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Title: Hereditary Author: Mary Fortune (Writing as WW) * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800091h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jan 2018 Most recent update: Jan 2018 This eBook was produced by Terry Walker and Roy Glashan. 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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The Australian authoress Mary Helena Fortune (ca. 1833-1911) was one of the first women to write detective fiction, and probably the first to write it from the viewpoint of the detective. Her opus includes several novels and over 500 stories, many of which feature a detective by the name of Mark Sinclair. She wrote under the pseudonyms "Waif Wander" and "W.W."
THERE wanted but a few days to Christmas, when one morning Archie Hopeton dashed into my office with an open letter in his hand. I say dashed, for scarcely any other word would effectually describe his abrupt and sudden entrance; and, as such a manner was rather unusual with him, I looked up at him in wondering inquiry.
'I've got the invitation for you, Mark. Now, surely you won't refuse to go with me. My aunt, Mrs Thorne, says she will be very much pleased to see you.'
'I'm afraid you've been putting the screw on the old lady, Archie—threatening not to go yourself unless she invited me, or something of that sort?'
''Pon my honour, no. I simply said that I was trying hard to induce you to spend your holidays at Puntwater. You will go, won't you, Mark, out of charity, if for no other reason?'
I looked up from my desk into the young fellow's anxious and pleading face; it was the face of a fair, handsome youth of twenty-two or three, with a pair of fine, brown eyes lighting it up, and beautiful glossy, fair hair waving above it; but at the moment it looked really haggard and careworn.
'I might as well go there as anywhere else, Archie,' I returned, 'that is to say if I get away at all. I'm so used to applying for leave, having it granted, and then cancelled again in consequence of a "very particular case," that I quite expect to stop and work hard during holiday time.'
'Why don't you start at once? Your leave's granted now. Will you come on Monday, Mark?' he asked eagerly.
'If I get through with this business today, I shall certainly take time by the forelock, and go on Monday, my son. But I can't make out your great anxiety to have me go with you.'
'That shows how little attention you've been paying to all my egotistical stories,' he cried, 'and indeed, Sinclair, it is as simple a piece of selfishness for me to wish you with me, I mean, as ever you accused me of; but I am positively afraid to go back to aunt's, afraid is the word.'
'Afraid of your aunt, or cousin? Which?'
'Of both. Oh, I know I'm a soft fellow, Sinclair, but until you have seen them, and known them, you cannot understand. Aunt Thorne has set her very heart on us marrying, and now that I've chosen so differently, she will be wild.'
'And the young lady? Your cousin Hester, what will she say, or do? Is she so infatuated with you that she will never forgive you? What a lady-killer you must be, young chap. It's well to be you.'
'For mercy sake don't chaff, Mark. I can't stand it. Wait till you see them, and you will understand better. I was brought up by Aunt Thorne, and until I went to college, I had no idea that they were so peculiar and different from other people. Well, Mark, you will come, eh?'
'I suppose I must. I suppose, to prove the entire unselfishness of my friendship for a young scatterbrains, I must place myself as a sort of buffer between him and the ladies who are foolish enough to wish to wed him against his will. But I've got a new idea, Archie. I'll pay my addresses to Miss Thorne myself and see if I can't cut you out. You say she has money?'
'Yes, her father settled a tidy little fortune on Hester, but God forbid that you should think of spending your life with such a girl.'
'I wish she heard you—I think she would be disenchanted.'
Archie shook his head with a shadow on his usually bright face that nothing but my faithful promise for Monday served to lighten.
FOR a wonder nothing intervened, and on the appointed day I found myself and portmanteau in company with Archie Hopeton, being whirled along the line to Puntwater. The weather was delightful, and we had every prospect of splendid holidays for outdoor amusements.
But I was considerably more occupied by thinking curiously of Archie's relatives than of the fishing and shooting he promised me, and it was no wonder I had known him ever since he had commenced his career as a student of medicine, and considering the difference of our years, we had got on very well together. His fresh ideas of life, and his merry, good-humored freedom of conversation suited me, although what he had taken a fancy to in the hard-worked, cynical Detective Sinclair had often puzzled me.
I suppose it was the professional element ingrained in me that had made me so curious respecting these female relatives he so often spoke about. People with ample means, yet who lived so retired a life as to be almost strangers to their nearest neigbours—must have something peculiar about them; but there were many other things that I had become acquainted with through Archie that seemed at once odd and unaccountable to me.
One of them was the fact that Mrs Thorne had so set her heart on her daughter's marriage with Archie. It was rather an unusual thing for a mother of Mrs Thorne's stamp to insist on her girl marrying a penniless young doctor, entirely depending on her own help as to his present expenditure, and on his profession for his future support, but there were still more peculiar circumstances in the affair. From what Archie had himself told me, I had little doubt that Mrs Thorne absolutely disliked her nephew. If he had simply neglected to fall in with her views by ignoring his cousin Hester's charms and preference, it would have been bad enough, but the silly fellow had gone and fallen in love with some pretty child in the neighbourhood of his aunt's place, and when she came to find it out there would be the—ahem—to pay.
'I see you are getting quite nervous, Archie,' I said banteringly, as the train neared Puntwater.
'I am,' he said 'and you needn't laugh about it. It's all sure to be found out before we go back, for I can't and won't be appropriated any longer, now that I am really engaged to Bessie—poor little girl! If she only knew how wild aunt will be she would be terrified out of her life. You see, Mark, I've been accustomed to take things easy at home, and let them do with me as they liked, for peace sake, but now it must be different and there's sure to be scenes.
'What sort of man was your uncle? Do you remember him at all?'
'A little—he was peculiar, too, but kind withall. It is nine or ten years since he died, I think.'
'In this colony?'
'Yes, and rather suddenly. I was at school, but although aunt never speaks of him, Hester has done so occasionally. He was ill, and aunt took him to town for medical advice—he died there, and she came back a widow.'
There was no one in the compartment with us, and we could speak freely.
'See here, mate,' I said. 'I don't quite understand my role in this affair; what is it that you expect me to do in it? Am I to try and frighten your good aunt out of her anxiety for your alliance by declaring you to be incorrigibly dissipated, or what?'
'That game won't do,' he answered with a laugh that came from his teeth only. 'I've tried it myself, and it didn't effect any good purpose. I don't know what you're to do for me, Mark, but I've every confidence in you. You're such a clever chap, you see, that you'll corner them up somehow. At all events, I depend on you to back me if there's a regular row about Bessie.'
'And get kicked out? Well I suppose it wouldn't much matter if I did. We'll see, old boy—if I'm not grateful for the dose of flattery you've given me, I ought to be.'
IT was yet early in the day when we reached Puntwater, and our first move was to refresh and brighten ourselves up at the hotel before presenting ourselves to Mrs and Miss Thorne. They expected us, though they were not aware of the day we should arrive, so no fear of their being waiting lunch or any other meal prevented us from resting before we set out for Riverdale. For that was the name bestowed by its godfathers and godmothers on Mrs Thorne's property, and it was a pretty suitable one. It was about half a mile from the township, and situated so near the Loddon that the grounds sloped down to the river. The house itself was of brick and wood, and a prettily picturesque building, the old look of which was partly concealed by quantities of climbing plants and vines and a group of the original old monarchs of the bush in the shape of box and peppermint trees.
'It's the prettiest place I've seen for many a day,' I observed, as Archie paused and turned toward the river. 'You might do worse than please mamma, marry your cousin, and settle down to live a delightfully rural and domestic life.'
He did not answer, and seeing that he was intently gazing at a pretty little cottage that stood almost close to the Loddon on a lovely, sloping, green bank, I guessed at once.
