t my fault. I’m sure I always liked to have you with me, Beatrice, as you were such a pretty child, and it looks well to have one’s children about one, nowadays. But Durban would insist that I should give you up—and perhaps he was right after all,” ended Lady Watson candidly “as Sir Reginald—my second husband—would never have married a widow with a child.”
So the weak little woman babbled on, and Beatrice felt her heart sink as she at last beheld her mother. To think that this frivolous and weak creature should have given her birth! Then a thought came to her. “Durban said that my mother was quiet and silent.”
“And so I was, for years and years and years. Colonel Hall—I never could call him George, he was so military and stiff—made my life a perfect burden, and never would give me any pleasure. I was crushed, Beatrice, perfectly crushed, and held my tongue because I could not be natural. I was a dull, dowdy thing in those days. But now I really am something to look at and to listen to!” and Lady Watson smirked in a near mirror at her artificial beauty.
“Mother,” said Beatrice, accepting what appeared to be the inevitable with a good grace, although the discovery of the relationship did not please her, “will you tell me if you had anything to do with the murder of my father?”
“Oh, dear me! no,” said Lady Watson perfectly calmly, and showing no signs of indignation at the accusation,—which it was, in a way. “Of course Durban made capital out of it, and forced me to part with you and the necklace because of that horrid death. But I’ve got back the necklace”—Lady Watson fingered it fondly—“and you.”
“How did you get the necklace?”
“A friend of mine called Miss Carr gave it to me. She got it from her father, though I don’t know how he got it, I’m sure. Major Ruck—you know the man, dear?—wanted Maud—that is Miss Carr—to give it up, and would have killed her for it. He’s just the sort of bully who would kill a woman to get money, and I don’t mind saying it, although he was my friend. So Maud, to spite him, gave it to me, and—”
“Wait one moment, mother. Were you not going to elope with Major—”
Lady Watson interrupted in her turn, and uttered an embarrassed scream. “Yes, I was, my dear. Your father was a bear—there’s no good saying anything else. He was a bear! I couldn’t stand his Puritan airs any longer, and on the very night he was murdered I intended to elope with him, to pay your father out. But Alpenny met me—”
“At the head of the stairs?”
“Who told you that?”
“Mrs Snow,” said Beatrice promptly.
“Julia Duncan? Ah, she always was a false-hearted cat. Why, the very last time I saw her, and that was when I went down to get Alpenny’s money, she promised to hold her tongue.”
“I forced her to speak.”
“And you have forced me, you clever girl. I promised Durban never to reveal who I really was but I did so, through natural affections; and now you know. I’m sure I don’t care,” added Lady Watson with a reckless air. “Durban can do his worst.”
“What can he do?”
“Accuse me of your father’s murder, although I’m as innocent as a child. But I dare say he’ll hold his tongue if I pay him well. He was always fond of money, and Alpenny’s legacy has made me rich.”
“I don’t think Durban can be bribed, nor do I think he is fond of money,” said Beatrice with decision. “But for my sake, he may hold his tongue.”
“Well, I shan’t give up the Obi necklace,” muttered Lady Watson. “The Colonel bought it for me; he got it from a Brazilian negro, and said there was a curse on it,—at least the negro did. For that reason your father—who really was fond of me, I suppose, although he had a horrid, dull way of showing his love—would not give it to me. He kept it in a green box along with his papers beside his bed, and I got it from there when he was lying dead.”
“Did you see him dead?” asked Beatrice, horrified.
“Of course I did. That is why Durban says that I killed him. He always did hate me, the beast!”
Beatrice passed her hand wearily across her forehead. “I cannot gather much from these scraps of information,” she said irritably; “please tell me all connectedly and from the beginning.”
“Oh, dear me, how very like your father you are!” said Lady Watson, with an affected shudder. “He was always so very precise: I don’t know how I came to marry so dull a man. But my father made the match. He was a planter in Jamaica, and Colonel Hall was stationed at Port Royal I was merely a child—seventeen, in fact—and the Colonel fell in love with me. I married him, although I liked twenty other men better. Sir Reginald was one; but he went to England, on leave, and my father made me marry the Colonel while Reginald was away. He was in a rage when he came back. Afterwards, when the Colonel died so dreadfully, Sir Reginald married me, as he knew—if no one else did—that I had nothing to do with that horrid murder.”
“Tell me the events of that night,” said Beatrice keeping the voluble little woman to the point.
“Well, I’m doing it, if you will only let me speak,” snapped Lady Watson; “but you are like your father, and want me to hold my tongue as he did. I’m sure I never opened my mouth for years with that man. Shortly after you were born we went to England. Amelia and Durban came also, as Durban would never leave the Colonel; and Amelia was brought for your sake, you being a baby—and a very pretty one too. Colonel Hall went down to see Mr Paslow at Convent Grange, as they were great friends. I stopped in London for a time, as I was so sick of the Colonel’s stiffness. Then I came down because he insisted on it. Major Ruck—who was really a nice man in those days—followed, and stopped at The Camp, as he wished me to elope with him. On the night of the murder I arranged to do so.”
“Had the Major anything to do with the murder?” asked Beatrice hurriedly.
“He said he hadn’t, but he might have told a lie. He never could tell the truth,” said Lady Watson vaguely. “But as I was saying—and don’t interrupt again, please—I dressed late at night I knew that Mr Paslow, and Alpenny, and the Colonel had gone to bed. Your father and I were in different rooms, because we had quarrelled. I came out into the passage, and intended to meet Major Ruck at The Camp, where he had a carriage waiting. Alpenny should have been at The Camp also, only he stopped at the Grange—to spite me, I believe, as he loved me, and wanted to prevent my elopement.”
“Did he know about it?”
“Yes. He wheedled the information out of the Major, and learned also that I intended to bring the Obi necklace with me. It was because of the necklace, as well as because of his love for me, that he stopped at the Grange to thwart me.”
“But the necklace was in my father’s possession?”
“In a green dispatch box beside his bed,” explained Lady Watson. “You are quite right, dear; so it was. I stole out into the passage, and there I met at the head of the stairs that horrid Alpenny, who was on the watch. Julia Snow was watching also, as she told me afterwards. The horrid woman, she loved George, and—”
“I know—I know—please go on.”
“I am going on,” cried Lady Watson in despair; “but you will interrupt. Alpenny said he wanted to help me to get away, which was a lie. I believed him, and we went to the Colonel’s chamber. I could easily make some excuse, you know; that I had the toothache or something, and George would believe me.”
“But your dress—your hat?”
“Oh, I took those off and gave them to Alpenny, who remained outside the bedroom door. When I went in I nearly screamed, for the Colonel did look so horrid, lying in bed with his throat cut. I could see it and him, plainly in the moonlight. I called Alpenny, and we were both afraid. Then I saw the box, and got out the necklace.”
“Ugh!” said Beatrice, disgusted at this callous behaviour. “Why didn’t you call for help?”
“What! and be arrested? Everyone knew that George and I were on bad terms; and besides, with the necklace in my possession, I might have been accused of killing him. Alpenny said we had better take the necklace and go away. The window was open, and I suppose the man who killed the Colonel got in there. I took the necklace, and went out into the passage with Alpenny, closing the door after me. I put on my hat and cloak, and then he refused to let me go to The Camp to meet the Major unless I gave him the necklace. I had to, and then went back to bed.”
“Why didn’t you elope?” asked Beatrice sarcastically.
“My dear, my nerves were shattered, and it would have been most dangerous. I went to bed, and pretended to be horrified when I heard of the murder. The Major would not marry me when he found that I hadn’t got the necklace; so after the inquest I came to town, and met Reginald Watson. I told him everything, and he married me.”
“But how did my nurse marry Mr Alpenny?”
“Durban arranged that,” said Lady Watson promptly. “He was almost mad when he found the Colonel was dead, and he forced the truth out of me. I believe Julia Snow told him what she had seen. I knew Durban would say nothing, because if he hated me, he loved you and your father. He did hold his tongue, but he insisted that Alpenny should give the necklace to him in trust for you. Of course Alpenny would not do so, and Durban threatened to inform the police. Then Durban, who didn’t know much about English law, thought that he might get into trouble and be accused. I really don’t know,” added Lady Watson, pondering, “if I didn’t threaten to accuse him.”
“Oh, how could you?”
“Well, he might be guilty. Niggers always prefer to cut throats, and your father certainly died in that horrid way.”
“The man with the black patch killed him?”
“Did he? I heard something about that; but I’m not sure. However, to make a long story short, Durban arranged that you should be taken charge of by Alpenny, and that he should look after you along with Amelia, who was consumptive.”
Lady Watson rose wrathfully. “You may well ask that, Beatrice. Why? Because, if you please, this nigger didn’t think I was a proper person to look after you. Then Amelia refused to go to The Camp unless she went—as she said, respectably. Alpenny, who was in love with me, and knew that I intended to marry Sir Reginald, agreed to marry her in order to keep the necklace. Amelia died shortly afterwards, and for the sake of safety was buried as your mother: you took her name of Hedge, you know. That’s the story.”
“It is a very horrible one,” said Beatrice, rising in her turn.
Lady Watson burst into tears. “It is not my fault,” she sobbed. “I’m sure, in spite of Reginald’s objections, I would have kept you beside me; only Durban took you away, and Amelia also, because she wanted to marry a rich man, as Alpenny was supposed. They knew too much; I had to yield; and then Reginald thought you were dead. But I have always loved and longed for my pretty baby. Kiss me, darling!”
“No,” said Beatrice sternly.
The little woman looked up aghast. “Your own mother?”
“I do not look upon you as my mother,” said the girl coldly. “You deserted me in the most heartless manner. I don’t know how much of your story is true—”
“It is all true—I swear it.”
“It may be, and you may be innocent. But to see my father lying dead, and not give the alarm, was wicked. The assassin might have been caught and—”
“I would have been caught!” cried Lady Watson vehemently. “As it was, people thought that I had something to do with the horrid thing. I was quite innocent,” she protested, sobbing. “Beatrice!”
Her voice rose to a scream as the girl walked to the door for the second time. “I am going,” said Beatrice quietly. “You must give me time to think over our new relationship. I’ll see you again soon.”
“Oh!” wailed Lady Watson, as the door closed on the daughter who rejected her; “how like your father—how very like!”
Beatrice walked calmly down the stairs, and opening the front door herself, returned to the hotel to think over the matter. At the door of the little inn she found the stout landlady arguing with a red-haired, foxy man.
“Waterloo!” said Beatrice, drawing back.
“There,” chuckled the rogue, grinning at the landlady, “she knows me does the young lydy.—Miss, come at once—Durban’s dying.”
