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Title: The Purple Fern Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800701h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2018 Most recent update: August 2018 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. - The Man In Grey
Chapter 2. - An Adventure
Chapter 3. - Twins
Chapter 4. - A Mystery
Chapter 5. - The Vicar
Chapter 6. - A Discovery
Chapter 7. - Dr. Jerce Explains
Chapter 8. - What Happened Next
Chapter 9. - The Inquest
Chapter 10. - A Chance Whisper
Chapter 11. - The Dog
Chapter 12. - Business Affairs
Chapter 13. - The New Epoch
Chapter 14. - Prudence
Chapter 15. - The Vicar’s Troubles
Chapter 16. - A Strange Communication
Chapter 17. - The Recall Of Dr. Jerce
Chapter 18. - The Unexpected Happens
Chapter 19. - Zara, The Butterfly
Chapter 20. - Proof Positive
Chapter 21. - Ackworth’s News
Chapter 22. - The Anonymous Letter
Chapter 23. - An Important Discovery
Chapter 24. - Ferdinand Baird At Bay
Chapter 25. - The Whole Truth
Chapter 26. - Nemesis
The train to Crumel was late. Due at four o’clock, it failed to reach its destination, until ten minutes past the hour. This was not the fault of the branch-line authorities. The London express had been behind time at Werry Junction, whereby the local had been forced to wait. The delay mattered little to the majority of the passengers, as time in the wilds of Essex is of less value than a similar commodity in the metropolis. But Dr. Jerce, being a famous urban physician, felt annoyed, as he had come down hurriedly, in this unpleasant weather, to see a patient, and wished to be back in Harley Street by nine o’clock. Also Dr. Jerce was Napoleonic in his love for precision, and the failure of the Company to obey the time-table irritated his usually bland temper.
Jerce was not unlike the great Corsican in looks,—that is, he was short and stout, calm in his manner and impenetrable in expression. His clean-shaven face, classical in outline, save that the jaw was of the bull-dog order, did not betray his present feelings of exasperation at the pin-prick of delay. When the belated local finally steamed leisurely into the terminus, he buttoned his sable-lined coat, adjusted his shining silk hat, and dusted unnecessarily his smart patent leather boots, so unsuitable to the season. Finally, with the same imperturbable air, he collected the Christmas magazines he had been reading on the way down, and stepped on to the thronged platform. A man in a grey coat, grey gloves, grey trousers, and a grey Homburg hat, leaped from the adjoining carriage, and followed closely at the heels of the popular physician. Jerce did not turn his head, as no sixth sense told him that he was being watched.
It wanted only a week to Christmas, and the weather was quite of the traditional Dickens kind. Deep snow almost overwhelmed the quaint little Essex town, and this, hardened by many nights of frost, sparkled like jewels in the clear radiance of street-lamps and shop-lights. The short winter’s day drew to a bitterly cold close, and although the pedestrians, crowding the narrow, twisted streets, were, for the most part, warmly clad, many of the more sensitive shivered in the cutting east wind. But Jerce, having a sufficiency of flesh to cover his bones, and a fur-lined overcoat to protect that same flesh, stepped out briskly and comfortably, without regard to the chills of the season. The man in grey followed him at a respectful distance, keenly observant.
The shops, already decked for Yule-tide, looked unusually lavish with their blaze of lights, their mistletoe, and red-berried holly branches, and their extra display of Santa Claus presents and Christmas provisions. But the doctor did not look at the glittering windows, nor did the man in grey. Jerce, who appeared to be well known, nodded smilingly, right and left, to respectful townspeople, and his follower took note of this popularity. Finally, the physician turned down a somewhat dark side-lane—for it was not yet an official street—and entered an iron gate on the left-hand side, some distance down. This admitted him into the grounds of a large, square Georgian mansion of mellow red brick, covered with ivy and snow, and looking like a house with a history. The watcher was compelled to remain outside the high iron railings, as he was unable to give any plausible reason for entering. When Jerce rang the bell and finally disappeared inside the mansion, the grey man muttered an impatient word or two, and resigned himself to sauntering up and down the lane, until such time as the doctor should emerge.
But the air was nipping, while the man in grey was thin and thinly clothed. Shortly he began to shiver and turn blue. Glancing down the semi-lane, where it led into the truly rural country, he noticed the brilliant lights of an ambitious inn. Measuring with his eye the distance from the Georgian mansion to this hostel, the man in grey saw that he could shelter therein, and yet keep an eye on the gate, out of which the doctor presumably would come. The opportunity was too tempting. Crossing the road, he entered the bar, which looked warm and cheery. Jerce would scarcely return to London for an hour or so, therefore the watcher thought that, with an occasional glance out of the bar-room door, he could very well keep guard over the doctor’s comings and goings. But the first thing he did, when inside, was to demand a Bradshaw.
“Lor’ now,” prattled the lady behind the counter, in a thin mincing voice, the very ghost of speech and with restless volubility, “if I didn’t see it only an hour ago. Yes, I did, say what you like. Mr. Ferdinand,—though to be sure you don’t know him,—but Mr. Ferdinand came in for a Scotch and Polly, and asked to look up the London trains for this evening. He had that Bradshaw in the private bar, if I remember, which I can’t be certain. Through that door, sir, if you please. I’m sure I’ll be able to oblige, though I can’t be positive.”
When this incoherent speech terminated, the thin stranger passed through a narrow door in a partition, plastered with gaudy almanacks and sober advertisement sheets, to enter a small cupboard cut off from the bar by the aforesaid partition. It contained two deal chairs, a deal table covered with a red cloth and strewn with newspapers and guide books, and nothing else. Dimly lighted by a smelling swing lamp dangling over the table, and better illuminated by a bright fire, it looked comfortable enough, when contrasted with the snowy world outside. The lady who talked so much, suddenly appeared from somewhere like a jack-in-the-box, and after turning up the lamp, poked the fire vigorously and unnecessarily, chattering all the time.
“You see, sir, only the gentry come to this private bar,” she said, in her high-pitched voice, and taking stock of the stranger all the time, “and there’s no gentry hereabouts to-night. Mr. Ferdinand,—but you don’t know him, of course, but Mr. Ferdinand, and a pleasant young gentleman he is, was the last to look at that Bradshaw. Oh, yes, you were asking for it, sir,—of course, you were, though where it can be, I can’t say, happy as I’d be to oblige you. But the table is so very untidy, sir,—” making it worse by tossing about papers and books and pamphlets,—“people won’t leave things where they ought to, and this Bradshaw, which is a new one,—oh, here you are, sir. You’ll be sure to find the train you want, or perhaps the local time-table,” she snatched up a pink sheet, “which is published as an advertisement by my uncle, who keeps the baker’s shop on the left hand side of our High Street, going towards the station. Oh, you prefer Bradshaw, sir. Well, sir, some likes this and some that, but I never, never could understand Bradshaw myself, my head for figures not being like my brother, who is truly wonderful, and quite a phenomenon. Figures is child’s bricks to him, and—oh, there’s someone asking for beer. You’ll excuse me, sir, won’t you,” with a winning smile. “I’ll attend to this customer and return, when I set Lydia to watch the others.”
With these highly unnecessary remarks to a wearied listener, the brisk landlady, who was thin and small, tight-laced, and highly-coloured, disappeared as suddenly as she had presented herself, and was heard a moment later exchanging interminable greetings with the last person who had entered to toast the Season. The man in grey shrugged his lean shoulders and breathed a sigh of relief, when Mrs. Talkative departed. Shortly he nodded contentedly over the Bradshaw. The next London train did not leave Crumel until seven o’clock, so if Dr. Jerce intended to go to town on this night, he would have to be at the station at that hour. Of course, there was a chance that the doctor might remain, but the grey man did not think that this was likely, as he had observed the absence of a bag. Still, it was as well to provide against emergencies, and, when the landlady returned, the stranger asked a question in a deep, grave voice, which suggested, in some uncanny way, cemeteries and funerals.
“I may have to remain here to-night,” said he, surveying the brightly-dressed, would-be fashionable lady, “can I have a bed, please?”
With all her frivolous exterior, the little woman had a head for business, and first glanced round the room to see if the visitor had brought a bag. He guessed the meaning of her hesitation.
“I shall pay for a bed and for two meals in advance,” he remarked, solemnly, “that is, if I find it necessary to remain, Miss—Miss—”
“There, now,” giggled the hotel fairy, pleasantly confused, “if I ain’t always saying to Lydia—who is the housemaid—that strangers will call me Miss, though I should look married, having heard the wedding service three times, and the funeral words as often. My last name was Dumps, if you please, sir,—John Dumps, and a dear man he was, though not extraordinarily handsome. He left me this hotel—the Savoy Hotel,” added the landlady, with emphasis, “and you can call me Mrs. Dumps.”
The grave man listened impassively, with his keen eyes on the airy female, so gorgeously arrayed. He might have been of bronze for all the impression this speech seemed to make. Yet it conveyed to him the idea that Mrs. Dumps was a confirmed gossip, and sufficiently free with her tongue to tell him everything he wished to know concerning Crumel and its inhabitants. Making a mental note of this, the grey man reverted to his first statement. “I shall pay in advance, Mrs. Dumps,” he remarked, “and the price.”
“Seven shillings for supper and bed and breakfast. I can’t say fairer than that, look as you like, Mr.—Mr.—lor, now, I don’t know your—”
“Osip is my name,” interrupted the man, and tendered two halfcrowns and a single florin.
Mrs. Dumps’ claw-like fingers closed on the money in a way which suggested the miser. “Osip. Really! Osip! A strange name, Osip.”
“I am a strange man,” replied the other curtly, “would you mind getting me a glass of ginger beer, Mrs. Dumps?”
“Oh, Mr. Osip, really, Mr. Osip. Surely, port or whiskey at Christmas, let alone the freezing weather, and the frost causing thirst.”
“I never drink alcohol, Mrs. Dumps.”
“Lor now,” said the landlady, confidentially, “if you aren’t exactly like me on the mother’s side, as I come of a full-blooded family given to choking and apoplexy. I don’t believe in strong drink myself, Mr. Osip, say what you like.”
“Then why sell it?” was the not unnatural question.
“I must live,” said Mrs. Dumps, plaintively; then to avoid further remarks, she hopped into the bar like a wren, although her plumage was less sober. Presently she returned with the ginger beer. “And won’t you take something to eat, Mr. Osip?” she asked, with her fashionable head on one side, more like a bird than ever.
“No, thank you,” Osip paused, then faced her abruptly. “I am a stranger in Crumel and I think of taking a house here. Do you know of any to let, Mrs. Dumps?”
“My cousin does, Mr. Osip. Arthur Grinder, Grocer and Land-agent, with an insurance office and a dog-cart, in which he drives round our beautiful and interesting country. All orders—”
Osip cut Mrs. Dumps short in her description, which was evidently culled from the local guide-book, or from one of Mr. Grinder’s pamphlets. “I shall see him to-morrow, if I stay,” said he, hurriedly.
“But, surely, Mr. Osip, you’ll stay, seeing you have paid?”
“Circumstances may arise which may make it necessary for me to return to London to-night. But I can afford the loss.”
This speech made the landlady sweeter than ever. Apparently the stranger was rich, so she prepared to make herself aggressively agreeable. “If you become one of us,” chirped Mrs. Dumps, more like a roguish bird than ever. “I dare say you’ll like to know about the town.”
Osip sat down near the fire and folded his arms.
“Information of that kind has its advantages,” he said, dryly, “can you tell me anything about Crumel and its inhabitants?”
“Can I tell?” echoed Mrs. Dumps, shrilly contemptuous, “why, I was born and bred here. It is thirty years since I saw the light of day in dear Crumel. Thirty years,” repeated Mrs. Dumps, challenging contradiction, which she seemed to expect with regard to her age. Osip might have suggested with some truth that she was over forty, but he did not judge it wise to interrupt the flowing current of her gossip. Nodding gravely he looked into the fire and Mrs. Dumps talked on rapidly, reverting again to the guide-book or to the pamphlet of Mr. Grinder, who was her cousin.
“Crumel,” explained Mrs. Dumps, breathlessly, “has three thousand inhabitants, more or less, chiefly less, and the surrounding country is dotted with the delightful residence of well-to-do gentry. Formerly the place was called Legby, in the time of Charles the First; but when General Cromwell visited the then village, during one of his wars, the prosperity increased so greatly through his having made it his headquarters, that the inhabitants, in compliment to the great man, called the then village, Cromwell, which by time has become corrupted to Crumel.”
“Very interesting,” yawned Osip, visibly bored.
“The minster is tenth century, and very fine,” continued the guide-book, “and also Low Church, the vicar being the Rev. Nehemiah Clarke, who is quite a Puritan, out of compliment, no doubt, to Cromwell, or Crumel, to whom the town, formerly the village of Legby, owes its greatness. And they do say,” continued Mrs. Dumps, dropping the guide-book, to become merely a gossip, “that Mr. Clarke’s daughter, Miss Prudence,—did you ever hear such a name, sir, and she isn’t a bit prudent, well, then, Miss Prudence would rather her pa was High Church. I dare say Mr. Ferdinand, who loves Miss Prudence, would like it also, he being quite artistic.”
“You have mentioned Mr. Ferdinand several times, Mrs. Dumps. Who is he?”
“An orphan, and so is his sister, Miss Clarice Baird,—wealthy orphans, too, Mr. Osip, I assure you,” and Mrs. Dumps nodded vigorously.
Osip showed that he was becoming weary of this conversation, since he was not gathering precisely the information he required. Abruptly he changed the subject. “In this lane—”
“Street,” interpolated Mrs. Dumps, indignantly.
“Very good: street. And nearly opposite to this inn—”
“Hotel, if you please, Mr. Osip. The Savoy Hotel.”
“So be it, Mrs. Dumps. Well, then, in this street and nearly opposite to the Savoy Hotel, there is a red brick mansion, which I should like to purchase, if it is for sale.”
“Lor, now, how funny that is, say what you like, seeing it’s the very house where the Baird orphans live.”
“Alone, Mrs. Dumps?”
“Oh, dear me, no, sir. They board, so to speak, with their guardian, Mr. Henry Horran, who suffers from some disease the doctors can’t put a name to. He’s been ailing, off and on, for over ten years; but the doctors can’t cure him nohow, not knowin’ what’s wrong with his inside. Mr. Ferdinand ought to find out, seeing he’s lived with Mr. Horran all his life, though to be sure, he ain’t old, being but three and twenty.”
“Mr. Ferdinand Baird is not a doctor, then?”
“He will be some day, if his brains hold out. He’s a medical student, and what you might call an apprentice to Dr. Jerce.”
“Ha!” said Osip, quickly, “your local doctor?”
“Lor, no, whatever made you think that, Mr. Osip. Dr. Wentworth’s our local, and he isn’t bad, though I know more about insides than he does. But what can you expect, as I always say, when he’s unmarried, and can’t understand ladies? Why, Sampson Tait can cure better than our Dr. Wentworth.”
“Our chemist,” explained Mrs. Dumps, “my second cousin on my father’s side.”
“You seem to have endless relatives, Mrs. Dumps.”
“Heaps and heaps, and they’re always dying, which makes mourning come expensive. But I’m lonely, all the same, Mr. Osip, I do assure you, as no one can live lightheartedly, after burying three husbands. Of course, there’s my daughter Zara, but she’s in London. Her pa had her christened Sarah, but Zara to my mind is more romantic.”
“Undoubtedly. Well, then, this Dr. Jerce?”
“Not to know him,” interrupted Mrs. Dumps, throwing up her hands, “is to argue yourself unknown. He’s famous in Harley Street, London, and they do say that he’ll be knighted some day soon. A great day for Crumel that will be, as he’s a native, and we’re proud of him, not that it’s to be wondered at, for a better man never lived.”
“A better doctor?” said Osip, inquiringly.
“A better man,” reiterated Mrs. Dumps, firmly. “He’s kind to the poor, and lavish with money, and why, with such a loving heart, as I know he has, he never will marry, beats me hollow. But they do say as he loves Miss Clarice, though he’ll never get her, say what you like, she being engaged, I do hear, to a soldier officer, called Captain Anthony Ackworth, who fires guns at Gattlinsands, five miles away on the seashore.”
“Oh, and is Miss Baird rich?”
“She will be and so will her brother, when they reach the age of five and twenty, being twins, though she’s got the brains of the two. Mr. Horran is the guardian, and looks after the money, but since he’s ill—and Lord knows what his illness is about—I dare say Dr. Jerce helps him to see that things are kept straight. The Bairds were a Scotch family in the time of James the First,” added Mrs. Dumps, becoming again like a guide-book, “and that Stuart king gave them lands about Crumel, then the village of Legby. The old Manor-House is three miles from Crumel, and is let to a rich American, until the Baird orphans prefer to live in it; they meanwhile dwelling with Mr. Horran, who is their guardian by law constituted. That is Miss Clarice,—bless her—lives with Mr. Horran, but Mr. Ferdinand is usually in town, where he boards with Dr. Jerce, who is like a father to him, and I dare say would like to be a brother-in-law, not that he’s likely to be so, with Captain Ackworth in the way.”
“Does Dr. Jerce come down often?”
“Once a week at least, Mr. Osip, to see Mr. Horran. He’s interested no end in the case, but he don’t know what’s wrong with the man.”
“And Dr. Jerce is a good fellow,” said Osip, thoughtfully.
“One of the very best. But won’t you drink up your ginger beer, sir, and partake of some more? We must rejoice at Christmas time.”
“I’ll rejoice when I return,” said Osip; then rose unexpectedly, and buttoned up his threadbare overcoat. “Meanwhile, I’ll stroll through the town and inspect the shops.”
“Be sure you look into the butcher’s window,” screamed Mrs. Dumps, as he passed out, “he being my nephew by his mother’s side.”
Osip made no reply, but vanished into the night, as Mrs. Dumps fluttered back to the bar, to charm fresh customers. A clouded sky revealed neither moon nor stars, but the hard snow emitted a kind of sepulchral radiance, which created a luminous atmosphere. By an odd inversion the light seemed to come from below, instead of being shed from above, as usual, and the effect was weird in the extreme.
Walking towards the red-brick mansion, Osip pondered over what he had heard from the chattering landlady, and congratulated himself on securing information, while not appearing to seek for the same. Opposite the Georgian mansion, he halted for a few seconds, and, as there appeared to be no one about, he made up his mind to venture into the grounds. Noiselessly opening the gate, he skirted the leafless hedge, and reached the side of the house. Here he found two French windows, giving on to a miniature terrace. The blinds were not down, nor were the curtains drawn, so the lamp-light poured forth across the snow in a gleaming stream. Osip cautiously peered in, and beheld Jerce talking to a pretty young girl, whom he took to be Clarice Baird. Without hesitation, he pressed his ear against the wall, and listened with all his ears.
“I am extremely puzzled,” said Dr. Jerce, scratching his plump chin with his right fore-finger—a favourite gesture of his.
“Oh!—a clever man like you.”
“Ah-a,—what pleasant feminine flattery.”
“The truth. You are celebrated.”
“Humph! So is a charlatan, if he advertises himself sufficiently.”
“Charlatans don’t cure people as you do, doctor,—nor can they ever hope to be knighted, like someone I know.”
“Well,” answered the stout man, again tickling his chin. “I am not so sure of that. Humbug often succeeds, where merit fails. Perhaps,” his little black eyes twinkled, “perhaps that is why I can look forward to being Sir Daniel Jerce.”
The girl looked closely into his bland face. “A charlatan would never confess to being puzzled.”
“In this case,” Jerce shrugged, and resumed a quarter-deck walk in the long drawing-room, “the Archangel Gabriel would be puzzled.”
“What can be the matter with Uncle Henry?” observed his listener, pensively.
“Ask the Archangel Gabriel, Miss Baird.”
“Miss Baird?” Like a woman her train of thought switched up a siding.
Jerce coloured all over his large waxen face, and he gulped with embarrassment. “Of course, I have known you since you were a little girl,” he began, awkwardly, “but—”
She cut him short. “Then why not call me Clarice?”
“Only too delighted,” he stuttered. “Clarice, then.”
“Clarice now, I rather think,” she laughed, and, wondering at the confusion of this usually self-contained physician, returned forthwith to the topic which had created this conversation. “What can be the matter with Uncle Henry?” she said again.
Jerce became the medical man at once, and shook his head. “Ten years of attendance on Horran have left me where I was at the beginning.”
“Everything connected with medicine is strange. The human body is a box of tricks, with which we play, in the dark.”
“A box of bricks, you mean.”
“As you please. We doctors build up the bodies of the sick, so I suppose flesh and bones, muscles and nerves, are the bricks. But this case—Horran’s case—humph!” he resumed his walk with knitted brows, “yes, quite so. I confess that a post-mortem would settle the matter.”
Clarice rose with a horrified look. “What a cold-blooded speech. He is your oldest friend.”
“Forgive me. Science is not quite human at times. Of course, I am here to cure Horran, not to kill him. I should indeed regret losing my best, and, as you say, my oldest friend. But how can I cure a man, when I don’t know what is the matter with him?”
“What does Dr. Wentworth say?”
Jerce looked at the girl’s pretty face and fairly laughed. “Wentworth is not a prospective knight,” said he, dryly.
“That I don’t wish to boast.”
This time Clarice coloured. “I beg your pardon, doctor. I know that you are everybody and that Dr. Wentworth is nobody. You live in Harley Street and attend to titled people, while he works in a quiet Essex town amongst the middle-class and the poor. All the same,” she was determined to have the last word, “the mouse may be able to assist the lion.”
“I prefer a feminine mouse,” said the doctor, smiling. “Suppose you assist me by detailing exactly what has happened.”
Clarice leaned an elbow on the mantelpiece, and absently ruffled her brown hair before replying. “Mr. Horran has been complaining of headaches,” she said at length, “and once or twice he has been sick. Also on rising suddenly from a chair, he has always felt giddy.”
“You tell me nothing new, Miss—I mean Clarice. For ten years Horran has suffered in this way. Humph! The attacks of giddiness have not been so frequent, Wentworth tells me.”
“No. Only every now and then.”
“Humph! And his behaviour?”
“Well,” Clarice hesitated, “he has been a trifle excited at times, and by Dr. Wentworth’s advice he gave up his one glass of whisky at night.”
“I see,” Jerce once more scratched his chin. “Alcohol excites him.”
“Anything unusual seems to excite him, doctor. Mr. Horran gets quite hysterical at times, and is always thinking of his health.”
“Hypochondria!” muttered Jerce, with his eyes on the ground. “And on this particular occasion?”
“Didn’t Dr. Wentworth tell you? Mr. Horran fell down in an epileptic fit and bit his tongue. We got him to bed, and sent for Dr. Wentworth, who insisted upon wiring for you.”
“Quite so—quite so. Wentworth knows that I am deeply interested in this most mysterious case. What do these symptoms mean? Whence do they arise? I wish—” he cast a look on the girl, “no, I won’t suggest a post-mortem again. All the same only a post-mortem can explain these things.”
“Oh, doctor, do you think he will die?”
“No! no! There, there,” the doctor patted her hand, “don’t cry. Horran may go on living for the next twenty years—as he is only fifty-four, I don’t see why he shouldn’t.”
“Then you can’t see death?”
“I can’t see death, or life, or anything, but a series of most puzzling symptoms, which neither I, nor Wentworth, nor the whole College of Surgeons can understand. However, we’ll drop the subject just now, and think of tea.”
“Oh, doctor, how can you think of food when—”
“When my patient is sleeping quietly. Why shouldn’t I? There’s nothing to be done until he awakes. Then I’ll make another examination, although I don’t expect I’ll learn anything. I return to town,” Jerce consulted a handsome gold watch, “by the seven train.”
“It is very good of you to have come down so promptly.”
“Not at all. I would go to the ends of the earth at a moment’s notice, to attend to so interesting a case. Ha! ha! Cold-blooded science again, Clarice, you see. Come, come, let us say that I came willingly to see my old and valued friend, Henry Horran.”
“Doctor, you are a great man.”
“Flattering—very flattering. And why?”
“Great men, I have always read and heard, will never spare anyone in their aim to attain their ends.”
“Humph. That is not quite so flattering. And my ends?”
“You want to find out the cause of this trouble.”
“Naturally. I can’t cure Horran unless I do.”
“Yes. But you are more curious to learn the reason for the disease than to cure him.”
“You wrong me,” said the doctor quickly, “and to prove that you wrong me, I shall assuredly cure Horran, if it be in the power of man to set him on his legs again. Now you had better go and have some tea and toast. I’ll return to Horran’s room, and see Wentworth when he comes in.”
“I can’t eat, doctor,” said Clarice, making no motion to obey.
“That is foolish. Starving yourself will not cure your guardian. I dare say you are fond of him. Eh?”
“Have you known me more than twenty years to ask such a question? Of course, I am very fond of uncle Henry. He is the best of men.”
“I agree with you there,” said Jerce, earnestly, “but I don’t think your brother agrees with you. That is strange.”
“Why so, doctor?”
“You and Ferdy are twins,—twins may have the same likes and dislikes.”
Clarice laughed. “For a clever medical man that is certainly not a clever speech. Twins are often alike in looks, and entirely different in disposition.”
“I am aware of that,” responded Jerce, calmly, “but I have always noted that you and Ferdy think alike, or did, until lately.”
“That is because Ferdy is removed from my influence,” said Clarice, sadly. “He always followed my lead. But since he has gone to town to stop with you and become a student of medicine, he thinks very differently from what I do. Naturally, perhaps, since he is seeing more of the world than I, and is a man.”
“You should have been the man, Clarice, and Ferdy, the woman. I wish to do my best for your brother, because he is your brother, but—” Jerce made a gesture of annoyance, “Ferdy is so terribly weak.”
“Don’t be hard on him, doctor,” she pleaded. “Ferdy never got on well with uncle Henry.”
“He gets on with no one, my dear, save with those people who pander to his weaknesses.”
Clarice clasped her hands and looked anxious.
“Doctor, there is nothing very wrong with Ferdy?” she asked, faltering.
“No! no!” Jerce stopped in his walk to pat her shoulder. “I look after him as much as I can. Yet I must not disguise from you, Clarice, that Ferdy is—well, rather wild.”
“Rather wild,” echoed the girl.
“He frequents music-halls, and goes with people who make pleasure their aim in life. Also he has sometimes been the worse for alcohol. These things, Clarice, do not lead to peace, or to greatness.”
The girl sat down and covered her face. “When Ferdy came down yesterday, I noticed that he was not himself. He seems to have something on his mind.”
Jerce shrugged his shoulders. “I dare say he is ashamed of himself.”
“Can’t something be done? If I spoke—”
“No, my dear,” said the doctor, very decidedly, “you will only make matters worse. Ferdy, for the last twelve months, has been out of leading strings, and if you try, however delicately, to lecture him, he will only become obstreperous. But you need not be alarmed. I’ll do what I can. I would do much for you, Clarice.”
There was a note in his voice which made the girl look up. The usually pale face of the doctor was red, and his eyes had a look in them, which she was woman enough to understand. Rising with a nervous laugh, Clarice grappled with the situation at once. She did not wish to lose her amiable companion in a disappointed suitor. “Do what you can for Ferdy, doctor, and I’ll ever be your—friend.”
“But suppose I—”
“Friend, doctor,” reiterated Clarice, steadily, and withdrew the hand he had clasped too warmly.
“I wonder,” stammered the medical man, nervously, “if you understand exactly what I mean.”
Clarice smiled. “I should not be a woman else. I understand, and so I say—friend.”
“There is someone else?” asked Jerce, chagrined.
Clarice turned the leading question with an embarrassing laugh. “There is always someone else, and in this instance the someone else, is my brother Ferdinand. I rely on you to bring him to his senses.”
“Well,” said Jerce, struggling back to calmness, “that may be difficult. You see, Miss Baird—”
“No,” said Jerce, steadily, “never again, until I have the right to call you Clarice.”
“What right? No, no! that’s a foolish question,” she added hurriedly. “Doctor, doctor, do not put your feelings into words. Let things remain as they are. Help Ferdy and cure Uncle Henry, and then—”
“And then?” he bent forward eagerly.
“Then I shall ask you to dance at my wedding,” replied the girl, and fairly ran out of the room. Jerce was so determined that she could scarcely avoid hearing him speak plainer than she wished. And if he did speak out, the answer her emotion would force her to give him, would inevitably create a disagreeable feeling, if not a positive breach of friendship. This was not to be thought of, as Jerce was necessary both to help poor weak Ferdy Baird, and to cure Henry Horran of his mysterious disease. Discretion, as Clarice rightly thought, was the better part of valour in this especial instance, and therefore she deliberately ran away. Jerce was left alone.
Naturally, he thought that he was unobserved, and the watcher at the window could see the various expressions which chased each other across his usually calm face. Judging from these, Jerce was annoyed that he had spoken so inopportunely. The fruit was not yet ripe, as he reflected, after recalling the few words he and Clarice had exchanged. First, he would have to bring Ferdy back to the paths of virtue; well, what then? Clarice might—on the other hand she might not. Certainly, she had laughed away his leading question, but also she had invited him to dance at her wedding—also laughingly. No! there could be no one else, and if Jerce saved the two men in which she was most interested, she might reward him by loving him, as he wished to be loved. Thanks to the gossip of Mrs. Dumps, the watcher at the window knew well that Jerce was dwelling in a fool’s paradise, but it was not his intention, or will, to inform Jerce of the gunner officer at Gattlinsands, five miles away by the seashore.
Jerce, even though presumably alone, did not allow all his feelings to be seen on his face. But he felt that the room was stifling in spite of its being a cold winter’s evening, and opened the window to gain a breath of sharp air. As he stepped out, he was suddenly grasped from behind, and the skilful exercise of a Ju-Jitsu motion placed him prostrate at the mercy of his assailant. In the light of the drawing-room lamps streaming through the open window, Jerce could see that the man wore grey clothes. He would have spoken, or would have called for assistance, but the grey man placed his hand on what is called Adam’s apple, and paralyzed by pressure the vocal chords. Jerce lay voiceless and motionless, as though in a state of catalepsy, while the man went systematically through his pockets with the dexterity of a thief. In less time than it takes to tell, the assailant had failed to find what he sought, and, rising quickly, disappeared like a shadow, or a ghost. All the time he had spoken no word, and had not allowed his face to be seen. As his retreating feet scrunched the snow, Jerce, too shaken to rise immediately, lay where he was, wondering what had taken place, and wondering, most of all, why this very dexterous thief had gone through his pockets so thoroughly. Then he rose to his feet and found that his gold watch, his not inconsiderable sum of money, his rings and his silver match-box were all safe. Evidently, the assailant was no common thief. He had desired to find something, and had failed to find it, but what that something might be, Jerce could not think.
When he came quite to himself—for the shock of the assault had somewhat stunned him—he rushed along the terrace, and into the garden, which was parted by a single iron railing from the lane. But there was no one to be seen. The man in grey had vanished swiftly into the night, and Jerce could no more guess in which direction he had gone, than he could surmise why the man had assaulted him. He stared from the elevation upon which he stood, over the spectral wastes of snow, and then turned to re-enter. For the moment it was in his mind to send for the police; but he could give so scanty a description of his daring opponent, that it hardly seemed worth while. Not even the cleverest detective could recognise the man, from the mere fact that he wore grey clothes.
However, just as Jerce turned the corner of the terrace to re-enter by the still open French window, he heard the click of the iron gate as it swung to. A tall figure walked briskly up the snowy path, and, seeing him at the corner of the terrace, advanced towards him with an ejaculation of astonishment.
“Doctor,” exclaimed the new-comer, bending forward to examine the features of the outraged man in the uncertain light. “I knew you were coming down, but I did not expect to find you out of doors on this freezing night.”
“Ferdinand!” gasped Jerce, and stretching out his hand, he gripped the young man by his overcoat collar. Before Baird could expostulate, he was drawn unresistingly along towards the light streaming from the open window, and Jerce was looking fiercely at his tall form and grey clothes. “Tell me why you knocked me down just now?” demanded the doctor, much ruffled, and short of breath.
Ferdinand started back in genuine surprise. “I knock you down?” he repeated. “Why, doctor, you must be out of your senses. Why on earth should I knock you down?”
“To search my pockets for some reason.”
Baird laughed at the monstrous charge. “Do you accuse me of robbery?”
“Oh, no! You took nothing, but you searched me. Why?” and Jerce looked closely at the handsome, weak face of the spruce young gentleman.
“But that you are a rabid teetotaler, doctor,” said Ferdinand, with a shrug, “I should think you had been drinking. I have been for the last hour at the vicarage seeing Prudence, and before that I visited Mrs. Dumps’ Savoy Hotel to look up the last train to town to-night. I have just returned, and you accuse me of assaulting you. It’s too ridiculous!” And Baird, annoyed at being kept standing in the cold, began to fume like a spoilt child.
“I tell you, Ferdinand, that you knocked me down, here—where we are standing, and searched my pockets thoroughly. I recognise you by the grey overcoat you are wearing, although you were clever enough to hide your face.”
“Grey clothes, eh?” mused Ferdinand, slowly. “There may be something in what you say, after all. A tall man in grey clothes, hat and all, passed me in the High Street, near Grinder’s shop.”
“Did you see his face?” asked Jerce, doubtfully.
“Yes. I don’t usually take notice of a man’s face, but this chap was a stranger here, and looked like a Londoner. He had a lean face, so far as I could see—yes, and a small black moustache. And—and,—oh, yes, doctor, there was a criss-cross scar on his cheek, I fancy. But, of course, he passed too quickly for me to observe him closely.”
“A scar on his cheek,” said the doctor, loosening his grip. “Humph! I congratulate you on your rapid powers of observation. Only a woman could have gathered so much in one moment. I ask your pardon, Ferdinand. Doubtless, it was this fellow who knocked me down.”
“And here,” Ferdinand looked round, “in our grounds. What cheek. I expected he wished to rob you.”
“If so, he certainly did not fulfil his intention, even though he had me at his mercy,” said Jerce, dryly, and stepped into the room.
“Shall I go for the police, doctor?”
“No. We’ll say no more about it, my boy.”
“Do you know this man?” asked Baird, puzzled.
“I fancy I do, if you describe the scar accurately.”
“Oh, it was a criss-cross scar, right enough. But if he did not rob you, or wish to rob you, why did he go through your pockets.”
“That,” said Jerce, with emphasis, “is as much a mystery to me, as it is to you.”
Next morning, Clarice and her brother were at breakfast together in a cheerful little octagon-shaped room, all enamelled white panels, delicately painted wreaths of flowers and profuse gilding. More snow had fallen during the night, and through the tall, narrow windows could be seen a spotless world, almost as white as the breakfast-room itself. But a cheerful fire of oak logs blazing in the brass basket, where the bluish tiles took the smoke, and in the centre of the apartment a round table, large enough for two, was covered with dainty linen upon which stood a silver service, delicate china, and many appetizing dishes. Clarice was a notable housekeeper, and knowing that Ferdinand was fond of a good breakfast, used her best endeavours to provide him with the toothsome food he loved. And this was somewhat in the nature of a bribe.
“By jove!” said the young man, attacking a devilled kidney, “Jerce’s housekeeper doesn’t feed me like this.”
“Then why don’t you come down here oftener, Ferdy, and allow me to feed you,” suggested Clarice, artfully, and filled him another cup of hot fragrant coffee.
“What rot—as if I could. Jerce keeps me at work, I can tell you. I scarcely have a minute to myself.”
“And the minutes you have are given to other people than your sister,” said Clarice, dryly.
“Ho! ho!” Ferdinand chuckled. “Jealous of Prudence.”
“No! I should like to see you married to Prudence. She would keep you in order.”
“Bosh! Jerce does that.”
“I doubt it, after what he told me last night.”
Knife and fork fell from Ferdinand’s hands, and his rosy complexion became as white as the snow out of doors. “Wh-a-t—what—did he tell you?” he quavered, while Clarice looked at him, astonished.
“Only that you are a trifle wild,” she hastened to explain. “Why should you look so alarmed?”
“I’m—I’m not alarmed,” denied Baird, and absently wiped his forehead with his napkin. “That is, of course if Jerce talks about my being wild to you, and you speak to Prudence, she’ll give me the go-by, like a shot. Prudence is awfully jealous.”
“I’m not in the habit of telling tales,” said Clarice, dryly.
“Jerce is, then. Why can’t he hold his tongue?”
“Is what he says true?”
“I don’t exactly know what he did say,” said Ferdinand, irritably, and pushed back his plate. “You’ve spoilt my breakfast. I don’t like shocks.”
“Why should you receive a shock from my very simple observation?”
“Because—well, because of Prudence. I’m fond of Prudence, and I don’t want her to know that I—well, that I—enjoy myself.”
Clarice tried to catch his eye, so as to see if he was speaking the truth, but Ferdinand evaded her gaze, and rising, went to the fireplace, where he lighted a cigarette. The girl remained seated where she was, resting her elbows on the table, and with a frown knitting her brow. Ferdy was so weak, that she always feared lest his weakness should land him in trouble. Moreover, he was not truthful, when anything was to be gained by telling a falsehood. His confused manner showed that he had something to hide; but, she reflected bitterly, that to ply him with questions, would only make his recording angel take to shorthand, so rapidly would the lies pour out.
Ferdy, leaning his elbows on the mantelpiece, admired his own handsome face in the round mirror, and furtively glanced at the reflection of his sister. The twins were wonderfully alike, and wonderfully good-looking, but Clarice, strange to say, was the more manly of the two. That is her manner was more masculine and decisive, her mouth was firmer, and she had the squarer chin. With his rosy oval face, his Grecian nose, his full lips, and soft brown hair, which lay in silky waves on his white forehead, Ferdinand was much too pretty for a man. He possessed a slim, shapely figure, and wore the smartest of clothes with an aristocratic air. Curiously enough, considering his delicate looks, he was an excellent athlete, and also had proved his bravery more than once, when in the Wild Waste Lands at the Back of Beyond, whither he had gone a year previously on a tramp steamer. From that wild excursion he had returned brown and healthy, and full of life; but within twenty-four hours, Clarice, who had rejoiced at the apparently virile change, knew that Ferdy was as weak and wavering as ever. He was a weed to voyage with every current, a feather to be wafted hither and thither, on every breath of wind.
“I should have been the man,” said Clarice, suddenly rising, and placing her hands on her hips with a throw-back of her shoulders.
“Eh—er—what’s that you say?” asked Ferdy, absently.
His sister came to where he stood, and placed her face beside his. “I should have been the man, and you the woman,” she declared, as they looked at their delicate, youthful faces in the mirror. “You and I are alike, Ferdy, but there is a difference.”
“If we are alike, how can there be a difference?” asked the wise youth, pettishly.
“Can’t you see? I can. Look at my chin, and at your own. Gaze into my eyes, see the firmness of my lips. There’s a dash of the man in me, Ferdy, and much of the woman about you.”
Baird dropped into an armchair and kicked his long legs in the air with a light laugh. “I suppose you say that, because I’m like you.”
“You aren’t like me. I wish you were.”
“Come, now—your face and mine. Where’s the difference?”
“In the points I have named,” she replied, quickly. “I am not talking of the physical, Ferdy. I know you are brave enough, dear, and can hold your own with anyone, where fighting is concerned.”
“I should jolly well think I could,” muttered Baird, bending his arm and feeling his muscle. “I’ve never been licked in a fight yet.”
“But,” went on Clarice, with emphasis, “it’s your nature I talk of. You are so weak—so very, very weak.”
“I’m not,” snapped Ferdy, flushing. “I always have my own way.”
“Ah, that’s obstinacy, not strength. Because a person said no, you would say yes, and vice-versa. But you are the prey of your own passions, Ferdy. You deny yourself nothing.”
“Why should I?”
“Because it is by denial—by self-denial, that we make ourselves strong, Ferdy. Why, any woman could twist you round her finger.”
“Any woman can twist any man, you mean. If you bring the sex question into the matter, Clarice, I admit that man is the weaker vessel. A woman can do what she likes with a man. Women rule the world, and why they should bother about this suffragette business, beats me.”
“All men can’t be twisted by women, Ferdy. Dr. Jerce, for instance.”
“Pooh. He’s so wrapped up in medicine and science that he hates the sex—your sex, I mean.”
“I don’t think so,” said Clarice, recalling a scene on the previous night. “Dr. Jerce is a man like other men in that way, only he is sufficiently strong to hold his own with women.”
“I say,” cried Ferdy, restlessly, “what’s all this chatter about?”
“About you, if you’ll only listen,” said his sister, looking down at the weak frowning face. “I’m worried about you, Ferdy. When you were here with me, I could manage you, but since you came back from that trip a year ago, and went in for medicine, you have changed for the worse.”
“I don’t see that,” said Baird, sulkily.
“I do. There are lines on your face, which should not be there at your age. Look at the black circles under your eyes. You’re getting the look of a man who stops up night after night, and you do.”
“Who says that?”
“Dr. Jerce says it. You don’t attend to your work, he says. You are always at music-halls; you take more drink than is good for you; you gamble above what you can afford, and I dare say that you make love to all manner of women.”
“Oh, I say, you shouldn’t say that last.”
“Because I’m a girl—an unmarried woman,” flashed out Clarice. “What rubbish! I’ll say what I think to you, who are my only brother and my twin. Do you think that I am going to see you ruin yourself with wine and women and cards, simply because there are things a girl is not supposed to know? I am twenty-three. I have had endless responsibility since Uncle Henry took ill, so I am quite able to speak out and to save you if possible.”
Ferdinand rose and flung his cigarette into the fire. “I won’t have you talk like that to me,” he declared, his voice thick with anger. “I am a man, and you are a woman.”
“The reverse, I think,” retorted Clarice, bitterly.
“You have got far too high an opinion of yourself,” foamed Ferdy, kicking the logs angrily, “and when Uncle Henry dies, I’ll show you who is to be master here.”
Clarice ignored the latter part of this speech. “Why do you suggest that Uncle Henry may die?”
“He’s ill—he can’t last long,” stammered Ferdy, evasively.
“How do you know? How does Dr. Jerce know? He told me himself that he could not understand this strange illness, and could not say whether Uncle Henry would live or die. Do you call yourself more clever than Dr. Jerce?”
“I have studied medicine, and—”
“For twelve months, and what you call study, I call pursuit of pleasure. You are wasting your life, and there is no one to stand between you and ruin, but me. I dare not tell Uncle Henry what Dr. Jerce reported to me, as his health is too delicate to stand shocks.”
“You can tell him what you like,” mumbled Ferdy, knowing very well that he was safe in giving the permission.
“I shall tell him nothing, but,” added Clarice, with emphasis, “I’ll tell Prudence, if you don’t mend.”
Ferdy clenched his hands and his eyes flashed.
“Prudence won’t believe one word of what you say,” he declared, angrily. “She loves me, as I love her, and—”
“Do you love her?” asked Clarice, sharply, and Ferdinand recoiled before the look in her eyes. “Dr. Jerce—”
“What has he dared to say?”
“Nothing more than what I have told you,” said the girl, “but no man who is behaving as you are, can possibly love a woman truly.”
“Oh, bother, leave these sort of things alone. You are a girl, and you don’t understand. As to Jerce, he has his own secrets.”
He turned on his heel to leave the room, but Clarice swiftly placed herself in his way. “Now, what do you mean by that?” she asked, wondering if Jerce had related the scene of the previous night in order to enlist Ferdy on his side to forward his suit.
“Well,” mumbled the young man, pausing and fishing out another cigarette from mere habit, “there’s no reason why I shouldn’t tell you about the row. Jerce never said I wasn’t to.”
“What row—as you call it?”
“I don’t know what else you would call it,” retorted Ferdy, who had regained his good humour, with the shallow capacity of his nature. “I don’t know who that chap in grey can be, but Jerce knows. And what’s more, I believe he hunted him out last night. I was going to town with Jerce and he said that I could stop down here for a couple of days. If he wasn’t after that grey chap, why didn’t he want my company?”
Clarice listened to all this with a puzzled expression. “I don’t understand a word you’re talking about,” she said, tartly; “what grey man—what row?”
“Well,” drawled Baird, lighting his cigarette, and strolling back to his seat, “it’s like this.” And he related all that had taken place on the terrace, and described the man with the criss-cross scar on his face, ending up with a few comments of his own. “And Jerce must know the chap, for he wouldn’t let me go for the police. Oh, Jerce has his secrets, and if a chap has to knock him down and go through his pockets, those secrets ain’t respectable—that’s all I have to say. A nice chap Jerce is, to talk of my being wild, when he’s old enough to know better, and has larks like this.”
“Why don’t you tell him so?” asked Clarice, sarcastically.
“Oh, it’s none of my business,” replied Ferdy, airily. All the same his delicate colour came and went in a way which showed Clarice that he was afraid of Dr. Jerce. And very rightly, too, considering their relative ages and different positions in the world.
“It’s a strange thing,” said Clarice, thoughtfully, kilting up her dress and resting one slender foot on the fender. “I wonder Dr. Jerce didn’t speak of the matter.”
“Oh, he wants you to have a good opinion of him, so doesn’t give away his little wickednesses.”
“Ferdy!” said Miss Baird, sharply, for his flippant tone jarred on her, “you have no right to speak like this of Dr. Jerce. Everyone who knows him, is aware that his character is of the highest. He is charitable and attends to poor people in some London slum for nothing. No one can breathe a word against him. A man like Dr. Jerce would not hold the position he does, or expect to be knighted, unless his reputation and life were spotless. However, there’s an easy way of learning the truth. Dr. Jerce is coming down again to-morrow to consult with Dr. Wentworth over Uncle Henry’s case; I’ll tell him what you say!”