'Oh, I see! That's the home of Bessie, the beloved, eh? And I suppose that is the sweet girl herself, sitting down there by the water, dressed in white?'
'Where?' he asked, eagerly.
'Here, just below us, with her back against a tree, and her eyes, not on the book she holds in her lap, but on the river. But no, it can't be; your fiancée is fair, and this girl is black as night. It must be Miss Thorne.'
'It is,' Archie answered shortly and turned to continue his way toward the cottage.
'I say, Archie, I don't think Miss Thorne has observed us. I have a fancy for making the acquaintance of that young lady in some unconventional manner. Just you go on and prepare aunt and get your blowing up, and I'll join you after.'
All right—please yourself, only mind, I didn't tell them you were a detective.'
'Ashamed of the D's acquaintance, eh? Well, perhaps it's all the better. Ta-ta.'
We had moved on a few steps, and when we parted, there were some trees between me and the young lady by the river; but when I made a circuit of them, I saw she still sat like an image of stone in the same spot.
I may well say like an image, for I never did see anything like the apparent immobility of that girl. I had an opportunity of studying her face before she observed me and before the sound of my foot attracted her. It was as calm as the river at her feet, and far more expressionless.
And it was a remarkable face for all that—one that would hold your eye as would a statue with a story in every line; it was pale as the face of a living, healthy subject could possibly be, and its pallor was apparent all the more from the strong contrast of hair—as black as night—and strongly marked, straight, black brows above black-lashed, deeply-set eyes of the hue of coal.
She was small and slight of figure and prettily dressed in black silk, and she was about twenty-three or four. Her attire was rather odd in some way—I recognised that fact at once, but I suppose in consequence of my lamentable ignorance of drapery and fashions, I could not decide where, or in what the oddity began. Her glossy hair was drawn back smoothly from her face and worn in a large coil high on the back of her head, and with the exception of a massive brooch fastening her collar, she had not a single ornament about.
I stood for a moment and examined the small and delicate, yet sharp features, and saw that the white hands crossed idly on her lap were small and thin, and that the black dress fitted her perfect figure with a precision almost wonderful. There did not seem to be a crease or a wrinkle anywhere, even in the careless attitude she held, leaning against the trunk of the old tree.
Gazing at the river, I have said, and gazing as if she was thoughtless. I mean that her face was so expressionless as to make me wonder if it could be possible for any girl of her age to sit there without thinking of anything, no more than if she were really the image I have compared her to.
'A strange girl this, and one worth studying; though she is not the sort one might get up a pleasant, silly flirtation with, and as for falling in love with her—phew?'
Something like that, I thought to myself as I advanced until she was attracted by the sound of my footstep. She lifted up the heavy eyelashes and turned upon me a pair of blazing, black eyes that almost electrified me as they met mine.
You see, I had been speculating so on the strange immobility of the still-looking face, that when the piercing orbs looked at me with that fiery intensity, the fact struck me as though a corpse had suddenly returned to life and turned a look full of terrible vitality on me, and I assure that I took no small credit to myself and my training for especial emergencies that I managed to retain my self-possession and not to expose my astonishment to the lady.
'Pardon me, I hope I have not startled you. If I have the honour of addressing Miss Thorne, may I introduce myself as Mr Sinclair—Archie's friend?'
I said this with the most agreeable grimace I could summon, and with uncovered head and a bow that would have been quite low enough for any queen; but she took as much notice of me as though I was a stick until I concluded, and then she simply repeated, coldly, 'Archie's friend,' just with her lips, and not the move of another facial muscle; but all at once a faint flush rose to her pale cheeks, and she rose up suddenly.
'Pray do not let me disturb you,' I cried, 'I shall go away at once rather than do so.'
'You do not disturb me. Of course, if Archie—if Mr Hopeton has arrived, I must return. Mamma will require assistance—perhaps you will accompany me?' she added, with a hesitation so evident that it was only too apparent how much rather she would have left me behind. But I have got past the age when we begin to consider our own convenience and pleasure in preference to the indulgence of an irritable vanity, so I bowed and marched on beside her.
I tried vainly to open a conversation as we went toward the house—my original remarks on the weather and the beauty of the view from Riverdale, and got a bow or a monosyllable for my pains. She looked to all appearance as cool as an iceberg, but that there was an internal excitement under the ice was quite visible to a keen observer. The flush deepened on her cheek as we neared the cottage, and I saw that the hand, drooped to her side as she walked, was clenched so tightly that the nails were buried in the palm.
At the door we were met by Archie in person; he had seen our approach, and glad of interruption to what had proved to be a disagreeable interview with his aunt, he hastened to get me into it with the usual selfishness of his sex.
He shook hands with his cousin, hurriedly, and I saw that in spite of the firm pressure of her lips against each other, they trembled spasmodically as he addressed a few commonplaces to the girl, and then he fussily led me into a parlour and as fussily introduced me to Mrs Thorne.
There was a strong resemblance between mother and daughter, although in the face or figure of the former there was an entire absence of the immobility distinguishing the younger woman. Mrs Thorne was small and thin, and had coal-black hair and eyes also, but her figure seemed never at rest; and her eyes darted about sharply as if continually watching and scanning every movement of those around her. She impressed me as being shrewish, in spite of the apparent kindness of her reception; and, after I had been in her company a short time, I had discovered, or fancied I discovered, that she was unchangeably under the influence of one predominate feeling, which was a dread of something in connection with her daughter. Even the distant prospect of a secret for me to ferret out was quite enough to interest me at once, and I set myself on the watch with intense gusto.
We had dinner, and immediately after Archie, who had been exhibiting signs of restlessness for the hour previous, excused himself for a couple of hours, having, as he declared, a particular matter to attend to at Puntwater for a friend. I saw the scowl that came into Mrs Thorne's face as he left the room, and the quick, apprehensive look she darted towards her daughter.
Hester, however, took no notice of her and made no remark; but, when Archie had gone, she got up and walked through the open window to the garden. It was a lovely evening, and there was sufficient excuse in the beauty of the time and weather to make Mrs Thorne's proposal of a walk an apparently sensible one.
'It would be a shame to keep you indoors, Mr Sinclair,' she said, moving towards the door. 'And rather than do so, I will get some slight wrap and accompany you. We shall, in all probability, find my daughter among the flowers.'
But she was not among the flowers. When we got outside the shrubs near the cottage, we could see the slight, black-robed figure sitting in the identical spot, and in the identical attitude I had first seen her. I observed Mrs. Thorne's face grow paler as she looked toward the river and saw the girl seated, steadily gazing at the water, with her hands in her lap and her back supported by the tree.
'That seems to be a favourite spot of Miss Thorne's,' I observed, as the mother's eyes fell upon her. 'I met her there as I came.'
'Yes, she is there a great deal, and I do all I can. She is not to be weaned from it. I should take it as a great favour, Mr Sinclair, if you could influence her not to sit so by the water.'
'I cannot flatter myself that Miss Thorne is likely to be influenced by anything I might say, madam, but I can at least try. What is your objection, may I ask?'
'I don't think the air of the river is healthy for Hester—she is far from strong—and I am sure that the monotonous sound of the running water makes her morbidly sad.'
'Perhaps it may be so. At all events it is very lonely for her. I suppose it will be different while Archie is here. Miss Thorne may perhaps allow her cousin to escort her about a little during his visit.'
At the name of her nephew, Mrs Thorne's brows met in a deep black line over her nose, and her lips grew stern. She was looking at the gravel of the walk over which we were passing, but she lifted her sharp, black eyes just then, and bored a hole right through me, in a keen attempt to see what I was made of ere she said:
'I want to speak to you about Archie, Mr Sinclair. Let us move toward the river—we can talk as we go.'