“He’ll be dead in a jiffy,” said Waterloo, grinning. “You come, miss.” Then dropping his voice, “He wants to tell you who killed your father.”
“Don’t go with him, miss,” urged Mrs Quail. “He’s a bad one: look at his eyes.”
Beatrice had no need to look at them. She knew well the evil that they held, and shrank, as she always did, from contact with this creature of the night. Certainly Waterloo was much better dressed than when she had seen him last. He wore a somewhat shabby frock coat, a pair of smart patent-leather boots, a fashionable collar, and a silk hat which glistened like the sun. The tramp actually reeked of some fashionable scent, and swung a dandy cane with a genteel air. He wore a wig, from under which his natural red hair peeped; and his false teeth looked aggressively white and new. On the whole, Waterloo evidently considered that he was now a perfect buck, and ogled the comely landlady and the shrinking girl with an assured air.
“You are not deceiving me?” asked Beatrice, forcing herself to be civil to the man, for obvious reasons.
“S’elp me Bob! no,” leered the rejuvenated wreck. “Durban, he come up t’town t’other day, an’ wos run h’over by a bus as wos drivin’ motor-car fashions—more miles an hour than sense, miss. He ses t’me—an ole pal of his—as he wanted to see you, and tell you wot y’should know. He ses es he’ll tell you who killed your par an’ th’ ole Alpenny bloke.”
This remark decided Beatrice. Come what may, she determined to learn the truth at last. Also, Durban was her best and oldest friend, and from what Lady Watson had said he had evidently been a better friend to her than she knew. After a moment or two she made up her mind, and turned to Mrs Quail, who was gazing disdainfully at the leering Waterloo.
“I must go, Mrs Quail,” she said decisively; “if Durban is ill I must help him.”
“But with this man?”
“Oh! I’m saif, laidy. No ‘arm about me. Oh no, not at all.”
“If Mr Paslow comes,” said Beatrice, addressing the landlady, and taking no notice of Waterloo, “tell him I have gone with Waterloo to see Durban.—Where is he?” she asked the man.
“In a room in a ‘ouse, Malta Street, Stepney—No. 50,” said Waterloo quickly, and passed along a scrap of dirty paper to Mrs Quail. “If the young laidy don’t come back saif an’ sound, you’ll find me ‘ere.”
“If she’s not back by nine to-night,” retorted Mrs Quail, putting the paper in her pocket, “I’ll see the police about the matter.—And after all, miss, I wouldn’t go with him.”
“I must,” said Beatrice quickly; “there is so much at stake.” And giving the landlady no further time to remonstrate, she walked away with Waterloo, who swaggered like the buck he thought he was.
“How do we get to Stepney?” asked Beatrice while they walked along Kensington High Street.
“Underground,” said Waterloo glibly. “Underground to Bishopgate, an’ then we taike th’ Liverpool Street train to Stepney, an’—”
“That is enough,” said Beatrice, cutting him short, and walking very fast; “speak as little to me as you can.”
Waterloo scowled, and his scowl was not a pleasant sight. However, he held his tongue until they were safe in a first-class underground carriage—Beatrice did not want to go with this creature in a third-class, and luckily there were three or four ladies in the compartment. While the train was steaming through the tunnels, Waterloo held a whispered conversation with Beatrice. At first she was inclined to stop him; but when she heard what he had to say, she listened attentively.
“I saiy,” murmured the rogue confidentially, “you’re a clipper; y’are tryin’ to find out all about us. But y’won’t. There’s only one cove es can put things straight, an’ thet is Waterloo Esquire.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Ah, thet’s tellin’s, miss. Don’t you arsk any questing, an’ no lies will be tole. But if y’meke it wuth me while, I’ll git you the young gent all t’yourself.”
“Thet’s him. Not a bad cove—oh, by no means—but a greenhorn, miss, es anyone kin see. If he don’t do wot the Major wants him to do, he’s a goner—saime es your par an’ the Alpenny cove.”
“What does the horrible creature mean?” Beatrice asked herself half aloud, and he heard her.
“Don’ call naimes, miss. Th’ king comes the cadger’s waiy sometime, es I knows, an’ you may ‘ave to meke use of me some daiy. It’s all a questing of money.”
“Yuss”—he leaned forward and whispered hoarsely in her ear—“or of thet there necklace.”
“It is not mine—it is—”
“But it are yours, miss, and you git it. Wen y’arsked everyone to try an’ git t’know wot y’want t’know, and fail,” said Waterloo, with great emphasis, “you pass along the necklace t’me, and then I’ll tell y’ wot’s wot. I’m a oner, I am.”
“But why do you wish to betray your friends for me?”
“Ah, their toime’s acomin’ to an end, miss, an’ I don’t want t’be in et th’ finish, which is in th’ dock. Wen ole Alpenny wos alive, he ‘ad a ‘ead, he ‘ad; but this Major Ruck cove’s spilin’ things as quick es jimmy, oh.”
“But in what way?”
“Oh, I ain’t agoin’ to saiy any more. Wen th’ bust comes y’think of me, miss,” and with this final remark, Waterloo lay back luxuriously against the soft cushions. Beatrice saw the necessity of enlisting this traitor on her side, and saw also that he was open to bribery, although the bribe of the necklace was a very costly one. But in spite of all her endeavours, she could not get the man to talk. Waterloo only winked and leered, and thrust his tongue in his cheek, much to the disgust of the ladies opposite, who apparently could not understand how such a quiet, ladylike girl came to be in the society of such a raffish animal.
With the utmost gravity Waterloo conducted Beatrice to the Liverpool Street Station, and placed her in another first-class carriage. This time he got the tickets himself, and she wondered where he had procured the money to do so. From what she had seen of the man, he was a genuine tramp, and more used to walking than to riding. But it was evident that he belonged to the Black Patch Gang, and apparently the gang had been successful lately. Waterloo himself declined to impart further information, but leered and winked as usual, so Beatrice held her peace, and tried to steel herself to the adventure. She recognised that she was acting foolishly in going into the slums with Waterloo, but since Vivian was lost to her, she felt that she cared very little what happened. Besides, desperate diseases require desperate remedies, and in that proverb she found ground for believing that she was acting rightly. Finally, she was certain that whatever was intended, her life would be safe, and while she lived she could always get out of any difficulty by exercising her strong will and undaunted spirit.
Alighting at Stepney Station, Waterloo conducted her to a four-wheeler, and this drove off down the street Then Waterloo engaged her in conversation, and hinted that he knew everything about the Black Patch Gang. Beatrice, listening to his half hints, became so interested that she did not notice that the cab was passing down a series of mean streets; and only when it drew up with a jerk before a most disreputable-looking house, did she see that she was in a very low and dangerous neighbourhood. However, she had gone too far to retreat, and therefore stepped out with great coolness. The cab drove off without payment. “One of us,” said Waterloo, jerking his thumb over his shoulder with a wink.
They were admitted through a closely barred door into a narrow passage dimly lighted. On ascending the stairs Beatrice noted how foul the walls were with grime and grease. Various small rooms, some of which had open doors, revealed raffish individuals, and various states of disorder. The place was a den as foul as that inhabited by Mr Fagin, and Beatrice, used to the fresh air of the country, felt ill with the tainted atmosphere. However, she suppressed all signs of disgust, as these would have made Waterloo angry, and for apparent reasons she wished to cultivate his good will.
He led her to the very top of the house, and came to another door sheeted with iron. In response to a touch on a button this opened, and pushing Beatrice in he closed it again, remaining on the outside. The girl, who was taken by surprise, tried to reopen the door, but it was fast closed, and she heard the little brute chuckle on the other side. She was caught, like a rat in a trap. It only remained for her to see if Durban was caught also—or if he exercised sufficient authority over the gang to release her when she wished to return to Kensington.
The surroundings amazed her. The corridor—it was not a narrow passage this time—was spacious, and decorated with velvet hangings. The carpet was velvet pile, and the ceiling was painted in a most delicate and artistic manner. While she was marvelling at this sight, so unexpected, a side door opened, and she beheld Major Ruck, as gigantic as ever, arrayed in a smart smoking suit.
“Just in time for afternoon tea,” said the Major gallantly, and threw open the door. “Please to enter a bachelor’s den, Miss Hedge.”
“But Durban?” she asked, drawing back.
“I will tell you all about him,” said the big man, with a bland smile. “In the meantime, as we have much to talk about and you must be faint after your long journey into these wilds, perhaps you will enter and accept my hospitality.”
Beatrice cast one look at him, and entered without another word. The room was not large, but furnished with a splendour which startled her when she remembered the exterior of the house. The walls were hung with green silk, and the hangings were drawn back here and there by silver cords to show choice pictures. The ceiling was also painted, the floor was stained and covered with valuable Persian praying mats, and the furniture would have done credit to a West End drawing-room. It really looked rather like a woman’s room, as there were plenty of flowers about, and on a tiny table of carved wood stood a tea equipage of silver and delicate egg-shell china.
“I have made ready for you,” said the Major, drawing forward a chair to the table, and near a window which was filled in with stained glass. “I hope you like my crib. It is not so comfortable as that in the West End; but in these wilds”—he shrugged his big shoulders—“one has to put up with hardship. Will you have some tea?”
“No, thank you. I want to see Durban.”
“He will be in presently.”
Beatrice started to her feet. “Is he not ill?”
“He never was better in all his life. Pardon the ruse that was used to bring you here, but I knew well that you wouldn’t come of your own free will.”
“Allow me to go away,” said Beatrice, walking towards the door,
“When we have had a talk and understand one another—not before,” said Ruck, rising and standing before the fireplace. He was still smiling and bland and genial, and looked very spruce in his well-cut clothes. It was difficult to imagine such a man in such a room, when one recollected the vile neighbourhood.
“You will not dare to detain me against my will?”
“Oh yes, if it be necessary,” said Ruck easily; “but I trust”—with a graceful bow—“that it will not be necessary.”
“If you keep me here, my landlady in Kensington has the address of this place and will tell the police.”
“I fear the police will waste their time, Miss Hedge. The address was a wrong one, with which Waterloo was purposely furnished.”
“The address was Stepney—”
“But not Malta Street. This is in a different locality. Come, Miss Hedge, you must see that you are in my power. But I am a gentleman, so do not be afraid.”
“Afraid!” The sound of the word made Beatrice fling back her head with a proud gesture. “I am afraid of nothing and no one, Major Ruck. I know how to protect myself.”
“I hope you will know how to protect Mr Paslow.”
“What do you mean?”
“That can be explained after tea. Do pour out the tea, Miss Hedge; it is so pleasant to see a lady officiate.”