“No! no!” This time Ferdinand went quite white and spoke with dry lips. “You’ll only get me into a row. I dare say Jerce is all right. I never heard anyone speak of him save with the highest praise, and he has been a good friend to me. I don’t want to quarrel with him.”
“There is no need that you should do so, Ferdy. All I mean to ask Dr. Jerce is, why the man assaulted him and went through his pockets.”
“He says that he doesn’t know,” said Ferdy gruffly.
“You say that he knows the man?”
“He might—that is, I think so. Anyhow, he wouldn’t let me go for the police, so it looks as though he didn’t want a public row. But you’d better not say anything, Clarice. Jerce may get his back up at my telling you. He’d row me. I don’t want that. Jerce is a brick, you know, Clarry. He’s lent me money when Uncle Henry kept me short.”
Remembering the hopes expressed by the doctor, Clarice was vastly indignant at this revelation, and faced her weak twin with clenched hands. “How dare you borrow money from Dr. Jerce?” she said, and her eyes flashed. “Uncle Henry gives you all you want.”
“He doesn’t,” said Ferdy, sulkily. “He allows me next to nothing. I call him a skinflint. What’s two hundred a year?”
“Very good pocket-money. He pays your bills, keeps you for nothing, and gives you four pounds a week to waste. Yet with all that, you borrow from Dr. Jerce. How much have you had?”
“That’s my business.”
“Mine also. Tell me, or I’ll tell Uncle Henry.”
“Only a few hundreds,” snarled Ferdy, reluctantly.
“A few hundreds!” Clarice sank into her seat and looked at Ferdy with consternation. “And how on earth have you spent so much, in addition to your own income?”
“Money will go,” lamented Ferdy. “Whenever I break a pound, I never have any left within the hour.”
“You’ll bring disgrace on us some day,” said Clarice, with a pained look. “Why didn’t you come to me?”
“You’re so high and mighty. You wouldn’t have understood.”
“I understand this much, that Dr. Jerce is the last man I should wish you to have money from.”
“I thought you liked him.”
“I did—I do, and I respect him. All the same, I wish you hadn’t borrowed from him.”
Ferdinand rose and kicked the logs again in his petulant fashion. “I must have money somehow to enjoy myself.”
“You have four pounds a week.”
“What’s that—I want fifty. And after all, it’s my own money. When we come of age in two years we each have two thousand a year. I don’t see why Uncle Henry should grudge me cash in the way he does. If you don’t want to spend it, I do. And what’s more,” cried Ferdy, working himself into a rage, “I’m going to.”
“You shan’t spend Dr. Jerce’s money,” said Clarice, and her mouth shut firmly, while her eyes glittered like steel.
“How can you stop me from getting it?” scoffed Fred, uneasily.
“I can ask him to refuse you more. Dr. Jerce will do anything for me.”
Ferdy scowled. “I know that,” he said, moodily.
“He hinted that he was in love with you. If you were only a decent sort, Clarry, you would marry him and help me. He’s got heaps of tin, and you’d be Lady Jerce some day, you know.”
“Oh!” said Clarice, and her voice was as hard as her eyes, “did Dr. Jerce ask you to speak to me?”
“No! no, on my honour he didn’t; but he hinted that he’d like you to be his wife. I never said anything.”
“Not even that I am engaged to Anthony Ackworth.”
Ferdy looked up in genuine surprise. “Oh, by Jove, you ain’t!”
“Yes, I am. He asked me to become his wife only six days ago. I consented, and we are engaged. Uncle Henry knows, and I intended to tell you later. I thought you might have guessed. Apparently you did not, being so wrapped up in yourself. I’m glad of that, as I want to tell Dr. Jerce myself. You would only bungle the matter.”
“Ackworth’s only a gunner chap,” muttered Ferdinand, in dismay. “You had much better marry Jerce. He could help me, you know.”
“With more money, I suppose.”
“Well, not exactly that,” confessed Ferdy, with an engaging air of candour, “though I shouldn’t mind asking him for a fiver, if I were hard up, which I generally am. But when I become a doctor, Jerce could retire and hand over his patients to me, you know. Oh, there are lots of ways in which he could be useful to me, if you are nice to him. If you ain’t, he may cut up rough, and Jerce isn’t pleasant when he’s in a rage, I can tell you.”
“Oh!” said Clarice, contemptuously, “so to please you, I am to marry a man old enough to be my father.”
“He’s only fifty-five, and rich, and he’ll have a title soon.”
“So will Anthony, if it comes to that. His father is a baronet.”
“A poor baronet,” sneered Ferdy, with emphasis.
“I’ll have two thousand a year of my own when I am twenty-five,” said the girl, ignoring the speech, “and Anthony has his pay and an allowance from his father. We will be able to live very comfortably on what we can get. Besides, Uncle Henry likes Anthony, and is delighted that I should marry him. As to Dr. Jerce—” she hesitated.
“What about him?” murmured Baird, nervously.
“I’ll inform him of my engagement, when he comes down again. Also, I’ll ask him about this row, as you call it, and request him to refuse you more money.”
“You’ll ruin me,” gasped Ferdinand, on whose forehead the drops of perspiration were standing thickly.
“In what way?”
“Jerce will chuck me. He can be a beast when he likes.”
“Let him be a beast,” said Clarice, impatiently, “although I think you exaggerate. He’ll say nothing. He has no right to say anything.”
“Clarice!” He caught her hands. “For my sake you must marry Jerce.”
The girl released herself, angrily. “What do you mean by that?”
“Jerce could help me so much,” said Ferdy, feebly.
“Is that all?” asked Clarice, keeping her eyes steadfastly fixed on the weak, handsome face of her brother.
“Of course—of course,” he replied, testily. “What else could there be, you stupid girl?”
“I don’t know,” she said, coldly, “but I do know, Ferdy, that you never by any chance tell the whole truth. You always keep something back, and that makes it difficult to know how to advise you.”
“I don’t ask for advice.”
“No,” she answered, bitterly, “you ask for a sacrifice which in your egotistic eyes is no sacrifice. And you are keeping something back from me. What reason have you to be afraid of Dr. Jerce?”
“I have no reason. I never said that I was afraid.”
“And yet—and yet,” he broke in, snappishly, “you are making a mountain out of a mole-hill. I only suggest that you should marry—”
“Marry a man I don’t love. My word is passed to Anthony.”
The girl pushed him aside and opened the door. “That is enough. Go your own silly way, but don’t ask me to come with you.”
“Ah! You are always selfish.”
“Always,” said Clarice, sadly, and thinking of the many small sacrifices she had made for the fool before her, “therefore, I marry the man I love!” and she hastened from the room, unwilling to break down before one who would take such emotion as a sign of yielding.
Ferdy, left alone, kicked over the breakfast table, and vented his rage on the furniture generally. The room was quite a wreck by the time his feelings were completely relieved.
The housekeeper of Mr. Horran’s establishment was a small, withered-up old woman, who looked like the bad fairy of a D’Aulnoy story. She had nursed Clarice and Ferdy, and their father before them, so she was deeply attached to the twins. Of course, Ferdy being the more selfish of the two obtained all her affection, and although she was fond of Clarice, she lavished the treasures of her love on Ferdy, who gave her in return more kicks than half-pence. Mrs. Rebson was quite seventy years of age, and her face resembled a winter apple, so rosy and wrinkled it was. She must have had French blood in her old veins, for her vivacity was wonderful, and her jet black eyes were undimmed by age. Nothing ever seemed to put her out of temper, and her devotion to the twins had in it something of a religion.
Being thus bright and cheerful, it was strange that Mrs. Rebson should cherish a dreadful little book, which was called The Domestic Prophet, full of dismal hints. Published at the beginning of each year, it prophesied horrors for every month, from January to December, and was as lachrymose as the Book of Lamentations. Not a single, cheerful event enlivened the year from this modern prophet’s point of view, and although the book (consisting of twenty-four pages) was bound in green paper, the cover should certainly have been black, if only for the sake of consistency. Over this lamentable production, Mrs. Rebson was bending, when Clarice entered fresh from her encounter with Ferdy.
“What is the matter, lovey?” asked the old woman, pushing up her spectacles on her lined forehead, “there’s nothing to worry about. I have ordered the dinner, and seen to the Christmas provisions, and Mr. Horran’s in a sweet sleep, and your good gentleman is coming this afternoon to kiss your bonny face, bless it, and bless him.”
Clarice sat down with a disconsolate air. “It’s Ferdy.”
“Now, Miss,” Mrs. Rebson’s voice became sharper, and her manner quite like that of the nurse who put the twins to bed years before, “how often have I told you not to quarrel with your dear brother, as is bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh and the sweetest tempered baby I ever nursed?”
“Nanny!” Clarice called Mrs. Rebson by this childish name for the sake of old times, and perhaps from custom. “You are quite crazy about Ferdy, and he doesn’t deserve your love.”
“Indeed he does, Miss, and I wonder at your talking in that way. Oh, fie, Miss, fie,” shaking a gnarled finger, “this is jealousy.”
“It’s common sense, Nanny,” retorted Clarice, and detailed what Dr. Jerce had said about Ferdy, and what Ferdy had said to her. Mrs. Rebson listened to all this, quite unmoved. “But, of course, you won’t believe a word I say against your idol,” ended Clarice, bitterly.
“Because everyone’s against him,” cried Mrs. Rebson, wrathfully. “Oh, that Jerce man—I’ll Jerce him if he dares to speak against Master Ferdy, who is an angel.”
“There are two kinds of angels, Nanny, white and black.”
“Master Ferdy’s the kind of angel that plays a harp,” said the old dame, with dignity, “and why shouldn’t the poor boy amuse himself?”
“He’ll get into trouble unless he’s more careful. Drinking and gambling and sitting up all night with fast people.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Mrs. Rebson, energetically.
“Dr. Jerce says—”
“He’s a liar, Miss, and don’t come to me with tales of that angel. Why can’t you hold your tongue, and think of your future with Mr. Ackworth, who is so fond of you and I hope you’ll deserve his fondness.”
“I’m fond of Ferdy, too, Nanny, and I want him to grow up to be a good man.”
“He is a good man,” said the old nurse, obstinately, “and there’s no more growing of that sort needed. Mr. Horran, drat him, keeps the poor boy short of money.”
“Two hundred a year—”
“What’s that, when Master Ferdy will have two thousand?”
“He won’t become possessed of that for two years, Nanny. Meanwhile, he has no right to gamble.”
“I don’t believe he does. Why, he spends all his money in buying books about health and medicine. I gave him five pounds the other day to get some.”
“Oh, Nanny, your savings again, when you promised me you wouldn’t.”
“I can do what I like with my own, Miss Clarice. Besides, I have made Master Ferdy my heir, so why shouldn’t he have the money now, if he likes, bless him.”
“Nanny,” said Clarice, seriously. “You are ruining Ferdy.”
“Me!” Mrs. Rebson gave an indignant screech. “Me ruin the boy I love so dearly. Jealousy again, Miss Clarice. Go and read the Commandments, Miss, and weep for your sins.”
“I don’t think I’ll find ‘Honour thy brother’ among the Commandments, Nanny,” said Clarice, the humorous side of the business striking her; “however, I see it’s useless to think you will blame Ferdy.”
Mrs. Rebson looked round the comfortable little room, and removed her spectacles. “My dear,” she said, in a rather shaky voice, “if I must speak plainly to you, I am rather put out about Master Ferdy. Not that it’s his fault,” added the nurse, hurriedly, “but when one sees him being led away by that hussy—”
“Who is that?” asked Clarice, anxiously.
“Mrs. Dumps’ daughter. Zara, she calls herself, when I know that she was christened simple Sarah. Not that she is simple, my dear, for a more cunning fox isn’t to be found, with her red hair—dyed—and her cream complexion and red cheeks, which are nothing but pearl-powder and rouge, drat her, and her mother also, for a fool!”
Clarice knew Mrs. Dumps, and also had frequently seen Sarah Dumps, but had never for one moment thought that Ferdy would be attracted by such a bold, chattering girl, who flirted indiscriminately with every man, good-looking or plain. “I thought Sarah had gone to London.”
“So she has!” said Mrs. Rebson, fiercely, “she went over a year ago, and with her good looks—all paint and dye—and brazen impudence—ah, that’s genuine enough—she pushed her way on to the stage.”
“So Mrs. Dumps told me,” said Miss Baird. “Sarah is dancing and singing at some West-end music-hall.”
“She is that, and fine dancing it is, I don’t doubt—the hussy. I’d rather see a child of mine in her grave than capering as a butterfly before gentry.”
“Butterflies don’t caper, Nanny.”
“This one does,” sniffed the old woman, viciously. “She calls herself Butterfly on the stage.”
“No—just Butterfly, when she ought to be called Cat. Well, then, my love, Mrs. Dumps, who is a cousin of mine (and I don’t think much of her dressing and screeching like a peacock) called to see me the other day, and told me that Master Ferdy had been seeing Sarah—I can’t bring myself to call her Zara—such affectation. He’s been driving and talking and walking, and giving her presents, and Mrs. Dumps, who is a born fool, thinks that Master Ferdy means marriage.”
Clarice started to her feet. “Oh, Nanny!”
“What’s the use of saying, ‘Oh, Nanny,’ like that?” snapped Mrs. Rebson. “You know what an angel Master Ferdy is, and how easily a pretty face can beguile him—not that Sarah is pretty, the minx. It’s her fault, and I’d tar and feather her and ride her on a rail if I had my way. Why can’t she leave the boy alone? I know you are jealous of Master Ferdy, Miss Clarice, but as you have a head on your shoulders—I don’t deny that, lovey—it is only right that you should know the truth. I can’t tell Mr. Horran, as there would be trouble.”
Clarice went to the window, and looked out into the white, cold world, with her thoughts fixed anywhere but on the scenery. In fact, she was wondering what was best to be done about Ferdinand, who evidently had become entangled with Sarah Dumps. Dr. Jerce apparently knew of this entanglement, hence Ferdy’s fear of him, and dread as to what he might have said. It was useless to talk to Ferdy, who would only go his own way, being obstinate, as all weak people are; while Mr. Horran was too ill to be told of the business. There remained Anthony and Dr. Jerce to help her. The second of these had made things unpleasant by wanting to marry her, so it was difficult to appeal to him for aid. He might demand his price. Finally, in two minutes, Clarice made up her mind to enlist Captain Ackworth on her side. He was not coming this afternoon, as Mrs. Rebson had said, but the next day, so she could speak to him then. Meanwhile, it would be best to be agreeable to Ferdy and keep him at home, lest he should go back to town and to this dreadful girl. Not that Sarah Dumps really was very dreadful, for being shrewd, she was quite respectable, and able to take excellent care of herself. But, naturally, Clarice thought she was dreadful, when Ferdy was in her toils—though what Sarah Dumps could see in poor, weak Ferdy, passed Clarice’s comprehension.
“Well, deary?” asked Mrs. Rebson, impatiently.
“Say nothing to Mr. Horran, or to Ferdy,” said Clarice, turning from the window. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Treat Master Ferdy tenderly,” warned Mrs. Rebson.
“Oh, yes,” replied Miss Baird, indifferently. “Things will come all right, Nanny. Ferdy, after all, is in love with Prudence.”
“Another hussy,” snapped the nurse.
“A very clever one, then. She would make Ferdy a good wife, and rule him with a rod of iron.”
“He doesn’t want that, Miss. You can lead him with a silken thread.”
“I am quite sure Sarah Dumps can,” said Clarice, emphatically. “Ferdy can always be led in the way he wishes to go. No, no!” she waved her hand impatiently, “don’t defend him any more, Nanny. I agree with you that Ferdy is all sugar-candy and honey. I’ll try and put everything right.”
“And it needs putting right,” said Mrs. Rebson, in her most lively tone, “there’s going to be trouble—yes, poverty—death—sorrow—disgrace—”
“Stop, stop!” cried Clarice, turning pale, “what do you mean?”
“The Domestic Prophet—”
“Oh, that creature. Pooh!” Clarice was much relieved. “I thought you were in earnest.”
“The Domestic Prophet always is, deary.”
“He’s a fraud, Nanny. He never prophesies correctly.”
“Yes, he does,” cried Mrs. Rebson, obstinately, and adjusting her spectacles, “listen to this,” and she read: “‘The month of December will be dangerous to elderly men who are sick. They will probably die if the weather is severe, and in winter we may expect snow. Some elderly men will probably meet with a violent death, either by poison or the knife, or a railway accident, or by drowning, if they frequent seaside resorts. Beware the dead of night,’ says the Domestic Prophet, ‘to all men over fifty.’“
After reading this precious extract, Mrs. Rebson lifted her eyes, to find Clarice choking with laughter, and assumed an offended air. “You were always foolish, Miss,” she said, disdainfully, “but these things will come true. Mr. Horran is doomed; he is over fifty.”
“And how do you think he will die, Nanny—not in a railway accident or by drowning, as he can’t leave the house. The severe weather may kill him, certainly, but I’ll see that he is well wrapped up. There remains the knife and the poison. Which will he die of?”
Mrs. Rebson still continued, disdainful. “It’s all very well sniggering, Miss, but the Domestic Prophet is right very often.” She opened the dismal book again, and read: “‘When a black cat bites its tail, take it for a sign of a sudden death.’ And,” added Mrs. Rebson, closing the book solemnly, “I saw my black cat bite its tail only yesterday. Also Mr. Horran is elderly, and should beware the dead of night.”
“Well, then,” said Clarice, flippantly, “I suppose Buster,” this was the black cat’s name, “hints, by biting his tail, that Mr. Horran is about to meet with a violent death at midnight.”
“I don’t say Mr. Horran, Miss. But Dr. Jerce is over fifty, and so is the Rev. Nehemiah Clarke.”
“You also, Nanny—”
“The Domestic Prophet is talking of men, deary. You scoff, Miss, but mark my words, before the end of the month, we’ll hear of something.”
Miss Baird, still laughing, kissed the withered cheek. “I dare say,” was her reply, “your prophet is very general in his applications. Well, I shall see Uncle Henry—”
“Don’t tell him what I say.”
“Oh, but I will, Nanny. It’s too funny to keep to myself,” and Clarice left the room laughing, while Mrs. Rebson, with a sigh for such levity, began to read The Domestic Prophet with renewed zeal.
Meanwhile, Miss Clarice proceeded to Mr. Horran’s bedroom. This was on the other side of the house, and was similar in many respects to the drawing-room. Here also were two French windows opening on to a terrace, and the apartment was large and lofty and spacious, and was furnished half as a bedroom and half as a sitting-room. This was because Mr. Horran lived, for the most part of his life, beneath its roof. Formerly, he had occupied a room on the first floor, where the other bedrooms were, but being unable, by reason of his mysterious disease, to mount the stairs, he had, within the last five years, transferred this room, which was formerly a library, into his sleeping chamber. It was handsomely furnished, and very comfortable, and had a large open fireplace, in which, summer and winter, blazed a grand fire. The walls were of a deep orange colour, as Mr. Horran thought such a hue was most restful to the eye, and on them hung many fine pictures, and also several spears and swords and Zulu shields and Matabele assegais, which various friends had brought as presents. In front of one window stood a rosewood escritoire, covered with papers, but the way to the other window was left open, as it acted also as a door, whence Mr. Horran could emerge, on fine days, to take the sun on the miniature terrace. For an invalid, everything was perfectly arranged, and Mr. Horran was lodged luxuriously.
The old man himself was thin and wrinkled, but very straight and somewhat military in his looks, the resemblance being increased by a long, iron-grey moustache and closely clipped grey hair. He had left his bed and was sitting, clothed in a camel’s hair dressing-gown, in a deep-seated leather armchair before the fire. When Clarice entered he was weeping, and she hastened towards him in alarm.
“Dear Uncle Henry,” she said, putting her arms round his neck, “why did you get up? It is most imprudent. Dr. Jerce and Dr. Wentworth both say you should remain in bed. I wonder Chalks,” this was Horran’s valet and faithful attendant, “allowed you.”
“I’m all right, my dear,” said Mr. Horran, trying to recover his self-command, and patting Clarice’s hand. “I’m only upset a little.”
“And no wonder, after that fit.”
“It is not the fit. That is all right now. I have been sleeping for about ten hours, and woke some time ago, feeling much better. Indeed, I felt so well, that I decided to rise, and take a stroll on the terrace, in the winter sunshine. Then I received a shock.”
“What kind of a shock?”
“We won’t say anything about it just now,” said Horran, in a weak voice. “It would not interest you, and besides, I don’t wish to talk of it. I have told no one, not even Chalks.”
“Told him what?”
“Nothing, nothing,” maundered on the old man, staring into the fire. “I feel ever so much better, my dear, only I can’t help crying—some sort of emotion from the shock.”
Clarice slipped down beside him, and held his cold hands. “Dear Uncle Henry, tell me what is the matter,” she implored, “it isn’t Ferdy?”
“No, no! Ferdy is all right. He’s a good boy and very kind. It is very strange, Clarry, but I am now beginning to feel drowsy, and a few minutes ago, I was so wide-awake. Oh, dear me,” he sighed, “I do wish Daniel, or Dr. Wentworth would find out what is the matter with me.”
“They will find out soon, dear,” said Clarice, soothingly.
“No. Clever as Daniel is, my disease seems to baffle him. He says that I may live for years, but I don’t think that is likely, Clarry, dear. However, should I die suddenly, everything is straight. You and Ferdy will get your money within a week of my death.”
“Dear, don’t talk of your death.”
“I must. It is just as well, Clarry, that you should know how matters stand. I have arranged that you will control Ferdy’s money, as I have the power to do by your father’s will. I was appointed sole guardian, and the will enables me to appoint another guardian should I die. But I shall not do that. I shall arrange, and have arranged, as my lawyer will tell you, to give you the whole four thousand pounds a year. You will be, so to speak, your own guardian, and Ferdy’s also.”
“You don’t trust Ferdy, then, Uncle Henry?” she asked, in a low voice.
“No, dear,” he patted her hand. “You are the clever one. Ferdy is unstable. I have seen that for many years, and so I placed him with Daniel, who will keep the boy straight. Ferdy is like your poor father, charming and weak; you more resemble your dear mother, who was my first and my last love. I never married because of your mother.”
“I know, dear.” Clarice kissed the cold hand tenderly, as she knew of this romance. She was the sole person to whom Horran ever spoke of the matter. He maundered on dreamily. “I told Daniel of my will, and he was not pleased. He said that a woman should not possess such power, as she was incapable of exercising it.”
“Oh, indeed,” said Clarice, flushing angrily. “I think Dr. Jerce will find me perfectly capable. I am glad that you have made me Ferdy’s guardian, Uncle Henry, as he certainly needs a guiding hand. Have you told him about the will, dear?”
“No, I only told Daniel, who was displeased. But then he says that I may live for years. He spoke kindly, too, though he is wrong in believing I shall recover. Daniel and I have always been friends. We only quarrelled once, and that was over your mother. But she married Baird, and left us both in the cold. But for you, dear Clarry, I should have had a lonely life, my dear.”
Clarice rose and moved towards the bell. “Let me call Chalks to put you to bed again, Uncle Henry. You are quite drowsy.”
“No! no!” The invalid grew testy, sudden changes of mood being a characteristic of his unknown disease. “I’m comfortable here. And I want to see Daniel. Where is Daniel?”
“He returned to town last night, dear. I don’t think he will come again until after Christmas.”
“That is not for a few days,” groaned Horran, in a piteous tone. “Oh, send for him, Clarry. I must see him about the letter.”
“What letter, dear?” she asked, much puzzled. Horran raised his heavy lids with an effort. “The letter which I found on the terrace, near the window. It gave me a shock.”
“Show it to me, Uncle Henry.”
“No! You would not understand. Daniel might; he’s so clever.”
“Who wrote this letter?” coaxed Clarice, trying to get information. “There is no writing,” he answered, drowsily. “It is not a letter.”
“You said that it was.”
“Picture writing, then, like the ancient Egyptians.” She thought, naturally, that his mind was wandering, when he talked in so contradictory a manner. After a moment or so, his head fell back on the chair, and his eyes closed. He began to breathe deeply, and apparently was falling asleep. Clarice put her ear to his lips, as she saw them move, and caught three words, which conveyed nothing: “The—Purple—Fern!”
This was unintelligible, until she noticed an envelope at his feet, which had fallen out of his pocket. Picking this up, she took out the slip of paper it contained, and found thereon, no writing, but the representation of a tiny fern, stamped in purple ink.
There seemed to Clarice to be a familiar look about this representation of a fern. The double sheet of writing paper was thick and glossy, with untrimmed edges, and on this the curved fern, with its fronds wonderfully delicate and distinct, had evidently been impressed with an india-rubber stamp, moistened with purple ink. The square-sized envelope bore no address, no stamp, and no seal. What could one make of such a missive? It appeared meaningless, yet to Clarice the fern itself recalled some faint memory. Probably that memory, whatever it might be, was clearer to Horran, and so had given him the shock of which he had complained.
After some consideration, Clarice slipped the envelope and sheet of paper into her pocket, thinking it advisable to remove them from Horran’s sight. He had fallen into a deep sleep, and was breathing almost imperceptibly, his face looking singularly calm and unwrinkled. Whatever his disease might be, he certainly was not suffering pain; but it was strange that after a ten hours’ sleep, he should again relapse into slumber. Still, from his looks there was no cause for alarm, so Clarice touched the bell, and when Chalks entered, she pointed silently to his unconscious master.
The valet was a round, rosy, stout little man, with twinkling black eyes, and a meek manner. He beamed with good nature and overflowed with the milk of human kindness. An attendant with so cheerful a disposition and smiling a countenance was quite the kind of nurse needed by an invalid, as his spirits were infectious, and frequently served to arouse the somewhat melancholy Mr. Horran from dismal musings. Chalks displayed no surprise at the sight of his patient asleep again, but lifted him in his arms and placed him gently on the bed. Clarice deliberated as to whether she should tell Chalks (who was intelligent and devoted to Mr. Horran) about the missive of the purple fern; but finally decided to say nothing concerning it to anyone until she had seen Anthony. The elusive memory, which would not come back to her in its entirety, suggested that Ackworth could account for the fern in some way.
“What do you think of him, Chalks?” she asked, indicating the unconscious man on the bed.
“I think’s he’s asleep, Miss,” said Chalks, innocently.
“But why should he sleep again after ten hours’ slumber?”
“Why should he be ill at all, Miss?” was the retort of the cheerful little man, “seeing that them doctors says as his organs is healthy, and that there ain’t nothing whatever the matter with him?”
Miss Baird drew her white brows together in a perplexed way. “There must be some reason for his disease, Chalks.”
“The doctors say there’s no disease, Miss.”
“But this sleep is unnatural.”
“Master’s health has been unnatural for the last ten years, Miss.”
“What is your theory, Chalks?”
“I have none, Miss. Master gets headaches and giddy fits, and weeps and gets into rages, which ain’t his real nature, and he’s had two fits, and now sleeps like a top for hours. This ain’t what you’d call health, Miss, and yet Dr. Jerce and Dr. Wentworth have both examined him heaps of times, only to find he’s all right, both inside and outside. It’s a riddle, Miss, that’s what it is.”
“What’s to be done, then?”
Chalks advanced briskly to the bed. “Leave Master to me, Miss, and I’ll put him between the sheets. Then we must wait until Dr. Wentworth comes again, Miss.”
Clarice walked to the door, but cast a glance round the room, before going out. She saw that one of the French windows was open, and moved to close it. Chalks stopped her. “No, Miss, Master must have all the air he can get—Dr. Wentworth says so.”
“And Dr. Jerce?” Chalks beamed like a cherub. “Bless your heart, Miss, he insists on Master getting as little air as possible. When Dr. Jerce comes down, Miss, he says the window must be closed; when Dr. Wentworth turns up, he opens it straight off. They don’t agree, Miss, which is hard on me, Miss.”
“It is perplexing,” assented Clarice, laughing, “what do you do?”
“Well, Miss, I let them do what they like. If Dr. Jerce closes the window, I leave it so; when Dr. Wentworth opens it, I let it be. Sometimes that window is open all night and closed all day. At other times, Miss, it’s open all day and closed all night. It depends on them dratted doctors.”
Clarice laughed at this explanation, and seeing that her guardian, to all appearance, was in a healthy sleep, went away. “Tell me when he wakes up, Chalks,” said she, at the door.
“Yes, Miss, if Master don’t sleep for one hundred years, like the Sleeping Beauty,” and Chalks chuckled at his own simple wit. Clarice passed the morning in attending to her domestic duties, and had a consultation with Mrs. Rebson about the Christmas festivities. That cheerful housekeeper remarked that it would be as well to make the house as bright as possible, since The Domestic Prophet declared that something terrible would happen before Christmas. What the event might be, Mrs. Rebson could not tell, as the prophet, after the manner of his kind, was obscure in the wording of his oracles. Nevertheless, Clarice became infected with the vague dread which Mrs. Rebson insisted she felt herself, and the memory of that oddly delivered envelope, containing the stamped picture of the purple fern, did not tend to dissipate her uneasiness. When she left Mrs. Rebson, still prophesying coming woes, like an elderly Cassandra, the girl felt that a walk would do her good, and, putting on her furs, she sallied forth, eager to breathe a less portentous atmosphere.
The day was bright and clear, the snow was hard and clean. In the lucid air lurked the sting of frost. Sitting over a fire, one was apt to shiver; but smart walking brought a colour to the most wan cheeks, and communicated a glow to the whole body. Clarice looked extremely pretty as the exercise tinted her oval face, and sent the warm blood spinning through her youthful veins. She walked in a determined, swinging way, with steadfast eyes and a firmly closed mouth, like a woman who knows her own mind, and who means to have her own way. It needed a very strong man to master this young lady of the new school, and Clarice believed that Ackworth was just the man to exercise authority. Certainly, Dr. Jerce might have mastered her also, as he was stern and strong. But then she did not love Dr. Jerce, and only from the tyrant she loved was Miss Baird ready to take orders.
Finding herself near the vicarage, Clarice determined to enter and see if Ferdy was there. As he had not come back to luncheon, it was probable that he had gone to Prudence Clarke for consolation, a thing Miss Baird quite approved of, as she respected Prudence, and would have been glad to see Ferdy engaged to so sensible a girl. The quarrel at the breakfast table had no doubt left Ferdy fretful and complaining, so it was pretty certain that he would visit Prudence and pour his woes into her sympathetic ears. Ferdy never could keep his troubles to himself, but invariably climbed to the highest house-top to shout out his puny griefs. Clarice wished him to marry Prudence, yet sometimes she doubted if so sensible a girl would tolerate such a baby man as a husband.
The servant who answered the door said that Miss Clarke had gone out skating with Mr. Baird, but that the vicar was in his study. Clarice would have turned away in pursuit of the young people, but that the parson heard her voice and came into the hall. He was an undersized, miserable man, with a head too large for his body, and an awkward, diffident manner, which seemed to continually apologise for the existence of Mr. Nehemiah Clarke. His voice was querulous, and his complaints were incessant. In his rusty black clothes, with his bent frame and untidy hair, he looked a most dismal object, and Clarice, in her then somewhat dejected state of mind, scarcely relished an interview with so cheerless a person. However, she could not help herself, and entered the study with the best grace she could muster.
“There,” whimpered Mr. Clarke, waving his hands towards an array of bills, which strewed his desk like autumn leaves, “what do you think of that for Christmas, Clarice? How is a man to preach goodwill towards men, when men won’t show any goodwill towards him?”
“But we all get bills at Christmas time,” said Miss Baird, consolingly.
“I get more than anyone else,” moaned the vicar, sinking into the chair before his desk; “why they should come to me, I don’t know.”
“You should pay as you go, Mr. Clarke.”
“I haven’t any ready money, Clarice. It’s all very well for you, in the lap of luxury; but I have only three hundred a year, and even that small sum comes to me slowly, since people will not pay their tithes without legal threats, and those cost money. I don’t eat much, I dress plainly, I never enjoy myself, and keep only one cheap servant, yet the bills will come in. Prudence is responsible for many; she ought to emulate her name, but she won’t. Imprudence would suit her better. Oh, dear me, how I can sympathise with Lear.”
“I don’t think Prudence is extravagant, Mr. Clarke,” said Clarice, who resented this placing of burdens on other people’s shoulders, “she always seems to me to be a sensible girl.”
“In some ways—in some ways,” muttered the vicar, discontentedly.
Clarice reflected for a few minutes. From hints dropped by Prudence, she had a shrewd idea of where the vicar’s money went. “How is Frank, Mr. Clarke?” she asked, significantly.
“My son. He is still in London, trying to get work. Poor lad, he is very unfortunate. With his education and manners and brains, he ought to be one of the foremost men of the time; but the want of money is a bar to his advancement.”
“What is Frank doing?”
“Nothing. He has tried the army, the medical profession, the legal profession, the lecture hall, and even the stage. But, as yet, he has not hit upon the field in which he can display his undoubted abilities to their utmost.”
“You support him, I suppose?”
“I can’t let the boy starve,” said Mr. Clarke, defiantly.
“Well, then, it seems to me that Frank is more to blame than Prudence for your difficulties. He ought to support himself.”
“He will some day, when he acquires the position to which his talents will lead him. Then he will bring glory to the Clarkes.”
“He only brings misfortune and debts just now,” said Clarice, dryly.
“Who says so?” asked the vicar, furiously.
“Prudence tells me that her brother will not do anything, but passes his time in idleness, and constantly comes to you for money. As he is over thirty years of age, he certainly should support himself.”
“Poor Frank cannot help his misfortunes.”
“I rather think that a man’s misfortunes are, as a rule, of his own making, Mr. Clarke. Your own, for instance. You have three hundred a year and a free house. That ought to keep you out of debt; but if you will give all your money to Frank, what can you expect?”
“My dear—my dear,” said Mr. Clarke, testily, “a girl like you can’t understand these things.”
“Oh, yes, I can. Since Uncle Henry has been ill all these years, I have had a great deal to do with business.”
The vicar started. “I thought Mr. Barras was your guardian’s lawyer.”
“So he is. He attends to everything, but Uncle Henry rarely sees Mr. Barras himself, so I have to attend to necessary matters.”
“Why doesn’t Ferdinand—?”
“Ferdinand!” Clarice made a gesture of contempt.
“He is the same as your son, and spends money rather than earns it.”
“My dear, you shouldn’t say these things, unbecoming in a young girl’s mouth. It is not modest in a woman.”
Clarice stood up, very tall and dignified, and rather irritated. “What is the use of talking like that to me, Mr. Clarke. All that idea of the superiority of man is a thing of the past. I am only a woman, and a girl, as you say, but I have five times the sense of Ferdinand, and Uncle Henry trusts me rather than him. Prudence also is clever and sensible. I don’t believe that she is extravagant, Mr. Clarke. Frank is the one who spends your money. If you would allow Frank to earn his own living, and let Prudence arrange your affairs, you would soon be out of difficulties.”
“Prudence knows nothing of business, Clarice.”
“And Frank knows less,” retorted the girl, thoroughly angry. “Women have more intuition than men. But there is another way out of your difficulties, Mr. Clarke.”
“What is that?” asked the little man, somewhat cowed by the determined demeanour of Miss Baird.
“Ferdy is in love with Prudence. Let them marry, and then I can arrange that your debts will be paid when Ferdy comes in for his money two years hence.”
“But in the meantime?” moaned the vicar.
“We can arrange something—that is, if you will stop sending money to Frank. Let him sink or swim, Mr. Clarke. Self-reliance is the sole thing which will make a man of Frank.”
“I’ll see, I’ll see,” said Mr. Clarke, evasively, “but if I allow Prudence to marry Ferdinand—and I note that they love one another—do you think he will help me?”
“I shall help you.”
“But how can you—?”
“Mr. Clarke, I spoke to Uncle Henry this morning, and he told me that as our guardian, he has the authority to appoint another one at his death. He doesn’t trust Ferdy, so he has constituted me the head of our affairs. Ferdy gets two thousand a year, as I do, in two years, but I shall have the casting vote as to how his money is disposed of—at least, up to the age of twenty-five, when he takes it over. If Ferdy marries Prudence next year, I’ll allow him a good income, on condition that he pays your debts. He will do it, if I advise, as I shall have the legal power when Uncle Henry dies.”
“But if Mr. Horran does not die?”
“Then I’ll see what Mr. Barras can do. He is the lawyer, and believes in me. He tells me everything.”
Clarke rose, and began to pace the room. “Has Barras told you that Horran lent me one thousand pounds five years ago at ten per cent.”
“No,” said Clarice, somewhat startled, “is that so?”
“Yes. I am in great trouble over the loan. I borrowed it to help my son Frank, and I have had to pay interest at the rate of ten per cent. every year—that is, one hundred pounds. I have not paid up for three years, so I am indebted to Mr. Horran for three hundred pounds, and he threatens to sell me up—that means ruin.”
“I don’t believe it,” cried Clarice, energetically. “Uncle Henry is a kind man, and would never do such a thing. Who says so?”
“Then I’ll go up to London and see Mr. Barras after Christmas. He ought to have told me about this, but he did not. Why do you not see Uncle Henry yourself, Mr. Clarke?”
“I tried to, but Dr. Jerce would not let me. He said that I would upset Mr. Horran if I talked business to him. I therefore have kept away from the house.”
“I noticed that you had not been near us for months,” said Clarice, thoughtfully. “But how does Dr. Jerce come to know of the matter?”
“Mr. Barras told him.”
Miss Baird flushed in an angry way. “It seems to me that Mr. Barras takes a great deal upon himself,” she said, haughtily. “Since Uncle Henry is ill, and trusts me, I am the one to be spoken to, about these matters, and not Dr. Jerce. I’ll question Uncle Henry about the loan, and see that everything is put right.”
“Then I won’t have to pay the three hundred,” said the vicar, eagerly.
“I can’t say that,” rejoined Clarice, bluntly. “I’ll see what I can do. Of course, if Ferdy would only become engaged to Prudence, I might be able to do much, but as matters stand, Dr. Jerce and Mr. Barras may prove too strong for me.”
“But Mr. Horran trusts you—so you say, Clarice?”
“He does. But he—Uncle Henry, I mean—has a great opinion of Dr. Jerce, and in his weak state may be influenced by him. I’ll speak to the doctor and to Mr. Barras—more than this I can’t promise.”
The vicar looked more miserable than ever and twice opened his mouth to speak. Each time he closed it, while Clarice wondered at his hesitation. “Do you think that everything is right with Mr. Horran?” asked Mr. Clarke, at length.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked, startled.
“Mr. Horran has no money, you know, save what he receives from your estate by acting as your guardian.”
Clarice stared. “I never knew that,” she said, at length. “I understood, of course, that Uncle Henry received a sum for acting as guardian, since that is but right. But he has his own money and the house—”
“The house you live in belonged to your father, and now belongs to you,” said Clarke, rapidly, leaning forward with eagerness to emphasise his words. “I know, because I buried both your parents, and was present at the reading of the will. Mr. Horran loved your mother and was trusted by your father; but he never had any money. When your father died he left everything to your mother, in trust for you and Ferdinand. When she went the way of all flesh, she constituted Mr. Horran, who then managed her business, your guardian, as she trusted him, and he was hard up. Did not Mr. Barras tell you all these things, Clarice?”
“No,” she said, absently, and began to see that the lawyer had not trusted her so entirely as she had thought—neither had Horran, if the vicar was to be believed. “I shall speak to Uncle Henry,” she said, after a pause, “and from him I shall learn the true position of affairs. Meantime, please say nothing, Mr. Clarke.”
“No. I’ll be silent. But this three hundred interest—?”
“I’ll see about that also. I am sure that Uncle Henry does not mean to be hard on you. Of course, business may upset him, since he is so ill, and Dr. Jerce may be right in keeping you away. All the same, it seems to me that Dr. Jerce knows a good deal about our private affairs.”
“I am sure that Mr. Horran tells him everything,” said Clarke, with a gloomy air, “and Dr. Jerce is not friendly towards me. I don’t know why, since we were at college together, but he is not friendly.”
Clarice felt puzzled. This conversation with Mr. Clarke opened her eyes to the fact that business was not so easy a matter as she had imagined. If she was to be tricked by Mr. Barras keeping back details of finance, and if Dr. Jerce was influencing Horran secretly, it appeared that she would have some difficulty in straightening out things at the death. Nevertheless, Horran had assured her that when he passed away, she would find everything in good order. Before she could pursue the subject further in her thoughts, the door opened, and Prudence appeared, with Ferdy behind her. Prudence was a brunette, as dark as Ferdy was fair, but tall and handsome and full of life and spirits. From the downward curve of her mouth, it would seem that she had a temper. But just now, she appeared to be filled with joy, and rushed to kiss Clarice. “Dear! dear!” she said, quickly, “Ferdy has—Ferdy has—”
“I am glad,” cried Clarice, guessing what had happened with the swift intuition of a woman; “it is exactly what I wanted Ferdy to do.”
“Well, then,” said Ferdy, who was radiant as a lover, and who evidently had forgiven his sister for the quarrel at breakfast, “I’ve done it.”
“Done what?” asked the vicar, staring open-mouthed.
“I have asked Prudence to become my wife.”
“Thank God!” said Clarke, devout and egotistic, “my debts will be paid.”
On that same night the weather changed with unexampled rapidity from cold to warm. A thick mist descended on Crumel, and the snow began to melt, as though under the influence of a summer sun. The long hours of darkness were filled with the dripping of water, the melting of snow, and the whole country was turned into a vast expanse of slush. The expectations of a White Christmas, entertained by old-fashioned people, vanished, and next day it seemed, from the warm humidity of the foggy air, as though the season of Yule had given place to early autumn.
Clarice looked out of her bedroom-window on to damp green lawns, from which patches of snow were quickly disappearing, and experienced a sense of discomfort, which she set down to the queer weather. Perhaps the earthquakes in the earlier part of the year had disarranged the English climate and altered the seasons, but assuredly the atmosphere was decidedly unhealthy. Yet the vague fears of the girl may have been less due to the sudden change of temperature than to the feeling of apprehension she entertained, since her conversation with Mr. Clarke, that money matters were not so satisfactory as she had thought them to be.
Hitherto Clarice had implicitly trusted Mr. Barras in her innocence of worldly ways. He had always been frank with her, so far as she could see, and having been delegated by Horran to tell her of all things connected with the estate, Clarice had believed that she knew everything. Now, if the vicar were to be believed, it appeared that Horran had lent him money, and was pressing for the payment of the interest. Also, Dr. Jerce seemed to know of the private business of the Baird orphans, and to be influencing Horran against the wretched Mr. Clarke. Certainly, the vicar was not a very estimable character, and his infatuation for his spendthrift son merited contempt rather than approbation. Nevertheless, Horran had known Clarke all his life and had been to college with him and with Jerce. He therefore, assuredly, should not be hard on the parson, whose sole fault was affection for an unworthy son. Also, if Jerce was influencing Horran, as Clarke suggested, he might advise leniency instead of bearing hard on the man, especially at Christmas time. Barras also appeared to be anxious to force the vicar into discharging the interest at a time when he could ill afford to pay three pounds, much less three hundred; and, more than this, Barras wilfully concealed from Clarice the facts of the case. If the lawyer withheld this item, he certainly withheld others, and Clarice, staring out of her window at the thaw, began to find herself doubting the honesty of Mr. Barras.
Added to these troubles were the facts of Horran’s mysterious illness, and the mystery of the purple fern. More than ever, Clarice was determined not to speak to Jerce about the missive, which had sent Horran into his second deep sleep. Putting aside the fact that Jerce was in league with Barras—as it would appear—to bankrupt the vicar, the doctor, being in love with her, assuredly was not a person to whom she could talk freely. Then again, Ferdy’s manner alarmed the girl. After his first outburst of joy on becoming engaged to Prudence, he had relapsed into moody silence, and seemed to be much worried over something, which he refused to explain to his sister.
In vain, on the previous night, had Clarice implored him to be entirely frank. Ferdy, declaring that there was nothing wrong, had maintained his moody manner, and had drunk much more wine than was good for a man with a weak brain. On the whole, Clarice, after reflection, concluded that her uneasiness was due less to the unexampled weather than to the domestic mysteries, by which she seemed to be surrounded.
On leaving her room, she found that Ferdy had already breakfasted, and had gone out. Presuming that he was haunting Prudence with the impatience of a young lover, Clarice thought no more about his absence, but breakfasted alone. Then she repaired to Mr. Horran’s room to speak to him of the many matters which were on her mind. It was just as well, she thought, to go to the fountain head at once, and to learn if Horran really desired to sell up the vicar.
“Is Uncle Henry awake?” she asked, when Chalks presented himself. “No, Miss,” was the prompt reply, “he is sound asleep, as usual.”
“Dear me. And how long will he sleep?”
“Dr. Wentworth can’t say, Miss. We tried to wake him, and can’t, so Dr. Wentworth said it would be better to let him sleep until he had a consultation with Dr. Jerce.”
Clarice cast a look at the French window, and saw that it was open wide, in spite of the fog. “I see that Dr. Wentworth has been here, Chalks,” she said, remembering the whimsical explanation of the man about the disagreement between the two physicians.
“Yes, Miss,” said Chalks, casting a look at the window, “but when Dr. Jerce comes this afternoon, he will have that closed.”
“Oh is Dr. Jerce coming this afternoon?”
“Yes, Miss. Dr. Wentworth doesn’t like this constant sleeping of the master, and has sent for Dr. Jerce to consult.”