'With pleasure,' I returned, wondering all the time what kind of pumping I was going to get about Archie.
'You are my nephew's most intimate friend, Mr Sinclair?'
'Well, I scarcely know, Mrs Thorne. We are very intimate certainly, but there is a considerable difference in our ages, and, as a necessary consequence, a great difference in our modes of living.'
'I know—I know,' she said impatiently. 'I can understand all that—still you are friends?'
'I hope and believe so, madam.'
'And my nephew confides in you and tells you a good deal of his affairs, doubtless?'
'Ye-es,' I answered, with some hesitation, for, while I wanted to hear what she had to say, I was afraid of committing myself too far.
'Can you tell me, without any breach of confidence, if Archie is entangled in any love affair in town? I have particular— most particular reasons for wishing to know.'
'I can with certainty assure you that he has nothing of the kind on hand in town, Mrs Thorne,' I assured her.
Her face brightened wonderfully, and something like a sigh of relief escaped between her thin, sharp lips.
'I'm glad of that,' she declared. 'It is quite a relief to hear you say so. After all it is most unlikely that at his age he should be wound up in any engagement. He is only a boy.'
'Oh, as to that, madam, boys even younger than Archie have managed to find their hearts and pledge them before now, and I could not undertake to say that he has not already done so. Indeed, I believe he has.'
'Has what? Do you mean that my nephew is in love, or engaged, or some nonsense or other? I thought I understood you to assure me that he was quite free from any entanglement in town.'
'So you did. I said that he had no engagement or love affair in town to my certain knowledge, but I could not make the same statement, truthfully, about the country.'
'In the country? Where? Who? In the name of God tell me all about it?'
Wondering at the terrible fear in her tones, I turned slightly to look in her face. I think I have mentioned that Mrs Thorne was an older epitome of her daughter, small, slight, and pale in complexion, with eyes and hair like night. She wore a widow's cap, too, the long, white bands of which streamed over the shoulders of her black dress down to the slender, prim waist with its neat belt. This cap was worn primly and suited the style of the woman's features; but now, as I looked at her, the calm content of her face was gone and every feature was convulsed with a terrible fear.
'Quick! If you don't want to kill me, tell me with whom Archie Hopeton is in love.'
'I am not sufficiently in his confidence to inform you precisely, Mrs Thorne, but I believe it is some young lady in this neighbourhood. What more likely than that his heart is in his cousin's keeping?'
She looked at me sharply, as I insinuatingly completed my reply—perhaps she was shrewd enough to guess my insincerity. At all events she made no reply, and with a strong effort at controlling her feelings made some remark that shut off the subject.
BY this time we had reached the river bank, where the gravelled walk turned at an acute angle and wound along by the water. As we turned that corner, I looked up the river toward the point where stood embowered in greenery, the pretty home of Bessie Elliot, the young girl I knew was my friend Archie's beloved fiancée, and where I thought he most likely was at that instant. I saw nothing of him, however, and went on toward Miss Thorne, who still sat like an image, staring at the running water. The mother hastened her steps as she saw her, and in a few moments, we were standing beside her.
'Hester, dear, don't sit here so near the river,' Mrs Thorne said pleadingly. 'You know it cannot be good for you.'
'Can you tell me anything that would be good for me?' the girl asked sharply as she lifted her eyes to her mother's face with such a fierce glare in them that she cowered under it. 'You are always following me about bothering—I wish to goodness you'd let me alone.'
'My dear, Mr Sinclair is here, hoping for a stroll with you,' the woman said in a half terrified way that strangely puzzled me.
'What do I care for Mr Sinclair?' was the sharp retort, 'and what does he care for me? Please go away, and leave me in peace!'
'Are you not forgetting your cousin, Hester?' Mrs Thorne said faintly. 'He will be back soon and think it so strange to find you absent.'
Such a wild laugh darted from the girl's lips that I absolutely started, and her mother turned a frightened look towards me.
'No, I am not forgetting my cousin Archie, and he will not return as soon as you think. Are you going?'
The question was asked with a sudden lifting of her figure from its leaning position against the tree, and a clenching of the right hand that lay on her lap, and a fierce look from the black eyes that seemed to actually wither the miserable mother.
'Yes, yes, dear, we're going at once. How very fond of solitude my daughter is.'
I could not reply to this remarkable observation, for I was too completely astonished at the extraordinary conduct of Miss Thorne to make small talk for her mother. 'That's a pretty temper if you like!' I thought to myself, 'and how strange Archie never mentioned it to me. Why, her very mother is afraid of her life to cross the beauty.'
We returned toward the house, and at last Mrs Thorne broke the awkward silence.
'I need not apologise for my poor girl's strange manner, Mr Sinclair. Of course Archie has told you what a sufferer she was?'
'No, he has not mentioned anything particular.'
'No! Well, my poor child had a severe attack of nervous fever some years ago, and ever since she is liable to recurrences of nervousness which are absolutely painful. There are days when the sound of a voice is torture to her.'
'And perhaps she finds the sound of the rippling water soothing, dear madam. If such is the case, pray, permit her to enjoy it in peace. I should be sorry if my visit should in any way interfere with Miss Thorne's comfort, and Archie and I have formed any amount of plans about shooting and fishing while we are here.'
'Thank you, Mr Sinclair, but I trust Hester may be quite recovered tomorrow.'
SOME household affair called my hostess inside, and I was left to pace up and down one of the walks, smoking a cigar, while waiting for Archie. I had some curiosity to know when Miss Thorne would think proper to come up from the river, too, and kept a sharp look-out until the sun was down, and the full moon was rising. At last Archie put in an appearance when it was so dark that I could scarcely recognise him.
'You're a fine fellow!' I cried, 'to leave me here all alone in an enemy's camp. And if you don't get a good rowing from the ladies, you deserve one.'
'I couldn't help it,' he said in a whisper. 'I wrote to Bessie, telling her I would be at our old trysting place this evening, and I've been waiting for her ever since. Some visitors had detained her, and I had scarcely time to say half-a-dozen words to her.'
'No, I suppose you were too busy kissing. Did you see your cousin down by the river?'
'Hester? No, what would take me down there at this time of night?'
'At all events she's there. How was it you never told me what a delightful temper she had, my son?'
'Who? Hester? I never saw anything remarkably bad about it. She used to be a bit sulky, that's all.'
Then I related to him the episode of our interview, and he was full of astonishment. 'I never heard of such an exhibition on my cousin's part—surely she is greatly changed. I think I'll go down and look for her to keep the peace. I hope to goodness she has heard nothing about Bessie. Does aunt guess, do you think, Sinclair?'
'Not the facts, I think,' and then I told him of the pumping I had undergone from the elder lady.
'It'll have to come out somehow, and, heaven knows, I'd rather face anything. Mark, you'll promise to tell them for me when I can make up my mind, won't you?'
'You're an arrant coward, Mr Archibald. Oh, yes, I'll face the breach for you. It would be a sort of satisfaction to make that young lady a little return for her uncalled-for rudeness to Mr Sinclair. But you'd better go, if you want to make the peace for the present.'
He had scarcely gone when Mrs Thorne came out anxiously.
'Are you alone, Mr Sinclair? I had hoped the young people were with you. Where is Archie, do you know?'
'I think he is with Miss Thorne. Yes, there they are, coming up by the shrubbery,' and Mrs Thorne, evidently relieved, begged me to go into the house.
THE evening we spent in the little drawing-room at Riverdale was, to my mind, about the most wretchedly dull I ever passed. It was worse than dull, for it was full of restraint and discomfort. There was a piano in the room, and Mrs Thorne tried timidly to induce her daughter to sing and play for us. The reply she got was a look that silenced her and made the miserable woman's hands tremble as though she had the ague.