Beatrice deliberately walked to the table and poured out a cup of tea for the Major, which she handed to him along with a plate of delicate cakes. “Will you not take one yourself?” said Ruck winningly; “it is not drugged.”
Beatrice, although her heart was beating loudly, walked back to the table with a gay laugh. “You do not give me time,” she said. “I am not at all afraid of drugs,” and she filled herself a cup which she sipped with great enjoyment. When she also began to eat a cake, the Major smacked his leg with a look of admiration.
“Upon my word, Miss Hedge, you are plucky and no mistake. I wish you would marry me.”
“Thanks; but I have no wish to.”
“We should do great things together,” urged Ruck.
“Doubtless; but you see I have an aversion to appearing in a police-court, Major Ruck. By the way, why did you not tell me that Mr Paslow had appeared in one?”
“I very nearly did,” said Ruck with great frankness, “as I thought it might frighten you into refusing him. But then I thought it would be better to send his wife along.”
“Is she really his wife?” asked Beatrice doubtfully.
“Really and truly. Paslow always was a moral man. You can never marry him now.”
“No. But I can always love him.”
“The shadow without the substance,” said Ruck, with a shrug; “you will find that unsatisfactory, Miss Hedge.”
“That is entirely my affair, Major. And why don’t you give me my proper name of Miss Hall?”
“Oh yes. I forgot that you knew all about that matter.”
“I know more than you think, since I have seen Lady Watson.”
Ruck started. “She told you nothing?” he said in vexed tones.
“Everything—even to the fact that she was about to run away with you on the night my father was murdered.”
Ruck’s brow grew dark, and he uttered something which was not exactly a blessing. However, he speedily recovered his good humour, and asked for a second cup of tea, which Beatrice just as good-humouredly handed to him. It was an odd interview.
“Well,” said Beatrice after a pause, “and what do you wish to see me about, Major? I don’t want to stay long.”
“You seem to forget that you are in my power,” said Ruck, nettled by this coolness.
“Oh no, I don’t; but I am not afraid. Come now, Major, you can speak glibly enough when it suits you. I pay you the compliment of saying that you don’t want to make love?”
“I don’t. All the same, I admire you so much that I am mighty near insisting upon your becoming my wife. We have a clergyman who belongs to the Black Patch Gang, you know.”
“Ah! Then you are a member of that Gang?”
“Yes,” said the Major, with an embarrassed air. “I am a poor gentleman, who has taken to bad ways instead of earning an honest living.”
“That is a pity,” replied Beatrice, “for, in spite of your behaviour, Major, I like you. I wish you would turn over a new leaf.”
“I doubt if I have one to turn,” muttered Ruck, flushing a brick-red at her words. “However, if you will give me that necklace, I shall try and lead a better life. I have to,” he confessed candidly, “as I don’t mind telling you that the course of the Black Patch Gang is nearly run. The police have got to know too much, and at any moment may raid us.”
“I have not got the necklace,” said Beatrice coldly.
“I know that. Maud Carr had it, and told me how her father had found it. But instead of giving it to me, she passed it along to your mother.”
“To whom,” said Beatrice with emphasis, “it rightfully belongs.”
“Well, yes; but also it belongs to me. Lady Watson will not give it to me, but she will to you. And, as a matter of fact, your father the Colonel left you the necklace.”
“You contradict yourself, Major: you said it belonged to my mother.”
“Possession is nine points of the law,” said the big man, with a shrug, “and Lady Watson has the necklace, sure enough. But you can insist on her giving it to you, and then hand it to me. I’ll vanish out of your life and trouble you no more. There is a wide field for the exercise of a gentleman’s abilities in the States.”
“And suppose I decline?” asked Beatrice disdainfully.
“In that case,” replied Ruck, regarding her attentively, “I shall be compelled to accuse Mr Vivian Paslow of having murdered Alpenny.”
“That is a lie,” cried Beatrice, starting to her feet. “It is the truth,” retorted the Major, “the real truth.”
Beatrice sank back in the chair and fixed her eyes fearfully on the man who thus accused Vivian of a terrible crime. “You say that to frighten me,” she gasped.
Major Ruck made no direct reply, but touched a bell. In response to its sound an old woman neatly dressed, but as evil-looking as the tramp, appeared. “Send Waterloo to me,” said the Major.
The old woman vanished, and Major Ruck strolled to the window, whistling, with his hands behind his back. Beatrice, grasping the arms of her chair with the perspiration beading her forehead, wondered what Waterloo had to do with the accusation. She remembered the tramp’s hint, and fancied that perhaps after all he really knew the truth; but that the truth should place Vivian in the position of an assassin appeared too terrible for words. While she thus meditated and the Major whistled, Waterloo with his familiar leer appeared. In the presence of his master the old man—for he was very old, as Durban had said, in spite of his attempts to renew his youth—seemed meaner than ever, and very much afraid.
“Yuss, Major,” said Waterloo meekly.
Ruck wheeled sharply. “Tell this young lady what you saw of Alpenny’s murder,” he commanded.
“Why, lor’ bless me, I sawr very little, sir,” whined the tramp.
“Tell what you did see, and how Vivian Paslow killed the man.”
“I don’t believe it—I can’t believe it!” muttered Beatrice, twisting her hands in agony.
“Wait till you hear what Waterloo has to say,” said Ruck grimly.
“It wos this waiy, miss,” said the tramp, addressing himself to the pale girl. “The Alpenny cove, he set me to watch you an’ Mr Paslow seein’ as you loved one another.”
“And do still, in spite of all,” murmured Beatrice, while the Major raised his eyebrows superciliously.
“I wos awatchin’ the pair of you on thet night,” went on Waterloo in a cringing way, “and follered you, miss, to th’ oak.”
“You were the man crouching near the gates of The Camp?”
“Yuss, miss. I guessed you sawr me. I follered y’; and then wen Mr Paslow sawr me, he follered me. He got ‘old of me and kicked me, and I tuck out my knife to stab him. But he went away and back to the oak; I pulled myself together, and follered to knife him if I could. You had gone, miss, and Mr Paslow he went to The Camp to see if you wos back, miss. I didn’t keep quiet enough in the follering, and Mr Paslow he caught me agin near The Camp and kicked me ‘ard. I tried to use my knife,” said Waterloo with a venomous look, “but he took it off me, and climbed over the big gates. I follered.”
“Why did Mr Paslow enter The Camp?” questioned Beatrice.
“To see if you wos back, miss,” explained the tramp, while the Major smiled graciously. “I follered to git back me knife. I sawr the door of the counting-house open, an’ the ole cove Alpenny come out hollering Thieves!’ He was dressed in his hat an’ cloak to go away—”
“That,” interpolated the Major, “will be explained later.”
“Wen he sawr Mr Paslow he made for him, and Mr Paslow held out my knife—unthinking, like. Alpenny fell on it, and then he struck Mr Paslow. I never sawr any cove go so mad es Mr Paslow did. He fair raged, and got the ole man down an’ cut his throat.”
“No, no, no!” cried Beatrice fiercely; “you lie!”
“I don’t lie, now,” said Waterloo sullenly; “it’s the truth. And wen Mr Paslow sawr me comin’ over the gate, he bolted, leaving his handkerchief behind.”
“Ah!” Beatrice remembered what Durban had said about the handkerchief. “Mr Paslow left that with Mr Alpenny on the day he quarrelled with him, previous to the death.”
“Did Mr Paslow explain that himself?” asked Ruck sneeringly.
“No. Durban gave me the explanation. I never spoke to Mr Paslow of the handkerchief, as I believed Durban.”
“And Durban told that lie to save your asking Mr Paslow. Though, I dare say,” added the Major with a shrug, “that Paslow would have lied also had you spoken to him.”
“Go on,” said Beatrice, speaking to Waterloo with grey lips. The conviction was forcing itself upon her that, after all, he might be telling the terrible truth.
“Wen Mr Paslow slung his ‘ook,” said Waterloo, leering, and more at his ease, “he got over the big gate. I dragged Alpenny into the counting-house and laid him out. Then I locked the door, and got away by the underground passage. Outside I heard voices, and saw the Major here.”
“Quite so,” said Ruck courteously; “and now I can tell the remainder of the story. I came down, Miss Hedge, to punish Alpenny, who had been betraying the organisation of which he was the founder.”
“The Black Patch Gang?” said Beatrice faintly. She felt very ill.
“Exactly. Alpenny founded it thirty years ago, and I was one of the earliest members, as was Waterloo here. When Alpenny was stopping at Convent Grange with your father and Mr Paslow’s father, he was even then a receiver of stolen goods, although the operations of the Gang were not so wide then as they have been since. We include all classes amongst us. Tuft the lawyer, who acted for Alpenny, and who got Mr Paslow out of trouble when he was accused of shoplifting, is one of us; so is his wife, Miss Carr—or, as I should say, Mrs Paslow. I am the head of the lot. The cabman who drove you here is a member; so is the doctor who attended Miss Carr’s double, and who gave a false certificate by my direction.”
“Why?” asked Beatrice quickly.
“Well, if you had procured me the necklace, I would have allowed you to marry Paslow. And then if Miss Carr had married this American, we would have got money out of him. I always,” added the Major with a smile, showing his white teeth, “believe in killing two birds with one stone. However, to resume. We are bound by a death-oath not to betray one another. Alpenny made a lot of money, and found that the police were getting to know too much. He decided to bolt. I warned him twice, and the third time the warning was conveyed by Durban, through Mr Paslow.”
“Wait. Is Durban one of the Gang?”
“No,” scowled the Major with a sudden change of tone, “he is too honest. But he knows everything about us. Because we threatened to kidnap you, he held his peace. However, Alpenny received his third warning, and instead of profiting by it he prepared to bolt. I thought he would do it, and went down with another man to kill him.”
“Kill him!” screamed Beatrice. “Oh no, no!”
“Oh yes, yes!” said the Major coolly; “we had to make an example of him. However, Mr Paslow saved us the trouble. When Waterloo here heard my voice, he came out and told us the truth. I entered by the great gates, as I had a duplicate key. Waterloo went through the underground passage and let us into the counting-house. We saw the body, and searched for the Obi necklace, which, however we were unable to discover.”
“It was in a pocket behind the rep curtains,” said Beatrice.
“And Durban found it. I know all about that. But at the moment we could not find the necklace, and as you might be back at any moment, according to Waterloo here, we had to go away. But I picked up Mr Paslow’s handkerchief where he left it on the ground while struggling with his victim, and, soaking it in the blood, I left it beside the body in the counting-house.”