“It is just as well,” said Clarice, crossing to the bed and looking at the pale, calm face of the still sleeping man. “I want to talk to Dr. Jerce about some business.”
This was hardly the term. She wished to ask Jerce why the grey man had searched his pockets, and why he was influencing Barras and Horran to be hard on the vicar. The matter of the purple fern, she intended to relate to no one but Anthony. A memory of his name made her glance at her watch, and she noted that he would soon make his appearance. Horran seemed to be sleeping as placidly as an infant, so she felt that there was no cause for alarm. Bending to kiss the placid face, she turned slowly towards the door.
“By the way, Chalks, have you seen Mr. Ferdinand this morning?” she asked, thinking that her brother might have paid a visit to the invalid.
“Yes, Miss,” said the valet, promptly. “I saw him out of this,” he waved his hand towards the open French window, “going to the Savoy Hotel.”
“Oh,” ejaculated Clarice, and hastily left the room. It seemed strange to her that Ferdy should seek out the mother of Sarah Dumps, just when he became engaged. Surely he did not love the dancer, when he had only lately proposed to Prudence. Remembering Dr. Jerce’s remarks, and recalling the conversation of Mrs. Rebson, the girl felt uneasy on account of her brother. Ferdy seemed to have two strings to his bow. Sarah Dumps was not at home, certainly, yet,—here Clarice stopped and thought. A sudden idea struck her. She returned quickly to the sick-room. “Chalks, you go sometimes to the Savoy Hotel,” she remarked, “were you there last night?”
“For half an hour, Miss,” replied the valet, apologetically, “Mrs. Rebson watched master while I was away. I hope I didn’t do wrong, but master seemed to be sleeping so quietly that I thought I might get a breath of fresh air.”
“No! no! that’s all right, Chalks. But do you know if Mrs. Dumps’ daughter has returned for Christmas.”
“Yes, Miss. She came back last night, and a very pretty girl she is, Miss, quite a—”
“Yes, yes! I have seen her,” interrupted Clarice, hurriedly, and went away feeling more upset than ever. This, then, was the reason of Ferdy’s visit to the Savoy Hotel. Sarah Dumps was in the field, and Ferdy was in her nets. Yet weak as the boy was, it seemed incredible that he should propose to one woman and immediately seek the company of another. Here, then, was another trouble for Clarice, and she did not know very well what to do. It was impossible to speak to Ferdy, as she had no proof that he loved Sarah Dumps, save from what Mrs. Rebson had said. A simple denial on the part of Ferdy would take the wind out of her sails, so to speak, and she would be helpless to do anything. On the other hand, Clarice felt certain that in some way Ferdy was playing a double game. She knew his weak character too well to give him the benefit of the doubt. For all she knew he might be engaged to both Sarah Dumps and Prudence at the same time. “Oh, dear me,” cried her heart, “I wish Anthony would marry me and take me away from all these troubles;” but even as she thought, the wish seemed cowardly. She would have to remain and fight Ferdy’s battles and those of the vicar. Also, if the purple fern meant any harm to Mr. Horran, she would be forced to help him also. The sole thing she could do was to seek Anthony’s advice and aid.
Towards noon that young man arrived, having driven over from Gattlinsands in his dog-cart. Usually he came over on a motor bicycle, but as he explained to Clarice between kisses, the sudden thaw had made the roads death-traps in the way of slipping. “I’m jolly well splashed,” said Ackworth, laughing, “but if Leander swam the Hellespont to see Hero, why shouldn’t I wade through acres of slush to see you?”
“Of course,” smiled Clarice, who felt much lighter-hearted, now that this strong young lover was present, “only you were driving instead of wading, my dear Anthony.”
“Well, I dare say Leander would have taken a penny steamer had there been one,” said Anthony, throwing back his handsome head, “so that makes my parallel the more perfect.”
Clarice laughed again, and drew him silently to a sofa, whereon they sat hand in hand, after the delightfully foolish manner of lovers. Ackworth was certainly a Swain of whom any girl might have been proud. He was not the desperately good-looking god of the Family Herald, but was comely enough in his youth and strength to pass in a crowd. His closely clipped hair was fair, as was his moustache. He had a bronzed face and a pair of merry blue eyes, and was as well set up as military training and constant out-of-door exercise could make him. Finally, he had a well-groomed, clean look, and anyone could see that he was a thoroughly wholesome, honourable gentleman. Clarice, of course, deemed him to be perfection, which he was not; but he had more virtues than faults, and assuredly was masterful enough to satisfy the most exacting woman. As a Greek god, Anthony Ackworth was a failure; as a man to trust and love he came off very well. That he was not superlatively clever, did not lower Clarice’s appreciation of his character.
“Well?” asked Anthony, unoriginally, “how are things?”
“All wrong,” replied Clarice, quickly. “I have been most anxious to see you, dear. I want help.”
“I should think you were clever enough to do without any help I could give you,” said Ackworth, admiringly, for he looked upon Miss Baird as a Queen Elizabeth-cum-Catherine-George Eliot kind of woman. “Is Mr. Horran any better?”
“No—that is, he’s asleep.”
“He was asleep last time I was here.”
“Yes. He then slept for ten hours and woke up to drop asleep again for a longer period.”
“What a dormouse sort of existence. Is it that which worries you?”
“No. Uncle Henry is no better and no worse than he ever was. I have several things to worry me. Ferdy is engaged to Prudence Clarke.”
“Lucky man. She’s a pretty girl,” said Anthony; “that shouldn’t worry you, dearest. You wished to have her for a sister-in-law.”
“Yes, but there’s Sarah Dumps.”
“What a name. Who is Sarah Dumps?”
“You know. She dances and sings under the name of—”
“Oh!” Anthony was suddenly enlightened. “I remember. I saw a dancer called Butterfly at the Mascot Music-hall. She’s pretty, but not the kind of woman I admire.”
“I am afraid Ferdy does,” sighed Clarice.
“What. You don’t mean to say—”
“Yes, I do. Listen to what Mrs. Rebson says.” And Clarice related the conversation with the old housekeeper. “And you see,” ended Miss Baird, anxiously, “if Sarah Dumps has come back, and Ferdy has gone to see her so immediately, I am afraid he is entangled with her.”
Ackworth shook his head. “No, my dear,” he said, very decidedly, “Ferdy is not clever, but, at least, he is a gentleman. No man would propose to one woman, and then immediately visit another old flame. I don’t believe there is anything in the matter. Besides, Butterfly—to give her the name she is best known by—is ambitious of a richer husband than your brother, to say nothing of her wish for a title.”
“But Mrs. Dumps—”
“Oh, the mother living here naturally thinks Ferdy a good match.”
“Well, he is. He will have two thousand a year.”
“Butterfly will want ten thousand. From all I have heard she has a wonderful capacity for spending.”
“Is she—is she—,” Clarice hesitated, “quite respectable?”
“Oh, quite,” assented Ackworth, decisively, “she’s too clever a young woman to play fast and loose with her reputation. She wants to marry well, you see, and therefore keeps straight. But I don’t think you need be afraid of Ferdy, darling. He’s only one of the many moths that have fluttered round that candle. Now that he’s engaged he’ll forget her. And, after all, it’s mere talk. He may not be in love with Butterfly at all.”
“Why should he visit her, so—”
“He may have gone to see the mother, or to have a drink,” said Anthony, vaguely. “Ferdy’s an ass, but he’s all right.”
“But Dr. Jerce says he drinks and gambles, and—”
“I’ll have to talk to Ferdy, and see if I can lead him in the right way,” said Ackworth, with some impatience. “Don’t trouble yourself over your brother, dearest. Every young man of that age is more or less of an ass. But it’s only like a young colt kicking his heels in a flowery meadow.”
“Then I need not worry, Anthony?”
“No, I’ll speak to Ferdy and take this especial worry off your shoulders, my dear. Anything else?”
“This.” Clarice held out the letter, without explanation, as she wanted to know if the elusive memory would come more clearly to Anthony. He opened the envelope in silence, then sprang up with a shout when he saw the contents.
“The Purple Fern, by Jupiter!” said Ackworth, staring.
“What does it mean?” asked Clarice, vaguely terrified.
Ackworth looked anxious. “Nothing very pleasant,” he muttered; “I thought it had been stamped out.”
“What had been stamped out?”
“This purple fern business. Don’t you remember that the papers were full of it a year ago, Clarry?”
Clarice put her hand to her head. The memory came back with a rush, and she now knew why the pictorial representation of the fern had been vaguely familiar to her. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “does it mean death to Uncle Henry?”
“What?” Anthony looked relieved. “Then you did not get it?”
“No. Uncle Henry told me that he found it outside his bedroom window. I expect he remembered about the murders, and received the shock he talked about. Why do you look so relieved?”
“I thought that the warning might have been directed to you,” muttered Ackworth, turning over the envelope, “apparently it is not, and perhaps not even to Mr. Horran, since there is no address.”
“Tell me, Anthony, exactly what it means,” said Clarice, anxiously. “I remember reading a lot about those murders, but I almost forget.”
“I wonder at that, considering how we talked them over,” said Ackworth, sitting down again, and slipping his arm round her as though to protect her from harm. “Don’t you remember, darling, that one person after another was found murdered in houses and in streets, with a purple fern stamped on the forehead. And in every case, a warning of a stamped fern was sent beforehand. Then the police caught one man red-handed. He was tried and hanged, but he would not give away his associates. But the police gathered that he was one of a gang who killed people to get money—since all the victims were wealthy—and in every instance the sign of the association, a purple fern, was stamped on the forehead of the victim. But with the hanging of the man that was caught, the murders ceased. This is the first time I have heard of a new warning being given. I should recommend Mr. Horran to take care of himself.”
“Oh, Anthony, how terrible. Do you really think that he is in danger of his life?”
“Judging by the fact that seven people, men and women, were killed, after such a warning had been sent, I do think it is dangerous. I shall see the local police about this at once. The house must be watched. I wonder why Horran is to be killed. Is he very rich?”
Recollecting what Clarke had said, Clarice could reply easily: “On the contrary, he has nothing but what he earns by acting as our guardian. I wish he could explain exactly how he picked up the letter; but he is still asleep.”
At this minute the wheels of a carriage were heard. Clarice, wondering if the new arrival was Jerce, opened the French window and stepped out on to the terrace, now sloppy with mixed snow and water and mud. She strolled to the end, followed by Anthony, and saw that Dr. Jerce had indeed arrived. He was stepping out of a hired fly, and had just handed the man his fare, when he caught sight of Clarice. At once he came towards her with outstretched hand. She took it unwillingly enough. “I received a wire from Wentworth,” he said, anxiously. “I hope my old friend is not very ill again.”
“No. He’s in a sound sleep, and Dr. Wentworth is puzzled over the length of his slumber. Come in this way.” And she went along the terrace.
“Thank you. Ah, Mr. Ackworth, how are you? Quite a change in the weather, isn’t it? And I—why, what’s the matter?”
The ejaculation was caused by a cry from Clarice. She had picked up a small object, which the thaw had revealed. It was a small gold box, and on its face was set a curved fern in amethysts.
“The Purple Fern again!” exclaimed Ackworth, amazed.
Ackworth and Clarice looked at one another dumfounded, and Dr. Jerce, with considerable amazement, looked at them. Finally, the eyes of all three rested on the object picked up by the girl. It outwardly appeared to be a snuffbox, and, with its surface of dull gold, wherein the amethystine fern was delicately set, looked an exquisite specimen of the jeweller’s art. But to Jerce there seemed nothing about it to startle the young people. Yet Anthony appeared grave and Clarice even frightened.
“One would think you had picked up a serpent,” said Jerce, jestingly; “what is there about that snuffbox which frightens you?”
“The Purple Fern!” she replied, pointing to the amethysts.
As the doctor still seemed to be puzzled, Ackworth explained. “Do you not remember those murders of a year ago?”
“Murders? Oh, er—yes. There was much in the papers about them, but I read the public journals very little. All my time is taken up with medical works. Just refresh my memory, will you, Ackworth? The dead bodies were stamped with a fern, weren’t they?”
“Yes—on the forehead. Seven people were stabbed to the heart. One in Kensington Gardens, one in the Strand, one in a house at Hampstead, and one—”
“Yes! yes! I remember now,” interrupted Jerce, impatiently, “but the murderer was caught and hanged, if I forget not.”
“One murderer was caught,” said Anthony, with emphasis, “but he had accomplices, whose names he refused to reveal.”
“Really. But there have been no more murders since.”
“No. For over a year they have ceased; but this,” Ackworth pointed to the golden box, “and the warning received by Mr. Horran, look as though the accomplices who were not caught intend to begin another series of crimes.”
Jerce looked confounded. “What’s that you say, about Horran having received a warning?” he asked.
Before Ackworth could reply, Clarice drew the attention of the two men to the box, which she had opened. It was divided into two compartments, one of which was empty, while the other was filled with a silken pad, moistened with purple ink.
“Look!” cried Miss Baird, aghast, as well she might be. “This is the very box which contained the stamp for impressing the purple fern on the forehead of the victims. Here is the pad, but the stamp has gone. Oh, Anthony, how did this come here? The letter, too, and—”
“What letter?” asked Jerce, soothing her agitation, while Ackworth took over the box to examine it.
“It’s not exactly a letter,” said Clarice, striving to appear calm, “only Uncle Henry found an envelope outside his window yesterday. It contained a sheet of paper stamped,—but Mr. Ackworth can show it to you.”
“Here it is,” remarked Anthony, taking the envelope from his pocket, and passing it to the now grave doctor, “and now this box has been found, it seems to me that Mr. Horran is in danger of death.”
Jerce examined the picture of the fern, turned and twisted the envelope to see if there was any address or postmark, and looked attentively at the dainty box. “Humph!” said he, cautiously, “the assassin must be a man of taste and culture, since he designed such a receptacle for his india-rubber stamp, and uses such costly stationery.”
“A man,” echoed Clarice, with a sudden idea, “the assassin may not be a man at all. That box and paper look as though a woman—”
“No,” interrupted the doctor, decisively, “the person who dropped this gold box here is a man. And without doubt he is connected with those wretches who used the purple fern to stamp their handiwork. Yes,” he spoke half to himself, “there certainly must be a gang.”
“Of course,” chimed in Ackworth, quickly, “the man who was caught defied the authorities to stamp out the criminals. He admitted that he had three accomplices—”
“Two, I remember now,” broke in Clarice, “two.”
“Well, then, he admitted that he had two accomplices, but refused to betray their names or hiding places. Also, he warned the Government that they would avenge his death; but for the last twelve months they have not done so. Now,” Ackworth pointed to the box and the warning missive with great significance, “we must take steps to save Mr. Horran’s life,” he ended, decisively.
“Certainly! Certainly,” agreed Jerce. “What’s to be done?”
“I’ll go at once to the local police.”
“No, I should not do that, Mr. Ackworth. It will be better to come with me to London to-night and report the case at Scotland Yard.”
“But in the meantime, Uncle Henry may be killed.”
“Chalks can stop with him day and night, until a detective arrives.”
“A detective!” echoed Clarice, in dismay, “and in this house.”
“Why not?” asked Jerce, quietly. “We must take strong measures. I see no reason why Horran should be killed, as he is not a wealthy man; and this gang always selected their victims, both men and women, from rich people. Perhaps to supply these luxuries.” He touched the valuable box and expensive envelope. “But certainly the man in grey means to kill Horran, else why the warning?”
“The man in grey” asked Ackworth, inquiringly.
“Ferdy told me about that,” said Clarice, quickly. “I was going to ask you about the man. Why did he search your pockets?”
“I did not know at the time,” said the doctor, gravely, “but I know now. Come this way.” He walked into the drawing-room through the window. “We must speak softly, so that no one may overhear.”
“But we are quite safe here,” said Clarice, as Anthony closed the window; “why are you afraid doctor?”
“Walls have ears, my dear Miss Baird, and the remaining man of the triumvirate is clever and cunning.”
“The remaining man,” said Ackworth; “then another of the three is dead?”
Jerce nodded and sat down quietly. He looked somewhat upset. “It is a very unpleasant business,” he said, anxiously, “and I am to blame in not having allowed Ferdinand to inform the police about the assault made on me the other night. Had the man in grey been arrested, this warning or threat might not have come. Also the fact of the box with the purple fern would have ensured his hanging, as one of the gang who committed those cruel murders. I am much to blame. All I can say is, that not until I returned to Harley Street on that night did I guess why the man in grey wanted to search my pockets.”
“And why did he?” asked Clarice, who had been listening to this explanation with a puzzled look.
“That’s a long story.”
“Then begin at the beginning,” said Ackworth, impetuously, “for I want to know everything so that I can see my way.”
“To what, Mr. Ackworth?”
“To protecting Mr. Horran, and getting this blackguard arrested.”
Jerce nodded approvingly. “I shall lend you all the assistance I can, Mr. Ackworth,” said he, firmly. “Unless this man is caught, he will be a veritable scourge to society.”
“The story—the story!” cried Clarice, with impatience.
“It is, indeed, a story; more like romance than real life,” said Jerce, quickly. “You know, Miss Baird, that I have a consulting room in Tea Street, Whitechapel.”
“Yes, Mr. Horran told me that also,” said Anthony. “You physic poor people for nothing.”
“I do. I earn so much money in the West End that I think it is only right to use my talents for the poor. We must do what good we can in this world, you know, Mr. Ackworth. I don’t set up for being a philanthropist, but in my humble way I do what good I can. Well, then,” he resumed, quickly, seeing that Clarice was growing impatient again, “I was there—in Tea Street—some two months ago, and attended on a young man, who was dying of consumption. He appeared to be clever, refined, and intelligent, and, for that miserably poor quarter, his room was furnished with great taste and somewhat expensively. He seemed to be absolutely alone, and I did what I could to save his life. All my skill was of no avail, and he died. As I had refused to receive a fee, he gave me a sealed envelope, and told me to carry it constantly upon my person.”
“Why?” asked Clarice, wonderingly.
“I’ll tell you later. The dying man also warned me that if I was attacked by a fellow with a criss-cross scar on his left cheek, to open the envelope. Then the man died and was buried. I did not attach much importance to the sealed letter, and—”
“Didn’t you open it?” asked the girl, eagerly.
“Not until the man in grey attacked me.”
“I should have opened it at once,” she said, quickly.
Jerce smiled. “Eve’s curiosity,” he answered; “however, I am not a woman, so I refrained from unsealing the envelope, and after a time I slipped it, with some other papers, into my safe, and thought no more about the matter. But when this grey man attacked me the other night, the incident was recalled to my mind, but not,” added Jerce, with emphasis, “not until Ferdinand told me that he had seen a man in grey clothes with a scar on his cheek. I then returned to London and opened the envelope. I found therein a paper containing a name and address.”
“What were they?” asked Anthony, who was listening attentively.
“Alfred Osip, 14, Rough Lane, Stepney. Also there were a few lines, stating that the man who wrote them—my consumptive patient—and Osip were the surviving members of the Purple Fern gang, and that if Osip’s room in Stepney were searched, papers proving the guilt of all would be found. Well, then, Mr. Ackworth, one man has been hanged, another has died of consumption, and the third, Alfred Osip, is the person who attacked me on that terrace, and no doubt, in the struggle, dropped this golden box, which at one time undoubtedly contained the india-rubber stamp used to mark the victims.”
“I see,” said Clarice, “but why should Osip attack you, doctor?”
Jerce looked at her in surprise. “My dear, you are usually quicker in seeing things,” he said, rebukefully. “Of course, Osip in some way knew that his dying accomplice had betrayed him, and that I carried the sealed letter—as he thought—on my person. That was why he searched. I should have had him arrested, when Ferdinand suggested going for the police; but I never dreamed that the wretch was connected with the Purple Fern gang. However, I have made what amends I can. I went at once to Scotland Yard, and told the authorities what I have told you. Now, this warning to Horran—undoubtedly sent by Osip—and this box, will be valuable evidence. He may be caught red-handed, if he attempts the murder. But you can see now, Mr. Ackworth, why I suggest that you should not inform the local police. Osip is cunning and dangerous, so it will be advisable for us to get a detective from London to see into the matter. I fear the Crumel police may bungle the business. I return to London this afternoon—or, to be precise, this evening, so I shall at once communicate this new discovery to the Scotland Yard authorities.”
Ackworth nodded. “I think your plan is the best, Doctor,” he said, in a meditative voice, “only I hope this brute will not murder Mr. Horran in the meantime.”
“I suggest that Chalks should remain constantly with Mr. Horran.”
“Will not that arouse Mr. Horran’s suspicions?” asked Anthony. “After all, in his delicate state of health, it will not do to let him know that he is in danger of death.”
“Uncle Henry knows already,” said Clarice, impetuously. “The discovery of the envelope gave him a shock—he said so, and wanted to see you, doctor. I expect the sight of the fern recalled the murders to him at once. I had an idea that the fern was familiar to me, but until Mr. Ackworth refreshed my memory, I could not be sure.”
“I’ll speak to Chalks,” said Jerce, rising, “but it will be just as well that no one else in the house should know about the matter, and—”
“There’s one who knows,” said a voice, coming from a distant alcove, and Ferdy’s head appeared over the back of a deep leather armchair, which faced towards a window.
The doctor started and looked displeased. “Ferdinand,” he said, in an angry voice, “why did you listen to what does not concern you?”
“I think it concerns me a great deal,” said Ferdy, coolly, and came forward into the full light of the room, very pale, and with ruffled hair. “I went to sleep in that chair, and woke up at the sound of your voices. I listened, half unconsciously, and then, when the story became interesting, I listened with all my ears. As the chair-back is towards you, I expect you did not see me.”
“I wish you had come out, Ferdy,” said Clarice, much annoyed, as she recalled her conversation with Ackworth, “how long have you been sleeping?”
“Not very long. I came in through the window, when you were out on the terrace.”
Ackworth looked hard at Ferdy to see if he was lying, but could only make out that the young man looked extremely upset. He remarked upon it with some dryness, and Baird turned on him at once with the fractiousness of a spoilt child. “That story has made me quite sick,” said he, restlessly. “I don’t want to be murdered in my bed.”
“The warning was not sent to you,” said Clarice, contemptuously.
“If it had been, I’d have gone to the police station right off. I wish you had let me go on that night, doctor.”
“I wish I had,” said Jerce, regretfully. “However, it’s too late now, and we must do the best we can. Don’t say a word about this to anyone, Ferdinand.”
“I jolly well won’t. I don’t wish to be mixed up with these horrid things,” said Baird. “I’m going upstairs to lie down now. I was sleepy before with walking, but now I’m quite sick with—”
“Sleepy with walking,” whispered Clarice, drawing close to him. “Ferdy, you have been drinking in the Savoy Hotel. Your eyes are red and your cheeks are pale. You have been—”
“Oh, leave me alone,” said Ferdy, rudely, and twitching his sleeve from Clarice’s hand, he abruptly left the room.
Anthony bit his lip. “That young monkey deserves a kicking,” he said, sharply; “if he were not your brother, Clarice, I should break his neck.”
Dr. Jerce started. Already the girl had called the man by his Christian name, and now the man was returning the compliment. Clarice coloured with genuine annoyance, as Jerce was the last man to whom she wanted the secret of her engagement revealed. The doctor looked sharply from one to the other, but, saying nothing, walked towards the door, with official composure. Clarice did not know if he guessed the truth, or if he deemed the interchange of familiar names mere slips of the tongue. Jerce’s face was inscrutable.
“Will you come with me to see our patient?” he asked Clarice, politely.
“Certainly, doctor. Please remain here, Mr. Ackworth.” She cast a side glance at Jerce to see if he noted the stiff address, but he made no sign. “I shall return almost directly.”
Anthony looked puzzled, as he could not understand why Clarice had coloured when speaking to the doctor, and was perfectly unaware that Jerce had hinted at a proposal. However, as the presence of a third person did not permit of an explanation, he merely bowed his acquiescence. Clarice looked at her lover for one moment in a hesitating manner, then hastily followed the doctor.
She caught up with him at the door of Mr. Horran’s bedroom, and they entered without speaking. As usual—since Wentworth had last seen the patient—the French window was wide open. Jerce immediately shut it sharply.
“I have told you a dozen times to keep this window closed,” he said, severely, to Chalks.
“I don’t open it, sir,” protested the valet. “Dr. Wentworth—”
“He has his views and I have mine,” said Jerce, imperiously. “Mr. Horran is my patient, and Dr. Wentworth is merely called in, as a local practitioner, to act while I am absent. The window must be kept closed day and night. Do you hear?”
“Yes, sir,” said Chalks, sulkily. “I think master is waking, sir.” Both Jerce and Clarice turned towards the bed, and saw that Horran was sitting up. He smiled in a dreamy way, when he caught sight of his old friend, but seemed disinclined to talk. Jerce felt the man’s pulse, and listened to the beating of his heart. Then he produced an ophthalmoscope, and examined the eyes, turning up the lids delicately with his fingers. After a few minutes he drew back with a puzzled expression and shook his head, while Horran, in a semiconscious condition, sank back on his pillow.
“Well?” asked Clarice, eagerly.
Jerce shrugged his shoulders. “As usual, I can say nothing,” he replied, in a low voice. “I can find no trace of optic-neuritis, and the visual acuity is normal. On my next visit, when Wentworth is present, I shall make a more precise examination.”
“What is to be done?”
“Nothing at present. I never met with a more interesting, or more perplexing case in all my experience. I would give much to know the true cause of these symptoms. I must return to town by the three o’clock train,” concluded the doctor, glancing at his watch.
“No!” said a strong voice from the bed, and there they saw Horran, sitting up, apparently wide awake. The sudden change was one quite characteristic of his mysterious disease. “No,” repeated the sick man, with an anxious glance at Jerce, “you and I must have a talk, Daniel. Things must be settled between us.”
“Yes, yes,” said Jerce, good-naturedly; then sank his voice to address Clarice. “He apparently wants to talk about his will. Leave me alone with him. Take Chalks with you.”
Clarice kissed her guardian, but he took no notice of her, as his eyes were steadily fixed on the doctor’s strong, calm face. “Things must be settled between us,” repeated Horran, as Clarice and Chalks departed.
“Well?” asked Anthony, when Clarice returned to the drawing-room, “is Mr. Horran any better?”
“I think so. He is awake and his voice is stronger, but whether the improvement will last, I can’t say.”
“What does the doctor say?”
“Nothing. He is very perplexed over this disease, and does not know what is the matter.”
“That doesn’t say much for Jerce’s reputation,” said Ackworth.
“Dr. Jerce is only a man, after all,” answered Clarice, earnestly, “and Uncle Henry’s disease is so very mysterious, that neither he nor Dr. Wentworth can say anything explicit.”
Ackworth twisted his hands behind his back and swayed to and fro on his toe-tips. “I wonder if Mr. Horran is really ill, after all.”
Clarice, with her handkerchief to her mouth, looked at him suddenly and inquiringly. “What do you mean?”
“From what I have seen of Mr. Horran,” said Ackworth, quietly, “he does not appear to be ill. His colour is good, he eats well, and sleeps a lot. He has not lost flesh, and his eyes are steady. Certainly, he appears to become giddy at times, but that might be biliousness from his sedentary life. Also he gets cross and fractious—that, again, might be liver. He lives very unhealthily, stewing in that room with a fire, and such an existence is enough to produce all the symptoms he suffers from, without any real physical cause.”
“Well?” questioned Clarice, not knowing what this speech meant.
“You won’t be offended?” asked Ackworth in his turn, and uneasily.
“I am about to say something about the Purple Fern.”
“Yes?” she stared at him, amazed.
Ackworth still continued to sway to and fro, an gazed at the ground as he replied, “Mr. Horran may take exercise at night.”
“Go on. I don’t understand.”
“His illness may be a feint.”
“For business connected with the Purple Fern.”
“Anthony!” Clarice recoiled, as though he had struck her.
“Oh, I know it sounds ridiculous,” said Ackworth, hurriedly, “and perhaps it may prove to be ridiculous. All the same, the fact of that man searching Jerce on the terrace, and this mysterious illness, and the envelope containing the stamped fern, and the presence of the gold box, which Jerce now has—well, you see—I don’t exactly know how to put it.”
Clarice drew near to him again. “Do you mean to say that Uncle Henry has anything to do with these murders?”
“Oh, no—I don’t go so far as that, my dear. Do you remember that when I became engaged to you, you asked me to see Barras, the lawyer, since your guardian was too ill to be spoken to?”
“Yes, I wanted you to inquire about the money.”
“Well, I spoke to Barras last week, and learn that you certainly get two thousand per annum in a couple of years. Ferdy gets the same, and Mr. Horran is sole guardian, with a right to appoint another guardian should he die. Mr. Barras, wishing to stand well with me, I suppose, as your future husband, hinted that you might not find everything right at Horran’s death.”
“But Uncle Henry told me that everything was in order,” cried Miss Baird, “and declared that he had appointed me guardian to look after Ferdy’s money when he died—when Uncle Henry died, I mean.”
“Humph! That does not entirely agree with Mr. Barras’ hints, and he did no more than hint. But something is wrong, and Mr. Horran—as I understood from Barras—is the cause of its being wrong.”
“Uncle Henry has always been a good friend.”
“Quite so, but has he been a good guardian?”
“Yes. No one could have been a better one, so far as I know.”
“Precisely,” said Anthony, quickly, “so far as you know. But the fact is, Clarice, I don’t like Mr. Horran, and I never liked him, and—and—” he hesitated.
“Go on—go on. Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“Well, then, three months ago I was in town, and went to a ball at the Shah’s Rooms. It was not—to be plain—a very reputable dance, or at all events it was extremely Bohemian. I went there before I was engaged to you, Clarice; now, I should not go. Well, then, at that dance, I saw Mr. Horran—”
“Oh, that’s quite impossible. He has not been out of his room for years and years.”
“I recognised him at a glance,” said Ackworth, steadily, “his military carriage, his spare figure, his long, iron-grey moustache. And he was with a tall man, who had a criss-cross scar on his left cheek.”
“The man in grey who searched Dr. Jerce on the terrace?”
“The same—if Dr. Jerce’s description is to be relied upon. I never thought of the thing until you left the room. Then, remembering our late conversation, the memory of the incident came back. Now, Clarice, if this man—as Jerce declares—is mixed up in the Purple Fern business, he certainly was with Mr. Horran, and that, don’t you see, brings your guardian into the affair.”
Clarice turned quite pale. “It is very mysterious,” she said to herself, “and yet it seems perfectly absurd. Uncle Henry is ill; he has always been ill, off and on, for the last ten years. I have lived in this house with him all the time. How could he possibly go to town even once without my knowledge?”
Ackworth shrugged his square shoulders. “Oh, as to that, a good motor-car could take him to London and back in a few hours.”
“Uncle Henry has not got a motor-car.”
“He may have one we do not know of,” said Ackworth, quickly, “and as that French window of his opens on to the terrace on the other side of the house, it would not be difficult for him to slip out, and back again, without your knowing.”
“But Chalks has sat up with him often.”
“Quite so, but he may have slipped out on the nights Chalks did not sit up with him.”
“Are you sure it was Uncle Henry you saw at the Shah’s Rooms?”
“I caught only a glimpse of him with the scarred man, but I feel certain he was Mr. Horran. He has rather a striking personality and appearance, you know. Also, when I moved forward to speak to him, he saw me, and vanished in the crowd of dancers. If he was there, when he was supposed to be ill at home, there may be something in Mr. Barras’s hints. Also, as he was with the man in grey, and the box was found on the terrace yonder by you, and a stamped picture of the fern was delivered to him, it seems to me that Mr. Horran is secretly mixed up with the matter.”
“It is all supposition,” said Clarice, uneasily.
“Quite so. However, the best thing to do will be to ask Mr. Horran for an explanation.”
“Yes. And Dr. Jerce.”
“No, I shouldn’t do that. Jerce is an eminently respectable man, and if anything was wrong, I should think he would show scant mercy to the wrong-doer.”
“Dr. Jerce may know more than you imagine,” said Clarice, quickly, and she related what the vicar had said about the loan. Ackworth listened with great attention.
“Humph! Jerce apparently suspects something also. Horran has been money-lending, it seems, and is quite a Shylock. Why don’t you speak to Horran about the loan to the vicar? It is your money Horran has been playing with, if it is true that he has nothing save an income for acting as your guardian.”
“But Mr. Clarke told me that Dr. Jerce would not allow him to see Uncle Henry about the loan.”
“Dr. Jerce wants to keep his patient quiet, and may be quite deceived about this disease—if it is a disease.”
“Dr. Jerce is too clever to be deceived.”
“But he is,” insisted Ackworth, “seeing that neither he nor Wentworth can state what the disease is. I tell you what, Clarice, you announce your engagement to me, and that will give some colour for me to interfere. Then we can get Mr. Clarke in to see Mr. Horran, and also we can ask Mr. Horran about his appearance with the man in grey at the Shah’s Rooms. Finally, we can ask Mr. Barras to be present and make him explain his hints. In this way, everything will be cleared up, and matters can be placed upon a proper basis.”
Clarice assented. “I think your idea is very good,” she said, quietly; “all the same, I fancy you are exaggerating, when you say that Uncle Henry has to do with this dreadful business of the Purple Fern.”
Ackworth shrugged his shoulders. “He can best explain that. I am quite prepared to state on oath that I saw Mr. Horran with the Purple Fern man at the Shah’s Rooms. But, of course, as you say, I may be exaggerating. Everything I say may be explained by Mr. Horran, but only he can put things right.”
At this point of the conversation, Dr. Jerce returned to the drawing-room, looking rather perturbed for so serene a man. He was drawing on his gloves as he entered. “Where is Ferdinand?” was his first question, as he cast a look round.
“Upstairs, lying down,” said Clarice, “don’t you remember he—”
“Yes! yes!” Jerce turned to the door again. “I know where his room is. I must see him before I go.” He glanced at his watch. “I’ll just have time for a short conversation before I catch this three o’clock train. Excuse me, Miss Baird, but—”
“Doctor, stop—stop. What is the matter with Uncle Henry?”
“He is annoyed by Mr. Clarke.”
“About the loan?” asked Clarice, quickly. Jerce looked at her, astonished.
“Yes. Do you know about that?”
“Mr. Clarke himself told me, and said that you did not want him to see Uncle Henry about it.”
“I certainly did not,” said Jerce, decidedly. “Clarke is always in difficulties, and Horran has been very good to him. His talking of incessant trouble would only irritate Horran, so I would not allow him to enter the house. But it seems that Mr. Clarke slipped in through the French window, and made trouble to-day, while Chalks was out. I have promised to see Clarke when I return here again, and to arrange that the interest of the loan stands over for another six months, which will give him time to turn round, as it were. But I wish he had not forced his way into the sick-room. He has done harm.”
“But, doctor, about the Purple Fern?”
“Oh, Horran talked about that; but I have managed to set his fears at rest. He thinks he may be murdered, so I have told Chalks to stay with him all night. To-morrow, the Scotland Yard people will take up the matter. I’ll go to the Yard to-night, and tell everything we have discovered; also, I’ll give in the gold box as evidence.”
“And don’t you think—” began Ackworth, when Jerce cut him short.
“I have no time to talk,” he said, impatiently. “I must see Ferdinand and then catch this train, as I have much to do. Miss Baird, your guardian is rather feverish with excitement; you had better not see him to-night. To-morrow, I’ll come down again.” And with these final instructions, Jerce slipped out of the room.
Clarice and Anthony looked at one another. “I shall see Uncle Henry for all that,” said Clarice, determinedly.
“No! no. Better obey the doctor’s instructions,” urged Anthony, “after all, what we have to say will keep until to-morrow.”
“But I am so worried.”
“I know, darling—I know.” He slipped his arm round her slender waist. “But it is best to settle this perplexing business in a ship-shape way. Leave Mr. Horran alone for to-night.”
Clarice thought for a few moments. “Anthony,” she said, earnestly, “I cannot wait for days for an explanation, and it seems to me that there can be none, unless Mr. Barras is present. Christmas is here in a couple of days, so I want you to go up to town and bring down Mr. Barras to-morrow. Then we can take him into Uncle Henry’s room, and have an explanation.”
“Humph!” said Anthony, doubtfully. “It seems to me that if Jerce goes to Scotland Yard, the authorities there may wish for an explanation from Mr. Horran.”
“Not if you hold your tongue as to Uncle Henry’s being at the Shah’s Rooms,” she said, anxiously.
“You want me to shield him?”
“We don’t know yet that he is guilty,” she reminded him, sharply.
Ackworth nodded. After all, he had doubtful ground to go upon, in connecting Horran with the criminal triumvirate whose trade-mark was the Purple Fern. The man might be entirely innocent, notwithstanding appearances. However, if Barras was an honest lawyer—and, on the face of it, there was no reason to think that he was not—he would be able, in the presence of his client, to state if the property of the Baird orphans was administered honourably. If Horran had been using the money for his own secret pleasure, and for loans to Clarke and others, he would be forced to account for the same. And such a forced explanation would inevitably compel him to acknowledge or deny that he was at the Shah’s Rooms when Ackworth saw him. If he confessed so much, he would also have to explain how he came to know the grey man, who assuredly—if the gold box was to be accounted for—had to do with the Purple Fern crimes. Then, in one way or another, matters might be explained. They were certainly mysterious enough at present.
In the meantime, the lovers postponed inevitable disagreeables, in order to talk about their own particular future, and to enjoy themselves the more, they went for a short drive in Ackworth’s dog-cart, which had been waiting all this time at the door, in charge of Mr. Horran’s groom. Anthony had not brought his own servant, so the conversation of himself and his fiancée was perfectly free and unfettered. As they drove along the High Street, Dr. Jerce passed them, in earnest conversation with Ferdinand.
“I expect he’s bringing your brother to his senses,” said Ackworth, hopefully.
“I hope he will,” sighed Clarice. “I am not very fond of Dr. Jerce, but he is certainly a good man, and his example is one which Ferdy should follow. I wonder,” she added, musingly, “if Ferdy ever saw Uncle Henry at the Shah’s Rooms. That is just the sort of fast place which Ferdy would go to.”
Anthony flicked the horse’s ears with his whip, and laughed. “I have been there also,” said he, coolly. “Perhaps I should not have confessed as much to you, my dear.”
“Why not?” demanded Clarice, with perfect candour. “You must not think me a cotton-wool young woman. I quite understand that men are men.”
“And that women are angels?” questioned Anthony, bending to see her pretty face.
“We leave that for the men to say,” returned Clarice, dryly.
“This man says it—of you.”
“This man does not talk sense.”
“Nor does he intend to. I have had enough of sense for the day, my dearest. Sensible conversation invariably means worry. Let us enjoy our golden hour, without transmuting it into dull lead.”
Miss Baird, who was feminine after all, and very much in love and young in years and spirits, thought that this was an excellent idea, so the rest of the drive was all that could be desired in the way of cheap and genuine happiness. When it ended, she gave Anthony Russian tea in a tumbler and dainty caviare sandwiches. Ferdy, as they learned from Mrs. Rebson, had returned from the railway station to enjoy his golden hour at the vicarage, and Mr. Horran had again fallen asleep.
But simple happiness over afternoon tea could not last for ever, and when Anthony set out for Gattlinsands, after a lingering farewell, Clarice felt the reaction. To prevent herself from feeling dull, it was necessary that she should do something, so true to her intention of defying Dr. Jerce, she tapped at the door of the sick-room. Chalks appeared, with a whispered communication that the patient was awake and too fractious to see anyone on that night. Clarice returned to the drawing-room, and read indolently until Wentworth came to pay a late visit at eight o’clock. Just as she descended the stairs, dressed for dinner, Miss Baird caught the young physician at the door, and accosted him at once.
“Is Uncle Henry better, doctor?” she asked, coming forward.
Wentworth was a slim, shy man, who wore spectacles, and spoke in a jerky, staccato manner when addressed by a woman. “Better—yes—that is,—more awake. Lethargy passed away—very bad temper. Better leave him alone until the morning. ‘Night, Miss Baird,” and he shot off in confusion, like a timid schoolboy.
Clarice made a hurried meal, and returned drearily to the empty drawing-room, without any desire to encounter the fractiousness of her guardian, which she had experienced on more than one occasion. After the somewhat exciting day she really felt worn-out and in need of rest, therefore made up her mind to retire comparatively early. However, she hoped that Ferdy would come home soon to explain his absence from the dinner table, and passed the time in playing Patience until ten o’clock. Finally, after asking Mrs. Rebson if the house was locked up, and if Ferdy had returned—which he had not—she ascended the stairs to bed. At the top of them she found Ferdy clinging to the banisters. Apparently he had entered the house without Mrs. Rebson’s knowledge.
“Oh!” said Clarice, perceiving his condition. “Again.”
Ferdy chuckled. “I’ve been—S’v’y H’l—B’t’fly pretty girl—j’lly ev’ning—such fun—it’s—it’s—” Here he missed one step and rolled down two, with an idiotic giggle. Clarice would have struck him in her disgust, but that would have done no good. Being a prompt and powerful young woman, she caught him by the collar of his coat and dragged him into his bedroom on the first floor. There she locked him in, while Ferdy protested weakly all the time, and only yielded to superior force.
“Faugh!” said Clarice, throwing the key on her dressing-table. “What a weak fool he is.” She sat down and stared at the reflection of her face in the Louis Quinze mirror. It looked weary and drawn. “I shall be an old woman soon if this sort of thing goes on,” she thought. “Oh, dear me, how tired I am of bearing other people’s burdens. I must end it. In some way, I’ll get the truth out of Uncle Henry, settle the money matters, marry Anthony, and wash my hands of everything. As to Ferdy, I’ll marry him to Prudence and let her look after him.”
Having thus arranged the future, she retired to rest. But not to sleep, since her brain was much too active for slumber. She tossed and turned and sighed wearily at intervals, as the hours dragged on to midnight. Only on hearing the church clock strike twelve did she begin to lose consciousness, and, finally, thankfully sank into a deep slumber, which lasted for hours.
Towards dawn, as is often the case with worried people, she began to dream in a confused, broken way, and the purple fern, very naturally, since it was in her mind, mingled with her fleeting visions. She fled—so it seemed—through dark streets, of nightmare length, pursued by the man in grey, who assumed monstrous proportions. He caught her, at the end of interminable miles, and—so she dreamed, with gasping horror—stabbed her to the heart. Then she felt the mark of the Purple Fern—the mark, indeed, of the Beast, as it might be—stamped on her forehead. Afterwards, half awake and half asleep—only in her dream she was dead—she felt herself being placed in a narrow coffin, and heard the hammering of the nails, which closed her in for ever and ever and ever. With a violent effort she broke the nightmare’s bonds, and woke in a cold perspiration, to see the cold, faint dawn glimmering behind the window blinds, and—horrible feeling—to hear the knocking continue. But not on her dream coffin. The blows came on her bedroom door, steady, persistent, terrifying. She heard her name called in a quavering voice, and sprang out of bed, confused and dazed.
Wrapping a dressing-gown round her and somewhat recovering her senses, she hastily unlocked the door, which she invariably kept closed during the hours of sleep. On the threshold stood Chalks, white and shaking, with chattering teeth and trembling hands.
“Miss! Miss!” he stammered, and then fled down the stairs, unable to get out his words. Sick with fear, Clarice followed in her disordered attire, and came to Horran’s room. On the bed lay the body of the sick man, with a cruel wound in his breast. He was stiff and cold, dead—murdered—and on his chill forehead was the infernal mark of the Purple Fern.
Mr. Horran was as dead as a door nail. There could be no doubt about that. While Chalks shivered and wrung his hands in the middle of the room, demoralised and helpless, Clarice bent over the bed, in a dazed manner. She could scarcely grasp the situation, notwithstanding that it had been foreshadowed—as it were—by the mystery of the gray man. Without doubt, he was the assassin. The sinister omen of the Purple Fern had been fulfilled. An eighth victim had been struck down, and his forehead bore the infernal trade-mark of the triumvirate, which no longer existed. One of the members had been hanged; another had died from natural causes; but the survivor, Alfred Osip, of Rough Lane, Stepney, had accomplished alone the accursed work which the three had undertaken.
“I was sent away,” explained the valet, with chattering teeth, “by master at eleven o’clock, as he would not let me sit up with him. I came into the room, as usual, about seven o’clock—a few minutes ago, Miss—to see if master wanted me. Then I saw that”—he pointed to the bed—“and this!”—he picked up an assegai, which was lying near the escritoire. “Look at the blood on it, Miss, and look at the cruel wound in master’s breast.”
The bedclothes were perfectly smooth, and turned down to the dead man’s waist in an orderly manner. The jacket of his pyjamas was open, and the breast revealed a ragged wound, upon which the blood had congealed. Apparently, the assassin, Osip, had found the unfortunate man sound asleep, and, having taken the assegai from the collection of barbaric weapons on the wall, had turned down the clothes to stab his victim with a surer aim. There was no sign of a struggle, and even Clarice’s untutored senses told her that Henry Horran had been foully murdered in his sleep. But how had the assassin entered? The window—she wheeled round with a set face, and stretched out an arm.
“The window is open,” she said, in a dry cracking voice.
“Yes, Miss,” whispered Chalks. “Dr. Wentworth saw master, after Dr. Jerce went away, and opened the window, as usual.”
“You fool!” cried Clarice, furiously, and recollecting Jerce’s precautions, in the face of the warning, “you have made two mistakes. You should have obeyed Dr. Jerce in sitting up all night with Mr. Horran; and the window, according to his directions, should have been closed.”