Hester Thorne sat back from the lamp in the corner of a lounge, her hand on her lap, with the slender white fingers interlocked. She had chosen the seat that she might have Archie in full view as he sat in an arm-chair before her and her mother, and I saw that he knew he was watched and felt miserable under the glare of the fierce black eyes that shone in the dim corner like those of a cat.
I did my best, and so did Mrs Thorne, to try and get up a general conversation, but to no purpose. Even to direct appeals Hester would return a cold, curt monosyllable, and poor Archie was too decidedly uncomfortable to assist me in small talk. At last I took pity on him, and drew his attention to the hour with a remark that we must not keep the ladies up too late, and I saw how gladly Mrs Thorne had in a little supper and then escorted us to our several chamber doors.
When I had shut myself in, I went to the French window and opened it, for the room seemed hot and close, and feeling the inutility of attempting sleep at an hour so unusually early for me, I blew out my lamp and sat down by the open window to enjoy a cigar and a good think at one and the same time.
These new acquaintances of mine were puzzling me. As Hester Thorne sat there in the lounge during the evening and looked at Archie with that stony glare in her awful eyes, an idea that I had seen those eyes somewhere before haunted me; they seemed quite familiar to me. Indeed, the darkly-outlined face was altogether like the memory of a well-impressed dream on me, but in vain. I tried to recall the circumstances under which the impression had been made.
Finding that impossible, my mind reverted to the strange way of exhibiting her preference which I had an opportunity of witnessing since my arrival.
'Archie, indeed, was quite correct in saying I had better wait to see the people before I recommended him to fall in with his aunt's views,' I thought to myself, 'for if his cousin is not the most ill-tempered and worst-bred girl I ever met, I'm no judge. What a jolly row there will be when she finds out about Archie being over head and ears in love with Bessie Elliot! By-the-bye, I must get him to introduce me before I go. I should like to become acquainted with Archie's idea of the beautiful.' But little, indeed, I thought in what an awful way I should become acquainted with Bessie Elliot.
I had got to the end of my cigar and stood up to fling the butt out of the window. As I did so, I heard a rush of feminine garments and the sound of a hurried, but light, foot on the grass outside. It was, as I have before stated, nearly full moon, but a number of white, fleecy clouds were sailing in the lovely, pale sky, which at that moment had met and partially hid the lady moon so that the light under the trees at the side of the house was but indistinct. The idea that the movement I had heard was caused by some fresh freak of Hester Thorne struck me, and deeply curious, I stepped out and moved more into the shadow of the trees.
Standing there a moment I heard voices at some distance down toward the Loddon, and allowing my curiosity to overcome what small sense of decency I may have possessed, I ran down behind the fringe of shrubs that separated the gravel from the large centre grass plot. As I approached the speakers, I at once recognised the voices of mother and daughter. In a few seconds more there was between them and me only a thinly-leaved bush, and I could distinctly see the two forms—one a picture of almost demoniac anger, the other of an humble and pleading yet most terrified petitioner.
'Do you hear? I will not be followed and haunted day and night. You are driving me mad Don't I tell you that it is only by the side of that water that I feel at rest, and yet you will try to keep me away from it! Go home, woman! If you are one of those who can sleep in bed when those they love are dead, go and sleep in yours. And yet you say you loved my father!'
The scorn of the latter words was unendurable, and the poor mother seemed barely able to gasp -
'Oh, Hester!' the angry girl mimicked. 'Oh! Hester, why aren't you a stone? Oh! Hester, what makes you feel? When you see the man you love, and who has loved you, drifting away from you for ever, why don't you go to bed and sleep? Don't deny it! He did love me! He has been mine only from boyhood. Hasn't he lived with me under one roof, and sat with me in one school and one church, and prayed to God with me from one book, until the pretty face of a girl baby bewitched him?' And with a dark face, eyes full of fire, and a gesture full of fury, she hurried riverward once more.
'Oh! what am I to do?' Mrs Thorne gasped, as she clasped her hands and wrung them despairingly; and then, as the form of her daughter was rapidly disappearing, she turned and went quickly back to the house.
ON witnessing this bewildering scene I was puzzled. This was love with a vengeance. What a fortunate chap my friend, Archie, was to inspire the girls with so desperate a passion! But then, you know, we don't respect girls that throw their hearts at fellows' heads that way, and I am afraid that the sneer on my lips would not have gratified Miss Thorne if she could have seen me listening to her confession of love for a young man who cared less for her than he did for his cricket bat.
But when she turned to face her terrified mother with eyes that gleamed like a cat's in the moonlight, and raised her right hand and her voice in furious exclamation, a memory of one other face shot into my mind and almost suspended my breath.
'Good heavens!' I thought to myself. 'Can it be possible that that is the likeness I fancied I recognised? If it is I can quite understand that unfortunate woman's terror, and her as unfortunate daughter's violent temper. I must question Archie tomorrow.
In the meantime, however, it should not do to let that girl go away down to that river all alone. In her violent mood it would not be safe, and her mother was afraid to follow her—I could see that, so I hurried down by the side of the grounds, avoiding the moonlight as much as I could and seeking the shelter of the trees and shrubs.
It was by this time almost as bright as day, and when I reached the bank of the Loddon, lower down than the spot at which I had seen her in the afternoon, I paused and looked toward it. She was not seated by the tree, but she was standing by the river, her face gleaming white in the moonlight, and her gaze fixed apparently on some object up the stream.
All at once I remembered her words to her mother—words to which I had, at the time they were spoken, paid little heed. She had alluded to Archie being bewitched by a baby girl's face. Was it possible that she had, in some cunning way, discovered the secret he had been so anxious to preserve and knew of his affection for Bessie Elliot? If that was the case, truly was 'all the fat in the fire.'
And it seemed probable, as I watched her, dreading to tell you the truth, that she contemplated suicide. I noticed that Bessie's home was visible from where she stood, its white wooden roof gleaming brightly just above the foliage at the bend of the stream higher up.
She stood there so immovably for some time that I got tired of watching her, and just as I was thinking of boldly walking down to her and pretending I had been tempted to a stroll by the beauty of the night, she lifted the hand that had been drooping by her side and took her watch from her side.
I saw it gleam in the brilliant beams of the moon and knew that she was consulting it to see the time, for she lifted her eyes from its face to look up at the moon, as if to see how high it was. Then she turned one more steady look up the river before she moved away and went quickly, as one with a purpose, up the gravel walk toward her home.
I felt relieved, and was about following her when I heard a rustle behind me, and looking in the direction of the noise, I saw Archie hurriedly coming toward the river. He was greatly surprised on meeting me and hastily asked what had brought me there.
'I thought you in bed an hour ago,' he said. 'Have you seen anything of Hester? There's the deuce to pay with the old lady and her it seems, and I'm in for it nicely.'
'Make your mind easy about your cousin; she's at home by this time,' I returned. 'But what is the what-do-you-call-'em to pay about?'
'Aunt came to my room a few minutes ago like a woman half cranky with terror. She told me that Hester had gone down to the river in spite of her, and that Hester was in such a state of mind that she was afraid she'd make away with herself. Then she begged and prayed of me to get up and go after her, declaring that the girl's very existence was in my hands.'
'Hum!' grunted I.
'I tell you what it is, Mark. It is the deuce of a bore—'
'Will you say what-do-you-call-it of a bore?' I interrupted coolly.
'Bosh! It is the deuce of a bore to have a girl threatening to drown herself or kill somebody if a fellow doesn't make love to her.'
'Oh! that's it, is it?'