“I found it,” said Beatrice. “Why did you do that?”
“I wanted Paslow to be accused, since he would not join us. However, you found it, and Durban explained its presence there by a lie. Waterloo and the other man, whose name need not be mentioned, as he is our executioner—”
“Ah! You did not intend to kill Mr Alpenny yourself?”
“No,” said Ruck, with an expression of disgust. “I have done many criminal things in my time, but my hands are free from blood. This man was always employed to punish any traitor. I took him down to kill Alpenny, but Mr Paslow, as I say, saved us the trouble. I was alone outside the counting-house as Waterloo and the other man locked the door from the inside, and then escaped by the underground passage. When I was going away amidst the storm I saw you enter the great gates—”
“Ah!” Beatrice started up. “You were the tall man in the cloak with the black patch?”
“I was,” admitted the Major coolly; “so now you know the whole story.—Waterloo, you can go.”
The little man seemed glad to get away from the calm, searching eye of the Major, and with a final leer at Beatrice he slunk out of the door. When alone with the girl, Ruck turned to her again. “Well?” he asked.
“What do you want me to do?”
“You must get your mother to return the necklace to you, and go back to The Camp. I shall meet you there in a couple of days—in the evening. At any moment the police may get to know of the Gang’s movements, and then we will be raided. I have had several warnings. There are traitors about; but I won’t punish them. Since Alpenny’s death things have gone wrong. I have not the head to command, as had that old scoundrel; I confess it freely. However, I have collected what money I could, and I am going to America. I want the Obi necklace also, which will bring me in ten thousand pounds. I’ll settle in Mexico and live a decent life—retire, as it were,” said the Major jocularly, “on my money.”
“And if I get the necklace?”
“Then I’ll say nothing about Vivian Paslow’s guilt, or about your mother’s complicity in the death of your father.”
“She never killed him,” said Beatrice weakly. “She felt crushed by the things she had been told.”
“I am not so sure of that. If she did not kill him herself, she knows who did. I wanted the necklace,” said the Major brutally, “and not her. However, Alpenny got ahead of me. But he’s dead; and now you know my terms. I must have that necklace.”
“You will hold your tongue?”
Ruck bowed gracefully. “I promise you,” he said in a smooth voice. “You can easily see that if you do not accept my terms that I can make myself very unpleasant.”
“You forget that if the Gang is found out the police will arrest you,” said Beatrice, trying to get out of the dilemma in which he had placed her.
“I admit that, and so I intend to do what Alpenny designed, namely, to bolt—with the necklace, of course. But even if arrested I could denounce Paslow, and get him hanged. I could also tell Lady Watson’s friends what she is, and how she helped to kill her husband. I could make things very unpleasant. Now, if you accept my terms, I’ll hold my tongue, and then you can marry Vivian Paslow.”
“That is impossible; he is married already. I don’t suppose you intend to kill Mrs Paslow with that executioner of yours?”
“Oh no,”—the Major shuddered,—“I can fix matters without going so far. Believe me, Miss Hedge—or, rather, Miss Hall—I can do all I say. You will marry Paslow—that is, if you are willing to take a hand which is stained with blood.”
“I don’t believe that he is guilty.”
“What! Not after all the evidence?”
“No. I cannot believe that Vivian would act in such a way.”
“Well, well,” said Ruck impatiently; “believe it or not as you like, Miss Hall. Time is precious with me. Accept my terms, and you can return to get the necklace. I don’t want to keep you here.”
“I accept,” said Beatrice faintly. “There is nothing else for me to do, Major Ruck.”
“Really, I don’t think there is,” said the Major pleasantly. “Well, then, I’ll expect you in the counting-house, where that old scoundrel was murdered, within two days—in the evening. If you play me false, I’ll send a letter to the police, and Mr Paslow will find himself in the dock instead of at the altar. And now, Miss Hall, permit me to escort you to the four-wheeler, which will be waiting.”
He held out his long white hand with a polite smile; but Beatrice, ignoring the courtesy, walked alone towards the door. Ruck frowned and winced, and followed with a shrug. All the same, scoundrel as the man was, he did not like the implied slight. As the two emerged into the corridor there came a ring at the door. With a stifled exclamation of anger the Major opened it, and there on the threshold stood Durban, looking green with rage. The half-caste entered hurriedly and closed the door.
“Waterloo told me that missy was here,” he said in an imperious tone, “and I have come to take her away.”
“Oh, Durban, Durban!” cried the girl, and seized his arm.
“It’s all right, missy.” He patted her hand. “You are safe with me.”
“She is safe in any case,” said Ruck contemptuously. “She has accepted my terms, and she has my leave to go. As to Waterloo, I will punish him for telling you what he had no right to tell you.”
“He has told many other things he has no right to tell,” said Durban significantly, “and to the police.”
“What?” The Major’s face became ghastly, and he reeled against the wall with an oath.
“The game is up, Major,” said Durban, holding the hand of Beatrice still tighter. “All I want to do is to get Miss Hall away before the police come to arrest the lot of you.”
“I believe you told the police yourself,” said the Major, choking with fury. “Waterloo would never dare—”
“Pshaw! I come to give you warning, Major, as you have always been kind to me. Waterloo was in league with my dead master to cheat you and the rest of the Gang.”
“Is this true?” asked the Major of himself, biting his carefully-tended nails. “It is impossible! I could have staked my life on Waterloo’s truth.”
“Then you would lose your wager,” said Durban. “The man is, and always was, a scoundrel.—Come, missy.”
“One moment,” said Ruck, recovering himself. “I am ready to get away, and have placed all my money safely abroad. When do the police come?”
“This night, I believe,” said Durban. “I came up from town a few days ago to see if I could find out who killed Alpenny. I guessed it was one of the Black Patch Gang, especially as you gave him warning through me—or rather through Mr Paslow. In making enquiries, I heard enough to convince me that Waterloo was in correspondence with the police, and was prepared to turn King’s evidence to save his skin.”
“And the beast was here only a few moments ago. Where is he?”
“Where you won’t find him. He met me down the stairs a short time since, and told me what I now tell you—that the police were going to break up the Gang. He hates you, Major, because you once horsewhipped the poor wretch. He also told me that missy was here, and I came to save her from being taken along with your scoundrels. Waterloo has hidden himself; where he is, I don’t know. He guessed that I would tell you, I suppose, as I let him know that I knew of his treachery. You won’t get him, Major.”
“Oh yes, I shall,” said Ruck grimly. “I’m not going to be betrayed by a reptile like that without revenging myself. All the same, Miss Hall, I hold you to my terms. Remember, The Camp in two days—seven in the evening of the second day.”
Beatrice bowed her head, being too weak to speak. Durban, with a surprised glance at the Major—for he could not understand the reason of this appointment—drew the girl away, and together they descended the grimy stairs, leaving the Major arranging for immediate flight. The four-wheeler was waiting, sure enough, and Durban told the man to drive to the station. When in the cab with his young mistress, Durban questioned her about the interview and the appointment. Beatrice told him the truth and concealed nothing. “And, I fear,” she said with a shudder, “that the Major will betray Vivian, in spite of everything.”
“No,” said Durban quietly; “when he gets the necklace he will hold his peace. The Major is not a cruel man, in spite of his surroundings and follies—criminal follies. He will hold his tongue, but I doubt if Waterloo will.”
“He wants the necklace also,” said Beatrice faintly.
“I don’t care if he gets it, or if the Major secures it, or if Lady Watson keeps it, missy,” said Durban gloomily; “it will bring bad luck to either one of the three. But the Major said that you could marry Mr Paslow?”
“Yes. I don’t know how he intends to arrange. But I cannot marry Mr Paslow. I believe him to be innocent, but I cannot be sure. There was the handkerchief, you know.”
“I lied about that to save you pain, missy,” said Durban sadly. “But it really seems as though Mr Paslow was guilty. But he is not.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know who killed Mr Alpenny.”
“You, Durban?” she said, astonished.
“Yes. You can marry Mr Paslow with a clear conscience, missy, because you love him, and he is innocent of this crime.”
“Then who is guilty, Durban?”
“I am, missy. I killed the master.”
In spite of her regard for the old servant, Beatrice shrank from him as far as the space of the four-wheeler would permit. It was not agreeable to be cooped up with a self-confessed murderer, especially when the crime had been of so terrible a nature. Durban saw the movement and his eyes filled with tears. He was always emotional, and wept at very slight provocation.
“Don’t shrink from me, missy,” he implored, much agitated. “I did it for you, missy—for you.”
“Why for me?” asked Beatrice, controlling herself with an effort.
“I’ll tell you when we are in the train,” replied the man, as the cab stopped at the station. He assisted her to alight, and she strove to suppress the shudder which almost overcame her as she touched his hand. Shortly they were seated in the train which was going to Liverpool Street. As the distance was very short, Durban commenced to tell the story of his crime at once. Fortunately there was no one else in the carriage.
“Missy,” he said solemnly, “your dear father saved me from being hanged in the States. I was accused of stealing a horse, and although it was utterly false, the white men wanted to lynch me on account of my colour. The Colonel, however, came upon the scene, and he saved me. The real culprit confessed a few days later; but had it not been for the Colonel, I should now have been dead. Since that day to the hour of his death I never left him, and he always trusted me.”
“You did not kill him, Durban?” faltered Beatrice, pale with fear.
“Missy,” he exclaimed vehemently, “I would rather have killed myself than the good man who saved me! No, I did not kill him; but I believe Alpenny did for the sake of the diamond necklace.”
“No, no!” cried Beatrice quickly. “My mother told me that she took the necklace from the green box; and as she was in the company of Mr Alpenny all the time, he must be innocent.”
“It might be so,” said Durban gloomily; “but I never did trust your mother.”
“Why do you dislike her so?” asked Beatrice wonderingly. In the interest of the conversation she quite forgot the earlier confession of the old servant.
“Why?” asked Durban fiercely. “Because she’s a wicked woman, and made my dear Colonel’s life a misery. She was always fond of admiration, and she broke his heart. But for the sake of his name, and but that he loved you, missy, as I love you, the Colonel would have separated from her many and many a time. She was always flirting with other men. She would have run away with Alpenny had he been willing to settle a good income on her: she would have eloped with Major Ruck but that he refused when he found that she had not the Obi necklace. And Alpenny left her the money—I was angry at that.”
“Yes, I remember how angry you were.”