“I told you about the window before, Miss,” said Chalks, doggedly. “I let them doctors do what they liked, as it ain’t my place to advise medical men. As to sitting up, Dr. Jerce told me to do so, but master insisted that I should leave about eleven, as usual. How can I obey them all?” asked the little man, tearfully. “I ask you that, Miss.”
“But you knew the danger, and—”
“What danger, Miss? Master has slept with that window open, off and on, for three years—ever since Dr. Wentworth came to look after him. He said it was to be open, and Dr. Jerce always wanted it to be shut. I let them do what they liked.”
“You should have remained all night with Mr. Horran,” said Clarice, remembering that Chalks knew nothing about the warning of the Purple Fern, or the need of especial supervision.
“With a royal Bengal tiger, Miss?” wailed Chalks, “for that was what master was last night. I never saw him so cross—never. He seemed to have something on his mind, and went on awful.”
“What did he say?” asked Miss Baird, thinking Horran’s utterances might shed a light on the darkness.
“I can’t tell you Miss. It was swearing for the most part. But he made me go to bed, and laughed when I declared that Dr. Jerce told me to sit up with him.”
“How did you leave him?”
“Sitting up in bed, swearing.”
“With that window open?”
“It was ajar, as Dr. Wentworth left it,” explained the valet, cautiously. “Dr. Jerce closed it in the day, and Dr. Wentworth opened it, when he left, about eight o’clock, last night.”
“Did you hear any noise in the room during the night?”
“Now, how could I, Miss?” complained the little man, in an injured tone, “seeing that my bedroom is at the back of the house, and that I sleep like a top, through being worn out with master’s tempers. I left at eleven last night, and came again at seven; but what happened between them hours, I know no more than you do.”
“I know what happened,” said Clarice, with a shudder, and looking at the still figure on the bed. “Murder happened—as you see.”
“But why should it happen, Miss? Master had his tempers, but he would not have harmed a fly.”
“I can’t tell you the reason, Chalks; but, doubtless, Osip intended to murder Mr. Horran for some wicked purpose of his own.”
“Osip!” echoed the valet, starting. “Why, that is the man who was going to stop at Mrs. Dumps’ Savoy Hotel a few days ago, and didn’t.”
“What day was that?” asked Clarice, quickly.
Chalks searched his memory, and mentioned the very evening, when Dr. Jerce had been searched on the terrace. There was no longer any doubt in Clarice’s mind but what Horran had been killed by Osip; but why so inoffensive a man should be thus cruelly put out of the way she could not conjecture. However, theorising would not help, so she moved away from the bed with a sigh, and tried to recover her composure.
“You had better go at once for the police, Chalks,” she said, rapidly. “Meanwhile, I’ll rouse up my brother and the servants.”
“They are already up, Miss.”
“Do they know?”
“No, Miss. I just cast one glance, and then flew up to you, Miss.”
“Why not to Master Ferdinand?”
“Because, Miss, we always look to you for orders,” said the valet, respectfully; “and about the body, Miss?”
“Don’t touch it—don’t touch anything,” said Clarice, warningly. “It is necessary that the police should see the room as it is; and on your way to the Police Station, Chalks, send a telegram to Captain Ackworth at Gattlinsands.”
“And to Dr. Jerce, in London, Miss?”
“There is no need; Dr. Jerce is coming down to-day, as usual.”
Clarice went to see Mrs. Rebson, and communicated the dreadful news of the crime. In a few minutes, the other servants were also informed, and everyone was horrified that such a tragedy had taken place in the quiet house. Mr. Horran had little enough to do with the domestics, seeing that he usually kept to his room; but he was sufficiently well liked to make one and all regret that he had come to so terrible an end. And Mrs. Rebson’s expressions of sorrow were mingled with congratulatory comments on the triumph of The Domestic Prophet.
“Didn’t I tell you, miss!” she said, nodding convincedly; “didn’t I tell you that trouble and death and disgrace would come; and you laughed at me—what do you think of the Prophet now?”
Miss Baird shook her head, being too stunned by the catastrophe to express her wonder or her reasons for disbelief. She went to her own room to dress, and Mrs. Rebson sailed down to the kitchen with the Domestic Prophet in her hand, ready to partake of a cup of tea, and to expatiate on the wonderful manner in which the seer’s chance shot had hit the bull’s-eye of the future.
Having completed a hasty toilet, Clarice took the key of Ferdy’s bedroom from her toilette-table, and went to release him. As might be expected, seeing that the hour was early, Ferdy was still in bed, and fast asleep. When his sister shook him, he rolled over, and muttered something uncomplimentary. His debauch of the previous night had left him somewhat haggard; but the night’s rest had, to a great extent, smoothed away the lines of dissipation from his handsome face.
“Get up, Ferdy,” said Clarice, harshly. “Uncle Henry is dead.”
The word—so terribly significant—penetrated even to Ferdy’s shallow, sleepy brain, and he sat up with widely-opened, horrified brown eyes. “Uncle Henry!” he gasped. “Dead!”
“Murdered!” whispered his sister, grey and shaken.
“Wh-a-a-at!” Ferdy sprang out of bed, and his pink pyjamas formed a strange contrast to his white, horrified face. “Clarry, you—you—must—you must be mistaken!”
“I have just seen his body, with a wound in the breast, and with the mark of the Purple Fern on the forehead.”
“Clarry!” Ferdinand caught her by the hand. “What I overheard yesterday in the drawing-room—what you and Ackworth and Jerce—?”
“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently, and wrenched herself free. “Everything is plain. This man Osip murdered Uncle Henry last night. I have sent for the police. Dress yourself quickly, Ferdy, and come down to see them with me. I expect the Inspector will come, and I have also sent for Anthony.”
Ferdy caught her by the dress, as she moved towards the door. “But, Clarry, Clarry, why has Uncle Henry been killed?”
“I know no more than you do. We must find out. It is something that we know the name of the murderer.”
Ferdy gasped. “And—and—do you?” he stuttered.
“Of course. That man Osip is—”
“Oh!” Ferdy wiped his face. “Osip,—of course—the Purple Fern man. But how can you be certain he is guilty?”
“He put his trade-mark on Uncle Henry’s forehead,” said Clarice, and left the bedroom, after a second command to Ferdy that he should dress quickly, and come on the scene of action.
“Osip! Osip!” said Ferdy to himself, stripping for his bath; “that’s the man in grey, Jerce talked of—the man who called on old Mother Dumps and paid her for a bed he did not use. I wonder if he really is guilty. At all events,” murmured Ferdy, thankfully, and splashing in his tub, “as Clarry locked me in last night, they can’t say that I have anything to do with it. Poor Uncle Henry!—but,” cheerfully, “now I’ll get my money, and can marry Prudence; if,” ruefully, “if Sally Dumps will let me.”
Meanwhile Clarice, downstairs, was talking to Inspector Tick, who was in charge of the Crumel police, and who had come with two constables to see about the tragedy. Miss Baird told him all that had happened since Jerce had been searched on the terrace by the man in grey, who had given the name of Osip to Mrs. Dumps. Then she conducted Tick to the death-chamber, and left him to examine Chalks and the body. Later Wentworth arrived, and two hours afterwards Captain Ackworth appeared on the scene. Both were horrified.
“Didn’t you hear a cry, Clarice?” asked Anthony, when in possession of the facts.
“I heard nothing,” she replied, “nor did Chalks. But that is not to be wondered at, since Chalks sleeps at the back of the house, and is far away from Uncle Henry’s room.”
“Did Ferdy hear anything?”
“I don’t think so, though I haven’t asked him. He came home drunk last night, shortly after ten o’clock, so I locked him in his room. And, in any case, Anthony, I don’t think a cry was uttered, for Uncle Henry must have been stabbed by the assegai, in his sleep.”
“The window was open?” questioned Ackworth, thoughtfully. “Why?”
Clarice explained the contention between the two doctors, as regards fresh air, and how the local practitioner, being the last to see the patient, had left the fatal window ajar. “There’s nothing to be learned from that,” ended Clarice, with a shrug. “I expect this Osip man was haunting the house to kill Uncle Henry, and the open window gave him his chance.”
“Humph!” said Anthony, meditatively; “there is one peculiar circumstance. If Osip is guilty, he would have brought a weapon with him. Why, then, should he take an assegai from the wall? Such a clumsy article, too.”
“I don’t know,” answered Clarice, “but I expect we’ll learn all that is to be learned, at the inquest. It will take place to-morrow.”
For the whole of the morning, Inspector Tick was busy making notes and asking questions. He examined Wentworth about the window; Clarice, again, as to the finding of the gold box; Ferdinand about the presence of Osip at the Savoy Hotel; and then, after a word or two with Chalks on the same subject, went off to see Mrs. Dumps. In the midst of all this excitement, Dr. Jerce arrived. He looked much distressed, as he had heard the truth at the station.
“My dear Miss Baird,” he exclaimed, when he learned all that she knew. “How terrible. My oldest and best friend. Dear, dear!—and just when I had arranged that the matter of Osip should be inquired into.”
“Have you seen the Scotland Yard authorities?” asked Ackworth, suddenly.
“Yes, last night. I handed over the gold box, and explained. They said they would send down a detective to-day, and, on hearing the news at the station, I sent a wire to expedite his arrival. Then we shall get at the truth.”
“It seems to me that we know the truth,” said Clarice, quickly. “Osip killed Uncle Henry, and took advantage of the open window to do so.”
“Ah!” said Jerce, bitterly, “if my directions had only been attended to, the assassin would not have been able to enter the house. I look upon Wentworth as responsible in some measure for the crime.”
“Oh, no! no!” expostulated Anthony. “Wentworth did not know that Horran’s life was threatened. We ought to have told him all.”
Jerce shook his head, and still condemned Wentworth. When that doctor appeared out of the death-chamber, where he had been examining the body, he and Jerce had a wordy argument. Jerce blamed Wentworth for not leaving the window closed, as Jerce had left it; and Wentworth complained that Jerce should have told him that the dead man’s life was in danger. “Had I known that,” said Wentworth, “I should have left the window closed.”
“According to the etiquette of our profession,” said Jerce, stiffly, “my treatment took precedence of yours. I closed the window yesterday before I went, and you should have left it closed.”
“I believe in fresh air,” snapped Wentworth, holding to his point.
“And in this disease I believe in warmth for the patient,” retorted the more famous doctor. “Do you set your opinion against mine?”
“I have my own views about this disease,” said Wentworth.
“You don’t know what it is, sir!”
“Neither do you, if it comes to that, Dr. Jerce.”
“I am just about to find out,” said the great man, and stalked from the drawing-room, followed by the humbler member of the profession, who was still bent upon asserting his dignity.
It was a sad Christmas Eve for Clarice. Anthony stopped as long as he could, but had to return to his duties early in the evening. Ferdy behaved much better than his sister expected him to, since he remained at home, and did his best to comfort her. After dinner, the Vicar looked in, and talked religion; but Clarice, knowing what a weak man the parson was, did not find much encouragement in his ministrations. The kitchen was much livelier than the drawing-room, for there Mrs. Rebson was enthroned with the Domestic Prophet in her lap, recounting over and over again what the book had said, and how she had applied it to Mr. Horran.
The next day being Christmas, the inquest could not be held, but on Boxing Day the jury and the local Coroner arrived to inspect the body and to hold an inquiry. Already the London papers had heard of the murder, and, as it was the eighth of the Purple Fern series, a number of reporters came from the Metropolis to take notes. Never before was the quiet little town so lively, for cheap trippers took advantage of cheap fares to come and view the scene of the latest crime. Many even preferred this new excitement to the well-worn amusements of Southend, which was not very far distant. Mrs. Dumps especially did a roaring trade, being particularly popular, from having conversed with the murderer. The shrewd little woman made the best of the notoriety, which had so suddenly rendered her famous.
“I’m sure,” she cackled a dozen times in the course of the day, “you could have knocked me down with a feather when I heard that such a nice man as Mr. Osip was nothing but a cut-throat assassin. And he wanted to take poor Mr. Horran’s house, too—just like his artfulness, when he intended murder and sudden death, as the Prayer Book says. Oh, that Dumps were alive to support me, for my limbs is giving with horror at the thought that I might likewise be cut off in the prime of my youth and beauty. Lydia, beer to that gentleman over there! And now I’ll have to get ready for the inquest, my evidence being required to hang the assassin. Though assassin he didn’t look like, I can tell you, gentleman. As nice a spoken man as I ever listened to, which shows how careful we ought to be, seeing that in the middle of life we are in our grave, as the Bible says.” After which and a few other incoherent speeches, the little woman arrayed herself in her smartest frock and took her way to the house of death.
Here the Coroner presided in the drawing-room over twelve good and lawful men. There was no mystery about the murder, as everyone was perfectly satisfied that Alfred Osip was guilty. But it was necessary to collect all evidence to reveal how Osip had committed the crime, and to gather any clues together which might lead to his capture. The two Bairds were present with Ackworth and Dr. Jerce. Before the proceedings began, Clarice took the opportunity to ask the latter if he had discovered the reason for Horran’s mysterious disease, which had baffled him and everyone else for so many years.
“Yes,” whispered Jerce, calmly, but with a look of triumph in his eye, “and I was right in my surmise, as to what was the matter. My poor friend would have died of the disease had he not been murdered.”
“What was the disease?” asked Clarice, curiously.
“You would not understand if I explained,” said Jerce, shrugging; “the description would be too technical.”
“But I want to know.”
“Well,” said the great physician, “when I removed the skull-cap, I found a cyst had formed under the membranes and was pressing on the brain. The probable cause of the cyst was cystic degeneration of an old blood-clot, the result of intracranial hæmorrhage.”
Clarice shook her head. The death by the assegai was easier to understand.
The Coroner, a stolid old country doctor of sixty, with a ruddy face, shrewd eyes, and a beard which would have done credit to a Christmas card Santa Claus, opened the proceedings after the jury had inspected the corpse. His few brief remarks regarding the nature of the death, and the heinousness of the crime, introduced fussy Inspector Tick, with a sheaf of notes, dealing with up-to-date evidence.
Tick described the appearance of the dead man, described the state of the room, hinted at the open window, and laid before the jury the deadly assegai, with which the death wound had, in all human probability, been inflicted. Then the Inspector reverted to the appearance of the man in grey at the Savoy Hotel, under the name of Alfred Osip, and related what Dr. Jerce had said about the struggle on the terrace. Afterwards he mentioned the finding of the envelope containing the representation of the purple fern, and the discovery by Miss Baird of the gold box. He finished by again drawing the attention of the jury to the fact of the open window, and to the finding of the dead man by Chalks. Not being an orator, Inspector Tick spoke with hesitation, and set forth his facts dryly; but these were so interesting, that the lack of ornamentation was not apparent.
Mrs. Dumps was the first witness called by the Inspector, and she deposed, in a shrill voice and with many words, that Alfred Osip—so the man in grey called himself—came to the Savoy Hotel, and had paid for bed, breakfast, and dinner. After making inquiries about the inhabitants of Crumel, and especially about those in the deceased’s house, “The Laurels,” on the plea that he thought of settling in the town, Mr. Osip had departed, and had never returned. There was nothing in Osip’s talk, declared Mrs. Dumps, which gave her any hint that he contemplated murder. He had not reappeared at the Savoy Hotel.
There was nothing further to be gained from Mrs. Dumps, so she was requested to stand aside, which she did unwillingly enough, as she liked the publicity of her position. Dr. Jerce followed next, and described how the man in grey—presumably Alfred Osip—had searched him on the terrace of The Laurels, and explained that he probably wanted the letter given to witness by the sick man in Tea Street, Whitechapel. Jerce also stated that the letter had been handed by him to the Scotland Yard authorities in London, and they had made inquiries, the result of which would be explained to the jury by Mr. Sims, a detective now present. The Coroner asked a few questions regarding the deceased’s illness, and the open window; all of which Jerce answered in detail. He explained the cause of the disease, as gathered from the post-mortem examination, and the reason why the window had been left open by Wentworth and closed by himself. Afterwards, Jerce deposed as to the cause of death, which took place from Horran having been stabbed to the heart—apparently during his sleep, said the witness—by an assegai, which was produced by Inspector Tick. The murder, according to the condition and stiffness of the body, must have taken place between the hours of one and two o’clock in the morning. The doctor finally stated that he had been a life-long friend of the deceased and never knew him to have any enemies.
Dr. Wentworth’s evidence was much the same as that of Jerce. He held to fresh air, although Dr. Jerce preferred the patient to have warmth, and so had opened the window just before he left the deceased at eight o’clock in the evening. The deceased was fractious and uneasy on that evening, but had assigned no reason for such uneasiness, which witness took to be connected with his mysterious illness. That illness had now been explained by the post-mortem examination. Samuel Chalks deposed to being the valet of Mr. Henry Horran, and stated that at the request of the deceased he had retired to bed, although instructed to sit up by Dr. Jerce. But that deceased had been so angry, the witness declared that he would have obeyed the doctor’s orders; as it was, he judged it best to humour his master, lest worse should happen. The window was certainly open when he left the room, as witness had not touched it, according to his custom, when it was set ajar by Dr. Wentworth at eight o’clock. Witness had not taken any notice of the arms on the walls on that evening, and so could not say if the assegai was in its place. He never saw it about the room, until he found it on the floor, and Mr. Horran dead in bed, with a wound in his breast.
Coroner: “Did deceased notice the open window?”
Witness: “No! Sometimes the window was open and sometimes shut. Mr. Horran never troubled about it in any way.”
Coroner: “Had you any suspicion that deceased wished you to leave him that night in order to see someone?”
Witness: “No! He was swearing in bed when I left him.”
Coroner: “Did you lock the door of the bedroom?”
Witness: “No! The door of the bedroom was never locked.”
A Juryman: “Did you hear any noise outside, which led you to believe that someone might be lurking about?”
Witness: “No, sir!”
Coroner: “And you knew nothing of this purple fern business?”
Witness: “No! Miss Baird never told me, nor did Dr. Jerce. If I had known I should have stopped in the room, notwithstanding master’s bad temper.”
Coroner: “Mr. Horran was not alarmed, or apprehensive?”
Witness: “Not in the least. He was in a bad temper, and wished me to leave him, so I did.”
Coroner: “Do you know why the deceased was in a bad temper?”
Witness: “The Rev. Mr. Clarke had called in the afternoon, and after he left, Mr. Horran was very cross. As he was good-tempered up till Mr. Clarke’s visit, I suppose Mr. Clarke put him out in some way.”
The Coroner gave instructions that Mr. Clarke should be called as a witness, since this had not been done. Meanwhile, Clarice Baird deposed that the deceased was her guardian, and had been ill with some mysterious disease for ten years, more or less. Usually, he was good tempered. She did not see him on the evening of the crime, as he refused to receive her, being out of temper. Dr. Jerce had told her that Mr. Clarke had seen deceased, and Dr. Jerce was vexed, as he did not wish deceased, in his bad state of health, to be worried with business. Witness also stated how she had found the gold box, and had handed it to Dr. Jerce, who had taken it, along with the picture of the Purple Fern and the letter given to him by the sick man of Tea Street, Whitechapel, to Scotland Yard. Deceased had seemed much agitated when he found the picture of the Purple Fern in the unaddressed envelope outside his window, but had never gone into details about the matter, and she had not found an opportunity of speaking to him on the subject. As a matter of fact, deceased had fallen asleep while talking of the picture of the fern, and witness had picked it up. Beyond that he was agitated, witness had no reason to believe that Mr. Horran expected to be murdered. Still, since the other seven deaths, connected with the Purple Fern, had always been preceded by the same warning, it was possible that Mr. Horran was in dread of a violent death. Witness also stated, that she had heard no noise or cry during the night, and, indeed, had known nothing of the crime, until Chalks, the valet, came up to lead her down to the scene of the tragedy. From the disposition of the bedclothes, she fancied that deceased must have been stabbed in his sleep, before he had time to wake or call out. Witness had told the valet to leave the room exactly as it was, when found by him, and had then sent for the police.
Coroner: “When you found the box, did you see deceased about it?”
Witness: “No, sir! Mr. Horran was asleep for hours and hours, and I had no opportunity.”
Coroner: “Would you have done so had deceased been awake?”
Dr. Jerce, re-called, said that he had not related the finding of the gold box to deceased, since he was already in a state of nervous excitement, owing to the visit of Mr. Clarke. Witness intended to wait until Mr. Horran was more composed, and then it was his intention to tell him about the golden box, and about Osip—that is, such details as were in the letter given to him by the young man who died in Tea Street. Dr. Jerce stated that he had placed all evidence in the hands of the Scotland Yard authorities on the same night that he went up, and that he had intended to come down next day and relate everything to deceased, whom he hoped to find more composed. “But when I arrived at the Crumel railway station,” ended witness, “I found that my poor friend had been murdered.”
Mr. Clarke, hastily summoned from the vicarage, then put in an appearance, and stated that he had received money from Mr. Horran, through his solicitor, Mr. Barras. He had long wished to see Mr. Horran on the matter of the interest, which was overdue, and for payment of which witness was being pressed. But Dr. Jerce would not allow witness to see Mr. Horran because Mr. Horran’s health was delicate, and—according to Dr. Jerce—it would have been detrimental to his condition to worry him with business. Witness, however, was passing The Laurels, and saw the French window of Mr. Horran’s bedroom open. He, therefore, slipped in on the impulse of the moment. Mr. Horran had expressed himself as angry about the thousand pounds loan, as he declared that he had not given Mr. Barras leave to lend money at the rate of ten per cent. He had told witness that he would write to Barras, and would see him—witness—in a few days, about the matter, telling him not to worry in the meantime. Deceased certainly appeared to be very much annoyed, and witness expressed his regret that he had not obeyed Dr. Jerce’s wish and had refrained from paying the visit. His only excuse was that he had slipped into the bedroom on the impulse of the moment, and on seeing the window open from the lane.
Coroner: “You can see the window from the lane?”
Witness: “Certainly—very plainly.”
Coroner: “Did you leave deceased in a bad temper?”
Witness: “So bad that I was sorry—in the interests of peace—that I had paid my visit.”
Coroner: “Did Mr. Horran express any fear of being killed?”
Witness: “Not a word.”
Coroner: “Did he touch on the fact of the Purple Fern murders?”
Witness: “No, sir. He never mentioned them. I only conversed with him for twenty minutes, and then it was about my own business.”
The Coroner suggested that Mr. Barras should be called, but the lawyer had not come down from town, as he was away on a holiday and would not return for a few days. He had been telegraphed for to Paris, where he was spending his holiday. The Inspector pointed out that any evidence given by Mr. Barras would not bear on the crime, but with this the Coroner disagreed. “Mr. Barras,” said the Coroner, “might be able to explain why he lent Mr. Clarke money without the leave of the deceased.”
Inspector Tick: “Possibly, sir; but that would have no bearing on the case in hand. We are here, sir, not to search into deceased’s private affairs, but to learn why he was killed, and who killed him.”
Coroner: “An inquiry into the past life of deceased may reveal why he was murdered.”
Again the Inspector disagreed with this, and again the Coroner objected; so there was a wrangle, which lasted for some minutes. Finally, Inspector Tick, being the more obstinate of the two, it was agreed that the inquest should not be postponed, as the Coroner had suggested, for the presence of the lawyer, Barras.
The last witness called was Thomas Sims, a smiling little Jewish-faced man from Scotland Yard, with an olive complexion and a pair of dark, inquisitive eyes. He deposed that the apartments in Rough Lane, Stepney, had been searched by the police, but Osip, having probably taken alarm, had cleared out everything likely to incriminate him. The young man who had died of consumption in Tea Street, Whitechapel (attended by Dr. Jerce, out of kindness), might or might not have been connected with the Purple Fern crimes. The only evidence which connected him with them was that he had accurately described Alfred Osip; and the sole evidence which associated Osip with the young man and with the murders was the gold box, which had been found by Miss Baird. Also, it was probable that as Osip—according to Mrs. Dumps and to Dr. Jerce—had been in Crumel a short time before, he had left the warning of the pictured fern outside the window of the deceased. Every effort had been made to find Osip, but without result. From the time he had searched Dr. Jerce on the terrace of The Laurels, he had disappeared. According to the ticket-collectors and porters and officials at the Crumel railway station, Osip had not even returned to London from that station. It was possible that after searching Dr. Jerce, the man had walked to the next station—Benleigh—to escape any pursuit should Dr. Jerce have given the alarm.
A Juryman: “And why didn’t Dr. Jerce give the alarm?”
Dr. Jerce arose to explain, and was permitted to do so by the Coroner, although his rising was out of order. “I ran after the man,” he said, calmly, “as soon as I could pull myself together. He had disappeared. Mr. Ferdinand Baird, who came up, suggested that the police should be called in, but when he described the man as having a scar on his left cheek, I then remembered the letter which my dying patient in Whitechapel had given me, with instructions to open it should I be attacked by such a man. I judged it best to return to London and open the letter before taking any action. I went to Scotland Yard as soon as I learned that Osip was connected with the Purple Fern crimes. More I could not do.”
“You should have given the man in charge for assault,” insisted the juryman.
“Doubtless,” replied Jerce, ironically, “but I did not wish to make a scandal in my friend’s house. Moreover, since the deceased’s health was extremely delicate, it would have been injurious to him to be disturbed by an account of the struggle on the terrace. And that he would have learned, had I called the police to The Laurels.”
No one could deny but what Jerce had acted sensibly, and the juryman—still holding to his opinion—was crushed. “If this Osip had been arrested at the time of the assault,” muttered the juryman, “we should not have had the murder.”
“And how was I to know, my good sir, that the man Osip contemplated murder?”
“The letter you received from the Tea Street man—”
“Was not opened by me until I returned to town after the assault. And then I went at once to Scotland Yard,” retorted Jerce.
The juryman retired from the contest, and the Coroner then summed up the evidence as clearly and concisely as he could. Bearing in mind, he observed, the Purple Fern murders and the presence of Osip, who was clearly connected with the same, and above all, remembering the fatal mark on the forehead of the deceased, there could be no doubt that this crime was the eighth of the fatal series. One of the criminals who had perpetrated these terrible assassinations had been hanged, another had died from consumption, but the third—Alfred Osip—was still alive and had undoubtedly stabbed Henry Horran. It was proved by the fact that the usual warning had been given by means of the pictured fern. The window—according to Mr. Clarke—could be seen from the lane, so without doubt Osip, lurking therein, had seen that the window was open—as a light was in the room—and, waiting until the small hours of the morning, when his victim would presumably be asleep, he had entered and killed the unfortunate gentleman. The Coroner ended his speech with a request that the jurymen would bring in a verdict in accordance with the weight of evidence, which plainly pointed to Alfred Osip as the criminal.
The jury did so very promptly, as not one of them, and not one of the listeners to the evidence, had any doubt but that Osip was the guilty person. Therefore, after bringing in a verdict of “Wilful murder against Alfred Osip,” the inquest was brought to an end, and the jurymen, very well satisfied with themselves, went home. But although the verdict had been given, the criminal was still at large; and now that he had commenced operations in Crumel, it was doubtful when he would stop. The locksmiths of Crumel did a fine trade during the next few days, as everyone wanted bolts and bars, patent locks, and ingenious alarms. The quiet little Essex town was terribly scared by the presence of this unseen beast of prey.
During the inquest, Clarice, looking round to see who was present, noticed a fashionably-dressed young lady, with a wonderful complexion and copper-coloured hair. At once she recognised her as the notorious Butterfly. Sarah—or Zara—Dumps was seated by her mother and greatly resembled the elder woman. But her mouth was firmer and her eyes were more deep-set. Notwithstanding the boldness of her appearance and the frivolity of her attire, she nevertheless looked clever and quite capable of dominating the weaker nature of Ferdy Baird. Once or twice Butterfly met the grave gaze of Clarice, and, rather to the latter’s surprise, immediately dropped her eyes with a quick flush. This was strange, considering the known boldness of the girl, and Clarice wondered what it might mean.
When the inquest was over, and the jurymen were leaving the house along with the rest of the crowd, Clarice noticed the girl again. She was chatting in a low voice to Ferdy, while Mrs. Dumps sailed ahead with the Coroner, explaining how he should have managed the case. Rather annoyed that her brother should thus publicly flaunt his acquaintance with so notorious a young woman, Clarice pressed through the throng, in order to touch Ferdy’s arm, and draw him away. But before she could carry out her purpose, a single sentence, falling from the lips of Zara, made her change her mind. Butterfly’s lips were almost touching Ferdy’s ear, and she spoke in a low and rapid voice, but sufficiently loudly for keen-eared Miss Baird to overhear.
“Now that Osip is accused,” whispered Zara, softly, “there can be no danger.”
Clarice quite intended to ask Ferdy what was the meaning of Zara’s strange remark, but other things took up her attention, and for the time being she forgot the saying. As regards the murder, of course, neither Clarice nor any one else thought that there was any mystery about the death of Mr. Horran. Undoubtedly Osip had killed him, in due accordance with the traditions of the Purple Fern. Only in this instance it was difficult to guess why the crime had been committed on an inoffensive man. The other seven victims, men and women, had been selected for their wealth, and in every case either the body had been robbed of jewellery, or the house of the dead—when the especial murder took place in a house—had been looted. In the case of Horran, nothing had been stolen, therefore robbery—as in the other cases—could not be the motive for the crime.
However, Clarice did not trouble her head much about the matter, although the facts of Mr. Horran (according to Ackworth) having been in the company of Osip at the Shah’s Rooms, and the curious observation of Zara to Ferdy, might have urged her to make enquiries. Still, there was no mystery about the death, save the want of a motive, and, therefore, there was nothing to unravel. Horran was dead, the hue and cry was out against his assassin, and two days after the inquest the funeral took place. Owing to the publicity of the death, and the respect in which Horran was held by his fellow-townsmen, there was a great crowd at the cemetery. Ferdy acted as chief mourner along with Dr. Jerce, the life-long friend of the deceased, and Mr. Clarke read the burial service. Clarice, according to custom, stopped at home while her unfortunate guardian was being laid in his untimely grave. It was then that she remembered Zara’s observation, and wondered anew what it meant.
Did the girl mean that now Osip was accused there could be no danger to Ferdy? Clarice asked herself this question, but without receiving any answer from her consciousness. The facts of the murder were sufficiently plain, save as to the motive, so in any case it had nothing to do with Ferdy. Moreover, if Zara meant that Ferdy was implicated in the matter—and on the face of it that seemed absurd—such an accusation, if made, could be rebutted by Clarice herself, since she had locked Ferdy in his room on the night when the purposeless crime was committed. Miss Baird used the word purposeless because she could not conjecture why Horran should have been killed in so tragic a manner. Unless, of course, the motive for the committal of the crime was connected with Horran’s acquaintanceship with Osip. Why the dead man had been at the Shah’s Rooms, and in Osip’s company, was yet to be explained, but only the assassin could give the reason for that secret visit to London, and he was not likely to come forward, considering that there was a price on his head. Clarice, at the suggestion of Dr. Jerce, had offered a reward of two hundred pounds for the apprehension of the man in grey, and the London detective, Sims, had gone back to Town with the firm determination to win that sum of money. But he admitted to Miss Baird herself, with a rueful smile, that it was like looking for a needle in a haystack to capture the remaining member of the Purple Fern Triumvirate.
As yet Barras had not put in an appearance, although he had been expected to be present at the funeral. A telegram from him stated that he would be down immediately afterwards, and would come to The Laurels to read the will of the deceased. There had been some difficulty in finding Mr. Barras in Paris, and only at the eleventh hour had he returned to England.
Meanwhile Clarice, in deep mourning, sat in the drawing-room waiting for the arrival of the solicitor, and for the return of the funeral party. Ackworth had not come over to attend, as stern duty compelled him to go to Southampton with a draft of men for India. But he promised to return as soon as he was able. Clarice anxiously expected him, as she had much to say about the property and about their marriage. Especially about the latter, as, since the death of Horran, Dr. Jerce had too openly displayed his interest in the girl. It was, therefore, necessary to put an end to the doctor’s hopes by announcing her engagement to Captain Ackworth.
While Clarice thought of these things, Mrs. Rebson, at her elbow, kept up a cheerful conversation about the truths enshrined in the pages of The Domestic Prophet. “One thing’s come true, Miss,” she said, briskly; “I only hope the other won’t.”
“What other?” asked Miss Baird, listlessly.
“Why, the disgrace, Miss. We had the death to an elderly man, who should have been beware of the midnight hour—death by a knife, too.”
“Only it was an assegai,” retorted Clarice, scornfully; “your prophet made a mistake in the weapon.”
“The Domestic Prophet doesn’t condescend to tell everything,” said Mrs. Rebson, much offended, “but you can’t say but what the murder hasn’t taken place.”
“No,” sighed the girl, “poor Uncle Henry.”
“We’ve had death and sorrow,” went on the housekeeper, relentlessly, “and disgrace has still to come.”
“Disgrace! What nonsense.”
“So you said before, Miss. Don’t scoff, when you know what’s happened. Disgrace must come, as The Domestic Prophet plainly says.” She turned over a few pages, and cleared her throat to read:—“If a crime of any nature has been committed by any person during the months of December, January, or February, that person, if hanged, will assuredly bring disgrace on those nearest and dearest to them. Let degenerates beware, says the seer.”
“Oh, what rubbish.”
Mrs. Rebson put the book in her pocket, took her spectacles off her nose, and rose in a stately manner. “Death has come,” she said, in her most scathing voice. “Sorrow has come. You scoffed at both, being hard of heart. Now disgrace will befall this house, and—”
“How can it?” asked Clarice, impatiently. “Osip doesn’t belong to this house or to us. The disgrace falls on him since he is guilty.”
Mrs. Rebson had no answer for this, so retreated with dignity, her faith in the Domestic Prophet still unshaken “Mark my words, Miss Clarice, disgrace is coming,” and with that she left the room, much to the relief of Miss Baird, who was very weary of the gimcrack sayings and pinchbeck philosophy which Mrs. Rebson set such store by.
Scarcely had Mrs. Rebson departed, when Ferdy entered by the window. He looked tall and slim in his deep mourning, and very well content with himself. His grief for the guardian, who had been so kind to him, was apparently swallowed up by the reflection that he could soon be enjoying two thousand a year. His first glance round the drawing-room was in search of Barras.
“Where’s that lawyer chap?” asked Ferdy, producing a cigarette.
“He has not arrived yet,” replied Clarice, rather disgusted at this want of feeling. “How can you talk so, Ferdy, when poor Uncle Henry is just buried? Tell me about the funeral.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” said Ferdy, flinging himself into the most comfortable armchair; “it was much the same as other funerals.”
“You have no heart, Ferdy.”
“And no money,” retorted the youth, coolly; “but that will soon be remedied, thank heaven.”
Clarice could not help smiling to herself, in spite of her grief, when she thought of how Ferdy would be disappointed. It then occurred to her that he had some especial desire in wanting the money so badly, and, pending the arrival of the lawyer, she asked questions. “I suppose you want your two thousand a year in order to marry Prudence.”
“Perhaps,” said Ferdy, cautiously.
“Perhaps,” echoed his sister, raising herself angrily. “Why, you have proposed to Prudence.”
“I know that, and I love Prudence. All the same, a proposal doesn’t invariably mean marriage.”
“Oh,” said Clarice, in disgust. “Then you still hanker after Zara?”
Ferdy lighted his cigarette calmly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he observed, obstinately.
“Mrs. Rebson says that you are always at the Savoy Hotel.”
“She had better mind her own business, the interfering old cat,” was Ferdy’s retort; “besides, Zara doesn’t always live there.”
“She lives in town, and so do you, I know, Ferdy; I dare say you see a lot of her there.”
“Oh! Has Jerce told you so?”
“No. But I am certain that you are familiar with her.”
“Are you, indeed?” said Ferdy, in an aggravating tone, “and on what grounds, since you are so clever?”
Clarice leaned forward. “I heard Zara say to you immediately after the inquest that, as Osip was accused, there could be no danger.”
This time Ferdy was startled. He dropped his cigarette and bent down to pick it up, and to hide the sudden rush of colour which came to his cheeks. “Did you hear anything else?” he asked, hesitating.
“No. But I want to know the meaning of the sentence I did hear.”
Ferdy rose and paced the drawing-room, shrugging his shoulders. “What an inquisitive girl you are,” he said, carelessly. “Zara only meant that as Osip was accused, there would be no danger of any other murder being committed.”
This sounded a plausible enough explanation, yet Clarice doubted its truth. “That is not the meaning,” she said, impetuously.
“What is the meaning, then?” asked Ferdy, sharply.
“I don’t know, unless she meant that you were free from danger.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Ferdy, angrily, and dropped his cigarette again. “Do you think that I have anything to do with the death of Uncle Henry?”
“Certainly not, seeing that I locked you up in your room on that night. All the same, I shouldn’t be at all surprised if you knew this man Osip, and that he had influenced you in some way.”
“I don’t know Osip from Moses,” said Ferdy, doggedly. “All I saw of him was a glimpse on the night he searched Jerce, and then it was only a casual glance when passing him in the High Street. How could I possibly know such a blighter?”
“Uncle Henry might have introduced you.”
Ferdy wheeled round in genuine amazement. “Uncle Henry! Are you out of your senses, Clarry? You know Uncle Henry never went out of his room for years and years, and certainly this man in grey never came to The Laurels until the time he searched Jerce.”
“Do you know the Shah’s Rooms, Ferdy?”
“Yes; I sometimes go there,” snapped Ferdy, unhesitatingly.
“You go there very often, I expect,” said his sister, bitterly, “well then Anthony went there, and—”
“What!” scoffed Ferdy, “the immaculate Anthony!”
“He’s no more immaculate than any other man. Besides, when he was there a couple or three months ago, he was not then engaged to me. But Anthony saw Uncle Henry with this man Osip.”
Ferdy went quite white. “You—Anthony must be mistaken.”
“No! Anthony didn’t know Osip at the time—”
“And he doesn’t know him now.”
“He knows the looks of the man. The person with Uncle Henry at the Shah’s Rooms was a tall, slim man with a criss-cross scar on his left cheek.”
“That’s Osip, true enough,” muttered Ferdy, “judging from the glimpse I caught of him in the High Street and in a bad light. But it is quite absurd to say that Uncle Henry was at the Shah’s Rooms. You know that his disease prevented him from leaving his room.”
“We did not know what the disease was at the time,” said Clarice, coolly. “There may be some mistake, as you say, but Anthony is too keen-eyed to make one. Did you ever see Uncle Henry in Town?”
“No, I never did.”
“Did you ever see this Osip?”
“Not in Town,” said Ferdy, truthfully, “but I saw him in the High Street on that night when Jerce was searched. Look here, Clarry, let us have an understanding, if you please. Do you accuse me of—”
“I accuse you of nothing,” interrupted Clarice, rising, a trifle wearily. “Only the observation of Zara—”
“I have explained that.”
“In a lame way. I am certain that you know nothing about the murder, Ferdy, as you were locked in and—”
“How dare you? how dare you?” burst out the young man, furiously red and angry. “Even to hint at such things is an insult to me. I am not a saint; all the same, I am not a devil.”
“Don’t excite yourself, Ferdy. We know that Osip is guilty, and that no blame attaches to you. But I fail to see why Zara should have made that observation to you.”
“Go and ask her,” snapped Ferdy, rudely.
“I don’t speak to persons of that sort,” said Clarice, icily.
“She’s a good, decent, pretty, hard-working girl.”
“What an array of adjectives. I never said that she was not. All I wish to know—and my desire to know is suggested by the chance observation I overheard—is, are you acquainted with Osip, or are you in any way influenced by Osip?”
“I am not. How dare you suggest such a silly thing? As to Uncle Henry having been at the Shah’s Rooms; that’s sheer rubbish.”
Clarice walked thoughtfully to the window. “I dare say I am worrying myself unnecessarily,” she observed. “There is no mystery about Uncle Henry’s death, and Anthony may have made a mistake. But you do make me anxious, Ferdy, dear, with your wild ways. You are so unsophisticated, that I fear lest you should be led astray.”
“I’m quite able to look after myself,” fumed the young man, again producing his cigarette case, that unfailing resource in embarrassment.
His sister sighed. Somehow, in everything that Ferdy said, or did, there lurked a doubtful note. But on reflection, she could not but confess that it seemed ridiculous to think that Ferdy knew an assassin. Only for the overheard whisper, Clarice would never have started so futile a conversation, and now wished to end it by confessing her fault. “I beg your pardon, Ferdy,” she said, quietly, “but my anxiety for you must be my excuse.”
Before Ferdy could accept her apology, and kiss her, as he seemed inclined to do, there was a furious barking outside, and the angry voice of a man. Clarice stepped out on to the terrace. “There’s Jane at Dr. Jerce again,” she said, hastily, and went to the rescue.
Jerce, with a very white and angry face, was repelling with his umbrella the assault of a tawny dog of the mongrel collie species, with savage white teeth and blazing topaz eyes. Jane—as the animal was called—cherished a deep hatred for Jerce, notwithstanding that he had been her former master, and had presented her to Miss Baird. On all occasions she attacked him, and was usually shut up when the doctor was expected. That Jane was lame in the left hind-leg did not prevent her from making furious darts at Jerce, until Clarice caught her deftly by the collar.
“That damned dog will be the death of me,” said Jerce, when Jane, handed over to Ferdy, was dragged away, growling and snapping. “I beg your pardon for swearing, Miss Baird, but—”
“I am very sorry, doctor,” said Clarice, leading the way back to the drawing-room. “Jane was shut up as usual, but must have got loose while the groom was at the funeral. I wonder why she hates you so?”
“I don’t know,” said Jerce, seating himself, and recovering his calmness. “I get on first-rate with dogs, but Jane never did like me. I gave her to you, Miss Baird, because she never would be friends with me. The she-devil—I beg your pardon again—but I am quite sure that Jane will kill me some day.”
“Nonsense. Her bark is worse than her bite.”
“Then I hope she won’t bark again, that’s all. Ungrateful beast, I picked her up in Whitechapel on a wet day, streaming with water and starving with hunger. She had a good home with me, until her temper made me get rid of her.”
“Perhaps her lameness makes her fractious,” said Clarice. “Jane is really a good-tempered dog as a rule.”
“Her lameness,” echoed Jerce, after a pause, and then smiled in an odd way. “Why, yes, Miss Baird. That might have something to do with her temper. However, now that she’s tied up—”
“Shut up, you mean,” said Ferdy, who had now returned.
“Let us say disposed of,” observed the doctor, genially, “and end the subject. Well, my dear Miss Baird,” he added, gently, “now that our dear friend has been buried, we must learn how things are to be arranged.”
“Mr. Barras will tell us that,” said Clarice, glancing at the French clock on the mantelpiece. “He has not yet come!”
“He’ll be here in a few moments,” said Jerce, cheerily. “I saw him walking up the High Street. Ah!”—as there came a sharp ring at the front door—“there he is. Do you want me to remain?”
“Yes, do,” urged Clarice; “both Ferdy and I would like you to be present at the reading of the will. You are our best friend.”
“I should like to be something nearer and dearer,” breathed Jerce, as the door opened, and Clarice rose to welcome the lawyer.
She pretended that she had not heard him, but he guessed that she had, from the flush which coloured her fair face. But by this time Barras was shaking hands with the two young people, and bowed politely to the famous doctor. “I am glad you’re here, sir,” he observed, sitting down and laying aside a black bag. “I want to ask you a question.”
“What is it?” demanded Jerce, looking surprised. “You knew my late client, Mr. Horran, intimately?”
“Yes, for years and years. We were at school and college together.”
“Then you would know.”
“Know what?” asked Jerce, still more astonished.
“If my late client, Mr. Horran, was an honest man or a scoundrel.”
An astonished silence ensued. The lawyer’s observation was so very unexpected, that no one knew exactly how to reply. Mr. Barras did not look like a man inclined to jest, being lean-faced, dour, and clean-shaven, with a thin-lipped mouth, and scanty iron-grey hair. His severe black eyes peered sternly at the world from under shaggy grey eyebrows, and he constantly appeared to hold the attitude of a hanging judge, sentencing a criminal to the gallows. Barras was not popular with his fellows, but he had the name of an extremely honest man, and was supposed to be aggressively just. Also he was deliberately cautious in expressing an opinion; therefore it was scarcely to be wondered at, that his late remark considerably startled the three people who had assembled to hear the will read. Being a woman, Clarice was the first of the trio to recover the use of her tongue, and spoke indignantly.
“What do you mean by that, Mr. Barras?” she demanded, breathlessly.
“Exactly what I say, Miss Baird; and I would have you remark that I addressed myself to Dr. Jerce here, who has not yet replied.”
“You take me by surprise, Barras,” said Jerce, with a shrug. “All I can reply is that Horran was the most strictly honest man of my acquaintance. Had he not been so, the late Mrs. Baird would hardly have chosen him as her executor, or as the guardian of her children.”
“Exactly,” said the lawyer again, and opened his portentous black bag. “But the question is, may not the late Mrs. Baird have been mistaken as to the true character of the man?”
“Your own client?” said Clarice, indignantly.
“I am a man, as well as a lawyer,” retorted Barras, coldly.
“Still, Uncle Henry, whom every one liked—”
“Popularity implies weakness, to my mind, Miss Baird. Strength has its enemies, I have always found.”
“What do you think, Ferdy?” asked Clarice, staggered by the lawyer’s air of conviction.
“About Uncle Henry? Oh, it’s all rot. He was one of the best, even though we didn’t get on over well.”
“There, Mr. Barras,” said Clarice, with an air of triumph.