'About it, I believe. Aunt almost told me plainly that Hester was breaking her heart at what she was pleased to call my desertion. Sinclair, you know more about women then I do. Is it customary for mothers to stand in bodily fear of their daughters and to be afraid to cross them in any way?'
'Rather a difficult question, my boy, and one I should prefer not answering, but I may observe that, as a general thing, we could do in the world with a few more obedient and respectful daughters. But I want to ask you a question. Are you quite sure that your Uncle Thorne is dead?'
'Am I sure? What a strange question! Of course I'm sure. What should aunt pretend he was dead for if he was not?'
'Another puzzling question, but do you know anyone who saw him dead? Or who saw him even ill?'
'No! Bah! Sinclair, what a fellow you are! You can't help fancying a secret in the most natural event. What makes you suppose the possibility of Uncle Thorne's being alive?'
'Because I believe I saw him in Melbourne not a month ago!'
'Gracious! But how could you know him?'
'You have told me a dozen times of your cousin's extraordinary likeness to her father, and when I saw her tonight under a strong excitement, her face brought before me another face—a man's face—with the same terrible expression on the same mould of feature.'
The young chap saw, or imagined he saw in my face, or heard in the tones of my voice, a hint that there was something very serious connected with the man I alluded to. He looked at me anxiously for a moment, and then he asked -
'Do you know of anything wrong, Mark?'
'On honour—no, Archie.'
'Was the man you think was my Uncle Thorne in gaol or a criminal of any sort?'
'On honour—no again.'
'Oh, then it's all right—it's all fancy on your part. Uncle must be dead, you know. But, for any sake, tell me what I'm to do about Hester? Can't you give me advice of some kind?'
'I can give you a great many kinds I don't doubt. I can give you good, bad, and indifferent—welcome and unwelcome—possible and impossible—but first it will be necessary for you to tell me what strait you are in.'
'You know well enough! Aunt says that Hester has believed that I loved her ever since we were at school together, and that her very life hung on me. She made me shake in my boots with the responsibility she heaped on my head, and I cried like a big baby when she got down on her knees to me and begged me to save Hester.'
'And did you tell her about Bessie?'
'No! I daren't.'
'You're a coward as well as a big baby,' I said, 'and an ass to boot. Why couldn't you tell the woman at once that you loved another and she was your promised wife? I've no patience with you; go home and go to bed!'
We were moving toward the house, and had almost reached it, when I spoke the words I have last written, and to which poor Archie made no reply for some minutes. At last he asked -
'You do not think that I am in any honourable way bound to Hester, then?'
'Certainly not, if you have told me the truth. You have never made love to her you tell me?'
'Not unless you call acting like a brother to her is making love. I have escorted her to church, and concerts, and parties, and called her 'cousin,' and dear Hester, and so forth, but as to pretending to love her as I love dear Bessie, no!'
'Go in to bed.'
'Wait, Mark, what would I say or think if she did put herself in the river, or kill her mother, or do some other awful thing that Aunt fears?'
'You would both say and think something—what-do-you-call-it?—silly I have no doubt, but I'll tell you what I'd say and think. At all events, I'd think that if a girl fancies she can't live without a man that doesn't care one rap for her, she'd be a precious sight better out of the world than in it. Go to bed—I'll talk to you tomorrow.'
'And,' thought I to myself, 'I'll talk to Mrs Thorne tomorrow—like a father.'
I HAD left my window open, of course, and just before I shut it I turned to have one more look at the river and the splendid moonlit heavens. The queen of night was so bright by that time that she cast but few shadows, save close under tree and shrub, and the Loddon glittered like silver. It must have been nearly midnight, and there was the silence of rest on every object in my view. Just as my hand was on the sash to shut it to, I saw a moving object on the gleaming river just under the garden, and I looked at it until I convinced myself that it was neither more or less than a boat. 'They are fishing,' thinks I, 'and I wish I was with them,' but as I so thought, the little boat disappeared in the shadow of the bend where stood the cottage of Bessie Elliot.
I went to bed and I slept. I was not in love with Bessie Elliot or with Hester Thorne, and was accustomed to making a proper use of my bed when I got a chance to get into it; so it was long after sunrise when I turned out, dressed myself, and opened my window to get into the precious morning air.
Mrs Thorne must have heard me, for as I emerged on the verandah, she came out of the front door and joined me. She looked careworn and haggard to a degree, and nay, she looked absolutely frightened, as I hoped that Miss Thorne was quite well—I suppose she dreaded my having found out about Hester's wild disobedience the night before.
'My daughter is not very well this morning, I am sorry to say. She spent a very restless night she tells me. Will you come to breakfast, Mr. Sinclair? I presume that Archie will join us before we have finished.'
'Is he so lazy this morning, Mrs Thorne? We had all sorts of plans laid about a fishing excursion this morning.'
'Oh, he has been out these two hours, the servant tells me,' she answered as we sat down to table.
'How strange that he did not call me!' I said, but then I remembered Bessie, and that in all probability he had some appointment with her, so I went on with my breakfast without further remark on that subject.
We had scarcely been seated ten minutes, however, when Archie came in. I was sitting opposite the door and at the first look of his face I saw there was something wrong. He was white to the lips and his hand trembled like leaves. His first look was to me and he opened his mouth, but shut it without speaking when he turned to his aunt and met her look of terrified inquiry.
'Will you come to the verandah with me Mark? I want you.'
'Something is wrong,' the mother cried, rising to her feet and gasping out the words tremulously. 'And it is something about my child? What is it? Tell me! I command you to tell me, nephew Archie!'
'Compose yourself, Aunt. I assure you that my business is not at all connected with my cousin. As far as I know she is all right—I have neither seen nor heard of her this morning.'
I followed him out wonderingly.
'In the name of goodness what has gone wrong?' I asked. 'Something very serious I am afraid—what has happened?'
'Oh! Sinclair, I want to tell you that you must come with me at once to Elliot's, for it's my firm belief that Bessie has been murdered!'
I confess to you that I paid very little attention to the boy's information, for I saw what a state of agitation he was in. Thinks I to myself, 'Thank goodness, I never knew what it was to be in love in this bread-and-butter fashion, if this is the fruits of it.' But what I said was:
'Will you tell me what has put such nonsense into your head this bright and pleasant summer morning, Archie Hopeton?'
'I wish it was nonsense. For any sake don't lose any time—get your hat and come with me at once. Bessie has disappeared and her mother is like a mad woman. Will you come at once?'
Certainly I would, but not the less I thought to myself as we hurried toward the path by the river, that girls had disappeared before now without being murdered. Still I knew quite well that deeds of blood had been done—who better? And I made what inquiries I could as we walked.
What I could gather from Archie's despairing words was that Bessie and he had met on the previous night, not clandestinely, but with the mother's knowledge and permission and that after they had strolled about the garden and grounds for an hour or so, they parted with a promise to see each other early in the morning. Bessie had bidden her mother the usual good night and retired to her own little room and had never been seen since.
'When the servant and the mother were early astir this morning, they thought nothing of Bessie not being out of her room, supposing her with me; but when I, not meeting her by the river where I had promised to take her for a row in our boat, went up to the cottage and inquired for her, Mrs Elliot became quite alarmed and went to my poor darling's room.'
'She was not there—the bed was cold, the window open, and the room marked with blood in several places.'
'And that is all?'
'All! My God, isn't it enough! My poor darling has been murdered and, perhaps, worse! Oh, I shall go mad, Mark Sinclair! I shall go mad!'
'Well, I shouldn't at all wonder,' I replied drily. 'A good many folks have a habit that way if there is anything to be done. Wouldn't it, perhaps, be better to keep your senses about you until you see how you may help or serve the interests of the girl you think has been wronged?'