“Because she deserved it so little,” said the servant, with a gesture of rage. “But everything has gone well with her. She may not have killed the Colonel, but she knows who did; and I believe she and Alpenny between them are guilty. But she went away, as I arranged to keep things quiet for your sake, missy. I could not bear that there should be a blot upon your name. I intended to tell you one day who you were, and about the money you ought to have; but you found out things for yourself. I let you do so, as I thought that you might be the chosen instrument to put things right. You have proved yourself to be so; for now the Black Patch Gang, which has been the cause of these troubles, will be broken up, and everything will be right.”
“Durban, I cannot believe that a good man like yourself would murder Mr Alpenny.”
“God bless you for that thought, missy! But I did kill him, and for your sake. He was about to force you into a marriage with Major Ruck, whom I knew to be a scoundrel. You would have killed yourself had you married him.”
“I should never have married him,” said Beatrice firmly.
“Yes, you would,” insisted Durban. “Alpenny would have threatened to accuse your mother to the police. In order to save her you would have consented to become the wife of that wretch.”
“Perhaps,” said Beatrice, hesitating. “Is he a wretch, Durban?”
“Yes. He is also a gentleman, and was in the army. But he has no moral principles: he never had. He was kicked out of the army for cheating: he has been twice or thrice suspected of card-sharping, but the charges could not be brought home to him. There is not a club in London will have him for a member; and he knows only the wicked, needy people who hang on to the skirts of society.”
“He knows Lady—I mean my mother.”
“Yes. But he knew too much about her for her to refuse to acknowledge his acquaintance. Lady Watson knows very good people, as her husband, Sir Reginald Watson, was a rich and well-known sporting officer. Nothing is known in society about Lady Watson’s past, or her connection with the death of Colonel Hall, her first husband. That is an old story, and people forget very easily nowadays, when a lady is rich. What with Sir Reginald’s money and Mr Alpenny’s, your mother must be very wealthy.”
“Did she inherit nothing from my father?”
“No, she did not. The money—and there was a great deal of it—was left to you, missy, with your mother as guardian. But I knew that if your mother brought you up, she would ruin you in some way, as she is so wicked. I therefore threatened to tell the police what Miss Duncan (who now is Mrs Snow) told to me—that is, about the midnight meeting with Mr Alpenny on the stairs. I insisted that you should be given into my care, so that I could look after you.”
“And you have done it like a father,” said Beatrice, giving him her hand gently.
Durban bent down and kissed it, with tears in his eyes. “I have done my best for your father’s sake, missy, and at least I have saved you from your mother. I would have worked for you, and would have taken you from Hurstable, but I insisted on getting the diamond necklace which rightfully belonged to you. But Mr Alpenny refused to give it up in spite of all threats, so I arranged that Amelia Hedge should marry him, and take charge of you. Alpenny promised that when he died he would leave the money and the diamond necklace to you. But he left the money to your mother, whom he always loved; and the necklace I got rid of, as I told you, as I feared for its luck. But it must be got back from your mother. We will go to her house now.”
By this time they were at Liverpool Street Station, and the conversation was interrupted for a time. But shortly they were seated in a cab, as Durban thought he could talk more freely in one than if the two returned to Kensington by the underground railway. As the hansom rolled down Ludgate Hill, and on to the Embankment, the old servant renewed the conversation.
“We will meet Major Ruck at The Camp, missy, and give him the necklace, as I don’t want you to have it.”
“But could we not break it up and destroy the bad luck?” argued the girl. “It seems a pity to throw away ten thousand pounds on Major Ruck, especially as Mr Paslow needs money.”
“You will have your father’s money,” said Durban obstinately. “I shall make your mother give it to you. Of course, as you were thought to be dead, Lady Watson got the money, and no doubt has spent it. But she will have to refund it out of Alpenny’s legacy. There will be no need to employ lawyers: I can force her to do what I want.”
“Does she know that—that—” Beatrice hesitated.
“That I killed Alpenny? No; she does not know that. But she thinks that I killed my master—as though I would have hurt a hair of his dear head!”
“And I don’t believe that you killed Alpenny either.”
“Yes I did, missy,” said Durban obstinately. “He wanted to make your life a misery, and I was right to kill him.”
Beatrice said nothing for a few moments. With a white man it would have been different; but Durban had negro blood in his veins, and did not look upon murder as a more civilised person would have done. Beatrice was horrified inwardly, but she controlled herself sufficiently to keep quiet. After all, Durban had committed the crime for her sake; and much as she reprobated his wickedness—if wickedness it could be called, to kill so evil-living a man as the usurer—she could not find it in her heart to condemn him to the uttermost.
“How did you kill him?” she asked in a low voice.
“I did not go to town that night. I returned to see him, and had a quarrel in the counting-house. He was violent and flew at me. I had a struggle with him, and killed him. That is all!” he ended with apparent indifference.
Durban spoke as though he were saying a lesson. Beatrice looked at him attentively, and saw that his face had resumed the usual green colour it always took on when he was excited. The story was plausible enough. All the same, she did not believe that he was guilty any more than she believed in the guilt of Vivian. “You are innocent!” she said sharply. “Don’t deny it. You accuse yourself to screen Mr Paslow.”
“Do you believe that he is guilty?” asked Durban hoarsely.
“No. I don’t care what Waterloo says.”
“What did he say?”
Beatrice related the whole accusation with the evidence, as detailed by Waterloo. Durban listened attentively, and wiped his face. “Guilty or innocent,” he said in a strangled voice, “that evidence is sufficient to hang Mr Paslow. I am guilty, missy.”
“I don’t believe it,” retorted Beatrice. “Everything connected with these matters has been sordid and evil; but that you, who have always been so kind, should kill even so wicked a man as Mr Alpenny, is ridiculous. Nothing will ever make me believe in your guilt. But here we are,” she broke off abruptly; “say nothing more until we have seen my mother. We will get the necklace, and close the Major’s mouth. I will question Vivian and hear what he has to say.”
“No, no, missy!”
“Yes, yes!” retorted Beatrice imperiously. “I will not let you, my oldest friend—my almost father—accuse yourself of a vile crime, when I know that you would not hurt a fly.”
Durban would have answered, but that they had to alight. The cab was dismissed, and Durban rang the bell. As Lady Watson proved to be at home, they were shown up into the drawing-room. The mistress of the house might have refused herself to Durban, whom she hated, but the footman said that he had been given orders to admit Miss Hedge whenever she called. This showed Beatrice two things. Firstly, that her mother really wanted to see her as often as possible, and might have some small affection left; and secondly, that she did not intend to acknowledge her as her daughter, seeing that she had given the servant the name of Miss Hedge instead of Miss Hall.
Lady Watson expressed surprise at seeing Durban, and joy at beholding Beatrice. “You dear girl!” she said, embracing her; “you did make me so miserable this afternoon. I am just going out to dinner, and can only give you ten minutes.—I am surprised to see you, Durban.”
“And not very pleased, Mrs Hall.”
“Give me my title, if you please,” said the little woman sharply. “Say what you have to say, and go away. I wish to speak with my child—the child of whom you robbed me.”
Durban shrugged his stout shoulders and turned away, while Beatrice looked at her mother steadily. Lady Watson was arrayed in a very fashionable dinner-gown worn very low, and her complexion was coloured to match. Her jewels were many and rich, and conspicuous amongst them was the diamond necklace which they had come to take away. She really looked very well in the rose-hued light of the drawing-room, and wonderfully pretty. No one would have thought that she was the mother of this noble, sad girl arrayed in deep black.
“Ten minutes,” said Lady Watson, consulting a tiny jewelled watch. “But you can come to-morrow, darling.”
“I am going down to Hurstable to-morrow,” said her daughter coldly—“to The Camp.”
“The horrid place!” said Lady Watson, fastening her glove. “I shall sell it, I think.”
“No,” said Durban, coming close to her; “you will give it to Miss Beatrice along with the money she inherits from her father.”
“She inherits nothing.”
“Yes, she does. The money of my dead master was left to you for her use. She was supposed to be dead—”
“That was your fault,” burst out Lady Watson savagely.
“And you used the money,” went on Durban, as though he had not heard her speak; “but Mr Alpenny’s legacy will provide funds for you to restore the money. There is sufficient to give Miss Beatrice two thousand a year.”
“I won’t give her a penny!” said the little woman, setting her teeth and looking extremely ugly. “I want all my money to myself.”
“You must return this money,” said Durban coldly; “and also, this very moment, you must give back the diamond necklace.”
Lady Watson placed her gloved hand on the jewel which flashed on her neck. “This?” she gasped. “Never! it is mine. It was bought for me.”
“Quite so, madam,” said Durban; “but when the Colonel found that you were flirting with Major Ruck, he determined to keep it for his child. By the will—of which I have a copy—Miss Beatrice inherits that necklace.”
“Child!” said Lady Watson tragically, “will you see your mother robbed by this—this—this low nigger?”
“If the necklace is mine, I intend to have it,” said Beatrice coldly; “it is my intention to make some use of it, otherwise I would leave it to you. I want to have nothing to do with you, Lady Watson.”
Lady Watson dashed the fan she held on the table, and broke it to pieces. “I am your mother!”
“No,” said Beatrice steadily, “you never loved me, or you would not have given me into the care of strangers.”
“He made me—he made me,” and she pointed to Durban.
“For the sake of my dead master,” said Durban calmly. “Come now, madam, you must give up the necklace. I will see your lawyer to-morrow about the transfer of Miss Beatrice’s money to herself.”
“I refuse—I refuse!”
“Take care,” said Durban fiercely, and again coming close to her. “I can make Mrs Snow tell what she saw on that night.”
“I have told all that to my child,” quivered Lady Watson, crying with fear.
“But not to the police.”
“The police!” echoed the little woman, growing pale under her carefully coloured face, and sinking into a chair.
“Yes. If you did not kill the Colonel, Alpenny did.”
“No. I swear he was with me the whole time: he is as innocent as I am. You can do nothing.”
“I perhaps cannot prove you guilty,” said Durban steadily, “but I can tell the police what Mrs Snow saw, and get the whole case into the papers.”
“Who will care, when the Colonel died so long ago?”
“His death is evidently connected with this Alpenny crime,” said Durban harshly, “and so the public will be quite glad to read all about the earlier one. What will your friends say?—who will take your hand when he or she knows what I have to tell about that midnight meeting, and of your projected elopement with the notorious Major Ruck?”
Lady Watson trembled and burst into tears, which, streaming down her face, aged her in a few minutes. “Beatrice, what am I to do?” she wept.
“Give up the necklace,” said the girl, keeping aloof—she could not find it in her heart to pity a mother who had behaved so badly to her child, a wife who had tricked her husband so often—“then we will leave you, and say nothing.”
“But if I give up the necklace, will you come and see me?”
“Yes,” said Beatrice with an effort; “after all, you are my mother.”