He took no notice of her, but produced from his bag a sheaf of important-looking documents. “I had better read the will,” said Barras, coldly.
“One moment,” broke in Jerce, as Barras unfolded a sheet of parchment with a judicial air. “We must tell you about the death, and—”
“I have heard everything,” interrupted the lawyer, mounting his golden pince-nez. “I have read all that was to be read in the papers.”
“And you think?—”
“I think that my late client was the eighth victim of the Purple Fern series, murdered by the surviving villain.”
“And the motive?” questioned Miss Baird, suddenly.
“The same motive that brought about the death of the other victims,” was the solicitor’s cold reply—“wealth, or, if you like, robbery.”
“I don’t agree with you. Nothing was taken from the room.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know everything that is in the room, and nothing is missing. That is plain enough.”
“On the face of it,” admitted Barras, “but I think that I can show you your error.”
“Do you mean to say that the motive for Uncle Henry’s murder was robbery?” asked Ferdy, sitting up from his lounging attitude.
“I do, and I have good reason to say so.”
“Then explain,” said Clarice, curtly, but secretly bewildered.
“I am about to do so, if you will permit me,” said Barras, with his most acid smile.
“I beg your pardon. Go on.”
Mr. Barras made a short explanation before reading the will, as they thought he was about to do. “Your parents,” he began, looking at the twins, “Mr. and Mrs. Baird, lived at Tremby Hall, a short distance out of this town. Mr. Baird died, and left the property, which came to about four thousand a year, more or less, solely to his wife, your mother. When she died, the property was handed over to my late client, Mr. Henry Horran, who acted as your guardian. For this he received, under the late Mrs. Baird’s will, five hundred a year. It was much needed by Mr. Horran, as he was then desperately poor.”
“How do you know that?” questioned Clarice, listening intently.
“I was Mrs. Baird’s lawyer, and afterwards became Mr. Horran’s,” said the iron-grey man, severely, “so I speak of what I know. Mr. Horran, as I have just explained, received five hundred a year, as your guardian. He had also, seeing that you both were infants, so to speak, complete control of the property—that is, you each were left two thousand a year, and it was arranged that you should come into possession at the age of twenty-five. Meanwhile, Mr. Horran was to look after you, educate you, and guide you.”
“He did all that,” said Clarice, with emotion, although Ferdy did not openly second her speech, and wriggled uneasily.
“At five hundred a year,” remarked Barras, pointedly.
“Go on—go on,” said Jerce, impatiently.
“You, Mr. Baird, and you, Miss Baird, being twins, were each three years of age when your mother died. You are now each three and twenty, and in another two years will come into unfettered possession of four thousand a year, divided equally. You, Mr. Baird, receive, at the age of twenty-five, two thousand a year; and you, Miss Baird, also at the age of twenty-five, receive the same sum, annually.”
“Yes, yes,” said Jerce, who appeared to be irritated by the minute way in which the lawyer was detailing everything; “and, of course, there is the accumulation on the income of four thousand a year, for—let me see—twenty years, up to the present.”
“That is the whole point,” remarked Barras, solemnly, “but I shall come to that point shortly. You, Mr. Baird, were allowed two hundred a year from the age of twenty—that is for the last three years.”
“Yes,” snapped Ferdy, “and little enough it is.”
“I quite understand that, seeing you are young and gay,” said the lawyer, drily. “Well, then, for three years you have been receiving this allowance, which comes—I may tell you—from the letting of Tremby Hall to those Americans. So you see, all of you, that the income of Mr. Ferdinand Baird, coming from this outside source, so to speak, leaves the four thousand a year intact.”
Clarice heaved a weary sigh. “Why explain all this?” she asked. “We know the most part of it.”
“Quite so,” said Barras, deliberately, “but you do not know all.”
“All that I am about to tell you, if you will permit me to speak.”
The girl looked at him hard. There seemed to be a great deal lurking behind the solicitor’s manner. “Go on, please,” she said, apprehensively.
“When Dr. Jerce refers to the accumulation on the income of four thousand a year for twenty years,” continued Mr. Barras, “he must not forget, that besides the five hundred per annum to Mr. Horran, there was also the sum required for education, for the keep of this house, and for the clothing of the children—I allude to you two,” added Barras, looking over his pince-nez.
Ferdy nodded. “I understand and so does Clarry.”
“Now, then,” said Mr. Barras, having reached this point, “I shall read the will, as you no doubt understand exactly how the monies stand—that is, how they were left by your late mother.”
“But we don’t understand about the accumulations,” protested Clarice.
“I am coming to that,” said the lawyer, significantly. “Allow me to conduct this conversation in my own way, so as to make everything plain. The will—listen—the will of Mr. Henry Horran—”
“But he had nothing to leave,” burst out Ferdy; “you said so.”
“I did not exactly say so,” said Barras, deliberately, “but it is a fact. Since the five hundred a year ceased at Mr. Horran’s death, seeing that he could not longer continue his duties as guardian, he certainly had nothing to leave. But the will of the late Mrs. Baird gave him the power to appoint a new guardian.”
“What a shame!” cried Ferdy, flushing; “we—Clarry and I—are old enough to handle our own money.”
“Possibly, but the will must stand,” said Barras, drily, “and, after all, as you will see, the new guardian is the best that could be appointed. From what I have seen of this young lady”—he bowed to Clarice—“and from the frequency with which I have come into contact with her since Mr. Horran’s illness, I am quite sure that a better appointment could not have been made.”
Ferdy started. “What has Clarry to do with it?” he demanded, angrily.
Barras took no notice, but read the will of Horran. It was short, and to the point, containing a few legacies to servants, a disposal of his jewellery to friends, and the appointment of Clarice Baird to the post of guardian, which Horran’s death would leave vacant. Ferdy could scarcely contain his wrath, when Barras ceased. “Do you mean to say that Clarry has been appointed over my head?” he asked, white with rage; “over my head, when I am the man.”
“I do say so,” said Barras, quietly, “and in my opinion, seeing what I know of Miss Baird, it is an excellent suggestion.”
“It’s a shame. I should have been made guardian.”
“Ferdy”—Clarice pulled the fuming youth down into his chair with a strong hand—“you and I can talk of that later. Meanwhile, as the appointment has been made, you can do nothing.”
“I’ll see a lawyer—I’ll go into court—I’ll—”
“You can do nothing,” said Jerce, calmly and soothingly. “Horran had the full right to appoint whom he chose, and if he thought that Miss Baird was the most suitable person, you must accept the decision.”
Ferdy sat down, silenced for once, but in a royal rage. Clarice laid her hand on his arm, but he jerked himself angrily away, whereupon a look of pain passed over her face. “You will not find me a hard guardian,” she said, softly; then, as he still remained sullen, she turned to Barras. “Are there any arrangements made as to where we shall live?” she asked.
“No,” answered the solicitor, replacing the will in his bag. “You can live here, or wherever you like. The will gives you complete control of four thousand a year, until you reach the age of twenty-five in two years, when you will, of course, give your brother half that income, and then—as you know—your guardianship ceases.”
“I won’t have Clarice as my guardian,” cried Ferdy, wrathfully.
“You must,” said the girl, in a firm tone. “What is the use of going on like this, Ferdy? The will is a good one in law.”
“A very excellent will,” said Barras, primly.
“A great responsibility for you, Miss Baird,” said Jerce, quietly.
“I am perfectly well able to bear it, doctor,” she replied, sharply.
“See here,” said young Baird, suddenly, and rousing himself from a brown study; “this will gives Clarice control of the four thousand a year.”
“Yes,” answered Barras, “and, of course, your allowance of two hundred can continue, still arising from the letting of the Hall.”
“Well, then,” went on Ferdy, rapidly, “the will—so far as I can see and so far as you tell me—does not say anything about the accumulations on the four thousand during the last twenty years.”
“On two thousand, if you please, Mr. Baird,” said Barras, leisurely. “Do not forget that the late Mr. Horran received five hundred for his services—that is annually—and that the rest of two thousand was required for the various items I have mentioned.”
“I remember,” said Ferdy, hastily. “Well, then, the accumulation on two thousand a year for twenty years must be in the bank, or invested, and free from Clarice’s control.”
“No. By the will, Miss Baird would deal with the accumulations, as well as with the income. For the next two years she receives the four thousand a year, and what she does not spend—having full power under both wills—she can let out at interest.”
“Oh!” said Clarice, quickly. “Then two thousand of our united income was let out at interest by Mr. Horran?”
“That I can’t tell you, Miss Baird.”
“But it must have been,” insisted Clarice, “for Mr. Clarke—”
“My late client certainly allowed him a loan of one thousand pounds some years ago, at ten per cent.,” said Barras, politely, “but that is all the loan I know of.”
“But the rest of the money?”
“What money?” asked Jerce, suddenly.
“The two thousand a year which Uncle Henry did not spend. Even if nothing was done with it, the amount in twenty years would increase to forty thousand pounds.”
“And that should be given to me,” put in Ferdy, quickly, “seeing that Clarry has the full income.”
“Half of which is in trust for you, Mr. Baird,” said Barras, in his dry way; “but the accumulations, Miss Baird,” he added, addressing Clarice, “certainly amount to the sum you mention; and if these monies were let out at the same rate of interest which my late client extorted from Mr. Clarke, the amount in the banks ought to be much greater. Unfortunately”—Mr. Barras stopped and hesitated.
“Well?” asked Clarice, impatiently. “Well, the money isn’t in the bank. I have all the books of the late Mr. Horran, and all his business papers, but in no instance can I find what he has done with forty thousand pounds, or with possible accumulations.”
Jerce started up in dismay. “Is this the reason why you asked me if Horran was a scoundrel?” he demanded.
“That is the reason,” replied Barras, serenely. “I want to know what has become of that money. I think I can guess, however.”
“You can guess?” repeated Clarice, puzzled.
“Yes. You wondered why Mr. Horran was murdered. I answer, for the sum of forty thousand pounds.”
Barras said this so quietly, that he took away the breath of his hearers, and they looked at one another, unable to speak. Seeing this, Barras explained himself still further. “I collected the rents of the Baird property,” he said. “Two thousand a year I paid into the London Bank, according to the directions of Mr. Horran, and that I can account for, by the books and the papers, since it went in Mr. Horran’s income as guardian, in keeping up this house, and in educational and clothing expenses. But the remaining two thousand a year I paid personally to Mr. Horran, as it came in, and he never accounted to me for its use. There was no reason that he should do so,” added the lawyer, coolly, “seeing that Mr. Horran had full power under Mrs. Baird’s will to deal with the estate as he chose. Certainly, judging from Mr. Clarke’s loan, which came under my notice, I fancied that Mr. Horran might be investing the money, or letting it out at large interest, but I can find nothing in the papers left by the deceased likely to throw any light on its disposal.”
“It is most extraordinary,” said Clarice, thoughtfully. “Do you mean to say, Mr. Barras, that Uncle Henry had forty thousand pounds in his room when he died?”
Barras placed his finger-tips together and leaned back. “I leave it to you, Miss Baird. Mr. Horran always insisted that I should bring to him two thousand a year of the rents, in gold. I always, according to his wish, paid him in gold. You sent me up the papers from his desk, and, of course, I have all his business letters, deeds, and the rest of such things in my office. But in no case can I find what has become of this forty thousand pounds. When I saw in the papers that no cause could be assigned for the murder of my late client, and recollected that the Purple Fern villains always struck down the rich, it dawned upon me that, instead of investing the two thousand a year, which he regularly received—and in gold,” emphasised the lawyer, “Mr. Horran kept the money in his room, and was murdered for its possession.”
“But why should he have kept the money in his room?”
“Instead of at the bank, you would say.” Mr. Barras shrugged his shoulders again. “Well, my late client must have been a miser—that is all the explanation I can give. But I am certain that he was murdered for the sake of that forty thousand pounds, and that it has been stolen. And now, Dr. Jerce, you will understand why I asked you if your friend was an honest man or a scoundrel.”
“An honest man?” said Jerce, energetically. “You have supplied the reason for the money being missed yourself. Horran may have been a miser, although I never noticed that he was; he may have kept this money in his room, and he may have been murdered for it.”
“I would have you observe, doctor,” said Barras, dryly, “that all your sentences commence with ‘may.’ This is all theory.”
“But if the money has been stolen,” suggested Clarice, “it may be traced in some way.”
“You can’t trace gold, Miss Baird, and Horran always insisted upon having the money in gold. That is what makes me think that he was a miser. I called him a scoundrel—if he spent the money on his own pleasures he certainly was a scoundrel. If, on the other hand, he merely kept the gold to enjoy looking at, and it was stolen from him at the time of his death, he was simply a miser, and has paid, by his painful end, for being a miser. However”—Barras stood up—“there is no more to be said. I think that I have made myself plain, Miss Baird, and whenever you like to come to my office, I shall talk over future money arrangements. Meanwhile, I must prove the will, pay the death duties and legacies, and put things straight. I shall now take my leave.”
“Will you not stop to tea or dinner, Mr. Barras?”
“No, I thank you,” said the lawyer, stiffly, and, taking up his bag, he walked in a stately manner out of the house. Ferdy rose, and after hesitating for a moment, ran after him quickly. Jerce and Clarice were left alone. “What will you do?” asked Jerce, slowly.
“I must ask Anthony,” said Clarice, mechanically.
“Anthony,” she repeated quietly, “the man I intend to marry.”
Dr. Jerce looked at Clarice with a lowering face, and his expressive eyes flashed with anger. He was a strong-willed man, accustomed to having his own way in the face of all obstacles, and the merest hint of opposition annoyed him. Having set his heart on marrying Miss Baird, he was determined to bring about the match, and, notwithstanding the hint of refusal which she had given him, while Horran was alive, his determination remained unchanged. To be sure, he had then been ignorant of her engagement with Ackworth, and had calculated upon an easier conquest of her objections. But now that he knew her affections were engaged, he saw clearly that it would be extremely difficult for him to achieve his purpose. Clarice, as he knew, was no weak girl, to be talked into surrender; but for all that, Jerce attempted to bend her to his will.
The doctor was too clever a man to give way to bad temper, knowing that such a weakness might lose him the prize he aimed at. Inwardly angry, he was outwardly calm, and after that first swift look of annoyance, he regained his suavity. “Does Captain Ackworth know that you intend to marry him?” asked Jerce, politely.
Clarice threw back her head haughtily. “Certainly. He has proposed to me, and we are engaged.”
“Since when, may I ask?”
“You may ask, but I am not bound to answer.”
“I am your oldest friend, Miss Baird, now that poor Horran is dead.”
Clarice lifted her eyebrows. “Still I fail to see that being an old friend gives you the right to cross-examine me about things which do not concern you.”
“It concerns me a great deal that you should be happy,” said Jerce, disconcerted by her calmness.
“Then you can set your mind at rest, doctor. I am happy.”
Jerce looked down at his neat boots. “I should have thought that a girl of your strong character would have chosen otherwise.”
“Really,” said Clarice, indifferently.
“In fact,” stammered Jerce, flushing, “I thought of offering myself as your husband.”
“Oh, I saw that long ago, doctor.”
“And you had no pity upon me?”
“Why should I have pity?” asked Clarice, with a perceptible smile. “I have not played the coquette with you.”
“No,” said Jerce, bitterly; “I am bound to say that at the first hint I gave you of my feelings, you recoiled, and have since held me at arm’s length.”
“Seeing that I am engaged, that is as it should be.”
Jerce bit his lips. It angered him that she should be so calm, and so completely mistress of herself. “There is no hope for me, I suppose?” he inquired, with great humility.
“None. Anthony is the man I love, and Anthony will be my husband.”
“Perhaps,” said Jerce, under his breath, but she heard him.
“Why do you say that?” she asked, abruptly.
“There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.”
“That’s a very well-known proverb, doctor, but it does not explain what you mean.”
“Then will you permit me to speak plainer?”
“If you are wise you will not,” said Clarice, quietly. “We are good friends, doctor; why should we become strangers?”
“I could never be a stranger to you,” he said, fervently.
“Oh, I think so, if I chose.”
“And would you choose?”
“Certainly, if you would not accept the situation.”
“I cannot,” cried Jerce, his emotions getting the better of his judgment. “I am a man, and I feel like a man. For years I have loved you, and for a long time I have wished to make you my wife. I spoke to Horran, and he was agreeable that I should marry you.”
“Indeed,” cried Clarice, with a flush of anger. “Then permit me to remind you, doctor, that Mr. Horran, much as I loved him, had not the right to dispose of my hand. That goes with my heart.”
“Which is possessed by Captain Ackworth,” said Jerce, bitterly.
“Exactly. You leave nothing to be desired in the way of explanation.”
“But Ackworth is not worthy of you,” urged the doctor.
“Really, and in what way?”
Jerce was puzzled how to reply. He knew next to nothing about Captain Ackworth. “He doesn’t look as if he had brains.”
“Ah! Looks are deceptive sometimes. Now you, doctor, look as though you had common sense, yet your conversation at present doesn’t reveal that quality.”
“You are hard, Clarice.”
“I thought that you were not going to call me Clarice until you had the right?”
“I wish to acquire the right.”
“It is too late. Come, doctor,” said Clarice, tired of this quibbling, “it is useless to prolong this conversation. There are more important things to talk about than my marriage, which, after all—as I have reminded you—is entirely my own affair. Let us agree to be friends,” and she held out her hand, smiling.
Jerce did not take it. “I can be nothing less than your husband,” he said, drawing down his long upper lip obstinately.
“In that case, doctor, we may as well part for ever.”
“For ever?” Jerce started to his feet, much agitated. “Oh, Clarice, you don’t mean that. I love you—I adore you—I worship you. No doubt it may seem ridiculous to you that a man of my age should speak like a schoolboy, and should show his deepest feelings so plainly. But I have had a lonely life, and you are all the world to me. Don’t send me away without hope. Only say that some day—in some sweet hour—I can come and take your hand in mine.”
Clarice rose also, and her eyes sparkled with anger. “You are mad to talk in this way,” she cried, passionately. “How can I say what you want me to say, when I am engaged, and when I love?”
“I am rich,” pleaded Jerce, eagerly. “I have a great name. I have heard that my name will be included in the list of New Year’s honours. I shall be Sir Daniel Jerce, and you—”
“I shall be Mrs. Ackworth,” interrupted Clarice, imperiously. “Not a word more, doctor; my mind is made up.”
“And so is mine,” said Jerce, with a snarl, his face livid, and his eyes hard. “You shall not marry this man.”
“Who will prevent me?” asked Clarice, with superb disdain. “Who will prevent me from becoming Anthony’s wife?”
“I will. You shall become my wife.”
“If there was not another man in the world, I would decline that honour. And let me remind you that I am no school-girl to be frightened by stage thunder. How dare you?—how dare you?” Clarice stamped her foot, and clenched her hands. “Go away, and never come near me again.”
Jerce remained silent for one moment. Then, without a word, he took up his hat and walked slowly to the door. Only when he had opened it, and stood with the handle in his hand, did he speak. “I shall go away,” he said, with a steady look at the girl, “and I shall not return until you summon me.”
When the door closed, Clarice sank back in her seat, overwhelmed with emotion. She had small sympathy for the doctor, since he had merely cried like a child for the moon, which he knew was entirely beyond his reach. But his last words impressed her with a sense of danger, and she wondered what he meant by this sudden obedience. Had he defied her, and remained to argue, she would have felt safer. Dr. Jerce—as she knew—was too strong a man to give in without a struggle, and that he should do so in this instance was ominous. In the words of the French proverb, he had but recoiled to spring the higher; yet Clarice could not see how he could harm her, or Anthony in any way. She was now her own mistress, free from supervision of any kind; Horran’s death was no mystery, and although the murderer was still at large, he would certainly be caught sooner or later; Ferdy—here Clarice rose again, and her face grew white. What if Jerce could harm her by harming Ferdy? Jerce knew all about the boy and his fast life, and Jerce, if put to it, would not hesitate to sacrifice Ferdy, or anyone else, to achieve his ends. But the question was—what did Jerce know about Ferdy? While Clarice asked herself this, Ferdy himself entered, looking very sulky.
“I do call it a shame, Clarry,” he said, flinging himself into a chair, and thrusting his hands into his pockets. “Why should Uncle Henry have treated me in this beastly way?”
“I think Uncle Henry has acted very wisely,” said Clarice, harshly. The tone of her voice made Ferdy look up from his gloomy contemplation of the carpet, and he was struck by the whiteness of her face.
“What’s the matter with you?” he inquired, crossly. “I should think that you ought to be satisfied, seeing that everything has come your way, Clarry.”
“Do you think that it is a pleasure for me to take your burdens upon my shoulders?” asked Clarice, fiercely. “I would much rather that Uncle Henry had named Dr. Jerce as your guardian, seeing that Dr. Jerce knows so much about you.”
Ferdy started to his feet, changing colour like a chameleon. “What has Jerce been saying about me?” he demanded, with a sick look.
“Nothing. He did not even mention your name.”
“Then what are you jawing about?” snapped Ferdy, sitting down again.
Clarice placed herself before him, and tried to make him meet her eyes. But he would not, and kept them on the carpet, shuffling his feet uneasily meanwhile. “Dr. Jerce asked me to marry him,” she said, in a clear voice. “I refused him. He has accepted my refusal so calmly that I am certain he intends mischief.”
“What rot,” said Ferdy, uneasily; “as though a great man like Jerce would bother his head over you.”
“Oh,” said Clarice, with a chill smile. “Perhaps it is King Cophetua and the Beggar-maid.”
“You are not polite, Ferdy,” said his sister, restraining a strong impulse to box his ears. “Now, you listen to me. But that you are my brother and my twin, I should let you go your own way to ruin and destruction.”
“That’s rather strong.”
“But not too strong for your weakness,” she persisted. “I know you thoroughly, Ferdy. You are a charming, weak, impulsive boy, with many attractions of person and manner, likely to lead you into undesirable company. People like you, and, as liking with the majority means selfishness, they will make use of you—perhaps in bad ways.”
“What do you mean by bad ways?” asked Ferdy, crossly.
“Ways of pleasure—ways of folly—ways which do not lead to hard work and an honoured name. You are the kind of person, neither good nor bad, who goes dancing along the primrose path, out of sheer weakness, because others dance beside you. If you were a wicked man, Ferdy, you would be clever, as wickedness needs cleverness to aid its full accomplishment. But you are merely weak, and that is dangerous to you and to me.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Ferdy, restlessly.
“But I do,” cried Clarice, passionately. “I know you better than you do yourself. I know that with your weakness you will bring disgrace on yourself and on me. Were I selfish, as you are, I would decline this guardianship, and let you have your money, to go your own silly, weak way, which will lead to ruin. But I love you, and—”
“And so you bully me.”
“I am not bullying you; I am talking sense, if you only have the brain power to enter into my feelings. Because you are my brother and my twin, I accept the responsibility laid upon me. If you were not I should marry Anthony next week, and forget much of the past.”
“What past are you referring to?”
“That which has just closed with the death of Uncle Henry. For years you and I have gone with him down a long and pleasant lane. Now with his death has come the turning, and another lane opens before us. Whether it will be as pleasant remains with you.”
“Yes. I could marry Anthony, as I say, and let you go alone. But I love you too well to see you ruin yourself. I shall take a house in London, and we will live there together. Then I shall be able to look after you.”
Ferdy rose, pale with anger. “And I am to be tied to your apron-strings all my life.”
“God forbid, as I have my own life to look after. Even for love, one should not sacrifice one’s whole life—that is, the kind of love, the sisterly affection which I have for you. My love for Anthony is different. I have no right to sacrifice him to you. But when you are married to Prudence, my task will be ended. She will look after you—she will take care of you, and I can then marry and be happy, knowing that you are safe.”
“And suppose I object to this scheme you have, of taking a London house?” asked Ferdy, savagely.
“In that case I’ll stop your allowance.”
“You can’t—you daren’t.”
“I can and I dare. I have complete power. There is only one other way. If you will marry Prudence in a month or so, I’ll allow you one thousand a year. I can do that as guardian, although you will not come in for your full income for two years.”
“I’m sure I’d like to marry Prudence,” said Ferdy, uneasily.
“You are engaged to her.”
“Yes, but Mr. Clarke has been objecting.”
“I don’t see why he should. I’ll see Mr. Clarke and sweep away his objections. I can do that, seeing he is in my debt to the tune of one thousand odd pounds. Well, then, will you come and live with me in London, or marry Prudence, and get the money?”
Ferdy shuffled. “If I do neither?”
“I have already said what I would do. You can’t live without money.”
“Dr. Jerce will look after me,” blurted out Ferdy, significantly.
Clarice shrugged her shoulders. “Perhaps. He has the name of being a philanthropist. But I should like to know if there is any chance of Jerce threatening me through you?”
“What rubbish. Of course not.”
“I am not so certain,” said Clarice, dryly, and striving to read the weak, handsome face before her. “Jerce is deeply in love with me, and would give much to stop my marriage. He hinted as much. Now, I know that he cannot hurt Anthony, or me, as both our lives are above reproach. The sole trouble in my life is the death of Uncle Henry, and the inquest has explained that. The motive for the crime undoubtedly is robbery.”
“You believe that?”
“After what Mr. Barras explained, I do, although,” added Clarice, in a thoughtful manner, “I never would have taken Uncle Henry to be a miser. Chalks might know something about that money, if Uncle Henry really had it concealed in his room. I’ll speak to him. However, you can see that there is no reason why I should be afraid of Dr. Jerce. Now, is there any reason why you should fear him?”
“No,” said Ferdy, earnestly, and, turning a frank face to his sister, “I have been reckless and fast. Jerce has helped me with money, and I have run up bills for motor-cars, and suppers, and tailors, and flowers, and such-like things. But if you will pay these bills, Jerce can say nothing against me.”
“How much do the bills amount to?”
“Two thousand pounds.”
Clarice sat down gasping. “Two thousand pounds and in one year,” she said, utterly bewildered, “Ferdy, you—you fool.”
“There,” said the young man, bitterly. “I make a clean breast of it because you want me to, and then you bullyrag me. But here,” he pulled a sheaf of papers out of his breast pocket, “I had intended to give these to Barras when the will was read, thinking that I would get my own money, and that Barras would be able to arrange for the payment. But when I spoke to him just now, he referred me to you as my guardian. Here is a list of my debts with the bills attached. If you will pay these off, Clarry, I swear to turn over a new leaf. You needn’t look so angrily at me. I am no worse than other chaps.”
“My poor boy,” said Clarice, mournfully; “I am not angry, but only sorry for your weakness. But I am forced to be strong, since I have to deal with a reed. I shall take these”—she reached for the bills—“and they will be paid, as soon as I can arrange—on conditions.”
“Conditions.” Ferdy began to gloom again. “What conditions?”
“Firstly, that you have nothing more to do with Zara Dumps. I am quite sure that she has led you into spending money.”
“There’s nothing wrong about her,” grumbled Ferdy, wincing; “Zara is perfectly respectable.”
“I dare say, seeing that I have heard how she wishes to make a good marriage. All the same, she is not averse to making use of you to amuse her, and her amusements are expensive. You must give her up.”
“Oh, I’m quite agreeable,” said Ferdy, readily; then added, in a most candid manner, “the fact is, Clarry, I must give her up, as she has chucked me.”
“I see,” said Clarice, rather disgusted, “you make a virtue of necessity. Still, so long as you give her up, I don’t ask for your reason.”
“Well, then, you have it without asking,” retorted Ferdy, airily; “and the other condition?”
“You must marry Prudence Clarke in two months—that will be a sufficiently long time after Uncle Henry’s death, and I want you to be settled as soon as possible.”
Ferdy looked at her very straightly, and then dropped his eyes on the carpet. “I’ll marry Prudence, if she’ll marry me.”
“She’s engaged to you; she loves you.”
“As I said before, her father—”
“I’ll interview Mr. Clarke,” interrupted Miss Baird, quickly. “He was delighted when your engagement was announced, and I do not see why he should change his mind. If he refuses to permit the marriage—”
“Yes!” said Ferdy, hastily, “if he refuses.”
“You must agree to live with me in London for two years—that is until you get your money.”
“I don’t know what Jerce will say.”
“Say? What should he say? You are not bound to him in any way.”
“No. But he is famous, and can help me a lot when I become a doctor.”
“Rely on your own brains, Ferdy,” said Clarice, quickly, “and not on the patronage of any influential person. Besides, you can attend your classes, and to your studies all the same, while we live together.”
“Very well,” assented the boy, sullenly, “if you don’t pull the strings too tightly.”
“Of the money bags, do you mean?” asked Clarice, smiling. “You need have no fear, Ferdy; I am not stingy.”
“You’re a good sort, Clarry,” said her brother with sudden emotion. “I-I—I’ll do whatever you like, and—and I’ll always come to you in trouble, dear.”
Hastily kissing her, he fairly ran out of the room, leaving Clarice much puzzled. She had rarely seen Ferdy so moved, and wondered why he had left so suddenly. Clarice may have been unduly suspicious, but she did not think that the new epoch was opening auspiciously. And yet, so far, she had got everything her own way.
The dead having been buried, and the will read, and the business arranged by Mr. Barras, with the assistance of Clarice, things settled down into the usual quiet jog-trot of existence. The reward offered for the apprehension of Alfred Osip remained unclaimed, as neither Sims, nor his fellow-detectives, could discover the whereabouts of the assassin. He had vanished as completely as though the earth had swallowed him up, and gradually all interest in the case died away. Even in Crumel, people almost forgot, and, indeed, Horran had been merely a name to the townspeople for so long, that he was not missed, as a more prominent man would have been.
Ferdy returned to London and to his studies under Dr. Jerce on the day after the funeral, leaving Clarice to manage affairs. The doctor himself never reappeared again at Crumel for some time, and never even sent a message through Ferdy when the boy wrote. Nevertheless, Clarice could not help thinking that in some way Jerce was not inactive, and that he would yet make trouble. She had attempted to see Mr. Clarke and his daughter, after Ferdy had taken his departure; but found, to her surprise—for the parson was a notable stay-at-home—that they had gone to Brighton for a few weeks. A locum tenens occupied the pulpit of the ancient church, and his sermons pleased the congregation much more than the discourses of Mr. Clarke. Prudence had left a note for Clarice, saying that her father was ill, and had to take a rest, and also asking her to do nothing about the thousand pound loan until the vicar returned. But Clarice noted that the girl gave no address where letters might be sent to, and on making enquiries at the vicarage, found that the same reticence had been observed there. Mr. Clarke’s letters, therefore, accumulated until his return—in three weeks. Clarice heard the news, when she was conversing with Anthony.
Captain Ackworth came over nearly every day, and had long conversations with Clarice. He urged her—now that she was her own mistress—to marry him forthwith, and be happy, but this she resolutely declined to do. On this very occasion, three weeks after the burial of Henry Horran, the young man was still urging, and Clarice was still refusing.
“Dear,” she said to her lover, “I have my duty to perform towards Ferdy.”
Anthony, who was walking up and down the long drawing-room, uttered an angry growl. “Why should you make yourself miserable over that silly boy?” he demanded, crossly.
“Just because he is a silly boy and my brother. Wait until he is married to Prudence, and then I’ll become your wife, whenever you like, my dear. I’m sure,” added Clarice, with a sigh, “I would give anything to marry you now, and be happy.”
“That rests with yourself,” said Anthony, coming to the sofa and putting his arm round her waist. “Clarice, you suffer too much from a very aggressive conscience.”
“All the better for our married life,” said the girl, gaily, “think how anxious I shall be to please my fireside tyrant.”
“I am afraid you will be the tyrant, dearest. See how unable I am to make you do what I want.”
“Because it would not be right, Anthony. I wish to settle all things connected with the past before I begin a new life with you.”
“I fancied—according to your own way of putting it—that the new epoch had begun,” joked Ackworth.
“It has, and it has not. My new epoch begins with my marriage to you, darling, and the old epoch ended with Uncle Henry’s death. This is a kind of interregnum—”
“Which will end—?”
“When Ferdy is married.”
“And when will that be?”
“As soon as I can arrange. Anthony, what is the use of talking more about the matter? I have told you how necessary it is, that Ferdy should have someone to guide him. While he is unmarried I must be his guide, but when Prudence becomes his wife, I have every hope that she will be able to keep him in order.”
“Well, then, I wish you would marry the young scamp as soon as you can,” said Ackworth, rather wounded. “It seems to me, Clarice, that you love him more than you do me.”
“My dearest, the weakest always require the most love. You are strong, Anthony; you can walk alone. But poor weak Ferdy—”
“Selfish, greedy Ferdy,” contradicted Ackworth. “I should like to give him a good thrashing.”
“Well,” said Clarice, musingly; “I don’t think that would hurt him.”
“It would,” said Ackworth, grimly, “if I administered it.”
“What nonsense! Don’t frown”—she smoothed away a wrinkle or two on his forehead, and then kissed him as he was about to speak. “I do not wish to argue any more, my dear, obstinate, darling sweetheart. I may as well tell you that the Clarkes return to-morrow, as I heard this morning. I’ll see them in the afternoon, and arrange as soon as possible about Ferdy’s marriage. Then—and not till then—we,—”
“All right,” interrupted Anthony, and stole a kiss in his turn, “but will Ferdy give up that dancing girl?”
“Why, I told you that he had done so. Zara went away immediately after the funeral, and her mother accompanied her to stop in Town for a week or so. Ferdy has forgotten all about Zara by this time. It is just as well,” sighed Clarice, “as I had to pay those awful bills. Two thousand pounds, Anthony. Think of it.”
“Oh, I always knew that Ferdy could get through no end of cash,” said Ackworth, coolly, “especially when Butterfly had him in tow. But now that he has escaped her, I dare say he’ll marry Miss Clarke.”
“He is willing enough to do so,” said Clarice, “and I think that he really loves her, as much as his weak nature will allow him to love anyone but himself. The opposition—so I gathered from Ferdy—is on the part of Mr. Clarke.”
“But why, seeing that Mr. Clarke is in your debt, and should be glad that his daughter should make a rich marriage?”
“I can’t explain, Anthony. Mr. Clarke certainly seemed to be pleased when the marriage was announced—that is, the engagement. Why he should have changed his mind, I can’t say. But I’ll know to-morrow.”
“Well, then, when this is settled we can look after our own happiness?” said the Captain.
“Yes. You know, I want to have you, all to myself.”
“I know, I know. I am of the same way of thinking. Also my father and mother are most anxious to meet you again. They are old, and want a sweet daughter in the house. I am an only child, you know, Clarice, so when I marry you I’ll chuck the army, and we can live near the old people.”
“I should not like you to leave the army,” said Clarice, thoughtfully; “you must have something to do in life.”
“I’ll make love to you, dear. However, I’ll obey your slightest command. Indeed, Clarice, I often wish that you would allow me to help you now.”
“In what way. I have arranged all business affairs with Mr. Barras. The search for Osip is in the hands of the detectives. I am arranging about Ferdy’s future as I tell you, and—and—well, everything is going smoothly. There’s nothing to be done.”
“Have you found out where that forty thousand pounds went?”
“Not a trace of it. Uncle Henry received it in gold, but we have searched the room and the house and even the garden, without coming upon any buried treasure. Chalks declares that he never heard Uncle Henry say anything about money, and never saw him with any save a few sovereigns.”
“Could Mr. Horran have hidden the gold without Chalks knowing anything about the hiding?”
“Oh, yes. Chalks was not always with Uncle Henry. He was frequently away for hours, and rarely sat up with him a night, unless by the doctors’ orders. Uncle Henry received the gold in small sums, so could easily hide it if he wished.”
“Or spend it in London,” said Ackworth, significantly.
“Ah, you mean that Uncle Henry went secretly to London,” said Clarice, recalling the story Anthony had told about the Shah’s Rooms.
“Well, I saw him there with Osip, you know.”
“Are you sure that his companion was Osip?”
“Yes. I did not know at the time. But when Jerce described that criss-cross scar and the thin, lean figure of the man, I am sure it was Osip. And Mr. Horran also. I knew him well enough,” ended Ackworth, with emphasis, “and even in the glimpse I caught of him, I was certain.”
“But I can’t see how Uncle Henry, ill as he was, could have travelled to town,” objected Clarice.
“My dear, we argued all this before, and I stated then, as I state now, that a quick motor-car could easily take Mr. Horran from here to London. And now, Clarice, this large sum of money which is missing, points to the fact that Mr. Horran must have secretly led a gay life, and that his illness was merely an excuse to hide his real existence.”
“No, no!” said Clarice, with horror, “I can’t think Uncle Henry was so wicked; and remember, the doctors found out what he suffered from, and that it was a real disease.”
“Humph! Perhaps,” said Ackworth, grudgingly; “but the money?”
“I can’t say anything about that.”
“If Mr. Horran had forty thousand paid to him in gold,” said Anthony, firmly, “he must either have spent it by secretly going to town, and to places like the Shah’s Rooms, where I saw him; or he must have concealed the money somewhere. Now you can’t find the money and the lawyer can’t account for it in a business way. It only remains, from a common-sense point of view, that Horran really was a profligate, and used his illness as a mask.”
“But the doctors—both Dr. Jerce and Dr. Wentworth—say that the post-mortem examination showed that Uncle Henry really was ill,” persisted Clarice, much distressed. “The thing in the brain, whatever they called it, quite accounted for the symptoms which so puzzled them.”
“Then I give it up,” said Anthony.
“So do I,” replied Clarice, promptly. “I am not going to trouble any more about that missing money, or about the capture of Osip, or about anything else. I must settle Ferdy’s future, and then we can marry.”
This speech was quite agreeable to Ackworth, who had long wished to bring her to this point. While they were talking about more pleasant subjects connected with their marriage, Jane limped in at the open window, and immediately went to Anthony. The dog was fond of the young man, and showed her pleasure by rubbing her head against his knee, and looking up at him with faithful eyes.
“Jane loves you as much as she hates Dr. Jerce,” said Clarice, patting the dog’s shaggy coat.
“Why should she hate Jerce?”
“I don’t know, especially as he was kind to her. He found her in Whitechapel, starving and wet, and took her home. But she hated him so much that he had to get rid of her. He intended to have her poisoned, but I asked him to give her to me. Dear Jane, she is so faithful. All the same, she should like Dr. Jerce for his kindness.”
“I am glad she doesn’t,” said Anthony. “I don’t like Dr. Jerce.”
“Why not? Everyone does.”
“Clarice, how can you ask me that when you know that he had the cheek to propose to you? I don’t like Jerce. Oh, he’s clever enough, and very philanthropic, and all that. All the same, it was impertinent of an old man to propose to you.”
“A famous man,” teased Clarice; “remember he is now Sir Daniel Jerce, and more famous than ever. You need not be jealous of him, Anthony. He has never come here since the day he proposed, and I refused.”
“Well, I hope we’ll never set eyes on him again.”
“I hope Jane won’t,” laughed the girl, “she will certainly bite him if she does.”
“H’m!” said Ackworth, examining the dog’s strong white teeth; “I can’t say I’d like to get a bite from these jaws. But anyone could run away, seeing that Jane is lame.”
“I think Jane is obstinate enough to follow until she can get her bite,” said Clarice, dryly. “I never knew so dogged a dog. There’s a pun for you, Anthony. Why don’t you laugh?”
To please her Anthony did laugh, and was rebuked for the obvious effort he made. Then Clarice romped with Jane, who barked and danced as well as her lameness permitted. The trio in short behaved like children, and their careless glee went far to dispel the gloomy atmosphere, which for weeks had pervaded the house. And Clarice, by this time, was recovering from the effects of the tragedy, and was more like her old bright self. On this especial evening, Anthony stopped to dinner, and, heedless of the necessity of a chaperon, they enjoyed themselves greatly. It was quite a foretaste of the time when they would be Darby and Joan by their own particular fireside.
However, after pleasure comes business, and next afternoon, Miss Baird set out for the vicarage. She had ascertained that the Clarkes had returned in the morning, and called a few hours later, anxious to get Ferdy’s business settled, so that she could arrange her own life. Often had the girl wondered why Mr. Clarke, who had seemed markedly pleased when the engagement was announced, should have placed any bar in the way of the marriage. She was resolved to come to a complete understanding; to learn the reason for this whim, and to use any power she possessed to bring about the desirable match. Whatever objection Mr. Clarke could urge against Ferdy, Clarice was certain that Prudence would remain true to her absent lover. Prudence had always loved Ferdy deeply, from the time they were boy and girl together.
Mr. Clarke proved to be in his study, and Clarice found him unpacking some parcels. She was astonished to see how ill the man looked. He had never enjoyed the best of health, and was invariably badly dressed and absent-minded. But now he looked leaner than ever, and his eyes avoided her own, uneasily. Clarice sat down in a perfect state of consternation.
“My dear Mr. Clarke,” she said, as soon as she could get her breath, “what on earth is the matter?”
“Nothing,” said the vicar, with a weary sigh, and went on with his unpacking in a restless, disturbed manner.
“But you went away for your health,” persisted Miss Baird, “and you have been breathing the sea-air for three weeks. It doesn’t seem to have done you a particle of good.
“When the mind is ill at ease, Clarice, there is no chance of the body regaining health.”
“What’s the matter now?” asked Clarice, abruptly.
“My son Frank is dead,” said the vicar, with a sob.
“Oh!” Clarice was dreadfully shocked, and now quite understood the sick looks of the bereaved father. She knew that Frank had been the apple of Mr. Clarke’s eyes, notwithstanding that he had always behaved like the rascal, he inherently was.
“I am sorry,” she said, rising; “perhaps you would like me to go away.”
“No! no! Stop, please, I’ll send Prudence to you, as I have to attend to some pastoral matters myself.”
“But your poor son—”
“Don’t say anything more, Clarice,” interrupted the vicar, looking an untidy but pathetic figure. “My son is dead, and I never wish to hear his name mentioned again. As he has sown so has he reaped, and I hope that God will have mercy upon his soul.”
“How did he die?”
“No! no! Say no more,” cried Mr. Clarke, and before Clarice could apologise, he hurried from the room.
Clarice was puzzled. Frank was dead, and—strange to say—the vicar seemed glad that he was dead. Frank, undoubtedly, was a prodigal son, but his father had always condoned his follies and rascalities. Yet, apparently, at the eleventh hour Frank had done something which even the lenient parent could not forgive. Clarice did not wish to know what the deed was. She had quite enough troubles of her own, without thinking of those of other people. Still, the attitude and wild words of Mr. Clarke astonished her not a little.
Prudence came in, looking almost as ill as her father had done. The girl was tall, handsome, and dark, with a cool, confident manner, and with a considerable fund of common sense. But she appeared very sick and very ill at ease, and accepted the kiss of her old friend in a mechanical way, which provoked Clarice into speech.
“You don’t seem very pleased to see me, Prudence?”
“I am,” said Prudence, in a dull, heavy voice; “if you had not come to me, I should have called at The Laurels. I want help.”
“You shall have it,” said Clarice, impetuously. “Whatever is the matter? Is it your brother’s death?”
“Yes—that is one thing. Father is worried about that, but there is something else. If I explain myself to you, you must promise me never to speak of what I say to anyone.”
“No, I won’t,” said Clarice, struck by her earnestness, and wondering what fatal secret was about to be unfolded. “Is it something that Ferdy has done?”
“Don’t speak of Ferdy—don’t speak of him. My poor, darling boy. I’ll never see him again—never—never—never.”
A wild fear was in Clarice’s heart. “Prudence!” she exclaimed, catching the girl’s arm; “has Ferdy been doing anything wrong?”
“No. Ferdy is all that can be desired, but I can never marry him.”
“Because,” said Prudence, in a solemn manner, “if I marry Ferdy, my father will be accused of murdering Mr. Horran.”
In the dingy study an eloquent silence prevailed. After making her startling announcement, Prudence sat tearless, and with a drawn white face, plucking at the damp handkerchief she carried in her hands. Poor girl, she had wept until she could weep no more, and all she could do, with worn-out emotions, was to hold her peace, until Clarice could help her to continue the conversation. That young lady, as white-faced as her hostess, sat tongue-tied and horrified. She looked at the sad figure before her, at the grim line of theological books bound in calf, at the unclean window with its ragged curtains, and at the grimy carpet, worn and faded. It took her some time to collect her thoughts. When she did recover her speech, it was to energetically deny the truth of the girl’s speech.
“I don’t believe it,” cried Clarice, decisively; “don’t talk to me, Prudence,” she went on, as the girl was about to speak, “you know perfectly well that Uncle Henry was murdered by that wretched Osip, and that a verdict to that effect was brought in by the jury. Besides, what possible object could your father have to commit murder?”
Prudence looked up with a scared look, and stealthily glanced at the door, as she answered in a whisper. “The loan—the interest,” said Prudence, in the voice of a ghost, so thin and low was her speech.
Clarice started and reflected. There certainly was a motive here to make Clarke commit a crime—that is, if Horran, grinding him to the dust, had proposed to sell him up. But that is exactly what the dead man never intended to do. “Uncle Henry would never have behaved like a usurer,” said Clarice.
“He charged father ten per cent.,” said Prudence, scathingly.
“If he had been a Shylock, he would have charged him fifty per cent., my dear, and also he would not have allowed the interest to run on for three years without claiming his own. And now I think of it,” added Clarice, recalling a late conversation with Mr. Barras, “Uncle Henry knew very little about the matter. He instructed Mr. Barras to lend your father one thousand pounds, and omitted to mention the interest. Mr. Barras charged ten per cent. on his own. It is a large percentage, but then Mr. Barras is not the most amiable of men. And, I suppose, he thought he was doing right in getting as much as he could for the money.”