A groan was my poor Archie's only reply, and as we just then reached the cottage, no more passed between us. The servant showed us into a pretty little parlour, where Mrs Elliot sat weeping bitterly, and such a picture of despairing grief that I began to think there must be something more suspicious and decided about the girl's disappearance than Archie had informed me of.
When my young friend had introduced me to the poor woman, he discreetly withdrew and left me to enter upon the business professionally. One look discovered to me both the appearance and character of Bessie's mother. She was a small, pretty, colourless, little body, with a round, innocent looking face and an appealing look in her faded blue eyes. She took possession, as it were, of me as soon as I entered the room, and hung upon me all the trouble, as she had, doubtless, been in the habit of hanging troubles all of her life, like a weak, pretty parasite, helpless without its life-sustaining tree. She seemed to think that because I was a police-officer, I could do the impossible in the way of discovery, and offered me 'everything she owned in the world' if I would only find her 'poor Bessie' for her.
'Archie says she is murdered, but I won't believe it!' she sobbed. 'Who could have the heart to murder my darling girl? The best and the sweetest girl, Mr. Sinclair, that ever gladdened a mother's heart. For God's sake, don't look so awfully serious! Don't think it possible that Archie is right unless you want to see me die here under your very eyes!'
Women (especially young ones) are very pretty and very useful things sometimes, but they are also occasionally very silly and try a practical man's temper immensely.
'You don't think Bessie is killed? Surely you don't think anyone—anyone could be so wicked as to do my darling wrong?'
'My, dear madam, how can I possibly form any opinion on the subject without knowing anything of the facts? Will you first tell me what occurred last night and then let me see Miss Elliot's room?'
In a rambling sort of way she then told me pretty nearly the same story I had heard from Archie, but she was so incoherent that I called in Archie, and resigned her to his care, begging of him to take her in charge and see that she didn't bother me while I made an examination and questioned the servant.
Having secured time to see and think uninterruptedly, I found my way to the little kitchen at the back, where, in a bewildered sort of way, I found the only female servant looking from the door idly yet with something of a fearful anxiety in her eyes. She was not a very young woman—perhaps thirty, and she was neither well-favoured or pleasant-looking. As I passed through the back door of the house toward that of the detached kitchen she looked at me half-wonderingly and half-frightened, as I thought, and opened her eyes and pursed her lips as I addressed her.
'I want you to lead me to Miss Elliot's bedroom, please, and to tell me what you know of her disappearance.'
'What should I know of her disappearance?' she asked sharply, and as she spoke with an impudent intonation, it seemed to me that her face was in some way familiar to me.
'And who may you be that wants to get to see her room?'
'You couldn't guess, I suppose, miss?'
Her face flushed just slightly as she met my steady eye. 'Yes, I think I could guess what you are, a policeman, I daresay. The mistress is making such a tune and cry, as if a young lady (with a sneering emphasis on the term) never left her mother's house without leave before.'
'When you were a young lady they doubtless did and didn't go empty-handed. How's your mother, Ann Dempsey?'
An ashy shade covered up, or rather replaced, the flush on her face, and it was delightful to me to see the terror in her face.
'You are mistaken, sir. That is not my name,' she managed to stammer.
'I am not in the habit of making mistakes, and I took quite an interest in your handsome countenance the last time I had the pleasure of looking at it.'
'Where was that?'
'In the corridor at the City Police Court.'
'It's a black lie! I never was there in my life!'
'That'll do, Miss Dempsey,' I said with a raised, warning finger. 'I have no wish to interfere with you at present, so you'd better be civil. When I really want you I shall know how to lay my hand on you. No more talk, but show me the young lady's apartment.
She went sulkily into the cottage, and I followed her. There was a little room at the end of the front verandah with a door window opening to the garden, and another door communicating with the little central passage. This had been poor Bessie Elliot's room. Telling the woman to remain in the apartment while I examined it—a thing she seemed to do very unwillingly, by the way,—I looked around me.
The room was just such a pretty little chamber as you might expect a pretty and lovable girl of the middle class, and especially a pretty girl in love, to occupy. It was small and plainly furnished with plenty of ornamental bits of muslin and lace and ribbon about it. There were mosquito curtains to the tent bedstead, tied up with blue ribbons, and matting on the floor, and a large mirror decorated with lace on the lace-robed toilet. Many articles of feminine apparel lay about, but not untidily, and to my astonishment, the bed had not been disturbed, nor were there any articles of attire lying round that seemed to have been moved on the previous night.
'Miss Elliot has not been to bed at all, then? Is this room just as she left it?'
'Yes, at least I know of no one's disturbing it.'
'Oh, of course not— you are not likely to know much. Do you by any chance know who the man was who was hanging about this house late last night?'
Now I didn't at all know that there had been a man about, but I knew the woman, and thought the guess a very safe one. That it was so could easily be seen from her face under my steady eye. She turned, as the saying is, all colours, but denied all knowledge of that or anything else at first.
'Look here, my dear creature, you'd better tell the truth to me at least—you will find it pay you best. If you've been up to any of your old little games among Mrs. Elliot's rings or brooches I'm sure to hear of it in the long run, and if you know anything about this affair, it will be in your favour to spit it out.'
'What affair? Do you mean if I know anything about Miss Elliot running away?'
'Running away, eh? Have you any reason to know that she ran away, as you call it?'
'I think you'd better ask Mr Archie Hopeton that question. It's my opinion he knows all about Bessie, where she went—ay, and where she is.'
I confess to being confounded with surprise. A policeman sees many queer things, but I thought I could have pinned my faith on my friend Archie's truth and honesty of purpose concerning Bessie Elliot.
'Do you know who I am? I asked as calmly as I could.
'No, and I don't much care.'
'Oh, yes you do. I am Detective Sinclair and you've heard of me. Now will you tell me who the man was that was hanging about this at a late hour last night?'
'Who saw him?' was the return question put very sullenly.
'That's none of your business. Who was it?'
'Well, it was Jack Sprague, and I don't know what it is to anyone if I have a young man I'm keeping company with.'
'I won't ask you if Mrs Elliot allows followers, for I don't care. What I want to know is where Jack Sprague hangs out. I want to see him. I have some idea that he can give me some information about this case. Now for two plain questions. Where can I lay eyes on the young gentleman? And what did you mean by saying that Mr Hopeton knew all about Miss Elliot's running away?'
She paused for a moment, in doubt as to her safest course, and then she brazened it out.
'Jack Sprague is stopping in Puntwater at the Commercial. I don't care who knows it, and he don't either. He came down to see me, and he was waiting about last night to see me.'
'One question answered, now for the other, Miss Dempsey. What makes you pretend to suspect Mr Hopeton?'
'Pretend, indeed! I don't pretend anything. Jack was waiting for me last night, and as there was company, I couldn't get out. When I did see him, they had all gone to bed and it was very late.'
'About what time?'
'Eleven or thereabouts.'
'Jack told me that, about an hour before, a woman in a boat had rowed up to the bank, and seeing him before he could get out of the way, had called him. She asked him if he would take a note from Mr Archie Hopeton to Miss Bessie, and she would give him half-a-crown. As he wanted to get an excuse to see me, he consented, and as it happened, Miss Bessie was standing at that door on the verandah when he came up to the house.'
'He gave her the note?'
'Yes, and it was from Mr Hopeton. You can put two and two together as well as I can, Mr Detective.'
'I can, perhaps better. And now, oblige me by leaving,' and I opened the door for her to pass out. She did so, giving me a look as she passed, black enough to poison me if looks could do it.