“You horrid girl! you are just like your father. Oh, well, if I am to be blackmailed by an unnatural child and a nigger, I must pay the price, and you may be glad that I don’t give you both in charge.”
Durban crossed to the bell. “I will ring if you like. There is a constable outside.”
“No!” shrieked Lady Watson, and unfastened the necklace with trembling fingers. Durban took it from her in silence, and then she rallied sufficiently to rage. “You horrible black creature!” she cried, “you have stolen my property, and have turned from me the heart of my dear child. Go away, I hate the sight of you.”
“Come, missy,” said Durban, holding open the door.
“Yes, go—go, Beatrice. You’ve made me quite ill. I shan’t enjoy my dinner a bit to-night, and there is such a good cook. I’ll have to look after my face again—it’s quite ruined.” She tripped to the mirror and looked in perfectly calmly. While she did this Beatrice, sad at heart at such frivolity under such circumstances, withdrew with Durban, and they took their way to Mrs Quail’s hotel.
“I’m glad you saved me from my mother, Durban,” was all the girl said; but in the seclusion of her bedroom she wept bitterly. In those days, at that moment, the world was very grey and dismal.
Having finished her business in London, Beatrice returned to Hurstable with Durban. They went back to The Camp, as the girl did not wish to again take up her abode in Convent Grange until her relations with Vivian Paslow were more settled. What Major Ruck meant by his mysterious hints, she could not imagine, but deep in her heart she cherished a hope that everything would yet be made smooth, and that all these troubles which desolated her life would be finally ended by her marriage with the man she loved.
It may seem strange that she should dwell at The Camp along with one who had confessed himself guilty of a terrible crime. But Beatrice, as she had said in London, and repeated frequently afterwards, did not believe Durban to be guilty. In an excess of zeal, and in order to secure her happiness, he professed himself to be the criminal. Had Waterloo and Major Ruck not accused Vivian, the girl felt very certain that Durban would not have accused himself. The man still insisted that he was guilty, and Beatrice still refused to believe him. After much thought she determined to give Vivian a chance of clearing himself, and believed that could he prove his innocence, Durban would not proceed with his self-sacrifice. With this in her mind, she wrote a note to Paslow the day after she arrived at The Camp. Durban was not with her at the time, as he had gone to the station to get the newspapers. It was necessary to see if the Black Patch Gang’s quarters had been raided, and if Major Ruck had been arrested; if so, the appointment which the Major had made for the next evening at seven need not be kept.
Paslow, looking anxious and eager, arrived about three in the afternoon, and with him came Dinah. Without giving her brother time to speak, the girl flew at Beatrice and kissed her several times.
“Oh, Beatrice, I have such heaps and heaps to tell you,” she gasped, with a flushed face and very bright eyes. “Jerry and I are going to be married in three months.”
“That is indeed good news,” said Beatrice cordially, and did not seek to stop the flow of Miss Paslow’s confidences. After the sordid scoundrels with whom she had been mixed up lately she was more than delighted to be in the company of this homely, honest maiden, and to hear her artless prattle. Vivian cast an inquiring look at Beatrice, as he was anxious to know how she had sped with Lady Watson, and could not understand why she had returned with Durban. But the girl merely smiled to reassure him, although she felt far from smiling, and demanded the news from Dinah. That damsel was only too glad to lead the conversation.
“It’s this way,” she declared, sitting down, and breathing hard: “Jerry has had his salary raised, and we’ll have enough to rent a tweeny house at Fulham, or Bedford Park, or somewhere nice. Jerry is writing a novel, and I’m going to help him. And Mr Snow has been made a Dean of some place in Wales.”
“I am glad to hear that,” said Beatrice quickly, for she thought that this preferment would remove Mrs Snow from the neighbourhood—a thing devoutly to be wished for, since the woman disliked her.
“So am I, because Mr Snow will get a large salary; and, in spite of Mrs Snow (who is a cat!), Mr Snow intends to allow Jerry and me one hundred a year. Vivian (who is a dear!) intends to allow me the same, so what with this and Jerry’s salary we’ll have about four or five hundred a year to begin life on. I really don’t know if I am standing on my head or my heels,” cried Dinah, clapping her hands, and with her freckled face aglow with lively joy.
“So you see, Beatrice,” said Vivian, with a smile on his dark face, “her happiness and life are settled. She will marry Jerry, and help him to become the Shakespeare of his generation.”
“Oh no. Shakespeare only wrote plays!” said Dinah contemptuously. “Or was it Bacon? Jerry is to write novels, like Thackeray or George Eliot—but she was a woman, wasn’t she? We’ll be so happy; and I intend to furnish the drawing-room in cherry-colour, which always—”
“My dear Dinah,” said Vivian impatiently, “can’t you leave these minor details to some future occasion?”
“Ah! wait till you and Beatrice consult about the refurnishing of the Grange,” said Dinah reprovingly; “then you’ll find how important all these things are. Mr and Mrs Snow go to Wales in a month, Beatrice, and I shan’t be sorry. I want to be miles and miles away from my future mother-in-law. But I must go.” Dinah rose in a hurry. “I am on my way to the station to meet Jerry. I only called in to tell you how delicious everything is. Good-bye, good-bye!” and Dinah, kissing Beatrice twice, took herself off rapidly, while Vivian shrugged his shoulders.
“What a whirlwind in petticoats!” said he good-humouredly.
“I am glad she is to be happy with her lover,” said Beatrice in a pensive manner. “And I am also glad,” she added, looking attentively at Paslow, “to know that Mrs Snow is leaving the neighbourhood.”
“So am I,” said Paslow, with a sigh. “That woman hates you, Beatrice.”
“She cannot do me any harm,” replied the girl, and then looked again at Vivian. She noted with a pang how worn and thin he appeared: noted also that there were white hairs amongst his thick black locks. “My poor boy,” she said tenderly, “you have suffered!”
Vivian looked at her in a startled way, and put out his hand as though to keep her off. “Don’t,” he said hoarsely, “or else I shall forget myself and take you in my arms.”
“Vivian”—she touched his arm and he winced, with a flush of colour, at the tenderness—“we may come together after all.”
“Beatrice!” he said breathlessly, then dropped the hand which he had seized. “You know who stands between us.”
“She may not always stand between us, Vivian.”
“What! Is she dead?”
“No. But Major Ruck— Wait, Vivian; let us sit down and talk. I have much to tell you, dear.”
“Yes, yes, Sit here!” Vivian hurriedly led her towards a garden seat near the battered sundial, and fixing his eyes on her tired face, waited impatiently for what she had to say. But Beatrice did not begin at once: she wanted to startle him into telling the truth.
“Major Ruck and Waterloo both accuse you of killing Alpenny,” she said bluntly, and looking straightly at him.
Vivian jumped up with a suppressed oath. “What a lie!”
“Tell me,” she said quickly—“tell me exactly what you did on that night.”
“I have told you. I caught Waterloo and kicked him; then I looked for you, and not finding you, went home. Next morning I called to see how you were getting on, and gave the key of the smaller gate to Durban, who hung it up in the counting-house, as he told you.”
“You were not near this place on that night?”
“No. I swear I was not.”
Beatrice saw from his earnest, puzzled look that he really spoke the truth. Without wasting further time in skirting round the subject, she related what had taken place at the Black Patch Gang’s den in Stepney. Vivian listened with growing surprise, and jumping up, began to walk backwards and forwards, much agitated. When she had finished, he stopped before her with an angry air.
“The whole story is a lie!” he declared decisively. “I certainly caught Waterloo, and kicked him: he certainly threatened me with a very ugly-looking knife; but he got away before I could take it off him. I wish I had found it before I tied his hands.”
“You tied his hands?”
“Yes, with my handkerchief.”
Beatrice rose suddenly, and caught her lover’s arm with so much force that he winced. “What is it?” he asked, puzzled by her look.
“Did—did—Waterloo get away with the handkerchief?”
“Yes. I knocked him down and tied his hands. I was going away, when he got rid of the handkerchief, and ran at me with a knife. I dodged him, and then tried to seize him again; but he showed no more fight, and ran away. He held the handkerchief in one hand and the knife in another.”
“Vivian,” cried Beatrice, with a pale face, “Waterloo killed Mr Alpenny!—yes, he killed him, I am certain.”
“What do you mean? How can you explain?”
“Listen. I found your handkerchief soaking in the blood of Alpenny, and lying near the body in the counting-house yonder. I thought for the moment that you were guilty. I spoke to Durban, and he told me that you had given him the handkerchief—no, that wasn’t it. He said that you had left the handkerchief behind when you quarrelled with Mr Alpenny, when you last met him.”
“I never did. And—”
“Wait, wait. Of course you didn’t. To save my feelings Durban told a lie.”
“Why didn’t you speak to me?”
“I didn’t think of doing so; you explained about the key. I forgot, I suppose, with all the troubles that we had. But you can see now: this man, Waterloo, had the knife, he had the handkerchief, and he was a member of the Black Patch Gang. Alpenny, because he betrayed the Gang, was condemned to death, and Waterloo is the man whom Major Ruck called the executioner. He left you to return to The Camp and kill Mr Alpenny; then he escaped by the secret passage.”
Vivian walked about in an excited manner. “By Jupiter! Beatrice, I do believe that you are right. We’ll have the little beast arrested.”
“I dare say, if the police have raided the Stepney den, that he has already been arrested. Oh, how I wish those papers would come!”
“The daily newspapers. Durban went to the station to get them, as we expect to read about the raid. And I want to clear your character—so that Durban’s life may be saved.”
“What do you mean?” asked Vivian, utterly puzzled.
“He accuses himself of the crime to clear you. He knows that I love you, and, thinking your loss would break my heart, intended to answer for you.”
“But I have not committed any crime.”
“No. But the Major and Waterloo can build up an accusation against you; it will be difficult to disprove, and—”
“It will not be difficult,” said Vivian determinedly; “the handkerchief will prove Waterloo’s guilt. Does Durban believe that I am the guilty person?”
“I think so, or he would not take the guilt upon himself.”
“Then I forgive his doubts of me, because he is so ready to take my supposed crime on his own shoulders. But do you believe me to—”
“Vivian”—she stretched out her hands—“I never have believed you to be guilty. You know that; and now we both know the truth—Waterloo is the criminal.”
“And Waterloo will soon be in the hands of the police. Beatrice, I shall go and see the constable at Hurstable. He will send for the Inspector who had charge of the case. We’ll tell him everything, and when Major Ruck comes here to-morrow at seven, he can be arrested.”
“But he is not guilty?”