“Father owed Mr. Horran one thousand pounds and three hundred for interest,” said Prudence, “and—”
“One moment, dear. He owed this, and still owes this to the estate of myself and Ferdy. Mr. Horran had a settled income for acting as our guardian, but the money he lent was ours, and not his. I have taken this debt upon myself, and when you marry Ferdy, I’ll give your father a discharge.”
Prudence lifted up her hands with a low wail. “I can never marry Ferdy,” she said, in a broken voice.
“What nonsense; you shall marry him.”
“And see my father stand in the dock as a felon.”
“There is no chance of that, Prudence. What does your father say?”
“Clarice! Do you think that I have told him?” she said, vehemently. “Oh, no. Poor father has enough troubles to bear, without my heaping more on him. He knows nothing of my reason for refusing to marry.”
“But he objects himself?” said Clarice, much perplexed.
“Yes, because of my brother. Frank has brought disgrace on us, and has died in disgrace.”
“When and where, Prudence?”
“I can’t tell you anything,” rejoined the girl; “all I know is that just after the burial of your guardian, father received some bad news about Frank. I have not seen Frank for years, nor have I heard anything about him. He was always in trouble, and father was always sending him money. He borrowed that thousand to help Frank and get him out of some scrape. But this time the news must have been awful, for father came to me, and, saying that Frank was dead, and that he never wished to hear his name mentioned again, he wrote off to get another clergyman, and arranged that we should go away for a time.”
“But has he never told you what your brother did?”
“No. I have asked him three or four times; he will not say a word about poor dead Frank. And then father told me that because Frank had done something wicked, that I was to give up all thought of marrying Ferdy.”
“Did you agree to that?”
“No. I said that Frank’s sins should never spoil my life, and father was very angry with me.”
“That was perfectly right,” said Clarice, heartily, her common sense coming to her aid; “if the sins of the father are visited on the children, that is no reason that the additional burden of a brother’s faults should be heaped on a sister’s shoulders. You were quite right to stick to Ferdy, my dear. But what caused you to change your mind, Prudence?”
“I was told that my father had murdered Mr. Horran,” said the poor girl again, and in the same terrified whisper; “and that if I married Ferdy, information would be given to the police, which would lead to his arrest.”
“What a preposterous story,” said Clarice, indignantly, “did you believe it, Prudence?”
The girl glanced round again, and seemed to shrink into nothing as she whispered, “Yes!”
Clarice stared at her. “You ought to stick up for your father,” said she, with some slang, but with great truth.
“God help me, I wish I could,” wailed Prudence, clasping her hands.
Clarice caught one of her hands. “Be more explicit,” she said, quickly; “you have told me so much that you must tell me all.”
“You won’t let the police know about father’s guilt?”
“No, because I don’t believe that he is guilty. Why, the jury brought in a verdict against Osip. The evidence was perfectly plain. Go on, tell me all you know.”
Prudence drew her chair close to that of her visitor’s, and placed her lips to Clarice’s ear. “Father owed that money, as you know,” she explained, hurriedly; “and Mr. Barras wrote, saying that, unless the interest was paid immediately after New Year, father would be sold up. He was nearly frenzied, as he could not have stopped in the parish if such a sale had taken place, and we are so poor that we had nowhere to go to. Then, as father said, the Bishop might have interfered.”
“Private matters of this sort have nothing to do with the Bishop.”
“Father thought otherwise, and went about the house moaning that he was in disgrace, and did not know what to do. Then you came on the day Ferdy and I became engaged. Father was more cheerful after you had gone, both on account of my engagement, and from something which you said to him.”
“I said that I would speak to Uncle Henry and settle the loan,” said Clarice, rapidly; “go on, dear, I want to know all before your father returns.”
“Afterwards father fell into low spirits again, and wanted to see Mr. Horran for himself. He tried to, but was refused admittance.”
“I know,” nodded Clarice. “Dr. Jerce thought that such a visit would irritate Uncle Henry. Now that I know Mr. Barras charged ten per cent., and that Uncle Henry, who respected your father, was ignorant of such extortion, I quite understand why Dr. Jerce did not want Uncle Henry to be upset. He was quite right. But then, Prudence, your father did see my guardian.”
“Yes. He went in by the open French window, and—”
“I remember what he said at the inquest,” interrupted Clarice, with a musing air. “Ah!” She started as the memory came back to her; “he stated that Uncle Henry denied giving Mr. Barras permission to lend the money.”
“No,” said Prudence, quickly; “if you will refer to the newspaper report, Clarice, he really said that Mr. Horran declared that he had not given Mr. Barras permission to lend the money at ten per cent. So that agrees with what you say. Mr. Barras was allowed to make the loan, but charged ten per cent. on his own account, so to speak.”
Clarice nodded. “Well, then, Uncle Henry told your father not to worry, and said that he would write to Mr. Barras.”
Prudence nodded. “Yes, I remember.”
There was a pause. Then Clarice said, impatiently: “Well, then, my dear girl, if matters were thus adjusted by my Uncle Henry and your father, I don’t see what motive Mr. Clarke had to kill my guardian.”
Prudence thought for a few moments. “Clarice, it may be that my father did not tell the exact truth about the interview at the inquest. You see, he wished to avert suspicion from himself.”
“But he was never suspected.”
“Wait, Clarice. My father was very much agitated after the interview with Mr. Horran, although he said very little about it to me. I heard no more about the matter until the inquest, when father gave his evidence. I thought that he spoke truly, until—”
“Until that woman called to see me, while everyone was at the funeral.”
Clarice started. “Woman—what woman?”
“Mrs. Dumps’ daughter.”
“Yes. You know her as well as I do, Clarice. Sarah Dumps is her name, although she chooses to call herself Zara. She was always a most disagreeable girl, as I knew when I had anything to do with her in the Sunday School. That was before she went away to appear on the stage as Butterfly.”
“I never did think much of her,” said Clarice, contemptuously, “and, indeed, I never thought about her at all, until I learned accidentally that Ferdy admired her.”
“And she admires Ferdy,” said Prudence, panting, and with her dark eyes flashing. “I hate her! Oh, how I hate her! It is wonderful, all the same, Clarice, how that dowdy little country girl has blossomed into a well-dressed woman of the world.”
“All superficial, Prudence. I dare say she’s as ignorant as ever. I know from what little I saw of her at Church festivals and school treats, that she couldn’t speak English.”
“She speaks it very well now,” said Prudence, bitterly; “well enough, at all events to tell me that I must give up Ferdy.”
“And you did—at that minx’s bidding?” Clarice clenched her fist so that the glove split. “I would have turned her out of the house—the insolent creature. To dare to love Ferdy—to dare to address you in such a way. What did you say?”
“At first I laughed at her, but when she spoke—”
“Well,” asked Clarice, seeing that the girl hesitated, “what did she say?”
“She told me that my father had murdered Mr. Horran, and that if I did not refuse to marry Ferdy, she would tell the police.”
Clarice laughed derisively. “And you believed this story—a story which such a brazen girl had every inducement to tell.”
“Not at first, but afterwards I found proof.”
“Against your father? I can never believe that,” said Miss Baird, very decidedly. “What proof—no, tell me first, on what grounds this Dumps woman based her accusation.”
“She said that she was stopping at the Savoy Hotel, with her mother, for a rest.”
“Quite right. I know she was. Mrs. Rebson told me. Go on.”
“Mrs. Dumps on that night—”
“The night when Mr. Horran was killed.”
“He was murdered between one and two in the morning.”
“Well, then, during the hours of darkness,” said Prudence, impatiently, “on that night, or morning, if you like, Mrs. Dumps was taken ill, and Sarah was awakened to attend to her. Sal volatile was needed, so Sarah put on her things, and went out to the chemist.”
“I don’t believe it; the chemist would not attend to anyone at that hour. By the way, what do you say the hour was?”
“Two o’clock,” said Prudence, softly. “And then the chemist is a relative of Mrs. Dumps, Clarice, and would probably give Sarah what she wanted.”
“Sal volatile. Humph!” said Clarice, inelegantly. “Well?”
“Sarah said that she went along quietly, and passed your house—”
“She would have to if she came up the lane to go to the High Street,” remarked Clarice, trying mentally to follow the wanderings of Butterfly, so as to be certain of the truth of her evidence.
“It was a moonlight night, and Sarah kept in the shadow on the other side of the lane, so that no one should see her going out so late.”
“Why should she have done that? Did she expect to meet anyone?”
“She said something about the chances of meeting a policeman,” was Prudence’s reply. “Do let me get on with the story, Clarice, or I’ll never get it finished.”
“I am all attention.”
“Well, then, Sarah says that she saw my father come quickly out of the window of your uncle’s bedroom, and run out of the garden and up the lane. She was in the shadow, and he passed her rapidly, but she saw for one second in the moonlight, his face, white and terrified. She went and got the sal volatile, and told no one of what she had seen, not even her mother, until she came to use her knowledge to part me from Ferdy.”
When Prudence paused, Clarice looked at her with an unmoved face. “Well, my dear?”
“Well,” said Prudence, “that is Sarah Dumps’ story.”
“A very weak one. I believe she made it up. She could not get your father arrested on that evidence.”
“But, Clarice,” Prudence placed her lips at the girl’s ear; “I laughed at Sarah’s wild story. But when she went I examined my father’s bedroom. I found a shirt thrown into the washing basket, which had not been called for—the basket, I mean—owing to the holidays. I found that the wrists were spotted with blood.”
“Oh!” Clarice started. “Are you certain that it was blood?”
“Quite certain. I dipped one of the cuffs in water, and the spots turned perfectly red. Clarice,” she gripped her friend’s hand tightly, “do you think that my father really is guilty?”
“I can’t think that, Prudence. He had no reason—everything was arranged between him and Uncle Henry.”
“Yes. Father said that at the inquest, but he may have told an untruth to shield himself.”
“Prudence, do you believe that your father is guilty?”
“Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. Father has had so much worry that he is not always accountable for his actions. He may have gone out in a frenzy, and, finding the window open, he may have—oh!” The poor girl broke off, weeping. “What am I to do?”
“Ask your father to prove his innocence.”
“I dare not, Clarice. What with his own troubles and the death of Frank, and this mysterious wickedness of which Frank has been guilty, poor father is nearly crazy. Did he know that he was accused of murder he would go out of his mind altogether.”
“But if Sarah Dumps tells the police, he—”
“She will hold her tongue. I said that I would give up Ferdy. I wrote and told Ferdy that I could not marry him, and said that my father did not approve of the match.”
“Ferdy said something about this,” said Clarice. “Well, then, Prudence, you leave everything to me. I’ll speak to Anthony. He is very clever and will be able to help me. Don’t worry, and—hush! Your father.”
Clarke entered the room with a wild look, hurriedly, and frowned when he saw the two girls together. “I thought you had gone, Clarice,” he said, fretfully. “I wish you would go. Prudence has much to do.”
“I am going,” said Clarice, pressing the girl’s arm, so as to make her humour the excited man. “I only waited to tell you, Mr. Clarke, that I have seen Mr. Barras, and have assumed the rights of your loan. You will have no further trouble about it.”
“It is good of you,” said Clarke, gloomily, “and a few days ago, I should have hailed your news with joy. But it is now too late. I am an outcast and accursed, and—”
“Father! Father!” said Prudence, placing her hand on his arm.
He shook it off. “I tell you, girl, we must leave this house, and hide our shameful heads. The Angel of the Lord will pursue me—me, my child, and not you—with a fiery brand.”
“Mr. Clarke,” said Clarice, in a firm way, and fastening her eyes very steadily on the excited face of the poor parson, “you are talking nonsense. Sit down and—”
“No. You shall not direct me in my own house.”
“It is for your good.” Speaking softly, Clarice placed her hand on Clarke’s arm, and drew him gently towards the arm chair, with her eyes fixed on his all the time. Prudence watched in awestricken silence, as Miss Baird seemed to be quite mistress of the situation. “Sit down, sit down,” whispered Clarice, softly, and when the parson dropped heavily into the chair, she placed a cool hand on his burning brow. “You will sleep now, and wake feeling much better.”
“I will not sleep,” said Clarke, trying to remove his eyes from her as the mesmeric influence was dominating him; “go away—”
“Yes, when you sleep. Sleep! Sleep! Sleep!” Clarice’s voice took on a kind of sing-song, and she drew her warm, firm hand gently across the man’s wrinkled brow. Gradually Clarke’s muscles relaxed, and his eyes grew calmer. Then they closed, and he began to breath gently. “Wake up in an hour, feeling perfectly well,” commanded Clarice, and then beckoned the astonished Prudence from the room.
“I used to do that to Uncle Henry for his headaches,” she laughed.
Having thus quieted the overwrought vicar, Clarice took leave of poor Prudence. However, she left the girl in a much more cheerful frame of mind, as she asserted her belief in Mr. Clarke’s innocence, in spite of all appearance to the contrary, and promised every assistance. But when Miss Baird returned home, and thought over what she had learned, it appeared difficult to keep her word.
Certainly, she did not think that the parson was guilty, even though the evidence of the blood-spotted cuffs was almost proof positive. In some way this might be explained, although at the moment, Clarice could not suggest to herself any possible explanation. But she believed that Clarke had given true evidence at the inquest, and that Horran had quite intended to put matters right. For years her late guardian had known the vicar, and had always respected him, although he had never approved of Clarke’s devotion to his miserable son. It was quite probable that Horran had instructed Barras to give the vicar a loan of one thousand pounds, but it was improbable that he had insisted upon ten per cent., or indeed—knowing Clarke’s circumstances—upon any percentage whatsoever. Owing to Horran’s illness, he had given Barras a power of attorney to execute small matters connected with the estate, and thus save himself trouble, so it was probable that Barras, for the benefit of the estate, had charged the large percentage. This could easily be ascertained by a conversation with the lawyer, and Clarice determined to pay a visit to London and see him, as soon as she could.
With regard to the story told by Sarah Dumps, the girl was doubtful. It might or it might not be true. Assuredly, Zara Dumps, anxious to marry Ferdy, had every reason to get Mr. Clarke into trouble, so as to prevent the marriage of Prudence. Then, again, she really might have seen Clarke leave the death chamber, and thus have made use of her secret knowledge to gain her ends. If this was the case, Clarice asked herself what Clarke was doing in her guardian’s room at such an early hour of the morning. According to the medical evidence, Horran was murdered between one and two, and it was at the latter hour—according to Zara Dumps—that Clarke had left the Laurels. This question could be settled by asking the vicar bluntly to explain. But, seeing that the poor man was so overwrought, it was impossible to question him for the moment. The examination would have to come sooner or later, if things were to be put right; but Miss Baird thought that it would be as well to wait for a few days.
The irony of the situation lay in the fact that Zara need not have accused the vicar, so as to gain the refusal of Prudence, and procure the stoppage of the marriage. Mr. Clarke himself refused to allow the ceremony to take place, and for some reason connected with the prodigal son. What that reason was, Clarice very much wanted to know, and determined to insist upon an explanation, when she questioned the vicar about his presumed midnight visit. Clarice was naturally of an impatient character, and would have been delighted to then and there have interviewed Clarke so as to learn the truth. But the man was not in a fit state of mind to calmly discuss his troubles, and Clarice trusted that a few days would reduce his excitement to normal limits. Then she could have a quiet conversation, and induce him to be frank with her. Meanwhile, she reflected upon what was best to be done.
After some cogitation, she determined to go the next day to see Mr. Barras, and learn exactly how the matter stood, as regards the loan; afterwards she could return and see Mr. Clarke; and, meanwhile, she intended to explain matters to Anthony, so as to have the benefit of his common sense. Having thus arranged things, Clarice possessed her soul in patience for the day. But all her schemes were upset when Ferdy unexpectedly arrived about seven o’clock, and just in time for dinner. He looked nervous, and shirked all explanation of his appearance until dinner was over, and he was seated with his puzzled sister in the drawing-room.
“Now, then, Ferdy,” said Clarice, when coffee was served, and her brother had lighted his inevitable cigarette, “perhaps you will tell me why you have come down?”
“Aren’t you glad to see me?” questioned Ferdy, evasively.
“Delighted; but that does not answer my question. Why did you come?”
“To see you, Clarry.”
“Of course, and your other reason?”
Ferdy hesitated, and sought inspiration from the ceiling. Then, in his usual crafty way, he began to explain by degrees. “I suppose you know that everything is ended between myself and Prudence,” he said.
Clarice looked hard at him, and wondered if it would be wise for her to admit that she had seen Prudence, and knew the reason why the engagement had been broken off. A moment’s reflection convinced her that, in dealing with so shifty a young man as he was, it would be better to deny all knowledge. Ferdy was playing some game, she was certain, and what the game might be, she wanted very much to learn. If she gave him rope enough he would assuredly hang himself, so this she proceeded to do, by pretending ignorance. “You hinted when we last met that there was some misunderstanding between you.”
“There is no misunderstanding on my part,” cried Ferdy, falling at once into the trap. “I love Prudence, and I am willing to marry her. But she refuses to marry me, and has broken off the engagement.”
“Indeed. And what reason does she assign for this sudden change?”
“Her father will not accept me as his son-in-law.”
“On what grounds?”
Ferdy shrugged his shoulders. “Mr. Clarke, according to Prudence, does not approve of the match.”
“Have you been doing anything to make him disapprove?” asked Clarice, quickly and pointedly.
“No!” replied Ferdy, indignantly, “I don’t know why you are always suspecting me of doing wrong, Clarry. I’m straight—that is, I am as straight as most fellows.”
“That is not saying much,” rejoined Clarice, sarcastically.
“Well, then, I am as straight as Ackworth.”
“That you are not, Ferdy. Anthony always speaks the truth.”
“So do I. You have no right to say otherwise.”
“Ferdy, all your life you have told half-truths, and those are much worse than right-down lies.”
“Oh, hang it, that’s too bad. I tell you what it is, Clarry. If you have such a bad opinion of me, I am not fit for your society. Give me my income, and let me go out of your life.”
“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” said Clarice, sternly. “You are not fit to look after your own life. If I gave you the two thousand a year—and remember I cannot do that until the two years are past—you would simply go headlong to ruin. No, Ferdy, you must marry Prudence, and she will look after you.”
“How impossible you are, Clarry,” cried Ferdy, greatly exasperated. “I tell you that I should like to marry Prudence, but she won’t allow me to. Both herself and her father are against my becoming her husband. You can ask them, if you doubt me.”
“Oh, I believe what you say,” remarked Clarice, readily.
“Then what am I to do?”
“Leave it to time to right things. I dare say Mr. Clarke will change his mind again.”
“He may not for years, even if he changes it at all,” grumbled Ferdy, “and I can’t wait on his pleasure for ever.”
“If you love Prudence you can.”
“I don’t know. I do love her, but she doesn’t love me,” said the young man, sulkily, “and if I can’t get love in one quarter, I must in another. Do you see?”
“Oh, yes,” said Clarice, cruelly. “I see that you love only one person, and that is yourself. What’s the other woman’s name?”
Ferdy started, and grew red. “The—the—the—other woman?”
“Yes. You talk about getting love in another quarter. In the Dumps quarter, I dare say.”
“She’s a lovely girl, and as good as they make them,” said Ferdy, in a furious way; “don’t you say a word against her, Clarry, for I won’t stand it. You must respect her—”
“As my future sister-in-law?”
“Yes,” said Ferdy, getting up to add dignity to his declaration.
“Oh,” remarked Miss Baird, coolly; “so you have proposed?”
“I have proposed, because Prudence chucked me, and Zara has accepted my hand.”
“How delightfully you have arranged it all, Ferdy. Does Miss Dumps know about your income?”
“She knows everything, and she is willing to wait for two years until I come in for my money.”
“How considerate of her. She must love you very much, Ferdy, to be willing to accept you with a paltry two thousand a year.”
“She does love me,” said Ferdy, with sulky dignity.
“And you love her?”
“Yes, I do.”
“What about your love for Prudence?”
“I love her, but in a different way.”
Clarice laughed. “Really, Ferdy, you must have a large heart. Why not turn Turk or Mormon?”
“It’s all very well to laugh,” said Ferdy, with a wounded air; “but if you had been chucked by one you loved, you would seek love elsewhere. I am certain of that.”
“Ah. You judge me by yourself. Well, then, Ferdy, suppose I refuse to allow you to marry Zara?”
“You can’t. I am my own master and over age.”
“You are not master of your money.”
“I shall be in two years.”
“Quite so, and Zara, who must be a most self-denying person, is willing to wait until you are rich in two years. I understand; but in the meantime, Ferdy, what if I stop your allowance?”
“I shall go to law,” said Ferdy, pompously.
“I am afraid that won’t do you much good,” retorted his sister, with a calm smile. “In the first place, you have no money, and no lawyer will undertake the case unless certain fees are paid down. In the second place, you will fail in your action. The will is perfectly clear as to my powers and duties as guardian. I have full power to do what I like until you are legally of age in two years.”
“It’s an infernal shame,” muttered Ferdy, who had sense enough to see that she spoke the truth.
“I don’t think so, and any sensible person who understood the position of things would not think so either. However, you can see that it is waste of time for you to go to law. What else can you do?”
“I can go on the stage.”
“Yes,” said Ferdy, triumphantly, and rubbing his hands. “Ah, you didn’t think I’d say that, did you?”
“I expected to hear anything, so long as it was sufficiently silly,” said Clarice, in her coldest tone. “Really, Ferdy, you are a child.”
“You won’t find it so when I take my own way.”
“What is your own way?”
“I have told you. I am engaged to Zara, and I intend to marry her, now that Prudence has behaved so badly. If you refuse to allow me money, I’ll chuck the medical profession and go on the stage to act with Zara in her Butterfly sketch at the Mascot Music Hall. She isn’t satisfied with the Chrysalis, and I can act that.”
“Act what?” asked Clarice, puzzled by the scientific word.
“The Chrysalis. In the sketch—it is called the Birth of a Butterfly—there’s a Chrysalis, acted by a man, which wriggles about the stage. Out of it comes Zara as the Butterfly, and—”
“Oh, I understand. What a high ambition you have. I should think a worm of that acrobatic kind would just suit you. So this is your plan, is it?”
“Yes. I came down especially to tell you.”
“What does Dr. Jerce say?”
“He says nothing. Jerce is sulky with me, because you—”
“Because I refused to marry him. What a child the man is, in spite of his fame and knighthood. As much a child as you are.”
“I am not here to discuss Jerce,” said Ferdy, loftily, “but to hear what you have to say to my plan. If you will allow me my income as usual, I won’t go on the stage.”
“But you’ll marry Zara, all the same.”
“Yes. She loves me and I love her.”
“No, you don’t. You love Prudence, and are only dominated by a stronger will in the person of this dancer. I know that Prudence has treated you badly, and so has Mr. Clarke. All the same, if you truly love the lady and not the dancer, you will wait until time brings Mr. Clarke round to accepting you as his son-in-law.”
“No,” said Ferdy, very decidedly; “and I want your answer, please, so that I can arrange what to do.”
“Ah, that means you must decide whether you are to be a doctor or a Chrysalis,” said Clarice, quietly and contemptuously. “Give me a few minutes to consider the matter, Ferdy.”
Her brother looked at her suddenly, apparently thinking that she was about to give way. However, he was sufficiently wise not to press his advantage for the time being. “I’ll play for a time,” he said, crossing to the piano, “while you think. Will the music disturb you in any way?”
“No,” said Clarice, absently, and Ferdy began to play a soft, murmurous piece of music, which suggested waving green forests and gentle summer winds. He played very well in an amateur sort of way, and played also softly, so Clarice was quite able to follow her own thoughts, as the music echoed through the room.
In Ferdy’s defiance she saw again the hand of Zara Dumps. Apparently the dancer was bent upon marrying the boy, and would stop at nothing to accomplish her aim. Perhaps she was in love, as Ferdy undoubtedly was a handsome and charming fellow. Also in two years he would be in possession of a very respectable income. Anthony had hinted that Zara wished to marry money; but either she had not chanced upon a millionaire sufficiently susceptible, or else she had a genuine love for Ferdy Baird, and was prepared to be happy with him on a moderate income. Clarice saw very plainly that her brother was absolutely dominated by the will of the dancer, and that if she refused the allowance she would only throw him more completely into the arms of this clever woman. On the other hand, by letting things remain as they were, she would be able, by holding the purse strings, to keep a certain hold over the headstrong boy. It was out of the question to allow Ferdy to ruin his career by going on the music hall stage.
Moreover, Clarice began to feel piqued by Zara. That this woman should set herself to intrigue in this manner annoyed her. Zara apparently thought that she could get everything her own way. Clarice was determined that she should not be triumphant all along the line, and looked forward with pleasure to thwarting the dancer. Also, in the accusation of Clarke by Miss Dumps, Clarice saw that much larger issues than Ferdy’s future were involved. Zara evidently quite expected that Clarice would refuse Ferdy’s allowance, and thus would compel him to rely on her. Miss Baird at once resolved to countercheck the dancer by acting in a contrary way. As she had done with Ferdy, so would she do with Zara—that is, she intended to give the dancer rope enough to hang herself. Clarice wished to find out what string Zara was pulling, and time was required to look into matters. Time could be gained by checkmating her in this manner, so having made up her mind, Clarice called Ferdy away from the piano.
“My dear boy,” she said gently. “I don’t want you to be unhappy. I know, as I said before, that Prudence has treated you badly, so it is not to be wondered at that you should go to a woman who loves you.”
“Zara does—oh, she does,” said Ferdy, promptly.
“Well, then,” said Clarice, in a caressing tone, “I shall continue your allowance, as I don’t want you to go on the stage. But if I do this, you must make me a promise.”
“Anything,” cried Ferdy, delighted at having secured his end.
“Promise me that you will not contract a secret marriage with this dancer,” said Miss Baird, earnestly.
“I promise, with all my heart,” replied Ferdy; and so the agreement was made, and Clarice thus gained time to fathom the schemes of Miss Dumps, which had to do with greater things than Ferdy imagined.
It was at this moment, or a little later, that Anthony appeared in full mess kit. He looked excited when he burst into the room, which he did more noisily than usual. “I apologise for my dress,” he said, coming forward to kiss Clarice, “but I was in such a hurry to see you that I came over without changing, in another fellow’s motor-car. It’s waiting outside, and I can’t stop more than a few minutes.”
“And I expect you want to speak to Clarry,” said Ferdy, quickly; “I’ll go out and have a look at the car.”
Anthony seemed pleased when the boy left the room, and at once brought out a letter. “I came to see you about this,” he said, handing it to the girl; “it came by to-night’s post, and I lost no time in bringing it to you. What does it mean?”
Clarice opened the letter, which was written in a delicate hand, and very neatly, on fine thick paper. The few lines ran as follows:—
“If Captain Anthony Ackworth marries Miss Clarice Baird, his future brother-in-law will be placed in the dock, as guilty of the murder of his guardian, Mr. Henry Horran. From a Friend.”
Anthony looked apprehensively at Clarice, as she read the anonymous letter, for he quite expected that she would be greatly agitated, and had been rather afraid of showing it to her, lest the shock of such an accusation brought against Ferdy should be too great. But the girl was perfectly cool, and read the letter twice. After the second reading, she looked at her lover.
“It’s a conspiracy,” she said, calmly.
Anthony was puzzled. “What do you mean by that?”
“Someone wants to prevent our marriage,” she explained; “and so this accusation has been brought against Ferdy.”
“I can see that. Of course”—Anthony looked anxiously at her again—“of course, the accusation is ridiculous.”
“Perfectly ridiculous!” replied Clarice, quietly.
“And yet,” hesitated the soldier, “would anyone bring forward such a direct accusation, unless she had evidence to go upon?”
Clarice, who had been musing, looked up, “Why do you say ‘she?’ ”
Ackworth pointed to the caligraphy of the letter, which lay on the table before them. “The handwriting is like that of a woman.”
“Men and women write exactly alike nowadays, my dear. Besides, if a woman had written it, she certainly would have assumed even a more masculine style of writing.”
“Then you think that the letter was written by a man?”
“Of course. Can’t you think of a man who desires to prevent our marriage?”
Ackworth considered for one moment, and drew inspiration from her steadfast eyes. “Dr. Jerce,” he said, suddenly.
“Sir Daniel Jerce! Give him his proper title!”
“What makes you think that?”
“Several things. One is that Sir Daniel quoted the slip betwixt cup and lip proverb. In fact, he hinted, more in manner than words, that I should never become your wife.”
“Confounded cheek!” said Anthony, seating himself—he had been standing hitherto. “What right has he to interfere?”
“The right of a man who is in love with a woman,” said Clarice.
“With an engaged woman,” corrected Anthony. “Humph!” He took up the letter again. “Do you really think—”
“I am certain of it.”
“But a man in such a position—a great doctor—a famous medical man—surely would not—”
Clarice again did not allow him to finish. “Yes, he would, if he wanted his own way, as Sir Daniel Jerce wants his. You see, Anthony dear, that Sir Daniel had always gained his ends by force of will. He tried to dominate me, but I was too strong for him. Naturally, he is irritated, and thus is ready to condescend to this”—she pointed to the letter—“in order to gain his ends.”
“Well, I’m hanged. But you can’t be certain.”
“I’ll soon find out if I can be certain.”
“In what way—by what means?”
“I’ll ask Sir Daniel himself if he wrote the letter!”
“He will deny that he did,” rejoined Ackworth, quickly.
“You trust a woman to get at the truth, denial or no denial,” said Miss Baird, coolly. “And there’s another thing, Anthony. Ferdy is perfectly innocent.”
“Of course,” hesitated the Captain; “still, can you prove it?”
“Very easily. Ferdy came home drunk on the night the crime was committed. I locked him in his own room, and took the key to mine. He could not have got out, and did not, until I released him next morning—hours after the murder was perpetrated.”
Anthony nodded his satisfaction. “That settles the business. This letter is all bluff. Anything more?”
Clarice nodded in her turn. “Ferdy was engaged to marry Prudence Clarke,” she said.
“Was engaged! Is the engagement at an end?”
“Yes. Had you not come over, I should have sent for you. I saw Prudence to-day, and she declines to marry Ferdy.”
“Why, I thought she was in love with him.”
“She was—she is. But Zara, the dancer—”
“Butterfly. Yes, I know. Go on.”
“Well, she called on Prudence on the day my guardian was buried, and told her that if she married Ferdy, Mr. Clarke would be accused of the murder.”
“What rubbish. Everyone knows that Osip is guilty.”
“Quite so,” said Clarice, slowly; “but I am beginning to doubt that, Anthony. I thought that there was no mystery about this crime, but from this letter and from the attitude of Zara, I begin to think that there is.”
“H’m!” from Ackworth. “You believe that there is a conspiracy?”
“Yes, I do, and Sir Daniel has to do with it. Also Zara. The man wants to marry me, and the woman to marry Ferdy. But I had better tell you everything I have learned, so that you may be in a position to see things from your point of view.”
Anthony listened carefully, while Clarice detailed her interview with Prudence, and also related what Clarke had said. “I am perfectly sure,” she ended, firmly, “that there is some connection between Zara and Sir Daniel.”
“I don’t see that, Clarice—upon my word, I can’t see it. Zara evidently went on her own, so as to get Ferdy to herself. Sir Daniel fried his own fish—if, indeed, that letter is written by him.”
“I’ll soon learn that,” rejoined Miss Baird, putting the letter into the pocket of her dinner gown. “Then, I have to tell you something about Ferdy,” and she related how the boy had attempted to bluff her, and how she had got the better of him.
“It seems to me,” said Ackworth, when she finished, “that Ferdy is being made use of in some way.”
“I am quite certain of that, and the crime is being used as a threat to make him do what he is told.”
“Or by Zara. I grant that the whole thing is a mystery, although you and I can see the reasons for the actions of Jerce and this dancer.”
“Marriage in both cases,” said Anthony, musingly. “But why not question Ferdy?”
Clarice’s lip curled. “Ferdy would only tell lies,” she said, disdainfully. “No, I must learn what Ferdy has to do with these matters in some way which will not arouse his suspicions. Anthony”—she placed her hands on his shoulders—“you trust me?”
He placed his hands on hers—“Dearest, what a question.”
“Well, then, I am going to do something very daring.”
“What is it?” asked Ackworth, anxiously.
“I can’t tell you. I only ask you to trust me.”
Ackworth looked at her closely. “Of course, I’ll trust you.”
“That is true love,” said Clarice, and kissed him. “Now, in the first place, I shall write this night to Sir Daniel, and ask him to come and see me. Then I can learn if indeed he wrote the letter which I have in my pocket. Next—and this is your share of the plot I have in my head—you must ask Ferdy down for a couple of days and nights to Gattlinsands. He is always glad to stop with you.”
“I’ll do so willingly,” said Anthony; “but why do you want him out of the way?”
“You have answered your own question. I want him out of the way, because I want him out of the way.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am mysterious, am I not? But in this case everything is now becoming extremely mysterious, and we must beat these people with their own weapons. I want to marry you; I want Ferdy to marry Prudence. To bring these things about I have to learn the meaning of these threats. When I know, then I can act.”
“But what do you intend to do?” asked Anthony, dubiously.
“You promised to trust me.”
“Yes, but—but don’t be rash.”
“Dearest, am I ever rash?”
“No, you are a very level-headed girl, as I know. I’ll trust you, only I hope you won’t get into any difficulty.”
“If I do, I’ll send for you at once. Now, when you get back to your quarters, write and ask Ferdy down for to-morrow night and for the next night.”
“I can ask him now. He’s in the house.”
“No, I want you to ask him by letter. Write to him at Sir Daniel’s.”
Anthony nodded. “Very good. Anything else?”
“Yes. When Ferdy leaves you—in a couple of days—go up to London, and to Tea Street, Whitechapel.”
“What for, Clarice?”
“To find out all you can concerning the young man who died of consumption there—the man who was one of the Purple Fern murderers. I want to know his name, and all about him.”
“What good will that do?”
“It may lead us to discover the whereabouts of Osip. When we catch him, then we can be certain of his guilt, and both Sir Daniel and Zara will be unable to accuse Ferdy or Mr. Clarke. Do you see?”
“In a way. And yet—”
“No, don’t raise objections, or ask questions. I know exactly how to act. When you learn what I want you to learn, come here and tell it to me. In the meantime, I’ll be searching on my own account.”
“Not in Whitechapel I hope,” said Anthony, quickly.
“No, I am sending you to Whitechapel,” she laughed. “Do you know, my dear boy, I am quite enjoying this excitement. It gives me something to do, and I love a life of action.”
She looked so brilliant, and her eyes were so bright, that Anthony did what any lover would have done under the like circumstances. He took her in his arms and kissed her. Then, as it was growing late, Clarice insisted that he should go, and escorted him to the door.
Ferdy was conversing with Anthony’s brother officer, who had brought over the car; and, of course, the amateur chauffeur was introduced to Miss Baird. She chatted so gaily for a few minutes that Anthony could not believe she had anything on her mind. Yet he knew very well that she was extremely anxious, and was nerving herself to face her enemies. Finally, he insisted that she should go indoors, as the night was chilly, and the car surged off down the lane, with the buzz of an angry bee. Clarice stood on the steps and watched it vanish. Then she went inside and spoke to Ferdy.
“I want you to take a letter to Sir Daniel to-morrow for me,” she said, going to her desk. “When do you start in the morning?”
“By the eight fifty-five. I’ll be in town by ten, or a trifle later. Why are you writing?”
“I want Sir Daniel to come down, as I wish to speak with him about business connected with the estate.”
“What business?” asked Ferdy, persistently.
“Oh, nothing particular,” said Clarice, airily; “it has to do with a ring which poor Uncle Henry wished me to give the doctor. Aha-a-a!” she shivered—“I believe that I have caught cold.”
She had indeed, for the next morning Ferdy had to go to her bedroom to receive the letter for Jerce, as Clarice did not get up. Her eyes were brilliant, her cheeks vividly red, and her voice was somewhat hoarse. Ferdy guessed that she had caught cold from standing in the porch on the previous night, and declined to kiss her when he went, in case he should suffer also. That was Ferdy all over—he never ran the chance of getting into trouble, if it was not likely to benefit himself. Clarice sighed when he departed, and then laughed. Sad as she was at Ferdy’s selfishness, the thought of her plot cheered her up. The boy—as she was resolved—should be saved from Zara Dumps in spite of himself.
Sir Daniel was extremely astonished to receive Clarice’s note asking him to come down, and his elderly heart beat rapidly, as he reflected that she had called him back. He had told her that he would not see her again, unless she asked him to come, and here the very message, for which he had longed, was in his hand. He went down to Crumel by the midday train, and shortly arrived at The Laurels. Here he found Clarice up and dressed, and seated in the drawing-room, looking very unwell. She occupied a large chair near the fire, and was enveloped in a multiplicity of wraps to keep her from shivering. When Sir Daniel entered, she did not rise or offer him her hand.
“I might give you my cold,” said Clarice, hoarsely.
“Dear, dear! you are very sick,” remarked Jerce, quite at his ease in the presence of ill-health. “How did you get this cold?”
“I was standing in the porch last night, talking to Anthony.”
Jerce bit his lip as she mentioned the name, and stretched out his hand. “Let me feel your pulse.”
Clarice kept her hands under the shawl. “No; I have asked you to come for another reason than to prescribe for me. Also, I have taken some simple remedies, and will be well in a few days.”
“No, I can’t ask the famous Sir Daniel Jerce to attend to a trifling case like mine.”
“Since the famous Sir Daniel is here,” observed the doctor, good-humouredly, “he may as well exercise his profession. And you know,” he added, earnestly, “I would do anything for you, even though you have treated me so cruelly.”
“You will persist in saying that,” cried Clarice, petulantly, “when you know that I never loved you; that I never gave you any encouragement, and that you have no reason to blame me in any way. If you have come here to make yourself disagreeable—”
“I have come because you sent for me,” said Jerce, calmly; “and, if you remember, I said that I would never see you again unless you did send for me.”
“Oh! And I suppose you thought that my invitation meant that I had changed my mind about marrying Anthony?”
“I did hope that,” said Sir Daniel, plainly, “as I can conceive no other reason why you should ask me down; unless,” he added, with some bitterness, “you wish to torture me.”
“Your own conscience should do that, Sir Daniel.”
“My own conscience? I don’t understand you, Miss Baird.”
“Think again. You hinted that I should never marry Anthony.”
“I did,” rejoined Jerce, steadily, “and I hope you won’t.”
“Because I wish to marry you myself.”
“I see.” Clarice drew the anonymous letter from her pocket, and placed it in his hand; “and to gain your ends you are willing to go to these lengths?”
The doctor read the few lines gravely, and then handed back the letter. “Still I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do, Sir Daniel. You wrote that letter.”
Jerce sprang to his feet with an agility astonishing in so stout a man. “You insult me,” he said, with cold, suppressed fury.
“Have I not reason to,” she flashed out, “when you seek to prevent my marriage by accusing Ferdy, of murder?”
“I did not accuse him; I never wrote that letter; it is not in my handwriting; it is not written on my own stationery.”
“Of course not. You would have signed your name if it had been.”
“Did you ask me down to accuse me of this?” asked Sir Daniel, contemptuously.
“Yes, I did, and I tell you that your plot will fail, as Ferdy is perfectly innocent.”
“I never said that he was guilty.”
“I did not write that letter.” Clarice looked at him steadily. His face was calm, his nerves were unshaken. Either she had failed to take him unawares with her abrupt accusation, or the man was innocent. “If I have made a mistake I ask your pardon,” she said, quietly, “but you have read the letter?”
“Just this moment. I never set eyes on it before.”
“What do you think of the accusation?”
“I don’t know what to think,” said Jerce, coolly.
“Oh! Then you believe that the writer—if not yourself—has certain grounds upon which to accuse my brother of murder?”
“I don’t know the writer and I don’t know the grounds. Any other man would have lost his temper at the insult you have offered. But being in love with you, I forgive your unfair suspicions. Still, in justice to myself, I shall take my leave, as I cannot inflict upon you the company of a man of whom you think so meanly.”
“One moment,” said Clarice, who could not tell if he was really innocent, or if he was acting a part. “What would you do about the letter if you were me?”
“I should obey the writer,” said Jerce, promptly.
“Ah! Then you have an interest in stopping my marriage?”
“I have. I would do anything in my power to break off your engagement with Ackworth.”
“So that I could marry you?”
“I believe you wrote the letter, after all,” said Clarice, between her clenched teeth. “I defy you to look me in the face and deny it.”
“I do look you in the face, and I do deny it,” said Jerce, coldly; “but the writer of that letter has done me a good turn, and I thank him.”
“How do you know it is a man?”
Sir Daniel shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know; I only surmise.”
“That a man wrote it.”
“Why not a woman?” sneered Clarice.
“Why not, indeed. You know as much about the matter as I do.”
Beaten by his imperturbability, the girl adopted another mode of attack. “Why should Ferdy be accused?”
“I don’t know, unless it is that Ferdy lives a wild life, as I told you, and would do much for money.”
“For money? What do you mean?”
“I mean that the forty thousand pounds is yet unaccounted for.”
“Oh, and Ferdy murdered Uncle Henry for that money?”
“The writer accuses him of the crime,” said Jerce, quietly. “I am not prepared to endorse the accusation, as I know nothing.”
“But I know,” cried Clarice, vehemently. “Ferdy was locked in his room by me on the night of the crime, because he had been taking too much to drink.”
“You had better answer this letter and say so,” retorted Jerce.
“To whom should I write—to what address?”
“I can’t say,” he answered, steadily, “but you will be wise if you break off your engagement with Captain Ackworth. Ferdinand may be innocent in one way, and yet guilty in another.”
“He may be an accomplice after the fact.”
“Doctor,” cried Clarice, rising quickly, “you know something.”
“I know nothing, save that Ferdy lives a wild and fast life, and is of an undisciplined nature.” He walked to the door. “I take my leave with a last warning. Obey that anonymous note, and give up Ackworth, or else—”
“Or else?” questioned Clarice, eagerly.
“Or else Ferdinand may be hanged.”
Clarice sank back in her chair, as Jerce left the room, wondering if she had heard aright. Sir Daniel had certainly said in plain English that, failing the breaking of the engagement, Ferdy would be hanged. That meant the guilt of Ferdy, and yet she could prove that the boy had been locked in his room. What was meant by being an accessory after the fact? She would have to ask Mr. Barras the meaning of that legal phrase. In some way, however—she guessed that much,—it implicated Ferdy in the crime. Ferdy was, wild, assuredly, and to get money would do much. But he would never dare to commit a vile murder. In the first place, his nature was too mild, and in the second, he was too timid. Ferdy must be innocent. And yet—it was strange that he should always be so mysterious, and so ready to take alarm. Clarice recalled several occasions when Ferdy had appeared startled by apparently innocent remarks. Then, again, Ferdy was in the toils of Zara Dumps; and Zara—from her accusation of Mr. Clarke—knew something about the crime. What if she was throwing the blame on the parson to shield Ferdy, whom she loved?
At this point of her agonised reflections, the door opened, and Sir Daniel Jerce again appeared. “I think,” he said, coldly, yet very pointedly, “that if you take a walk, and put away those medicine bottles, you will find that your illness will vanish. Good-day.” And he was gone in a moment.
Clarice flung off the shawl and ran to the door. Jerce, then, saw through her feigned disorder. What a fool she was to try and deceive so clever a physician. By the time she gained the hall, Jerce had already passed out of the front door, and when she opened that, he was passing out of the gate. For the moment she felt inclined to call him back, and insist upon her illness, but knowing that she could not deceive so capable a judge, she closed the door again, and returned to the drawing-room.
There she wrapped herself up again. It was necessary to deceive those in the house, since no one was so acute as Jerce, to tell a false illness from a real one. She could not carry out her plot unless she pretended to be ill, and so had taken advantage of being in the porch on the previous night to secure her ends. Intending to go secretly to London on that same evening, Clarice wished to keep to her room, so that no one save Mrs. Rebson—in whom she would have to confide—should know that she was out of the house. And especially had she wished to deceive Jerce. Yet he had seen through her scheme of pretended sickness, and would be on the look-out to see why she had acted in such a manner. Clarice was certain that in some way Jerce was plotting against her and Anthony, notwithstanding his denial of the anonymous letter. It would take her all her ingenuity, clever as she thought herself, to circumvent the doctor. He was uncommonly sharp and uncommonly suspicious, and if he found out what she intended to do, he would nullify the success of her plot in some way. What a fool she had been to see him, especially when she had gained nothing by the interview.
In the face of this first failure to impose upon a clever man who wanted his own way, many a woman would have thrown up the sponge. But Clarice only stiffened her back in the face of the increasing difficulties. Come what may, she would masquerade as she intended, and learn the truth of Ferdy’s hidden life. Her plan was at once daring and simple. In looks she exactly resembled Ferdy, and, dressed in a suit of his clothes, no one would be able to recognise her as his sister. Also she could mimic Ferdy’s tricks of speech and ordinary gestures exactly, and thus: would be able to pass as her brother, even with those who knew him well. Once arrayed as Ferdy, Clarice intended to go to London and pass the evening at the Mascot Music Hall, in order to witness the performance of Sarah Dumps. Then—as Ferdy—she would go round and see the dancer, and perhaps Zara might let slip something which would put her on the track of the boy’s delinquencies. If she could arrive at the truth of Ferdy’s fast life, at which Jerce had hinted, she might learn how he came to be implicated in the crime. And he was implicated rather than Clarke, since Clarice believed that Zara had only accused Clarke to save her lover, as well as to prevent the marriage with Prudence. Also the direct accusation in the anonymous letter hinted that someone—if not Jerce—knew that Ferdy had some connection with the death of Henry Horran. Jerce himself hinted that Ferdy was mixed up in the matter, and was ready to use his information—whatever it might be—to place Ferdy in the dock, if the match with Ackworth was not broken off.