I had listened to the woman's story, but without believing one particle of it, save that Jack Sprague had been there on the night before. I knew that man of aliases, and that a bigger rascal never went unhung, and although I never would have thought of murder in connection with him unless there was money to be made by it, I had no doubt but that Ann Dempsey and he were both at the bottom of Bessie Elliot's disappearance. In the meantime, while thinking this, I was looking around the room to see if by any chance there might be any signs of that note Ann Dempsey was so positive about.
But I saw nothing of it, and left the room as wise as I had entered it, so far as traces of crime were concerned. After I had thoroughly satisfied myself I went out and locked the door behind me.
I managed to slip out without Mrs. Elliot observing me—for I did not want to be overwhelmed with the poor woman's questions when I could give no satisfactory reply to them. Archie, however, saw or heard me and hurried out to join me.
'Well?' was his anxious question, and looking in the young fellow's face, seeing its haggard anxiety and trembling lips, it was utterly impossible to suspect him of foul dealing—his grief and fear were too real. 'Have you discovered anything?'
'No, but I want to ask you a question. Did you send Bessie a note by anyone last night?'
'A note! No, certainly not. What makes you ask such a question!'
'Never mind just now. Answer me another. In what boat did you intend to take Miss Elliot for a row today?'
'In our own, to be sure—that is, in aunt's. Didn't you observe it moored at the bottom of the garden?'
'No. Did you bring it up this morning then?'
'I did not. We did not intend to go until after breakfast. I only came to see what time she would be ready. In the name of mercy, Sinclair, tell me what you think of it—has anything serious happened to my darling?'
'I don't know what to think yet, Archie, and look here, if you want me to find out, don't bother me. Just devote yourself to that poor mother, and believe me, I will do all I can; but don't ask me anything about it until I have something to tell.'
He turned away with a grieved look, and after making some inquiries about the neighbourhood, I went away quickly, turning my face toward the township.
ARCHIE'S explanation about the boat had given my ideas a strange and new turn. After all, I might have come to too hasty a conclusion in thinking that Jack Sprague and the woman, who was neither more nor less than his accomplice, had some knowledge of the girl's abduction. The way I had to go was but short, yet it seemed interminable to me, so anxious was I to reach my object.
My first entry was to the telegraph office, by means of which I despatched a telegram to our department. As I came out I saw at the hotel side door, next to the office, a face and figure I knew, though the man was dressed in a role I had never before seen him acting—viz., that of a labouring man. I diverged from the footway and confronted him.
'Do you know your old friends when you meet them, mate?' I asked.
'I know you, at all events,' he answered with an independent air that was sufficient, or at least, almost sufficient in itself to assure me that he was not engaged in any unlawful 'lay' at the time. 'As to friendship, the less said about that between you and me the better.'
'I believe you are right so far,' I returned dryly. 'What may be your business at Puntwater?'
'None of yours at any rate.'
'It's not the first time you've been mistaken, Mr Sprague, alias etc, etc., etc. I want some information about your movements about ten o'clock last night.'
'You won't get it, D Sinclair.'
'Oh, yes, I will. I have seen Miss Dempsey at Mrs Elliot's this morning, and she referred me to you and told me you were putting up at the Commercial.'
He looked at me dubiously.
'What did she refer you to me for?'
'For the information I want.'
'What information do you want?'
'About someone giving you something to deliver at Elliot's last night.'
'Oh, is that all! You're quite welcome to that.'
'Tell me all about it then.'
'Well, there ain't much to tell. I went hanging about under the trees at the bottom of Elliot's garden on the river bank when a boat shot up, and before I could get out of the way someone called me.'
'A man or a woman?'
'What sort of woman and what sort of boat?'
'A youngish woman, I should say, from her voice, but you know the time it was, and although it was moonlight it was very dim under the trees. As for the boat, it was a pretty light affair, and it was wonderful to see how well the woman managed the sculls.'
'Well, go on.'
'She called me and asked me if I would give Miss Bessie Elliot a note from Mr Archie Hopeton, with the offer of half-a-crown for the job, and I said yes; so she gave me the note and the money without leaving the boat. After telling me not to fail as it was urgent, she pulled down past the bend.
'And you delivered it?'
'I went up the garden boldly, as I had now some business to be on the premises, and just as I got near the house, Miss Elliot came out on the verandah and stood leaning over the rails looking up at the moon. I went up and handed her the note.'
'Did she say anything?'
'Only "thank you," and went inside, shutting the window after her, and I went round the back to pitch some gravel at the kitchen-window to get Ann out. Now, might a chap ask what all this is about?' he added, seeing I was disposed to be silent.
'Miss Elliot has disappeared from her home, and if it is true about that note being delivered to her, it was, in all probability, the cause of her leaving home. She must have left last night, as her bed was never disturbed.'
'Wasn't Mr Archie Hopeton her sweetheart?'
'They were engaged.'
He laughed coarsely. 'Then I think it is no mystery where she has gone.'
'See here, Mr—ah—Sprague. Mr Hopeton sent no communication to Miss Elliot last night, so there must be some deception. At first I thought you and Dempsey had something to do with it, but I don't now. If you can throw any light on this, do it—it will be something in your favour. Would you know that woman in the boat again?'
'I don't think it—I never saw her face—but something has just come into my head. I didn't leave Elliot's garden until near twelve o'clock, and as I was getting through the hedge lower down the river I saw a boat again, passing up under the shadow of the trees. I was in a hurry to get away, thinking the hotel would be shut, but something struck me that the same woman was in the boat as it passed me, only I thought it must be nonsense at that hour of the night. The boat passed so close to the bushes, that the cloak, or whatever was round the person sculling, caught, so that it tore and left a piece stuck right under my nose as I stooped to crawl through, and I dragged it off and put it in my pocket, for I saw it was cloth that might do for a patch. Here it is.'
He handed me a piece of blue waterproof cloth about seven inches by four, and when I had examined it and put it in my pocket, I said 'So long' to my friend Sprague, and returned to get my telegraphic reply from town, which I knew would have reached the office by that time. It had, and its results you will read presently.
AN hour after my short interview I was at Riverdale, awaiting in the parlour the arrival of Mrs Thorne, to whom I had sent a message by the servant. She came, shortly, looking, ah!, so white and frightened, and well I guess the awful cause.
'You wished to see me, Mr Sinclair. I am sorry I had to keep you waiting, but my poor child is very ill this morning—indeed, I am very uneasy regarding her.'
'I cannot wonder at that, dear madam,' I returned very seriously.
'What? I hardly understood you, sir,' she stammered. 'Why should you not wonder? Ah, perhaps you are aware of her imprudence in exposing herself to the night air last evening? My poor Hester is very headstrong.'
'Mrs Thorne, my wish to see you concerned Miss Thorne. A terrible duty has fallen to my lot, but I am Archie's friend, and if I am to befriend you for his sake, there must be neither concealment or deception between you and I.'
She stared at me with such dreadful, growing, and wild terror in her eyes, that I was nearly unmanned for the duty before me. At last she managed to articulate feebly and with trembling white lips:
'What dreadful thing has happened? For mercy's sake, tell me at once! It cannot be of her, she is safe at home! Oh, tell me!'
'It is of Miss Thorne. Prepare yourself, dear Mrs Thorne, for sad tidings. If I tell you who and what I am, will it help you to understand? I am a member of the Melbourne Detective Police Force.'
'And you know? You have found out?' Oh, the horror, the despair, the fear pictured in that poor, pale face!
'I know all. I know that you are not a widow, that Hester's father is not dead—that he is mad. Not very long ago, duty called me into one of the violent cells at the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, and in one of his worst paroxysms I saw John Thorne, without once suspecting his relationship to my friend Archie. As soon, however, as I saw your daughter, I recognised the strong likeness and suspected.'