“He is an accomplice. Waterloo apparently killed Alpenny by his order—and, indeed, the Major probably was present at the time, since he admits himself to have been the man you saw leaving The Camp. I shall go at once. Wait here, Beatrice; I’ll come back with the constable. And meantime, when Durban returns with the papers, you can see if the Gang’s den has been raided.”
“Yes, yes. Go at once!”
The face of Beatrice was aglow with joy, and she went with her lover to the great gates, which now usually stood wide open. And she had every cause for joy. They now knew that Waterloo was the assassin who had murdered old Alpenny. Vivian was guiltless, and so was Durban, who, to save the tears of his young mistress, had so nobly taken upon himself the burden of shame. When Vivian departed post-haste to see the village constable, and to put all things in train for the capture of Major Ruck and his accomplices, Beatrice walked to and fro much excited.
“Dear Durban, good Durban!” she murmured again and again. “What a friend he has been to me! But there will be no need for this sacrifice. Vivian’s character can be cleared, and then—” She hesitated, and wondered again if Major Ruck could fulfil his promise and remove the obstacle to her marriage with Vivian. She could not think of how this could be done, save by the death of Maud Paslow; and yet she did not think that Ruck, villain as he was, would kill a woman. All the same, he had certainly killed Alpenny through the instrumentality of Waterloo. “I must give Major Ruck the necklace in any case,” said Beatrice, quite forgetting that when Vivian told the police, Ruck would need no necklace and would be in the dock. She went to her bedroom-carriage and got out the necklace, which flashed bravely in the sun. It was certainly a magnificent ornament, and Beatrice was woman enough to regret parting with it, especially to such a scamp as the Major. However, as she recollected Vivian’s errand, it might be that it would not need to be given up. “But then,” she thought, “if Major Ruck is arrested, he will certainly not forward my marriage with Vivian, as out of revenge he will hold his tongue.”
With the necklace in her hand, she went across to the counting-house carriage in order to make a packet of it and seal it up. The place was chill and dismal in its desolation. Beatrice closed the door and seated herself at the desk, looking about for a sufficiently thick sheet of paper in which to wrap the jewel. Hardly had she found one when she heard a grating noise, and turned her head to see the sheet of galvanised tin, upon which stood the stove, slip aside. The next moment, and she saw the red head of Waterloo protrude from the hole.
“You!” cried Beatrice, starting to her feet, and her blood ran cold when she thought of what the reptile had done.
“Yuss,” said Waterloo, who looked haggard and white. “The Major is after me. I cut away from Stepney when the plaice was raided by the perlice. The Major cove got away too, and has been follering me. He come down by the saime train—”
“He is here?” cried Beatrice interrogatively, bending forward.
She had the necklace dangling from her hand, and in bending down it was brought within reach of Waterloo. He snatched at it at once and growled like a dog over a bone. “Yuss,” he said hoarsely, while the girl remained paralysed by his sudden move; “he’s after this, and me. He’s goin’ to kill me, becas I set the peelers on to the Gang. But he’ll not come by this passage, and I’ll slip away. Don’t you give the alarm, miss, or I’ll cut your throat.”
“The same as you did Mr Alpenny’s?”
“Ho! you knows that, does you?” yelped Waterloo. “Yuss, I did; an’ I’ll kill you if—”
Beatrice ran to the door and opened it. “Help! help!” she cried, not thinking of the mad thing she was doing to provoke this murderer to wrath. There was no help near—The Camp was completely isolated, and unless Durban came back at once, or Vivian returned, she was at the mercy of this wild beast in the lonely place. Waterloo apparently guessed that he could do what he liked, for he made a spring to get out of the passage. As he did so he was pulled back, and gave a yell of alarm.
“Oh lor’, who’s got me? ‘Elp! ‘elp! Ah! ow—ow—it’s the Major—it’s—” Here he was pulled out of sight. Apparently the Major, on the track of the man who had betrayed him, had entered the secret passage also, and was pulling the traitor down into the depths. Beatrice stared at the gaping black hole, and heard sounds of snarling and worrying and swearing and fighting going on in the bowels of the earth. Suddenly she heard the shriek of a man in mortal agony. With an effort she opened wide the counting-house door, anxious only to escape from the horrible place; but as the sunshine streamed on her face, everything seemed to grow black round her, and she fell down in a dead faint.
It was quite two months before Beatrice Hall recovered sufficiently to hear after-events. For a long time she remained unconscious, and then came to herself only to suffer from a severe attack of brain fever. The poor girl had gone through so much—she had borne up with such bravery—that the long-continued strain had sapped her strength, and she was seriously ill for weeks. Even when she recovered her reason—which she did, owing to the careful and assiduous nursing of Vivian and his sister—the doctor would not allow her to be told anything. And, indeed, Beatrice did not seem anxious to hear: it appeared as though her mind was a blank. All she cared to do was to lie on her bed, and listen to Vivian reading some soothing book.
Dr Herman (the same who had examined the corpse of Alpenny, and had given evidence at the inquest) was her medical attendant, and he conducted the treatment with great care. With such a delicately-balanced brain as Beatrice possessed, and after she had undergone such terrible experiences, the doctor seemed to be doubtful if she would be quite sane when she got back her physical strength. He went about with a grave face, and Vivian’s heart was wrung with anguish as he thought of what might happen. It seemed terrible that he should, for once, have a chance of happiness with the woman he loved, only to find that she would suffer from something worse than death. In those long days of suspense Vivian turned more to God than he had ever done before in his careless life. And God rewarded his faith. Slowly but surely Beatrice recovered, and when the doctor permitted her to be taken on to the terrace in the mild autumn weather, the peace and fresh air completed her cure. She felt her brain becoming much steadier, and again began to take an interest in life. But always she desired to have Vivian by her side, and was never so happy as when he sat beside her couch holding her hand. In two months she was quite her old self, although paler and thinner. But the troubles she had passed through left their marks on her lovely face and in her sad eyes.
“Let me tell her everything now,” Vivian urged to Dr Herman one day; “she is beginning to ask questions, and will not be satisfied with being put off with vague replies.”
“Ah,” said the doctor with much satisfaction, “she is asking questions, is she? Then you can take it from me, Mr Paslow, that she will recover completely. It is that renewed interest in life which I wished to see. Wait for a week, and then she will be strong enough to hear what you have to say. But when she once knows,” added the doctor, raising his finger gravely, “never let her hear of the subject again.”
“Never, never!” said Vivian, with a shudder, as he also was only too anxious to bury the past which had tormented him for so long. And then he went to tell the joyful news to Durban.
Needless to say, Durban also had been watching everlastingly beside the couch and bed of the creature whom he held dearest on earth. He was like a dog, and when not within the sick-room would lie on the mat at the door. When he heard that his dear young mistress was out of danger, he almost went out of his mind, and vehemently embraced Mrs Lilly, much to the indignation of that portly female. But when she saw his dog-like devotion, she forgave that exuberant expression of the man’s feelings.
So things slowly worked themselves out to a joyful issue. Beatrice was told that in a few days she would be informed of all that had taken place since she fainted in the counting-house, and obeyed the orders of Vivian that, until the time came, she was not to ask any questions. Then one glorious autumn day, when the sun was shining with a summer-like force, and everything seemed to revive under its royal beams, Vivian carried her down the stairs as usual and out on to the terrace. Here, in her favourite nook, she rested contentedly on a soft couch, and a small table was placed beside her. Dinah and Jerry, who were also faithful attendants, hovered round with shawls and rugs and reviving drinks, and such-like things. When Beatrice was comfortably established, she took Vivian’s hand softly.
“How good it is to be loved!” she said sweetly.
“Who could help loving you, my own?” said Paslow tenderly. “We are all your slaves here.”
“Where is Durban?”
“He will come shortly. And Dinah and Jerry can go away?”
“Why?” demanded Dinah quickly, and rather offended.
“Because Dr Herman says that I can tell Beatrice everything, and it will be better that we should be alone.”
“Oh, Vivian”—the face of the invalid flushed a rose colour—“am I to know everything now?”
“Yes”—he bent down and kissed her—“as a reward for obedience. Then Durban will come and see you; and Jerry can escort Dinah back, unless they forget us in love-making.”
“Well,” said Jerry very shrewdly, and taking Dinah’s hand, “I expect you really won’t want us, as you will be love-making yourselves. Besides, I have to read a letter to Dinah.”
“From your mother?” asked Dinah rather nervously.
“From my father. He is now settled comfortably in Wales, and likes everything immensely, and—”
“Oh, come away,” interrupted Dinah, tugging him by the hand; “don’t give me the gist of the letter here. Can’t you see that Beatrice and Vivian are dying to be alone? And I want to consult you again about that study of ours. I really don’t think that green hangings will suit your complexion, and then—” Here Dinah dragged the willing Jerry down the shallow steps and across the lawn, babbling all the time of their future home.
Beatrice, left alone with Vivian, put out her hand, and heaved a sigh of pleasure when she felt his warm fingers close on that frail member. A thrill ran through her, and everything she beheld before her seemed to take on a brighter hue, because the man she loved was beside her. Yet as she felt his touch and looked into his bright face—for bright it seemed, though sadly worn and thin—a recollection of the barrier between them disturbed her pleasant thoughts.
“Why do you wish to take your hand away?” asked Vivian, as he felt her exert a weak strength.
“Your—your—wife,” faltered Beatrice faintly.
“You are to be my wife, dearest,” he answered gravely. “No,” in reply to her startled look, “Maud is not dead. But she never was my wife.”
“Vivian! She said that she was.”
“Of course, to gain her own ends. But she is really the wife of Major Ruck: she married him when she first went to town. I believe old Alpenny arranged the marriage, as Major Ruck being a member of his Gang, he wished to secure so clever a woman as Maud also.”
“Is this true?”
“Perfectly true; so you can leave your hand in mine for ever.”
“That would be a long time,” said Beatrice, with a weak laugh of joy. But all the same she allowed her little white hand to rest within Vivian’s, and then looked at him inquiringly.
“You wish to ask how we found out?” said Paslow, smiling. “Easily enough. Major Ruck redeemed his promise, and removed the obstacle to our marriage by leaving on the desk in the counting-house a certificate of marriage between himself and Maud Orchard. We—that is, Durban and myself—went to the church where the marriage was solemnised, and found that the certificate was genuine. Major Ruck and Maud Orchard were man and wife some months before I came on the scene, and she entrapped me into that unhappy marriage.”
“But what was Major Ruck doing in the counting-house?” said Beatrice, puzzled. “He was not due until the next evening at seven.”
“You forget, my darling, what has happened. Waterloo—”
“Yes, yes! I remember now,” cried Beatrice, half raising herself in her excitement. “He was coming out to kill me with that horrible knife, when someone pulled him down, and I fainted.”