It can thus be seen why Clarice had asked Anthony to invite her brother to Gattlinsands on that evening, and to detain him, if possible, for the next night. She did not want to run the risk of meeting Ferdy at the Mascot Music Hall, or to have—as it were—two Richmonds in the field. On this one night she hoped to learn sufficient to force Ferdy into open confession, and when she knew all, she might be able to save him. But failing success on this night, she trusted to be more successful on the ensuing evening. But in any case, she felt that she must be successful if Ferdy was to be saved from the tricksters who were around him and from his own weak self. Of course, her experiment was a daring one, and Anthony certainly would not approve of it. But too much was at stake to hesitate, so Clarice went up to her room about five o’clock to get ready for her masquerade. On the stroke of the hour, Mrs. Rebson appeared with a telegram, which proved to be from Anthony. He wired that Ferdy had accepted his invitation, and was on his way to Gattlinsands.
“That’s all right,” said Clarice, putting the wire carefully away.
“What’s all right, deary?” asked Mrs. Rebson, who was smoothing her nursling’s bed.
“Nanny, come here,” said the girl, and led Mrs. Rebson to a chair. “I dare say you remember what you said about disgrace?”
“The Domestic Prophet,” replied Mrs. Rebson, smoothing her apron; “yes, and disgrace will come, say what you like.”
“It will come, I fear.”
Mrs. Rebson clapped her gnarled old hands. “I’ve brought you to your senses,” she cried, in her cracked voice, and with great triumph; “you will never doubt the Domestic Prophet again.”
“Oh, no,” answered Clarice, artfully. “Disgrace is coming, I fear, Nanny, and to Ferdy.”
Mrs. Rebson’s hands fell by her side, and she began to shake. “Disgrace, and to my darling boy,” she whimpered. “Oh, Miss Clarice, what is it? What have you been doing?”
“It’s not what I have been doing, but what I am about to do,” said Miss Baird, resolutely. “Now, Nanny, if you want to save Ferdy from disgrace, from imprisonment, and perhaps from worse, you must hold your tongue about what I am going to tell you.”
“I swear it on the Bible,” whimpered Mrs. Rebson again. “Oh, my pretty boy—my sweet darling!” She began to cry in a senile manner.
Clarice knew that she could trust the old woman to be silent, as her affection for the unworthy Ferdy would have sealed her lips, even had she been threatened with the gallows to open them. If Clarice wanted to leave The Laurels secretly for her masquerade, and to return without her absence being known, it was absolutely necessary that she should trust the old woman. Therefore, she risked telling Mrs. Rebson all that she knew, and again impressed upon her, at the end of the confession, the absolute necessity—for Ferdy’s sake—of silence.
Mrs. Rebson wept all the time and cried out at intervals, and exclaimed indignantly at Ferdy’s enemies, and altogether conducted herself as a partisan of that shifty youth. “But I knew that the Domestic Prophet could not lie,” cried Mrs. Rebson, “though I never thought he meant my precious lamb. Oh, Miss Clarice, what is to be done? They will hang and quarter my darling baby.”
“No, no, Nanny. I can save him,” said Clarice, soothingly.
“And you will—you will?”
“If you will consent to help me.”
“I would go to the scaffold for my Ferdy, sweetheart,” said Mrs. Rebson, fervently, whereupon Clarice explained how she meant to masquerade as her twin brother. Mrs. Rebson was startled, and expostulated in alarm. “Oh, my deary, it’s a dreadful thing you would do. What would the world say?”
“The world will never know, Nanny. That is why I want you to help me. I am supposed to be ill with this cold, so I can be thought to be in this room nursing it. While I am away don’t let anyone enter, but attend to me as if I were really ill in bed. Everyone will think that, I am indisposed.”
“When will you be back?” asked Mrs. Rebson, shaking and nervous.
“To-morrow some time. I can stop at some hotel in town.”
“Oh, Miss Clarice, a young lady without a chaperon.”
“I won’t be a young lady, but a young man,” said Clarice, impatiently, and crossing the room to look into a Gladstone bag which she had packed with masculine belongings.
“A young gentleman, seeing that you are to be Master Ferdy,” said Mrs. Rebson, with dignity. Then she began to beat her hands on her old knees. “Oh, dear, it is all very dreadful, and I don’t know what your poor pa and ma would say. I don’t think I should allow it.”
Clarice forbore to tell Mrs. Rebson that she had no power to forbid, since she was not now a nursery autocrat. But she wanted to set the old woman entirely on her side so as to carry out her plans. “If you think it would be better to let Ferdy get into trouble—”
“No! no! oh, dear me, no, Miss Clarice! Anything but that. I’ll say that you are ill in bed, and I shan’t allow anyone into the room. But how will you get out of the house and away from the station without being recognised?”
“I can dress as Ferdy, and slip out of the drawing-room window,” explained Clarice, quietly, and getting a pair of scissors; “as to the station, there will probably be a crowd there, and I can get unnoticed into a carriage. Besides, everyone will take me to be Ferdy.”
“Not those who know you.”
“Oh, yes, I think so. I can imitate Ferdy exactly. I shall have to, if I want to deceive Zara Dumps.”
“The hussy” said Mrs. Rebson, vigorously; then, with a cracked scream, “Miss Clarice, what are you doing to your hair?”
“Cutting it off,” said Clarice, snipping vigorously. “I can’t expect to masquerade successfully with a woman’s hair.”
“Oh, Miss Clarry, Miss Clarry, your lovely hair,” wept Mrs. Rebson, and but that Ferdy’s life—as she thought—depended upon the assumption of Ferdy’s personality, she would then and there have refused to join in, what seemed to her, to be a mad, fantastic scheme.
“What’s the use of going on in this way?” asked Clarice, angrily. “Perhaps I am acting foolishly, but it’s the only chance that I can see of saving Ferdy from his enemies. Come, Nanny, cut my hair, and trim it—not too short.”
Mrs. Rebson, with the tears streaming down her wrinkled face, manipulated the scissors. “What will the captain say?”
“Nothing,” retorted Clarice, “when I tell him my reason. Anthony has every confidence in me. I dare say he’ll be shocked, but I can’t help that. There”—she surveyed her cropped head in the glass, and was surprised to see how remarkably she resembled Ferdy—“no one will ever guess that I am not my brother.”
“Ah!” said Mrs. Rebson, pointedly, “you may deceive a man, but you’ll never get a woman to believe in you.”
“I’ll try, at all events,” said Clarice, thinking of Zara. “Come, Nanny, help me to dress.”
Mrs. Rebson was not of much use, and she wept most of the time, so Clarice set her to work to re-pack the Gladstone bag. In it was stowed a tweed suit, since Clarice was rapidly assuming a spare evening dress of Ferdy’s. Also he had left behind him, luckily, a fur-lined coat, and Clarice had purchased in the High Street a silk hat, ostensibly for her brother, but really for her masquerade. Ferdy was very extravagant in the matter of clothes, and no doubt much of the squandered two thousand pounds had gone on his wardrobe, so that the girl was easily able to array herself in the evening purple and fine linen of a young man about town.
When she was dressed—when the fur coat was on, when the silk hat was worn, and when Clarice placed a cigarette in her mouth—even Mrs. Rebson was startled, and stared, open-mouthed, at the change. “Oh, deary, mercy me,” cried Mrs. Rebson, raising her hands, “I really should take you for Master Ferdy, my dear.”
“Rippin’ old Nanny,” said Clarice, with so exact an imitation of her brother’s voice that Mrs. Rebson jumped.
“It’s not right—it really ain’t right,” she blubbered. “You might be my darling boy from the looks of you and the voice of you.”
“That’s as it should be. Now, Nanny, kiss me, and wish me God speed.”
“Never,” said Mrs. Rebson, energetically, “when you’re doing exactly what Moses said you shouldn’t do, and wearing man’s clothes.”
“To save Ferdy, Nanny,” murmured Clarice, and, gained the kiss and the blessing. Then, the servants being at their tea, she slipped down with the Gladstone bag in her hand, and went out by the French window of the drawing-room. Mrs. Rebson, at the bedroom window, saw her disappear up the lane.
“It might be Master Ferdy himself,” said Mrs. Rebson, with a heavy heart, and prepared to carry out her part of the deception.
There was, as Clarice had anticipated, a crowd at the station, as it was market day in Crumel, and many sellers and buyers were leaving by the 6.30 train. Slipping unnoticed through the crowd, she obtained her ticket from a clerk too busy to glance up, and got into an empty first-class smoking carriage. She did not like the atmosphere, as her sense of smell was delicate, but it was necessary to keep up the deception of manliness, and, moreover, in a smoker she was not likely to meet with any local women friends, who might penetrate her disguise. Also Clarice smoked herself a little, having first done so out of bravado, because Anthony had laughed at her early attempt. She, therefore, lighted a cigarette, and tried to feel herself a man. What she did feel was undoubtedly a delightful sense of freedom, and regretted again, as she had often regretted before, that she had not been born with a beard. Nature had undoubtedly made a mistake in creating Clarice a woman. Perhaps owing to the similarity of the twin’s looks, she had confused the souls, and had given to Clarice the body which was truly Ferdy’s.
In due time the young gentleman—Clarice felt herself to be truly a young gentleman—arrived at Liverpool Street Station, and hailed a cab. She told the man to drive to a quiet West End hotel, where Ferdy sometimes stopped, when it was too late to return home to his quarters in Dr. Jerce’s Harley Street house. Here Clarice was quite delighted with the result of her masquerade. Everyone, including the landlord, the barmaid, and the waiters, took her for Ferdy, and she was given the dinner table at which Ferdy usually sat. And from the smirk of the barmaid, who inquired if Mr. Baird would take a glass of sherry before dinner, Clarice gathered some information as to Ferdy’s urban habits.
After Clarice had placed her bag in the bedroom—and only then did it occur to her that she could have assumed her evening dress in Town—she ordered a hansom, and drove to the Mascot Music Hall. It was a magnificent, palatial structure, decorated and painted and gilded like the Golden House of Nero. For the first time in her quiet life Clarice found herself in such a place, and was astonished at the blaze of light, the number of well-dressed people, the quantity of flowers, and the numerous aids to pleasure which she beheld on every hand. Also, she was surprised to see what a lot of liquor was drunk, and wondered if it was necessary to keep up her assumed character by ordering a whisky and soda. Although some acrobats were performing on the splendid stage, it was yet early, and the house was not yet quite full. Clarice was thus enabled to secure a very comfortable stall. As the evening grew later, the seats on all sides of her were gradually filled, but she found that the one next to her remained empty.
The performance was of the usual class, and showed little originality, although it was entirely new to the girl, who had lived most of her life in Crumel. Acrobats tumbled, thought-readers performed their wonders, musical Americans played various instruments, and interspersed their jangling with United States slang, delivered in nasal voices, and various crack comedians sang the comic songs of the day, which were—Clarice thought—but dreary productions. She enjoyed the performance, however, as it was all new to her, but wondered what Ferdy could find in the “turns” to come there night after night. Perhaps “The Birth of the Butterfly” would be more artistic and amusing, and it came on at nine o’clock. This was the especial moment for which Clarice had waited all the evening.
Immediately before the curtain rose on the sketch, a little overdressed woman came pushing along to the vacant seat beside Miss Baird. She turned to see who it was, and to her dismay recognised Mrs. Dumps. The little woman also recognised—as she thought—Clarice’s brother, and exchanged greetings very affably.
“Though I’m not astonished to see you here, Mr. Ferdinand,” said Mrs. Dumps, in her voluble way, “Zara says that you come nearly every night to see her sketch.”
“Don’t you come yourself, Mrs. Dumps?” said Clarice, carefully imitating her brother’s voice, and rejoiced to see that even keen-eyed Mrs. Dumps did not know her.
“I don’t,” said Mrs. Dumps, screwing up her mouth. “I’ve been weeks in London, but this is the first time I’ve been to see Zara play, although she has begged me on her bended knees. But I was brought up a Churchwoman, and I don’t hold with theatres, much less with ungodly music-halls. Zara would go on the stage, being always bent on having her own way, although I said I’d curse her if she did.”
“And did you?” asked Clarice, quietly, perfectly certain that her disguise could not be penetrated.
“What would have been the good?” said Mrs. Dumps, crossly, “seeing that Zara is my own daughter, and my only one, and not Dumps’ child either, though she took his name. My first husband was her father, Mr. Ferdinand, so when you marry her, you will have to take her as Sarah Twine, that being the poor man’s name. Hush! here’s the piece beginning. I do hope it’s respectable. Zara said it was, else I should not have come. Oh, dear me,” wailed Mrs. Dumps, in an under tone, “how dreadful it is to have my child and Twine’s appearing on the wicked, wicked, bad, evil, shameless stage.”
Clarice would have liked to question Mrs. Dumps further about the marriage, but that the curtain rose, and she had to pay attention to the sketch. The scene represented, very picturesquely, a garden of roses, and at the back was a Brobdignagian flower, upon which lay stretched out a gigantic green worm. This was probably the Chrysalis, which it had been Ferdy’s ambition to act. While the music thrilled through the air, and the lights rapidly changed, the worm began to writhe and to execute acrobatic feats. It twisted and turned on the small space—comparatively speaking—of the flower, and finally crawled across the stage, wriggling grotesquely. Mrs. Dumps was annoyed.
“To think that a child of mine and Twine should make such an exhibition of herself,” she said, indignantly.
“That is not Zara,” whispered Clarice, smiling; “she appears as the Butterfly, you know.”
“Then all I can say is that she ain’t like the butterflies I’ve met with,” said Mrs. Dumps, angrily, “me having chased them as a girl.”
“Wait till Zara appears,” was the reply of the charming, handsome young gentleman, whom the landlady of the Savoy Hotel took to be Mr. Ferdinand Baird, of The Laurels.
Mrs. Dumps sniffed aggressively, and sat very rigid, with the fullest intention of giving her daughter a good talking to for daring to lower the dignity of the Twine name. Meanwhile, the eyes of all were watching the pretty picture on the stage. A wind swept through the garden of flowers, and the blossoms withered under its blighting breath. In one moment the radiant Paradise of Roses took on a wintry aspect. Snow fell thickly, the trees shed their leaves, the sky turned dark, and the ungainly green chrysalis shivered and wriggled in a wonderful manner to the shrill blowing of flutes and trumpets in the orchestra. It was so realistic that the audience could almost—as one enthusiast declared—feel the cold.
Then came the mellow sound of flutes, and the delicate trilling of stringed instruments. The roses began to bloom again, the sky regained its brilliant blue, and the trees budded afresh, under the touch of sudden spring. The green worm writhed its way to the gigantic rose, and lay there exhausted and still, until the rising petals of the flower concealed it from sight. Then came a pause, and afterwards, with a triumphal burst of music, out of the closed rose sprang a light and airy figure, with glittering, glorious butterfly wings, scintillating and vast. Zara shot up to the flies like a rocket, and then swooped gracefully down to the front of the stage. Supported in her airy flights by invisible wires, she fluttered amongst the blossoms like an immense jewelled insect, coquetting and caressing and hovering marvellously on iridescent pinions. Over all played the ever-changing limelights, so that the girl floated lightly as thistle-down in the midst of a King-Opal of prismatic hues. Then she dropped lightly on to the stage, and began a dreamy, sensuous dance, which would have driven St. Anthony out of his senses. When the dance was at its height, and Zara whirled fast and furious in the radiant lights and colours, a dismal note sounded in the orchestra. The butterfly paused, and shivered, as a cold wind bent the flowers, and chilled them. Again the dance commenced, but this time it was slower. The music grew sadder, the many flowers began to fade once more, and finally the snow began to fall in feathery white flakes. Shortly the garden was again strewn in ruins, and the poor Butterfly, frozen and dying, sank weakly to the ground, while the snow piled a white mound over its short-lived beauty. When the dancer was completely buried, the curtain fell.
It rose again in answer to thunderous applause, and Zara appeared, leading by the hand her fellow-artiste, who had so wonderfully performed the Chrysalis. He had put aside his mask, and came to the front of the stage, where he could be plainly seen. Clarice looked at him indifferently, but when she glanced aside at Mrs. Dumps, she saw that the little woman’s face was bloodless and pinched.
“Oh, Mr. Ferdinand,” gasped Mrs. Dumps, clutching her companion’s arm, “that’s Osip—that’s the murderer!”
In the noise of the applause which greeted Osip and Zara, the terrified whisper of Mrs. Dumps passed unnoticed. The girl naturally searched for her mother, and she smiled, on catching sight of her, next to the pretended Ferdy Baird. The eyes of Osip followed those of Zara, and alighted on the pallid face of the country landlady. At once he bowed abruptly to the audience, and walked hurriedly from the stage, leaving Butterfly, rather discourteously, to follow at her leisure. Clarice, who had immediately grasped the significance of Mrs. Dumps’ whisper, half rose, and tried to shake off the detaining grasp of the little woman.
“He’s trying to escape,” said Clarice, excitedly, and, as the applause had now ceased, several people overheard and looked round, inquiringly.
“No!” murmured Mrs. Dumps, dragging the girl down, with unexpected strength, “hold your tongue, Mr. Ferdinand—for Zara’s sake.”
“Justice must be done,” retorted Clarice, anxious to have the miscreant captured forthwith.
“For your own sake, then,” muttered the woman, with white lips.
Clarice, truly surprised, dropped back into her seat. “What do you mean by that?” she demanded, indignantly.
“You know—you know,” murmured the other, still holding on convulsively. “Zara said that she had power to make you marry her. If you make trouble over Osip, she may use that power in another way.”
“What nonsense,” returned Clarice, shrugging. All the same, she remained quiet, for the time being. From Mrs. Dumps’ hurried speech, it was apparent that Zara really had some hold over Ferdy, and would not hesitate to use it to his harm, if anything came of his supposed interference with her shady doings. But Clarice wondered that Zara, bold and daring as she was, cared to connect herself with so dangerous a man as the assassin of so many people. Osip’s association with her, and her accusation of the vicar, and her admitted presence near the house about the hour of the crime, looked as though she knew much more than she chose to tell. Also, her power over Ferdy might implicate him in some way in the infernal doings of the Purple Fern. Clarice, therefore, to save Ferdy from a possible accusation, resolved to take no measures to have Osip captured until such time as she knew more exactly how matters stood.
Shortly, Mrs. Dumps released her hold, and turned paler than ever. “Take me out; get me brandy—Three Star,” whispered the little woman, who had undoubtedly received a great shock.
Clarice saw that she was on the verge of fainting, so at once piloted her along the row of seats to the nearest bar, and procured her a glass of liqueur brandy. The flighty barmaid—no doubt a friend of Ferdy’s—saluted Clarice with an engaging smile and a slangy greeting, finally remarking that the old girl—meaning Mrs. Dumps—looked chippy. The insult to her years, as well as the strong liquor, brought back the colour to Mrs. Dumps’ cheeks, and the stiffness to her back. Replacing the glass on the counter with a bang, she frowned on the saucy girl.
“You are a bold, painted hussy,” snapped Mrs. Dumps, aggressively.
“The brandy’s gone to your aunt’s head, Ferdy,” giggled the barmaid, in no wise disturbed; “take her home, dear boy, else she’s bound to be run in, for looking so pretty.”
“You brazen bag-a-rags,” sniffed Mrs. Dumps, “you Jezebel of the slums, how dare you insult a lady, you horrid—” here Clarice, fearing that there would be trouble, since the barmaid was losing her temper, dragged Mrs. Dumps hurriedly away. “If you keep company with such bold sluts, Mr. Ferdinand,” she said, indignantly, “you shan’t marry my daughter.”
“I’m not so sure that I do want to marry her,” said Clarice, artfully.
Mrs. Dumps tossed her head. “Oh, I know, Mr. Ferdinand, none better. You changed your mind about Zara once before, and wanted to marry that ugly girl of Parson Clarke’s. I’d have let you go myself, but Zara, who is fairly crazy about you,—I don’t know why, as you ain’t my idea of what a husband should be—found means to bring you back again, and keep them vows, you wanted so lightheartedly to break.”
“Did Zara tell you the means she employed?” asked Clarice, quickly.
“No, she didn’t, though I begged her to make a clean breast of it, so you needn’t think that she has betrayed you, whatever you have done—though I’m sure I don’t know if you are bad, smiling there, as if butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth.”
This speech assured Clarice that, whatever power Zara possessed over Ferdy, certainly Mrs. Dumps did not know its source, and therefore she merely laughed. Then, to gain further information, Clarice carried the war into the enemy’s camp. “It is very easy blaming me, Mrs. Dumps,” she said, spiritedly, “but how can you expect me to marry a girl who associates with a man like Osip.”
“There!” wailed Mrs. Dumps, as they went down the grand staircase of the Music Hall, “I thought you’d say that. As if I knew. Zara never said that Osip was with her. If she had I’d have made her come home again. You don’t think that I want Twine’s child and mine, murdered and stamped with Purple Ferns like a letter. But I’ll have it out with her to-night. She’ll tell me what she means, by keeping gory assassins from the gallows.”
“You should tell the police.”
“I shan’t, and you shan’t either, Mr. Ferdinand. Though why the police—a silly lot, I say—don’t spot the man coming forward in that brazen way is more than I know. I saw who he was, the very moment I clapped eyes on him, and though I do owe him seven and sixpence, that’s no reason I should disgrace Zara by hanging him. But I’ll speak to Zara, when I take her home in that steam engine of hers, as is so expensive and useless. You needn’t come, Mr. Ferdinand.”
But Clarice did not intend to give up her chase for information yet, especially as she was now on the way to learn much. “Oh, but I must come, Mrs. Dumps,” she said, coolly; “you know that I escort Zara home every night.” This was a chance shot, but it told.
“I know you do, and why shouldn’t you, seeing you are to be my son-in-law,” whimpered Mrs. Dumps. “Much as I hate the music-hall, I’d have come myself during the past three weeks to take the child home, rather than let her go alone. But I always trusted that you would look after her, Mr. Ferdinand, though you do know grinning Jezebels behind bars. Here’s the stage door—what a hole! Why, my backyard is cleaner, and ain’t got such dirt about it. Oh, that a child of Twine should come to this, and him a godly man with a gift of speech surprising, though he did wag his elbow more than he need have done, and was brought to an early grave with a handsome tombstone in consequence.”
While Mrs. Dumps ran on in this disconnected fashion, Clarice saw at the far end of the alley, which led to the stage door of the Mascot Music Hall, a smart motor-car in charge of a smart chauffeur. She was about to ask Mrs. Dumps if this was the steam-engine she referred to as belonging to Zara, when the stage door opened, and the girl herself came out, looking wonderfully pretty, and wonderfully angry. She mistook Clarice for her brother, as everyone else had done, and came up to him at once.
“Oh, there you are, Ferdy,” she said, speaking as fast as her mother was in the habit of doing. “I am glad you have come. I’m in such a rage. I can’t do my second turn to-night at the Muses Hall, as Brown has gone off.”
“Brown! Who is Brown?”
“You know—you know,” said Zara, pettishly. “He does the Chrysalis, and very badly, too. I’ve only had him for a few weeks, as a kind of makeshift. He’s gone mad, I think, for he bolted immediately after the call, and in his stage kit too. I’ll have to pay a forfeit to the Muses Hall manager, and I don’t like doing that. It’s bad for my pocket and for my reputation. But we can’t stop talking here all night. Come on, mother”—she took Mrs. Dumps’ arm—“were you very much shocked with my sketch?”
“I’ve had a shock,” said Mrs. Dumps, as she was hurried down the alley, “that will last me till my dying day.”
“Oh, bother,” said Zara, apparently thinking that the Puritanic little woman referred to the sketch. “I wish you hadn’t come now. I might have guessed that you would find fault. Now, how are we going, Ferdy?” They were standing beside the motor-brougham by this time.
“I get inside and Mr. Ferdinand can go with the driver,” said Mrs. Dumps, determinedly. “I shan’t chance the night air, after the turn I had, when you had to get the sal volatile for me, Zara. And I want to speak to you, miss. How dare you—”
“Here! Here! Don’t talk, but get in,” and Zara, dexterously pushing her parent into the brougham, slipped inside herself. “Get on the box with Hastings, Ferdy, and tell him to drive home.”
Clarice found it rather a new and quaint experience to be in the company of a smart chauffeur, driving through the brilliantly lighted streets of the metropolis. To keep up her assumed character she lighted a cigarette, and really enjoyed the situation. Hastings seemed to be of a reticent turn of mind, as he only made a few short remarks about the running of the car, and carefully attended to his business. Clarice was glad, as she would not have known what to say, had the man been talkative. And she knew that Ferdy must have been in the habit of chattering to the chauffeur, from the remark Hastings made when the brougham stopped before a door in Saracen Square, where Zara dwelt.
“You’re very quiet to-night, Mr. Baird,” said the man, smiling. “I expect you’d rather have been inside the machine.”
Clarice stared haughtily at the familiarity of this speech, and Hastings looked rather puzzled. Ferdy apparently was very free and easy with Zara’s servants. But there was no time to consider the matter, for Zara stepped out of the brougham, and bustled her mother up the stairs in a hurry. Mrs. Dumps was in tears, and took no notice of the supposed Ferdy. A waiting maid-servant took Clarice’s coat, and ushered her into a tiny drawing-room, where the irritated girl found several portraits of Ferdy, smiling and debonair.
“She must love him,” thought the outraged sister, and glanced in the mirror over the fireplace to see how her disguise looked. In this dimly-lighted room, where the red-shaded lamps gave out rosy hues, Clarice thought that Zara would never find her out. She looked exactly like Ferdy, and had imposed successfully on the barmaid, on Mrs. Dumps, and on the chauffeur, so she had little fear of carrying her adventure to a successful conclusion.
Shortly Zara entered in a maize-coloured tea-gown, but no longer in a bad temper. Indeed, from the pallor of her face, she seemed to have received a shock. Clarice immediately guessed that Mrs. Dumps had been conversing about Osip in the brougham. It seemed to her that Zara, after all, might not have known the truth about the man.
“Open a bottle of fizz, Ferdy,” said Zara, throwing herself on a sofa, “and give me some. I shan’t eat any supper. You can if you like. I ought to open these, I suppose,” she glanced at some letters lying on a small bamboo table near at hand, “but I can’t be bothered. Give me the fizz quick, Ferdy, or I’ll faint.”
Clarice had, rather awkwardly, opened a pint bottle of champagne, and handed Zara a glass. “Are you tired?” she asked, with pretended sympathy, and anxious to make the girl talk.
Zara drank off the wine before replying, and nodded. “I’m tired and worried,” she said, handing back the glass; “come and sit down beside me, Ferdy. We must have a talk.”
“Oh, bother my mother. She has gone to bed, and intends to return to Crumel to-morrow. I suppose she thinks I’m a bad lot. I wish I had not asked her to come up now. And I’m especially sorry that I asked her to come to the Hall to-night. No, Eliza,” this to the servant, who entered with a hot dish, “we don’t want any supper to-night. Go away and close the door. Oh, dear me,” she sprang up when the maid departed and ruffled her red hair, while looking into the mirror, “I wish you’d marry me to-morrow, Ferdy, and take me to Paris. I could get an engagement there, and we could be happy.”
“But my sister?” Clarice ventured to say, boldly.
“Oh, the deuce take your sister. I can’t stand her. She looks upon me as though I were dirt. You’re always quoting your sister to me. I detest her myself, and if you marry me I’ll expect you to do the same. Why should she look down on me? I’m not born a lady, I know, and I am not such a fool as to make up a history, especially when you know all about me. But I’m an honest woman and a clever one. Would your sister have worked as I have done? Would she have made a name for herself, as I have made? Would she be able to earn money—and in a perfectly respectable way, mind you—to keep on this flat, and a motor-brougham? Pshaw! Talk to me of something else than about that mincing, useless sister of yours.”
Clarice felt annoyed at her character being thus traduced, as she knew that she was not useless, and neither did she mince. But she certainly admitted that she did not approve of Zara Dumps, notwithstanding the catalogue of qualifications for admiration that the dancer had set forth. Zara, slim and dainty, with her graceful figure and pretty face, looked so wonderfully fascinating, as she spoke, that had Clarice really been Ferdy, it is probable she would have taken this beauty into her arms. But Clarice happened to be herself, therefore she looked disdainfully at Zara’s airs and graces, and brought round the conversation to more important matters.
“You are cross to-night, Zara.”
“And you are a bear, holding me at arms’ length. I never saw you so cold before; one would think I’d lost my good looks”—she glanced into the mirror and laughed—“no, those are all right. Cross? I am cross. Mother has been bothering me in the brougham.”
Zara made a dart at Clarice, and clutched her arm. “You know?”
“I know that the man who played the part of the Chrysalis—if it may be called a part—is Alfred Osip, for whom the police are looking. Your mother recognised him, when he took his mask off.”
“I know,” muttered Zara, moodily, “and he recognised her. That is why he bolted in such a hurry. I expect he thought the police would arrest him on mother’s information before he could get away. I won’t see him again, I suppose.”
“Do you want to?”
“No, hang it, I don’t,” she snapped, and flung herself petulantly into a chair near the bamboo table, whereon the letters were lying. “It gives me the shivers to think that I have been acting with such a wicked devil.”
“Then you did not know—”
“Know?” echoed Zara, savagely and glaring, “know—of course I didn’t know. The man came to me a few weeks ago—after the murder now, I remember—and called himself Brown. I was in a hole, as the man who did the Chrysalis business had left in a hurry—drink, you know. I told you all about that.”
“Yes,” admitted Clarice, with an air of recollection, “but you didn’t say that Osip had taken on the part.”
“How the dickens could I when I didn’t know the man? He called himself Brown, and seemed quiet and right enough, though he wasn’t much of an acrobat. But he filled in the gap for the time being. I never intended to keep him long. I’ll have to get another man to-morrow.”
“Didn’t you recognise him from the police description?”
“No. Plenty of men are tall and thin, and Brown didn’t wear grey clothes when he came to me.”
“But the criss-cross scar on the left cheek—”
“He hadn’t got one. His face was disfigured on both cheeks—in fact, it was scarred all over, and he told me that a jealous woman had thrown vitrol at him. I guess he did it himself to obliterate that scar. Clever of him to come to me,” added Zara, musingly, “and to dare to appear before dozens of people—I mean hundreds. Of course, he knew that his safety lay in such boldness. The police would hunt the slums and the shipping ports and country, towns, and what not. But who would expect to find a man described in the papers and wanted for eight murders in a music-hall acrobat? I call Brown, or rather Osip, confoundedly clever,” and the dancer took another glass of wine; “here’s to his health.”
“And oh, Zara,” she mimicked. “You’re a soft one, Ferdy. I admire cleverness wherever I find it, even in a murderer. All the same, I don’t want to have anything to do with such a criminal. Ugh!” she shuddered, “I might have had the Purple Fern on my forehead also. Brown has been visiting me here on business, and I’ve been alone with him several times.”
“Alone with him?” said Clarice, pretending to jealousy. “Nice for me.” Zara stared, and then laughed, as she began to lazily open the letters. “Don’t pretend to be angry, Ferdy. You’re not fond enough of me for that.”
“Not fond, when I am engaged to marry you?”
“Pooh! That’s compulsory. You’d be off after that Prudence creature if I’d let you. But I won’t; you can make yourself easy on that score.” She ran her eyes over the letter she was reading. “I like you well enough, and you are easy to manage. In my business, to be entirely respectable, I must have a husband, so you’ll do as well as any one else. Also there is always the two thousand a year. I dare say I could get someone richer, but you’ll do—you’ll do.”
“I’ll do,” said Clarice, calmly, “thank you,” as Zara opened another letter. “What’s the matter?” for the dancer suddenly started.
Zara sent so swift and keen a glance in her direction that Clarice fancied that her disguise had been penetrated. But the fear was groundless, for Zara again laughed. “I’m amused at the side you are putting on,” she said, calmly, and replacing the letter in its envelope. “You asked me to let you go, and when I refused you cut up rough. Now you are trying to make me think that you love me.”
“You are certainly very pretty,” said Clarice, wondering what to say to this bold, frank creature, who concealed her feelings so little.
“You thought so once,” said Zara, rising and coming to the sofa. “I am pretty still, only you have no eyes to see. Look”—she twitched the large red silk shade from the lamp, and the blaze of white light shone brilliantly upon her beauty—“am I not prettier than that black-browed minx, Prudence Clarke?”
“Don’t say a word against Prudence.”
“I’ll say twenty if I choose,” said Zara, throwing herself on the sofa beside Clarice, and taking her hand. “Don’t get me into a rage, dear boy. You loved me once, and so deeply that you said my name was written on your heart. It certainly was tattooed on your right arm, just above the wrist”—she rapidly drew up Clarice’s shirt-cuff before the girl could stop her. “I see the name isn’t there now,” said Zara, jeeringly. “You have obliterated it from your arm, as you have driven it from your heart, my dear.”
Clarice was startled by this development. “You don’t understand,” she stammered.
“Oh, yes, I do—Miss Clarice Baird,” cried Zara, rising. “I understand that Ferdy is at Gattlinsands, and that you—are—here!”
In that little room, with its vivid colouring and heavy scented atmosphere, the two women faced each other, bent upon battle. At the outset, the advantage lay with Zara, seeing how she had penetrated the disguise of the devoted sister. For one moment the dancer eyed the pale and startled face of her visitor, and then crossed to a bronze tripod of classic shape and beauty, wherein smouldered a pastille. While lighting another one, she threw a careless glance over her shoulder.
“Well,” she said, quietly, “have you nothing to say?”
Clarice, now on her feet, looked at the gaudy comfort of the tiny room, at the Oriental draperies and ornaments, at the Persian praying mats, at herself in the glass, tall, slim, and boyish, in her masculine attire, and then her gaze came back to the graceful woman in the maize-hued tea-gown. Zara met her gaze with insolence, and a smile curved the red beauty of her full lips. “Have you nothing to say?” she repeated, and the question sounded like a challenge.
“A great deal,” retorted Clarice, nerving herself for the battle; “in spite of this dress I am a woman, and therefore can use my tongue.”
“You will have to use your brains also,” said Zara, with a shrug, “if you wish to conquer me.”
“How do you know that I wish to conquer you?”
“You would not be here else. I can guess why you have come; to save Ferdy from becoming what you no doubt call—my prey, Bah! As if Ferdy was worth it.”
“He must be worth something,” said Clarice, dryly, “or you would not wish to marry him.”
“Oh, I explained that,” retorted Zara, lightly, and dusting one hand with the other. “I explained, if you remember, when I still took you to be Ferdy himself. I am always frank with the boy, and he knows, as you do now, Miss Baird, that I only wish to marry him for—shall we say professional purposes? I like him—oh, yes. He is handsome and very charming, when he chooses. Also he is sure of a certain income, even though it is a small one, and not available for two years. I can manage Ferdy, and that is necessary when a woman wants her own way on all occasions, as I do. I might do worse than marry your brother, don’t you think so?”
“Certainly I do,” answered Clarice, now quite composed, and resuming her seat; “only you shall not marry Ferdy, and use him as a cat’s-paw for your respectability.”
“Be polite, if you please,” said the dancer, frowning; “I am polite to you, and desire the return compliment. My respectability is like that of Cæsar’s wife—above suspicion. You see,” with a gay laugh, “that in spite of my trifling education, I have some classical knowledge. Come, let us talk. You have much to say, and so have I. Will you have a cigarette? No. And in spite of smoking when you came into this room? Oh, I see. There is no need to keep up your manly pose. You look very well. Even handsomer than Ferdy, though I really was taken in, as my mother was. Dear me.” Zara lighted a cigarette, and lay back in a deep armchair, puffing smoke, with her hands clasped behind her head. “What will she say when she hears that Miss Clarice Baird has been masquerading here, as her brother.”
“She will say nothing,” answered Clarice, coolly, “for the very simple reason that she will never know.”
“Oh, yes. She will know from me, and all the inhabitants of Crumel will know from her. My mother is an excellent town crier.”
“You carry it off very well,” said Clarice, dryly; “but I am not quite so weak as Ferdy, remember.”
“I grant that. I respect you more than I do him. He would never have ventured upon such a bold step as you have taken. I should like to know exactly why you ventured.”
“You explained yourself a few minutes ago. I want to save Ferdy.”
“My dear, he isn’t worth it—he isn’t worth more than that”—and Zara flicked the grey ash off her cigarette. “Will you have some fizz? No! A cigarette, then? No! Really,” with a shrug, “you are not much of a man, my dear. I beg pardon for the familiarity; in that dress you look so like Ferdy that I make mistakes.”
“On purpose. You are a clever woman, Miss Dumps.”
“I am, but not that name, please. Twine is my name, and Ferdy will marry me as Sarah Twine. I prefer to be called Zara, or Butterfly, myself. The other name is so plebeian; but then, I am a very common person.”
“And a very clever one,” said Clarice again, glancing at the gimcrack French clock on the draped mantelpiece; “but we are losing time, and I have to get back to my hotel. How did you recognise me?”
“Ah!” Zara clapped her hands. “Was not that smart of me? You will say yes. But you are wrong. It was chance—the chance upon which you did not reckon. It was ingenious of you to send Ferdy to Gattlinsands to get him out of the way, but it did not occur to you that Ferdy might write.” She picked up an envelope from the table and threw it across to Clarice. “Here. It has just arrived.”
Clarice threw the letter back. “There is no need. I recognise Ferdy’s writing on the envelope. I don’t wish to know how he writes to you.”
“In a perfectly proper way, I assure you,” said Zara, coolly; “I don’t allow that child to be too familiar—it breeds contempt, you know. I have had too much of that sort of thing before I became famous, so I don’t want another dose.”
“So you knew that I was not Ferdy,” said Clarice, slowly.
“Not at first; not until, by chance, I opened that envelope. I started, as you saw, and then came across to look at your arm. As the name—my name, Zara—was not tattooed there, I guessed at once that you were not Ferdy, and that you could be none other than Miss Baird, the double of my dear sweet boy.”
“Spare me the adjectives,” said Clarice, coldly.
“I’m sparing you a great deal, I think,” said Zara, viciously; “by what right do you thrust yourself into my affairs?”
“By the right of a sister’s love.”
“Bah! I don’t believe that there is such a thing. Certainly, so far as Ferdy is concerned, there isn’t brotherly love on his part. He would sell you for a five-pound note.”
Clarice felt a pang, for she knew how truly the dancer spoke. “I agree with you there,” she replied, sadly.
“My dear, he isn’t worth it,” said Zara, in a softer tone. “Well?”
“Well?” Clarice looked up.
“Speak away,” said Zara, impatiently; “I’m all attention. What do you want to ask me?”
“Ah, now we are coming to business.”
“About time,” interpolated the other woman.
“Oh, I shall dispose of my business very shortly,” said Clarice, sharply; “You want to marry Ferdy. To gain your ends, you told Prudence Clarke a lie about her father.”
Zara was quite unmoved, and blew smoke through her delicate nostrils. “Prudence has told you, then?”
“Yes. You forced her to send away Ferdy, to save her father.”
“I did. I want Ferdy to myself, and I have no particular reason to desire the hanging of Mr. Clarke.”
“You couldn’t hang him if you tried,” retorted Clarice, angrily.
“Oh, yes, I could. Suppose—for the sake of argument—that I went to Inspector Tick, of Crumel, with my story of what I saw.”
“You saw nothing.”
Zara cast a surprised look at Clarice. “Well, I suppose it is to your interest to decline to believe. Nevertheless, what I told Prudence is true for all that.”
“Did you really see Mr. Clarke leave The Laurels at two in the morning?”
Zara threw away her cigarette, and rose quietly.
“I really did,” she said, in her most decisive tone. “My mother was ill, and I went out for sal volatile. It was a mere chance, of course, that I should be out on that night of all nights. On any other night—at any other time, even—I should have seen nothing. But the Cosmic Powers, for their own ends, and for my benefit, I presume, brought me abreast of The Laurels, when Mr. Clarke was skipping out of the window.”
Clarice was greatly startled. “Do you really believe that Mr. Clarke killed my guardian?”
Zara looked at her swiftly. “Oh, I am not prepared to say that; and I beg to remind you that I am not in the witness-box.”
“Which means that you cannot swear to the truth of your story.”
“Yes, I can; but I can’t swear that Mr. Clarke is the murderer. It certainly looks as though he were guilty, but—” Zara paused.
“But you credit Osip with the crime?”
“The jury did—the police do—the papers do—public opinion does. I can’t lay claim to be more clever than others.”
Clarice looked at her keenly. “Yes, you can, and you do. I believe your story of Mr. Clarke coming out of the room. But as to his guilt—”
“Pardon me. I say nothing about that,” interrupted Zara; “but if Prudence sent Ferdy away at my bidding, it shows that she believes her father to be guilty.”
Clarice was too clever to relate the other evidence upon which Prudence believed her father to be guilty. “You certainly coerced that poor girl into thinking that there was danger to her father, should the story of his midnight visit become known.”
“It never will,” replied Zara, carelessly. “Prudence has given up Ferdy, and I am going to marry Ferdy. There’s no more to be said.”
“There is this—that Ferdy shall not marry you.”
Zara rose and put her hands behind her back. “He shall.”
Clarice rose and faced her. “He shall not”; and for at least one minute the two women faced one another defiantly.
“What can you do?” inquired Zara, at length, and annoyed because she could not sustain the gaze of her visitor.
“I can go to the police, and say that you employed Osip.”
“Not knowing that he was Osip,” retorted the dancer, her breath coming quick and sharp. “If I had known, I should have handed him over to the authorities.”
“Indeed, and what would become of your accusation of Mr. Clarke?”
“I don’t accuse Mr. Clarke. He’s a bore—at least, he was when I attended his rotten old Sunday School—but I don’t say that he is a murderer. However, you can tell the police about Osip, and I’ll tell them about Clarke. Then we shall see.”
“Very good.” Clarice moved towards the door. “There’s no more to be said. Good-night.”
Zara stood for one moment with clenched hands and a frown on her pretty, babyish face, which could look so strong at times, and which deceived men into thinking her a mere toy-woman. She had not expected Clarice to take her at her word, and thus had lost a move in the game. In spite of her bravado, she had no desire that the Crumel police, or the London detectives, should know about Osip. It would be a good advertisement in one way, and yet, in another, it might do her harm with the managers. She had really been ignorant that the survivor of the famous Purple Fern Triumvirate was acting with her. But who would believe in her innocence, did the fact become public property? With a swift movement she placed herself between Clarice and the door.
“No. I take back what I said. You must not tell the police about Osip—it would do me harm.”
“Very good. I’ll hold my tongue, if you will be silent about my masquerade in this dress.”
“Ah, you are afraid,” sneered Zara.
“In a way, yes—for my promised husband, since he would not like any one to know of my adventure. For myself, I am not afraid, as I have done nothing wrong.”
“You are stronger than Ferdy,” said the dancer, suddenly.
“I should hope so,” replied Clarice, contemptuously; “Ferdy is a reed—a piece of putty. I wonder that a clever woman, such as you are, wants to marry so weak a man.”
“It is because he is weak that I wish him to become my husband,” said Zara, quickly. “I wish to marry, so as to have a protector in my public life, as I am sick of all these fops who come round me. But I do not wish to wed a fireside tyrant, and so—” she stretched out her arms in a French fashion and with a careless shrug. “I will hold my tongue,” she went on, “not even my mother will ever know that you are really Clarice Baird. As to Osip—what will you do?”
“I shall say nothing at present,” replied Clarice, after a moment’s thought, “but you must be aware that it will not do to allow such a man to live. He will only commit more murders.”
“I suppose so. What a devil the man is. Yet, you know, as Brown he really was rather nice. Ugh!” Zara shivered again. “I am not a silly fainting woman, but it turns me cold to think how often I have been in his company. He might have killed me.”
Clarice took a cigarette out of the silver box and lighted up. “I must be going now,” she said, quietly, “and so I have to keep up my pretence of being a man. But one last word. We understand one another.”
“Yes,” said Zara, promptly. “I keep silent about Clarke, and you about Osip. Of course, also, I marry Ferdy.”
“No,” said Clarice, determinedly. “I won’t leave this house until I have your promise to give up Ferdy.”
“To Prudence Clarke?” sneered the dancer. “She won’t have him.”
“Yes, she will. She loves Ferdy and Ferdy loves her.”
“If the weak affection of Ferdy can be called love,” said Zara, derisively. “But Prudence won’t marry him, so long as she believes that her father is guilty.”
“But he is not.”
“I don’t say that.”
“Then he is,” said Clarice, daring her.
“I don’t say that, either.”
“Then what do you say?”
“I say that we had better leave things as they are, and that you will please me by coming to my wedding with Ferdy.”
“You must give my brother up.”
“You’ve said that so often, Miss Baird. But saying it won’t make me change my mind. Besides, as I said before, Ferdy isn’t worth it. He’s an ass—and worse.”
“Worse? What do you mean?”
Zara looked into the other woman’s eyes. “Come to the door,” she said, taking Clarice by the arm. When in the hall, she helped the girl on with her fur coat, gave her the silk hat, and placed the silver-knobbed cane in her hand. Then she led her to the door of the flat. All this Clarice suffered in silence, wondering what was coming. “Good-night,” said Zara, when Clarice was on the mat.