'Suspected what?' The wretched mother could hardly speak. I pitied her from my very heart, knowing what I did know.
'My dear Mrs Thorne, I can say nothing to comfort you. I can only try to soften my bitter intelligence.'
'Don't soften it!' she interrupted hurriedly. 'If you don't want to see me die here under your eyes, tell me at once! Quick!'
'Knowing how your unhappy husband's lunacy first evinced itself, I suspected as soon as I saw Miss Thorne's stranged and determined gaze at the running water. I trembled for her even then.'
'But now! Don't wait! Tell me the worst. I have trembled for bitter years, and dared not cross her slightest humour, lest one of those fearful outbreaks should culminate in the worst. Tell me all! Tell me all!'
Wringing her hands and writhing as one in terrible bodily agony, she thus went on as I paused—wishing, hard as I was, that the task had not fallen to my lot.
'You know how your poor husband's madness culminated? I need not remind you of that?'
She gasped but could not speak.
'He grew insanely jealous of you, his wife, and one night stole upon you in your sleep and tried to murder you. You remember all this?'
'It is not—my God, it is not that!' she cried, starting up and stretching her hands above her wildly. 'If you hope for mercy, do not say it is that!'
'I fear it is. Ah! dear madam, what can I say! Bessie Elliot is missing. Miss Thorne is known to have inveigled her from her home by a pretended note from Archie. What has become of that poor girl we must ask your unfortunate daughter.'
'Are you alluding to me?' asked a sharp voice at the open, long window, and as the mother's shriek rang in my ears, I saw Hester Thorne standing on the verandah. To say it as gently as possible, there was something actually devilish in the girl's face as her fierce, black eyes blazed at me, and for a moment I was really and truly afraid; but remembering my strength, and my always ready handcuffs, I recovered my self-possession, and seeing that poor Mrs Thorne had mercifully fainted in her chair, I rose and went out the window, steadily meeting the maniac's eyes as I did so.
'I ask again if you were alluding to me? Am I the person you designated as your unfortunate daughter?'
'You are,' I replied, firmly.
'And in doing so you are only exposing your own ignorance; but I have previously had occasion to remark the contemptible ignorance and folly of men—especially young men. So far from being unfortunate, I am one of the most fortunate girls in the whole world! Where is Archie?'
'There,' I said, pointing down towards the Loddon. 'I see him coming along the bank. Shall we join him?'
'Certainly. I should like to go and meet him, and I cannot very well go alone.'
'Will you tell me why you consider yourself so fortunate?' I asked as we walked down the garden path—she with her eyes fixed on the man she had loved to distraction, and a strange jubilant expression in her pale face.
'If you found in your way an insuperable obstacle to your happiness, and if that obstacle were suddenly (ay, and effectually) removed should not you consider yourself fortunate and happy?' she cried, turning her wild, gleaming eyes full upon me.
'You are happy, then?'
'Beyond all words! Hurry, I want to meet Archie.'
We were now close on the river, and would have met my poor friend before, only that he had paused to look back at Bessie's home, as it appeared to me, thinking, doubtless, of the lost girl he so dearly loved. As our footsteps sounded near him he turned round suddenly, and as he saw his cousin, so great a change came over him that I gazed at him in fear as well as wonder.
He advanced to Hester Thorne with a face as white as her own, and set teeth gleaming between pallid, dry lips. I saw he was suffering greatly, and wondered how far I could depend on his assistance in case of an outburst, which I dreaded.
'Hester!' he cried. 'What have you done with my darling? You need not deny it I know it was you! Jealous of my love for my sweet, innocent Bessie, you have decoyed her from her home, and if evil has happened her, so help me heaven, but you shall suffer for it!'
'Hush!' I whispered, for I saw the awful change in the listening woman's countenance—the flush that mounted, blood-red to her forehead—the fierce clutching of her long, thin fingers, and the quick gasps of the hot, hard breath between her white, clenched teeth.
'I will not hush! Why should I? If I were to hold my tongue the stones would cry out! Hester Thorne, what have you done with my darling? Where is my Bessie—my own darling love—my life? For she is all that; give me my love, I say, or you shall suffer for it!'
The poor fellow seemed nearly mad himself, while she grew strangely and unaccountably calm with every added word of his violent accusation.
'You love her very much, then?' she asked, in a tone of ice.
'More than my life—more than my soul. If anything should happen to my Bessie I should die! Do you hear? I should die!'
'Yes—I hear. To listen to your ravings, a fool might fancy that love was the strongest passion of the human heart, but there's a stronger.'
'There is not! Nothing could be stronger than my love for Bessie!'
'You are mistaken. My hate was stronger. Come, and I will prove it to you.'
Archie staggered back—an inkling of the fearful truth was beginning to creep dimly on him; there was something awful in the hard, cold gaze she now turned on him—a something indescribably suggestive of evil in the very tones so her voice.
'Follow her!' I whispered. 'Humour her! Good heavens, Archie, don't you see she is mad—quite mad, like her unfortunate father?'
He looked at me, and guessed it all! Like a blind man, he silently followed Hester Thorne, as she moved quietly, and with a firm step toward her favourite seat at the foot of the tree. She passed it and went toward the river bank where the sweeping branches dipped low in the water, and the ripples ran murmuring through green, glossy leaves. With one swift hand she drew back a heavy branch, and then stepping aside, turned her face toward us, with a bitter smile on the pale lips, as her outstretched right hand pointed toward the river at her feet.
Archie would have bounded forward, but almost by main force I held him back until I passed before him and looked first through the leaves down toward the sweet murmuring water. Never shall I forget the sight! Under the young branches which the young girl had drawn back lay the boat which I guessed at once was the one belonging to Riverview, and in the bottom of the boat lay a white form, stark dead. Ah! that was my introduction to hapless Bessie Elliot!
In spite of my exertions, Archie had managed to get a look at the pitiful object, and his shout of wild horror was a sound to be remembered. It was, however, outvoiced by the triumphant laughter of Hester Thorne.
'Which is strongest—love or hate?' she cried with a fierce laugh of derision.
'Hate!' he shouted. 'I hate you more than I could ever love even my murdered darling! Murderess! Fiend! All evil in the shape of disgraced womanhood—are there words vile enough to couple with your name! But, thank God, you will, at least, share a cell with your mad father!'
'Mad?' she repeated in awful tones of horror. 'What is he saying about being mad? My God, is it true? Am I mad?' And as she screamed out the words she lifted her hands to her head and fell back on the grass in a strong fit.
POOR Bessie Elliot! Enticed to the boat by the madwoman's forgery, declaring her lover seized with a sudden illness, she had been stabbed in the back by a sharp carving-knife that the lunatic had abstracted from her own home. Her pretty muslin dress was covered with gore, and her bright hair torn in handfuls from her head by the vindictive maniac. The scene, when Archie lifted the body from the boat, and wept and raved over the senseless remains, was dreadful; but he outlived it, and time has so softened the memory of his loss that he is now a prosperous and contented parent of a young family.
Hester Thorne is dead. She was one of the most violent patients ever incarcerated in the Yarra Bend Asylum for one terrible year, and then death released her. And, strange to say, Mrs Thorne was reconciled to life by the perfect restoration of her husband, whose disorder took an unexpected return to perfect sanity.
Mrs Elliot, as might be expected of so weak a character, raved like a lunatic at the first recognition of her sorrow and loss, but that she returned to resignation you may guess when I tell you that she is no longer Mrs Elliot, but rejoices in a newer and prettier name.
If you are at all interested in Mr Sprague and Miss Dempsey, I may mention that they are at the present moment both serving well-deserved sentences in the Melbourne Gaol, where I do hope they will yet vegetate for a considerable time.
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