“It was the Major who pulled him down,” said Vivian, gently pushing her back. “Be calm, Beatrice, and I’ll tell you everything.”
“But I remember a lot,” she insisted. “Waterloo said that the den at Stepney had been raided, and that he had got away—the Major also. Then because he knew—the Major, I mean—that Waterloo had betrayed the Gang, he followed him down to kill him.”
“The Major did not kill him, however, darling. Waterloo was—”
“Wait a moment, Vivian,” she entreated. “I want to see how much I remember. Waterloo said that the Major had followed him down by the same train. I suppose the Major came by the secret passage—”
Vivian placed his arms round her so that her head could rest on his breast. “Darling, darling, you must allow me to speak. What you say is true, and you have remembered much. Major Ruck was after Waterloo to kill him, because of his treachery. How he found that the man was coming to Hurstable I do not know. But the den was certainly raided: Tuft and the doctor who attended my wife’s double are in custody—the Gang is broken up. The police have examined Durban and myself, and everything has been made clear. While you have been ill the newspapers have been full of the business, and Jerry Snow has made quite a reputation in writing sensational articles.”
“Go on,” said Beatrice, much interested.
“I will, if it will not excite you too much.”
“No, no; I am perfectly calm. Feel my pulse, dear.”
Vivian did so, and caressed her fondly. “Speak as little as you can, my dear,” he said softly, and then continued his story. “Waterloo knew that Ruck would kill him if he could, and never thinking that the Major would suspect his coming to The Camp—into the jaws of the lion, as it were—he came down here, and the Major—as Waterloo told you—followed him.”
“Waterloo got the necklace?” said Beatrice, thinking with an effort.
“He did for a time; but the Major has it now. Hush, dear! The Major, as he wanted to escape, could not wait until the next evening to see you. He came down at once, or perhaps he followed Waterloo. However, he tracked him to The Camp, and saw him go down the secret passage. Ruck went down also, and listened below while Waterloo was talking to you. He knew or guessed that he had the necklace, and when Waterloo was about to kill you—which he would have done in that deserted Camp—the Major saved you by pulling Waterloo into the passage. Waterloo fought like a wild cat, I believe—at least he says that he did—”
“What! Did Waterloo confess?”
“On his dying bed he did.”
“Is he dead, then?”
“Quite dead. God punished him. Do listen, my own. Waterloo fought, not only for his life but for the necklace. But Ruck, as you know, is a big man of great strength. He dragged him along the passage and strove to strangle him. Waterloo tried to use his knife, but could not do so at first. Then Ruck secured the necklace, and Waterloo made a violent effort to strike. To escape the wound, Ruck threw him as far as he could along the passage. Waterloo struck against the brickwork, and tried to rise. But the passage as you know, Beatrice, was in bad repair; the blow loosened the earth overhead where it was not bricked in, and a mass of earth fell which buried Waterloo under it. Then Ruck, seeing that the villain was punished, entered the counting-house and found you insensible. He did not wait to revive you, as he knew that the police were on his track; he simply left on the desk the certificate of his marriage with Maud Orchard, and bolted.”
“Where has he gone?”
“I can’t tell you that. But he vanished, and his wife Maud has vanished also. They managed to get a boat at Brighton, and rowed out at night to a passing tramp. It seems that the captain was in the pay of the Black Patch Gang to take the stolen goods abroad. However, the steamer was waiting off-shore, and Ruck escaped with his wife and the necklace in that way. Nothing has been heard of him up to date, and I don’t expect anything ever will be heard of the two. Maud is clever, and so is her rightful husband, so I expect, now that they have money, they will live in some tropical clime in the odour of sanctity. At all events, my darling, they have passed out of our lives.”
“Thank God for that!” said Beatrice fervently. “And Waterloo?”
“Durban came back and tried to revive you. I returned with the constable, and saw that something terrible had taken place. While Durban and Dinah took you back to Convent Grange, I and the constable searched. We went down the secret passage, as we found the trap in the counting-house open. We heard groans, and got some men to dig Waterloo out. He was taken to the Brighton Hospital, and Inspector Jones—who had to do with the inquest, you remember?—was sent for. Waterloo made a full confession.”
“About Alpenny’s murder?”
“Yes, and about the doings of the Black Patch Gang. You were right, my dear. Waterloo was the member Ruck called the executioner, and I will not shock your feelings by telling you how many people the wretch murdered. But he killed Alpenny almost in the way he accused me of killing him. That is, he went back to The Camp and there met Ruck. They entered through the large gates, and Alpenny, dressed for his flight, came out. He cried for mercy, but Waterloo cut his throat.”
Beatrice shivered. “Don’t tell me any more.”
“Only this, darling—that Waterloo gave Ruck my handkerchief, and he placed it near the body to incriminate me. Ruck walked to Brighton after making an ineffectual search for the necklace—which was the real reason for the crime; and Waterloo escaped by the secret passage and loafed up to London as a tramp.”
“He arrived later, and found Alpenny dead. He told you all about that. He then found the necklace and placed it on the sheep’s neck, to get rid of it for ever. He returned the next morning pretending to know nothing, as he was fearful lest he should be accused.”
“Then Ruck was the man I saw at the gate?”
“Yes. He wore the black patch over the left eye, as a member of the Gang. That is their mark—or rather it was, as the Gang is now but a name. Those caught have been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, although Ruck and Maud have escaped, and Waterloo is dead.”
“The Black Patch?” mused Beatrice. “Vivian,” she added suddenly, “did Waterloo kill my father?”
“He did,” said Vivian quickly. “I thought you would guess that. It seems that Alpenny found out about your mother’s intended elopement, and told Ruck that he would prevent it unless he got the necklace. As that was all Ruck wanted—for he had no love for your mother—he induced Waterloo to try and steal it, promising him a share. Waterloo assumed the black patch so that, if possible, the blame might be put on to Alpenny.”
“How do you mean?”
“Waterloo threw away the patch when he escaped, so that Alpenny, if the doings of the Gang ever came to light, might be suspected.”
“I see. Go on, Vivian; I am much interested.”
“I hope it is not too much for you, dearest,” said Paslow earnestly. “But to make a long story short, Waterloo entered by the window and tried to steal the green box, where Ruck had told him the necklace was placed. The box, however, was chained to the bed. The noise that Waterloo made woke your father; but before any struggle could take place, and while the Colonel was but half awake, Waterloo sprang on him and cut his throat. Then while he was trying to wrench open the green box and get the necklace, he heard voices.”
“Those of my mother and Alpenny?”
“Yes. But they spoke so low that he did not know who they were, or he might have remained. As it was he ran away, fearful of being caught. He dropped the black patch to incriminate Alpenny, as I told you. Next day Ruck learned that Alpenny had the necklace, and how he had forced it from Mrs Hall—that is from Lady Watson, your mother. The rest you know.”
“How terrible!” said Beatrice with a sigh. “And my mother?”
“She saw the police, and substantiated Waterloo’s dying confession. But the police acquit her of complicity in the crime. However, although as little as possible was published in the papers, she has gone to the Continent, and talks of entering a convent. And I hope she will like it,” ended Vivian grimly.
“I am not sorry, for I never could have loved her, Vivian. But she is my mother after all, so I shall see her when we go abroad.”
“You shall do what you like, dearest. We will be married as soon as possible and go to Italy for a year.”
“Can you afford it, Vivian?”
“You can,” he said, laughing. “Don’t you know that you have two thousand a year inherited from your father? Lady Watson had spent it, but at Durban’s request she refunded it out of Alpenny’s legacy. We will not be rich, dearest, but we will be able to pay off the mortgage and restore the Grange, and live a quiet life together.”
“That is all I wish for,” said Beatrice, putting her arms round his neck. “I want peace after all this storm.”
“You will have, darling,” said Vivian, kissing her; “but we will first go abroad so that your cure may be completed. Jerry and Dinah will be married on the same day as ourselves.”
“Not by Mr Snow?” said Beatrice, shuddering. “I have no grudge against him: but his wife—”
“She cannot harm you, dear, now. The police gave Mrs Snow a pretty talking to for withholding the evidence she could have given. She is a very subdued woman now, and, I think, is glad to bury herself in Wales as the wife of that rural Dean, Mr Snow. He will be master in his own house at last, for he knows so much about her that she will not dare to contradict him.”
“Here he comes. Durban, come here.”
The half-caste, his face shining with joy, rolled towards them as stout as ever in spite of his grief. At the expression on the face of his young mistress he stopped short. “She knows?” he asked Vivian timorously.
“Everything,” said Beatrice, before Vivian could speak. “And I thank God, Durban, for having given me such a friend!”
“Missy, I loved your father.” He dropped on his knees beside the couch and took her hand. “And you do not blame me for having kept you in ignorance?”
“No. The situation was a difficult one. You and Mr Paslow here were both surrounded by rogues and many dangers. And all your concealments and reluctant confessions were made to save me anxiety, so I thank you, my dear friend, for your kindness. I knew you were a good man, even when you accused yourself to save Vivian.”
“I could not let him be hanged when you loved him,” said Durban, hanging his head.
“You see, Beatrice,” said Vivian, smiling, “it is only of you that Durban thinks. I am nowhere.”
“When you marry Miss Beatrice,” said Durban, rising, with a grave smile, “you will be one with her, and I’ll love you both equally. I know you will be happy, missy. After much storm has come the sunshine.”
“And that,” said Vivian gaily, “will endure for the rest of our lives.”
Beatrice took the old servant’s hand. “There is only one thing to settle,” she said sweetly: “Durban is to give me to you at the altar.”
“Oh, missy—me—no—no—a black—a half black!”
“You are a whole white,” said Vivian quickly, and taking the good old fellow’s other hand. “Beatrice is right. You have stood to her in the place of her father and mother, and you have shielded her from a thousand dangers. You shall come to the wedding and give your treasure to me.”
“Sir—missy—” Durban could say nothing more; his eyes filled with tears and he hastily retreated.
“Joyful tears, good old soul!” said Vivian, again gathering Beatrice to his breast. “He’ll come and live with us, Beatrice, and we’ll turn that horrible Camp into a jungle. Never more will we talk of the past, and—and—”
“Vivian, Vivian! How you run on!”
“I am too happy to be sensible. What are those birds we hear singing, saying, my sweetest?”
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!” was the unexpected answer of Beatrice.
Vivian’s face grew grave. “I think we will, and now,” he said; and with his future wife in his arms he breathed a prayer of thankfulness to the merciful Father who had brought them both to a safe haven.
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