“But what do you say about Ferdy?” asked Clarice, quickly.
“I see I must tell you all,” sighed the dancer. “No, I’ll let you find out for yourself.” She bent her head and whispered. “Search Ferdy’s bedroom at The Laurels.”
“But,” began Clarice, impatiently, only to find herself talking to the panels of the door. Zara had shut it abruptly, and left the disguised girl standing irresolutely on the mat. Clarice hesitated, and wondered if it would not be better to insist upon the door being opened again. But on second thoughts she went down the stairs, and drove back to her hotel. The long evening and the battle with Zara had worn out her strong nerves. Clarice passed a wakeful night. She wondered what Zara meant when she had told her to search Ferdy’s bedroom. It could not be possible that Ferdy had anything to do with the crime, as he had been locked in on that night. Also, if Zara knew that Ferdy was guilty, she certainly would not marry him. There seemed to be no answer to the questions suggested by Zara’s last remark. Clarice, therefore, tried to sleep, resolving to return to Crumel the next day and search the bedroom, as Zara had told her. She trembled to think what she might discover.
Next morning the false Mr. Ferdinand Baird ate his breakfast, paid his bill, and drove to Liverpool Street Station to catch the ten o’clock train. In the tweed suit Clarice looked wonderfully handsome and distinguished, and as she adopted a manly air, no one had any suspicion that the good-looking young man was really a beautiful woman. She managed to get a first-class to herself, and thus escaped any chance of recognition. But on the Crumel platform she was greeted as Mr. Baird, and acknowledged the greetings calmly. On reaching the house, she found the French window open, and no servants about. In a few minutes she was safe in her own bedroom, and was dressing herself again in her woman’s garb. Mrs. Rebson appeared.
“It’s all right, deary. No one thinks but what you’re ill. How did you get along?”
“Very well, Nanny. I’ll tell you all later. Don’t let any of the servants come upstairs for at least an hour.”
“What do you wish to do?”
“I’ll tell you later. Leave me alone for the present.”
“Just one word, Miss Clarice,” implored the nurse; “Master Ferdy. Is he quite safe now?”
“Yes,” said Clarice, lying to save pain to that faithful old heart; “I think Ferdy is safe, Nanny. Now go.”
Mrs. Rebson, quite satisfied, departed, and kept the servants downstairs, according to her instructions. Clarice went at once to Ferdy’s room, and began to search. For twenty minutes she was unsuccessful, as she came across nothing suspicious. It was a difficult search, as she did not know what to look for. But she judged that it might be a letter or a blood-stained shirt, or something likely to implicate her brother in the crime. Several times she stopped turning out drawers and examining the wardrobe to laugh at the folly which possessed her to believe in Zara’s lies. But some feeling that there might be truth in the dancer’s hint made her search on. And yet Clarice could not believe that Ferdy, whom she had locked in this very room, had anything to do with so awful a crime. Let alone the fact that Ferdy, although foolish, was not wicked.
But the end came at last, and she found what she sought—and what she sought was evidence implicating Ferdy. In a small drawer, wrapped up carefully in an old silk tie, the girl found a small india-rubber stamp. With a wildly beating heart, she dipped this in water to moisten it, and pressed hard on a scrap of shaving paper. She removed the stamp, and found on the paper a faint impression of the Purple Fern.
Mrs. Rebson, being a woman, and fond of gossip, had her fair share of curiosity. Also she was anxious to hear what Clarice had been doing in London, and to know exactly how she had saved Ferdy, although Mrs. Rebson had a very vague idea of what Ferdy was to be saved from. That her darling had anything to do with the crime never entered her foolish old head. However, her impatience would not permit her to stay downstairs longer than an hour, so she went back to the room of her young mistress as soon as she could.
Clarice was not within, and Mrs. Rebson was puzzled. She hunted through the other rooms on the same floor, and at length came to Ferdy’s apartment. Here she found the room in disorder, and Clarice lying on the carpet in a dead faint. Considerably alarmed, Mrs. Rebson got water and vinegar and sal volatile, and all such-like aids to insensible people. Shortly Clarice revived and sat up with a dazed look. But as soon as a memory of what she had found came back to her with a rush, she struggled to her feet, and crushed up the scrap of shaving-paper upon which she had impressed the fern. The stamp itself she had held closely in her left hand all the time she was insensible, so she did not think that her dim-eyed old nurse had seen anything. More than that, Mrs. Rebson ascribed to the London trip this unexampled behaviour on the part of the girl. Never before had strong-minded Clarice Baird lost her senses.
“Come and lie down, deary,” coaxed Mrs. Rebson, leading the girl back to her own room; “you’re fairly worn out with gadding about that nasty London. I’ll bring you up some tea.”
“Do, Nanny,” said Clarice, faintly, and when the nurse left the room, she lay passively upon her bed.
What she felt at the moment no one knew, and no one could ever know. The stamp of the Purple Fern was inseparably connected with the many murders, and that it should be in Ferdy’s bedroom, hidden away so carefully, seemed terrible and inexplicable. Ferdy could not have murdered his guardian, since he had been locked up in his room, and yet the stamp which had been used to impress the fatal mark on the forehead of the dead was in Ferdy’s possession. Of course, Osip, who was really the murderer, might have had another stamp. Certainly he must have had another stamp, and no doubt each member of the triumvirate possessed a similar article. Ferdy was guiltless, and Osip had done the deed. And yet, how came it that Ferdy had this particular stamp in his possession? Clarice could have shrieked with fear and horror, and had to roll over on her pillow to prevent herself from crying out. And then another agonised thought came into her tormented mind.
Zara had told her to search Ferdy’s room, therefore Zara must have known that the stamp was hidden away there. And if Zara knew, it was in her power to hang the poor boy. Poor boy—could even his own sister speak of him in that way, when he was connected with a callous, cruel crime? He had not stabbed Horran with the assegai, since he had been locked in his room, but he must have impressed the Purple Fern on the dead man’s forehead. Unless Osip—oh, yes, Osip must have done it, not Ferdy—not Ferdy—not Ferdy. And so the girl’s distracted brain buzzed and droned with the hideous repetition of one word, “Guilt! Guilt! Guilt!”
“I shall go mad,” moaned Clarice. “What am I to do? I dare not tell Anthony. I dare not marry him. What is to be done—oh, great heavens, what is to be done?” Then it came into her mind that Zara had stated how Clarke had paid his midnight visit to the death-chamber, and at two o’clock. That was the time—according to the medical evidence—when the deed had been committed. Between one and two o’clock in the morning, Dr. Jerce had said at the inquest. And Clarke was there. If he was innocent himself, he might know who was guilty. He could not have seen Ferdy, who was bolted and barred in his bedroom; but he might have seen Osip kill Horran and impress that infernal seal of evil on the dead. Yes! She would see Clarke—she must see Clarke. There was no need for her to say what she had discovered. She would merely let Clarke speak. She would tax him with his visit, and to exonerate himself—if he was guiltless—he would certainly detail all that happened. If he mentioned Ferdy’s name—but then he would not do that—he could not—he dare not. Ferdy could prove an alibi. His sister could prove an alibi for him. Whomsoever killed Horran, her brother was, at least, innocent. And yet the stamp—the stamp of the Purple Fern. How could she explain that away?
“My! Miss Clarice, you do look bad,” said Mrs. Rebson, entering with a dainty meal of tea and toast. “That nasty London. Here, drink the tea. You’ll feel better soon, deary. And after all, you have saved Master Ferdy, haven’t you, my deary little maid?”
Clarice winced and lied bravely. “Yes,” she said, faintly; “I have saved Ferdy. You need have no fear, Nanny. Leave me for ten minutes.”
Rather reluctantly the old woman departed, and Clarice forced herself to drink a cup of tea and to eat a morsel of toast. She would have to be strong, if Ferdy was to be saved. Zara knew the truth about the boy, and might tell the police. There was no one to save Ferdy, poor, weak, foolish creature, but his sister, and his sister would save him in the face of all obstacles. Clarice, therefore, fought with herself; she struggled desperately with her woman’s weakness; she braced herself with prayer, and finally triumphed over the flesh by the strength of her spirit. When Mrs. Rebson stole back to the bedroom, she was amazed to see how rapidly her young mistress had recovered her presence of mind. She had left a pale-faced, tearful girl; she found a calm, self-contained woman.
“It’s wonderful what tea and toast will do,” Mrs. Rebson, with great complacency.
“Nanny,” observed Clarice, who had now determined what to do; “send to Mr. Clarke, and tell him to see me this afternoon.”
“You are not well enough, deary.”
“I am. I must see him.”
“But your hair, deary.”
“What’s the matter with—oh, yes.” Clarice mechanically put her hand to her head. “It is rather awkward. But it is not too closely cropped, Nanny. Get out the hair I cut off, and we’ll weave it into what I have left on my scalp.”
Mrs. Rebson laughed at what she conceived was a joke, and between them they contrived, very skilfully, to fasten on the shorn tresses. As Ferdy usually wore his hair in a musician-like way, Clarice had imitated the cut, so it was not difficult to replace the severed locks in the style in which she generally wore them. Also, since she wished to still play the part of invalid, she made Mrs. Rebson draw down the blinds and light the fire. Then, swathed in blankets and shawls, Clarice sat ready for the visit of the parson. She had failed to deceive Sir Daniel Jerce, but Mr. Clarke, being less clever and observant, and not a doctor, she felt certain that she would manage to trick him. Having thus arranged her stage, the anxious girl waited for the vicar.
Mr. Clarke appeared almost on the heels of the messenger, and looked more wild and wan than ever. With a weary air he shook hands with Miss Baird, and expressed his regret that she was suffering from influenza. Then he sat down opposite to her and stared into the fire with lack-lustre eyes. Clarice had to break the ice. “Mr. Clarke,” she said, hesitating, for it was not easy to begin; “I wish to speak to you about a very important matter—”
“I am quite at your service, Clarice.”
“And one which touches your reputation,” said the girl.
Mr. Clarke started and became paler than ever, as he cast a keen, wild look at the speaker. “I—I—I—don’t understand,” he stuttered.
“Carry your thoughts back to the night when Uncle Henry was murdered,” said Clarice, significantly, “and you will understand.”
The vicar considered for a few moments, and then shook his head. “No, I don’t know what you mean. I thought—I thought,” he moistened his dry lips, “I thought that you were going to speak of Frank. And I won’t have his name mentioned,” he ended, violently.
“I did not intend to speak of Frank,” said Clarice, wondering why the memory of his dead son should so agitate him; “but of your visit to Uncle Henry’s room on that night.”
“My visit,” stammered the old man.
“Your midnight visit.”
“Who said that I—”
“Oh, there is no need for me to give names,” interrupted Clarice, in sharp tones, “but someone saw you leaving the bedroom at two in the morning. What were you doing there at that time?”
“Oh, yes, I remember.” Mr. Clarke spoke in a dreamy way. “I should have spoken to the police about that. But Frank’s wickedness put it quite out of my head. And then, of course, it looked awkward for me.”
Clarice was almost too astonished to speak. That he should take the revelation so calmly perplexed her greatly. “How do you mean, that it looked awkward for you?” she asked, after an embarrassing pause.
“Going to see poor Horran at that hour,” said Mr. Clarke, innocently; “and then seeing his dead body.”
Clarice rose unsteadily. Was the man mad to admit what he had seen? She could not make any remark, but stared at him, tongue-tied. The vicar still continued dreamy and absent-minded. “And then I owed poor Horran one thousand pounds with interest,” he went on, slowly; “some people might have said that I had murdered him.”
“Then you—you—you are—innocent,” gasped Miss Baird.
Clarke looked up sharply, struck by the speech and the significance of her tones. “Innocent,” he said, in a clear and vigorous voice, “I am innocent, of course. You never thought that I was guilty?”
“Well, the person who saw you—”
“Who was it?” asked Clarke, quickly.
“I decline to mention names.”
“No matter! no matter! But I am surprised that you should believe me guilty of a wicked deed, Clarice. You have known me for years, yet it now seems that you do not know me at all.”
“If you will explain—”
“Yes. I’ll explain at once. I should have explained before—and to the police. But Frank’s wickedness—Frank’s death—oh!” he clasped his hands together in an agony of sorrow; “was ever a man tried so hardly as I have been? Hush! Say nothing. Sit down. Let me collect my thoughts, and I’ll tell you everything—that is, about my visit to poor Horran on that night. Nothing else need be talked about; my own affairs are—my own affairs.”
Unable to remain seated, he rose, and walked up and down the room trying to compose himself. Clarice, wondering what he was about to say, resumed her seat and watched him in silence. After a time, Mr. Clarke recovered his self-control, and, still walking, he told her all that she wanted to know.
“I saw Horran one afternoon,” he explained. “You remember what I said at the inquest. I noticed that the bedroom window was open, so I slipped in, anxious to gain time from Horran to pay the interest. I did not wish to be sold up, you know, so I told him everything, and he was very angry.”
“With you?” questioned Clarice.
“Not with me; certainly not with me. Barras was in fault. He had told Barras to lend me the thousand pounds for as long as I required them. There was no question of interest, and when I mentioned the ten per cent., Horran declared that he knew nothing about that, and should have been told before, that such an interest had been charged. He had never intended that I should be hampered in that way. The loan was to be from a friend to a friend. It is strange,” mused Clarke, “that in three years and more, Barras should never have mentioned to Horran that he had charged interest.”
“He evidently charged the interest secretly,” said Clarice, after a thoughtful pause, “and, naturally, would say nothing about it. And then you saw Uncle Henry frequently during those three years. Why did you not mention it yourself?”
“Horran never, during our earlier interviews, touched on the subject of the loan, and the matter was never discussed. It was only of late, when I found that I could not pay the interest, that I wished to speak of my difficulties, and then Jerce would not allow me to see my old friend.”
“He was quite right,” said Clarice, reproachfully, “seeing how ill Uncle Henry was, and you did upset him, you know.”
“Barras upset him,” expostulated the vicar. “He was angry with Barras, not with me, and declared that I should have spoken before. He also said that Jerce had no right to prevent my seeing him, and that there was no need for me to go to the front door. When I wished to see him, he said, I could enter by the French window, which was generally open.”
“Yes, it was,” said Miss Baird, thinking of the difference of opinion which existed between the two doctors; “but why did you choose so late an hour to enter by that way?”
Clarke hesitated and looked down. “I was much disturbed on the night of the crime. I had received bad news. Unable to sleep, I walked in my garden.”
“On that bitterly cold night?”
“Oh, the thaw had come by that time, you know. I left my garden and walked about the town. I had no idea of going to see Horran, for at that time I knew that he would be asleep. However, I walked back to the vicarage up the lane, and saw a light in the bedroom and the window open.”
“You are certain that it was open?” asked Clarice.
“I entered by it, as I thought I would see if Horran was asleep or awake, and then—”
“Well. Was he asleep or awake?”
“He was dead,” said the vicar, with great emotion. “He was lying in bed with the clothes in disorder, and his breast streaming with blood.”
“With the clothes in disorder,” echoed Clarice, raising herself. “Why, when I saw poor Uncle Henry’s corpse, the clothes were carefully arranged and smoothed.”
“I did that,” said Mr. Clarke, in a broken voice. “I saw that he was dead, so I arranged the clothes and hastily went away, without touching anything in the room.”
“Why did you not give the alarm?”
“Why!” cried Clarke, astonished; “when I might have been accused of committing the crime? Am I a fool, Clarice? My mere presence at such an hour would have accused me. No! I returned home, and said nothing about what I had seen. It was a few minutes past two o’clock when I regained my bed.”
“And,” Clarice asked the question in a low, anxious voice, “did you see anyone within or without the house?”
“No. I saw no one and heard nothing. Who was it saw me?”
“Zara Dumps, who had gone out late at night to procure medicine for her mother.”
“And why did she not accuse me?”
“She did, to Prudence, and so made Prudence give up Ferdy, whom Zara wishes to marry.”
“Then Zara made a false accusation, and I wonder that my daughter believed her.”
“She did not at first,” explained Clarice, “but Prudence found blood on the cuffs of a shirt you had worn.”
“Very likely. When I was arranging the bedclothes of my murdered friend, the blood could easily have got on to the cuffs. So this was why Prudence gave up your brother; and I thought she did so because I wished it.”
“Why did you wish it, Mr. Clarke? You were pleased, once.”
“Yes,” said the vicar, sadly, “for then I did not know what I know now.”
“Never mention his name—never speak of him. I am not master of myself when I think—I think—” Mr. Clarke clutched his scanty locks with both hands and rushed suddenly from the room. Clarice did not wish to call him back, since she knew all that she wished to know. Clarke was innocent, and he had not set eyes upon her brother. So far Ferdy was safe. But who could have written that anonymous letter? Until the author of that was discovered, Clarice knew that she would have no peace of mind, as always she would be apprehensive lest Ferdy should be arrested.
All that afternoon Clarice puzzled over what was best to be done, and remained in her room with an aching head. Her feigned illness was rapidly turning to a real one, so sick did she feel with worry and anxiety. Then she received a surprise. Anthony’s card was brought up, and Mrs. Rebson said that he was waiting for her in the drawing-room.
“Why is he here?” Clarice asked herself; then, hastily arranging her attire, she went down, filled with nervous fears.
“Clarice,” said Anthony, abruptly, and coming forward with outstretched hands. “I have made a discovery—I must tell you at once what I have found out in Whitechapel.”
“Have you been there? What about Ferdy?”
“I left him in charge of another fellow. He’s still at Gattlinsands. Wait, I’ll explain later. But my news. The consumptive chap attended by Jerce—one of the Purple Fern murderers, was—who do you think?—none other than Frank Clarke, the vicar’s son.”
The announcement of Ackworth was so terrible, and so unexpected, that Clarice could scarcely believe her ears. She knew that Frank Clarke was a rascal and extravagant, that he was selfish and dishonourable, but it never entered her head that he would turn out to be a cold-blooded murderer. No wonder the vicar, who had forgiven much to his prodigal son, had stopped short of finally pardoning such an unmitigated scoundrel.
“He must have known what Frank was,” said: Clarice, involuntarily.
“Who must have known?” asked Anthony, quickly.
“Mr. Clarke. He was here a short time ago, and would not let me mention his son’s name. He must know. Yes,” Clarice struck her hands together, “this was why he refused to let Prudence marry Ferdy.”
“I thought that it was Prudence herself who refused to marry Ferdy.”
“Yes, but for another reason. I told you that reason—the accusation of Mr. Clarke by Zara Dumps.”
“I remember.” Anthony ruffled his hair in sore perplexity. “What have you done about that?”
“I have seen Zara.”
“You have seen that girl? When? Where?”
“Last night—in London. At the Mascot Music Hall, and at her own rooms. You look surprised.”
“I am. You should not have gone to her rooms, let alone the Mascot Music Hall.”
“I know that—but to save Ferdy I did so. It was just as well that I went, for several reasons. Oh, I have much to tell you”—Clarice drew her lover to the sofa with gentle force—“and perhaps you will be angry with me.”
“I said that I would trust you,” remarked Ackworth, slowly.
“Your trust has not been misplaced. But I have done what you may think rather a bold thing. Still, in this case, what I have learned is so important, that I can safely say that the end has justified the means.”
“What have you done?” Anthony looked apprehensive.
She tapped his cheek. “Nothing to make you colour up in that way, my dear boy. I’ll tell you everything when you have explained how you came to find out about Frank Clarke.”
“Oh, that will not take long. I asked Ferdy down yesterday, as you desired me to do, and he came without any suspicions that you wanted him out of the way. We had a very jolly evening. At least, Ferdy had, for I was worrying about you, and wondering what you were doing. Also, I must admit that I had the detective fever.”
“What is that?” asked Miss Baird, opening her eyes.
“Well, the errand you wanted me to execute raised my curiosity to fever heat. I felt that I could not rest until I had learned the name of Jerce’s consumptive patient, especially when I remembered that he was one of the Purple Fern triumvirate. Next morning, I had no duties to attend to, so I handed Ferdy over to an Irish chap, who would amuse him and keep an eye on him, and then bunked off to London by the ten o’clock train.”
“You did not come up to see what I was doing?” asked Clarice, in a suspicious manner.
“No. I did not even know that you were in London,” replied Anthony, rather wounded by her doubts, “and in any case, as I intended to trust you, I should not have spied upon you.”
“I ask your pardon, dear,” and she kissed him.
Ackworth accepted the delightful apology, and continued. “I went down to Whitechapel, and had a deuce of a hunt to find Tea Street. But I came across a kind of Sister of Mercy, who knew all about Jerce and his philanthropic missions. Jerce has a surgery in Tea Street, and goes there twice a week, usually at night. Sister Anne—so she told me she was called, and it reminded me of Bluebeard—showed me where the consumptive young man had lived. The police had been there, after Jerce had communicated that letter to Scotland Yard.”
“The one given by the dying man to Jerce, warning him that he might be attacked by Osip. If you remember, the sick chap confessed that he was one of the members of the triumvirate. According to Sister Anne, this young man was called Felix Exton, but the police found stray letters in his rooms which showed that he was really Frank Clarke, the son of the vicar.”
Clarice nodded. “And I expect the police came down and told Mr. Clarke about the discovery. Poor man, no wonder he suffers so terribly, and will not allow his son’s name to be mentioned. That miserable Frank—and yet I remember him a handsome, bright young man.”
“He was a bad lot,” said Ackworth, emphatically. “I scarcely blame a man for striking a blow in hot blood, but to murder in such cold-blooded ways as those adopted by the Purple Fern gang is too terrible to think of. And now that we know Frank Clarke was an assassin, it would seem as if the instinct to murder was hereditary.”
“No,” said Clarice, quickly. “You must not think so badly of the vicar, Anthony. He is innocent.” And she related to her lover all that Mr. Clarke had explained to her.
“Humph!” said Ackworth, when she ended, “that’s a very plausible tale, but we have only the vicar’s word for its truth. And it is to his interest to exonerate himself. His son was connected with Osip, so Clarke himself, through Frank, may be connected also with that blackguard. I wish he could be found—Osip, I mean. I wonder with such a personality he has not been spotted.”
“I saw him,” said Clarice, unexpectedly.
“You?” Anthony rose, with a startled gesture.
“Yes,” she said, faintly, “at the Mascot Music Hall.”
The young man looked at her anxiously. “Clarice,” he said, taking her cold hand, “you look pale. Mrs. Rebson said something about your having influenza; yet you were all right when I saw you last.”
Clarice nodded. “I might say that I caught cold, as you were afraid I should do, when we were in the porch. But I can’t say that, because it is not true. I am quite well.”
“You don’t look it.”
“I have not the influenza, I mean,” she corrected; “I pretended to be ill, so that I might carry out my scheme.”
“The one I had in my mind, when I asked you to trust me. Anthony, I want you to tell me. Do you trust me still?”
“Of course I do.” He laid his hand caressingly on her head, “don’t be afraid that I’ll blame you in any—why, Clarice!”
He might well utter her name in an astonished tone, for the hair, so lightly pinned on her head, came off, and the plaits remained in his hand. There she sat, with her head cropped like a man’s, and a pale smile on her face. “I intended to tell you,” said she, quietly, “but it is just as well that you have found out in this way.”
“Found out what? Why have you cut off your beautiful hair?”
“Don’t you think that I look rather like Ferdy?”
“Very. But I don’t want you to look like Ferdy. I prefer you as you are, my dear.”
“My dear,” she echoed, “does that mean forgiveness?”
“For what?” Anthony looked more puzzled than ever.
“For my masquerade. I cut off my hair. I dressed in a suit of Ferdy’s clothes. I went to London as Ferdy, and stopped at his favourite hotel. Also I went to the Mascot Music Hall as Ferdy, and to Zara Dumps’ flat as Ferdy, and learned a great deal.”
Anthony stared at her open-mouthed. “Do you mean to say that you dressed as a man?” he asked, aghast.
“Yes. It was necessary to learn Ferdy’s secrets, so I utilised my resemblance to him to find out what I wanted. No one discovered that I was Clarice Baird, save Zara.”
“Oh, Lord!” Anthony clutched his head. “She will tell everyone.”
“No, I have made that right. I know too much about Zara for her to betray me. I am quite safe. Only Zara knows, and Mrs. Rebson knows, and now you know. I am absolutely safe.”
“But what made you do such a mad thing?”
“I have told you—to save Ferdy.”
“But I could have gone up, and—”
“No,” interrupted Clarice, imperiously. “Zara would have laughed at you. I did what I did, with a full knowledge of what I was doing. You must forgive me, Anthony, and I think you will, when you learn what terrible things I have discovered.”
“Of course, I am somewhat annoyed,” said Ackworth, slowly, “at least, I would be, were you an ordinary woman. But you are so clever, and so well able to look after yourself, that I forgive you this time. But I must ask you not to masquerade again as Ferdy.”
“I promise that,” she said, with a sigh. “Ferdy is in such danger that you must help me.”
“Ferdy in danger? What sort of danger?”
“Let me begin at the beginning, and go on to the end. Don’t interrupt, Anthony.” And then she related her adventures. Ackworth held his peace until she detailed her recognition of Osip, when he jumped with a muttered oath.
“Why did you not have him arrested?” he cried; “everything would then have been discovered.”
“Yes—even to the fact that Ferdy is implicated in these terrible crimes,” said Clarice, sarcastically.
Ackworth jumped again. Her revelations were getting on his nerves. “What do you mean?” he asked, irritably.
“Let me go on from where I saw Osip,” said Clarice, and continued her recital up to the point when she fainted in Ferdy’s bedroom with the stamp in her hand. “Now, what do you say?” she asked, breathlessly.
“I don’t know what to say,” muttered Ackworth, much agitated. “It looks as though Ferdy knew something. Yet if he was locked in his room, he could not have murdered Horran.”
“Oh, I don’t for one moment believe that he did. But, having the stamp, he might have impressed the Purple Fern on—”
“Nonsense,” interrupted the soldier, violently.
“He was drunk and incapable—he was locked in.”
Clarice looked down. “Anthony,” she said, in a pained voice, “I have tried to fight against my doubts of Ferdy, but they will come. He is so weak, so tricky, so deceitful, and so carried away by his own selfish impulses, that he is capable of all things.”
“Save murder. Ferdy is a fool, I grant you. But a murderer—no.”
“I never accused him of murder,” said the girl, faintly, “but he may be an accomplice.”
“That’s just as bad.”
“Not when we know that Ferdy is so weak a man. Osip is strong-willed and may have coerced Ferdy into stamping Uncle Henry’s forehead, after the death.”
“Of which Osip is guilty?”
“Yes, I firmly believe, from the warning sent, that Osip is guilty.”
“Then you mean to say that Osip went upstairs after killing Horran, released Ferdy, and brought him down to—”
“No! no! Osip would not know where Ferdy’s room was, and he would not know that he was drunk and locked up. But Ferdy himself might have feigned drunkenness so as to induce me to lock him up.”
“Had you ever done so before?”
“Oh, yes. I punished Ferdy in that way. Besides, I was afraid that, in his drunken mood, he might wander about the house, and perhaps set the place on fire. Ferdy always resented my locking him up. But in this instance, if he was likely to be implicated in a crime, and forced to be an accomplice by the stronger will of Osip, the locked door would provide a convenient alibi. Ferdy might have pretended drunkenness, and then have released himself with another key, and have—done what I said.”
Anthony did not immediately reply. He stood before Clarice, biting his nails and thinking. “When I went up to town this morning,” he said, slowly, “Ferdy asked me to get him any letters that might be waiting for him at Sir Daniel Jerce’s place in Harley Street.”
“Yes. Ferdy lives with him. Well?”
“Jerce was away, and had been for some time. Down in Whitechapel, I think the servant said. It was just as well.”
“Why?” asked Clarice, rising, as Ackworth took three letters from his pocket.
“Because he might have seen this especial letter addressed to Ferdy—this letter stamped with the Purple Fern.”
Clarice took the square envelope he held out. It was addressed to her brother at Jerce’s house, and on the flap of the envelope, in purple wax, was stamped a small fern. Few people, unless they looked very closely, would have noticed the fern, and certainly nine people out of ten would not have connected the stamp with the crimes, unless the murders were in their minds. Apparently, the tenth and more observant person was Anthony. “I intend to take that letter to Ferdy, and make him open it in my presence,” said Ackworth, “and—oh, Clarice, what are you doing?”
“I am opening the letter,” said the girl, calmly. “I take all responsibility for doing so, and will tell Ferdy.”
“Still, it is not quite right to open—”
“Not quite right!” repeated Clarice, fiercely, “do you think I care for that when Ferdy’s neck may be at stake. I do this”—she opened the letter—“in a most deliberate way, and well knowing what I am doing. Now I shall read it.”
Anthony could not but admit that Clarice was right, and secretly thought that it would be better for her to read the letter than for the police to scan its contents. She read quietly enough, and then passed it to her lover. “There’s a masked ball at the Shah’s Rooms to-night,” she said, irrelevantly.
“Is there?” said Anthony, puzzled, “but why—”
“Read the letter.” Ackworth did so. It contained only a few lines, saying that the writer wanted to meet Mr. Ferdinand Baird at the Shah’s Rooms on that evening on particular business. “After last night,” wrote the anonymous correspondent, for there was no name appended to the note, “you can scarcely wonder that I insist upon a meeting, and you can guess who I am. Wear a red domino with a white favour, and I will wear a purple domino with golden stars. Meet me at ten o’clock under the Omar Khayyám Palm in The Desert.”
Anthony read this twice. “I wonder who wrote it?” he said.
“Osip,” replied Clarice, promptly; “and what’s more—excuse me.” She hastily left the room, much to the amazement of Anthony. But he had plenty to think about until she returned, which she did almost immediately, with an open letter in her hand. “This is the anonymous note sent to you,” said Clarice, handing it to him, and looking over his shoulder. “See, the writings are distinctly similar. It was Osip who tried to stop our marriage by threatening Ferdy, and now Osip, thinking that Ferdy saw him at the Mascot Music Hall last night, wants to arrange a meeting.”
“And why?” asked Ackworth, recognising that the handwritings were indeed similar.
“I can’t tell you that, until I see Osip.”
“Clarice! How can you see Osip this evening? It is now five.”
“I can catch the seven train up, and I can see him as I saw him last night. He won’t tell Clarice Baird anything, but he may tell Ferdy Baird a lot.”
“Do you want to disguise yourself again?” said Ackworth, looking angry.
“I must—I must,” she said, eagerly, “if I am to save my brother.”
“But to go to those rooms—they aren’t respectable.”
“Oh, what does that matter?” said Clarice, impatiently. “I go as a young man—no one will recognise me. And Ferdy stops to-night at Gattlinsands.”
“But you promised—”
“You must release me from my promise,” she declared, obstinately.
Ackworth bit his lip. “I don’t like it,” he said, decidedly.
“Then you are not the man I took you for,” retorted the girl. “I should have thought you were above all this conventional rubbish, Anthony. I am to be your wife, and you must trust me in every way.”
“I do. I am sure that I have proved my trust in you.”
“Ah, you did not know what I was about to do,” said Clarice, rather unjustly. “And now that you do know, you refuse to trust me.”
“No, I don’t, only I don’t wish you to go alone to the Shah’s Rooms.”
“I’ll be quite safe. No one will know me.”
“This Osip is a murderer,” said Ackworth, “and he may kill you,—”
“Why should he kill me?” she interpolated.
“Thinking you are Ferdy Baird who recognised him at the Mascot Music Hall. I dare say that he believes that you have told the police, and now seeks revenge.”
“I’ll risk that.”
“Clarice, you are a brave girl. But I won’t let you go alone. I’ll come up with you to-night.”
“But Ferdy. He must be kept away.”
“Flanigan will attend to him. I’ll cut over to Gattlinsands, and arrange that. There I can catch the train which will meet, at the Junction, the seven o’clock you come by. We’ll go together.”
“But you won’t tell the police about Osip?”
“Not until you learn—as Ferdy—the exact relations between that silly brother of yours and this blackguard.”
The Shah’s Rooms were the latest sensation of frivolous London, and had lasted for six months with undiminished success. The building contained a number of rooms, and entertainments to suit all classes. There was a variety theatre with three performances daily, bars without number, billiard tables, lawn-tennis courts, a sawdust football ground, a motor and bicycle track, and a large hall for wrestling and boxing. But the glory of the Shah’s Rooms was The Desert, as the conception was original and excellently carried out by clever workmen and designers.
This was a vast expanse of real sand, covering several acres, and bounded on all sides by painted scenery of tropical sky and arid rocks, and occasional cities, and one or two pyramids. Here and there was an oasis of palms with real grass and real trees and real water, and with spotlessly white supper tents erected for the accommodation of gay parties. Caravans of camels and horses and donkeys took bands of pleasure-seekers from oasis to oasis, or into the desert itself, to dine at one of the Bedouin encampments. For entertainment, there were mirages, skilfully managed with magic-lanterns, and forays of wild Arabs. Story-tellers relating the “Arabian Nights” could be hired, singers could be obtained, dancing girls could be engaged, and eastern fortune-tellers were frequently employed to read the future by means of sand diagrams. It was all very new and very amusing, and very fantastical, so it was little wonder that the Shah’s Rooms were crowded nightly. They would be deserted when the novelty wore off, but just now fashionable London was delighted with a sham life in a sham East.
Anthony and Clarice arrived about nine o’clock, and went at once to the great dancing saloon, where a masked ball was in progress. Clarice had again assumed Ferdy’s evening dress, and Ackworth was astonished to see how closely she resembled her brother, when tricked out in masculine attire. As Anthony knew much more of the ways and means of midnight London than was good for him, he had taken Clarice to a costumier’s shop in Drury Lane, and there they had procured the necessary dominos for their adventure. That of Ackworth was merely one of black silk, plain and unpretentious, but Clarice wore a red cloak with a bunch of loose white ribbons on the breast, so that Osip might recognise her. Gazing at the dancers and dresses, the two looked vainly for the purple domino with gold stars, but such a costume was nowhere to be seen. Then Clarice reminded her companion that the meeting was to take place in the Desert, so hither they bent their steps, and, pending the arrival of Osip, they partook of a hasty supper. Both were hungry, for the hurry of getting up from the country had left them no time to eat.
“What am I to do when Osip comes for you?” asked Anthony.
“Remain here,” answered Clarice, looking round. “I won’t go out of sight, I promise you.”
“If you do, I shall follow,” said Ackworth, resolutely. “I am not going to let you remain alone with a known murderer. And I have brought this!”
Clarice looked sideways, and saw that he was holding a heavy army revolver under the folds of his domino. “You won’t require to use it,” she said, hastily. “If Osip means anything by asking for this meeting with Ferdy, it is, that he wishes to escape. He will, therefore, not try to hurt me in any way.”
“You can’t trust such a scoundrel,” said Ackworth, quietly, “and if you go out of sight I follow—remember that.”
They were seated under a tent on the extreme verge of the Desert, and between them was a small Turkish table, upon which stood a tray heaped with Eastern food. When the coffee came it was close upon ten o’clock, and Anthony lighted a cigarette; also he offered one to Clarice, who took it, smiling.
“I thought you did not like me to smoke?” she said.
“Nor do I. But you must keep up your character of Ferdy, and he is rarely without a cigarette in his mouth. Look at the mirage.”
It was extremely pretty, for on the far horizon, out of the air seemingly, grew a delicate ethereal vision of spires and temples and embattled walls, all white and glorious against a blue sky, quivering with heat. But Clarice was too restless to be tempted with such pleasures, and walked out of the tent, while Ackworth settled with the Arab attendant. Here and there she looked in vain for the purple domino, but could see no sign. The Desert was filling rapidly, and there was much laughter and much talking. Camels paced about in a stately manner, the troupes of Bedouins were performing their raids and displaying wonderful horsemanship, and from the near tents came the chatter of merry people, enjoying the unaccustomed food. Shortly Anthony, adjusting his mask, joined her, and they stood watching for the coming of the man who was so ardently wanted by the police. In a few minutes Ackworth touched Clarice’s arm, and drew her attention silently to a couple of men in evening dress, and unmasked, who were walking towards an oasis some distance away. Clarice nearly betrayed herself by a feminine scream of surprise, when she beheld Sir Daniel Jerce arm in arm with Barras, the lawyer.
“What does that mean?” she asked, in a low, astonished voice.
Anthony shrugged his square shoulders. “There’s nothing remarkable about that,” he said, lightly. “Jerce, I suppose, feels the need of a little excitement after his hard work, so comes here.”
“It’s not the kind of place I should expect him to visit,” said Miss Baird, staring after the retreating figures; “and with Mr. Barras, too, who is the driest and most uninteresting of men. I should not have thought that he would go in for amusement of any kind.”
“Humph! Barras, like Jerce, may have two sides to his character.”
“The sides we don’t know of, scarcely seem to be respectable,” retorted the girl, who felt uneasy at the sight of the two men. “I wish you would follow them, Anthony,” she added, as Jerce and his companion entered the central oasis, “and learn why they are here.”
“I don’t see what good that would do, my dear. Besides, I wish to keep an eye on you and Osip.”
“Hush! Don’t mention his name. There may be spies about. I wonder when he will come?”
Anthony glanced at his watch. “It wants two minutes to ten,” he remarked, quickly. “We had better go to the Omar Khayyám palm.”
“I go alone,” said Clarice, hastily. “If he”—she did not mention the name—“sees me with you, he won’t address me. Where is the palm you speak of?”
“In the central oasis,” said Ackworth, pointing; “see—the golden palm on the verge. But don’t disappear into the oasis, Clarice, or I’ll come after you. Get that chap to converse where I can see you from this tent. I’ll smoke and have a drink, and keep an eye on you both.”
Clarice nodded, and, leaving Anthony to re-seat himself at the Turkish table, she walked slowly towards the golden palm, which was some distance away. It was an artificial tree of gigantic height, and nearly touched the glass roof which shut in the fairy Desert. Under it she saw already waiting a man clothed in a purple domino glittering with gold stars. He stood smoking a cigar, and gazed at the mirage, now enveloped in rosy colours.
“I am here,” said Clarice, touching him on the arm.
The man wheeled quickly, and looked searchingly at her. “A red domino with a white favour,” he said, softly. “Will you please remove your mask, Mr. Baird?”
Anticipating this, the girl had already loosened the strings, and the next moment Osip—if it was Osip—found himself staring into the face of the individual he took to be Ferdy. As he gave a nod of satisfaction, Clarice spoke to him in her turn. “Will you now remove your mask?” she asked, replacing her own.
The man glanced round, and seeing that no one was sufficiently near to examine him closely, he slipped off his mask. Clarice beheld a thin face woefully scarred, especially on the cheeks. The criss-cross mark had been entirely obliterated, and no one, at a casual glance, would have recognised Osip as he had been. It did great credit to Mrs. Dumps’ powers of observation that she had so rapidly guessed—and on the stage, too—that the acrobat who played the chrysalis was the assassin so anxiously sought for.
“Are you satisfied?” asked Osip, replacing his mask.
“I suppose you are the man,” said Clarice, trying to appear calm, but shivering a little as she thought of what her companion had done, “only I don’t know you by sight, remember.”
“Didn’t Mrs. Dumps tell you last night?”
“Yes. But how she recognised you without the criss-cross mark I cannot say,” replied Clarice, quietly.
“Oh, trust a woman to jump to conclusions,” said Osip, coolly. “It might have been my lean figure, or the shape of my head, or my general air, that she knew me by. But I certainly congratulate Mrs. Dumps on her cleverness. But you are wrong in saying that you do not know me by sight. You saw me in the High Street of Crumel.”
Clarice suddenly recollected that Ferdy had noticed the man in grey, and had told Jerce about him. “It was only a passing glance,” she protested. “I should never have remembered you.”
“Ah, you are not a woman,” said Osip, thoroughly imposed upon by her disguise and manly bearing. “But we cannot speak here; someone might overhear, and I have to be careful,” he ended with a slight laugh.
“Ugh!” said Clarice, and shuddered.
“Why do you do that?” asked Osip, suddenly and curiously. “Granted that I am—what I am. Are you any better, Mr. Baird?”
Clarice felt as though cold water was running through her veins. “What do you mean?” she faltered.
“I think you know what I mean,” retorted Osip, “but we will camp in the Desert, where there will be a wide space round us, and no one can come within ear-shot without being seen. Come.”
He led the way towards the sandy track, beckoning to a picturesquely attired waiter to follow. Clarice cast a look in the direction of Anthony, who was watching at his tent door, and followed. In a short space of time, the sham Arab attendant—he was a Bavarian—had spread a carpet, and had arranged pillows. He also placed a Turkish stool in the middle, and waited for orders. The scarred man reclined on one set of pillows, and signalled to Clarice that she should recline on the other, which she did. “Will you have some Turkish coffee and a narghile?” he asked; “we must be strictly Eastern here, you know.”
Clarice accepted, although she secretly doubted if she could smoke a narghile, and shortly the attendant brought them what was wanted. Then he went away, and Miss Baird found herself smoking and drinking in company with a scoundrel who had killed eight people. She shivered again, as the waiter retreated, and they were left comparatively alone. Osip noticed it.
“Is it the cold air, or my company?” he asked, jeeringly.
“Your company,” said Clarice, tartly.
“Oh, then, like doesn’t draw to like. I should think after what you have done, Mr. Baird, you would be less scrupulous.”
“You dare to accuse me of murdering—”
“Ta! Ta! Ta! Don’t let us have any heroics, please. Do you think that if I did not hold your life in my hand I would risk being here with you, and so running the chance of capture. We are in the same boat, Mr. Baird, and if I am hanged for murder, you will swing beside me, I promise you.”
It took all Clarice’s self-control to keep herself quiet. After all, Ferdy really was guilty of murder, and she had only to learn how he had contrived to escape from the locked room. Osip apparently knew all about it, and she impatiently awaited his recital. But had she not been masked, he would have observed the pallor of her face, and perhaps his suspicions would have been aroused. As it was, he quite believed her to be her brother, and talked on leisurely. Owing to their solitary position, no one could approach within hearing distance, without being seen by the watchful Osip.
“Of course I know why you did murder him,” said Osip, in a low and rapid voice, “that is, you were coerced. But what power has Jerce over you to make you commit such a crime?”
“Jerce!” Clarice dropped the snaky twist of her narghile. This was the last name she expected to hear.
“Yes,” snapped Osip, imperiously. “Oh, you needn’t try to hide his doings. Ever since Frank Clarke betrayed me on his death-bed—the scoundrel—I have been watching Jerce.”
“But why did you search him?” asked Clarice, perplexed.
Osip raised himself angrily on his elbow. “You will pretend ignorance,” he said, sharply, “when you know quite well that Frank Clarke gave Jerce the gold box containing the stamp. I searched Jerce to find it, and he had not got it on him. I did not know what had become of it, but now I am certain that he gave the stamp to you, so that you might impress the Purple Fern on Horran’s forehead, and so make the police believe your murder was of a piece with the other crimes.”
“You are quite wrong,” said Clarice, keeping her nerves in a wonderful manner, considering the terrible communication. “The gold box was found on the terrace, where you had dropped it.”
“I did not drop it. Jerce must have guessed why I was searching him, and have flung it aside. Where is the gold box now?”
“Jerce took it to Scotland Yard.”
“A clever and daring villain,” said Osip, bitterly, “and the stamp?”
“I—I don’t know where it is. It was not in the box?”
“No. Jerce had removed it previously, and had given it to you. What a fool he was to carry the box about with him. When did he give the stamp to you?”
“He never did.”
“What’s the use of denying things?” cried Osip, angrily, and striking with his clenched fist on the table. “You were seen in Horran’s bedroom, after two o’clock in the morning, impressing the Purple Fern on the body of your victim; and that was after Clarke had fled, Mr. Baird. I expect just as you killed Horran you heard Clarke coming, and so concealed yourself. When the parson went away, afraid lest he should be accused, you, no doubt, came out from your hiding-place and stamped the forehead. Then you returned to your own room, and pretended innocence.”
“Who told you this?”
“Zara Dumps told me. After last night, she knew who I was, as her mother told her. I went to her rooms to-day, and she wanted to have me arrested. But I told her that I would accuse her of killing Horran, for I knew that she accused Clarke, and had been near The Laurels about the time of the murder.”
“How did you know that?”
“I learned it from Clarke himself. Yes! I went down secretly and in disguise to Crumel after the murder, to learn what had become of the stamp, and saw Clarke. He could not denounce me, as I told him that his son Frank was concerned in the murders with me. Zara not only told Prudence, so as to break off the marriage with you, but she also told Clarke himself. When I learned that Zara had been near the house at the time of the crime, I saw her to-day, and made her confess.”
“She only saw Clarke,” said Clarice, bravely. “She never told me that she had seen me. I saw her last night.”
“Zara told you as much as she thought proper,” said Osip, in sharp tones, “but I made her confess the rest. After Clarke had gone away she stole up to the window and saw you, and what you were doing. I think also,” added Osip, scathingly, “that she mentioned how you had concealed the stamp.”
“She did?” muttered Clarice, wondering if Zara had betrayed her disguise. But Osip’s next words reassured her.
“Of course she did. You wanted to get out of marrying her, and she was forced to make use of her knowledge to make you consent. I understand how she coerced you; but how did Jerce?”
“He did not.”
“Yes, he did. You never murdered Horran of your own free will. Jerce wanted money, I suppose?”
“Jerce has plenty of money.”
“No doubt. He earns a lot, and he borrows a lot, and he steals a lot, Mr. Baird. Why do you try to stand up for Jerce? I have been watching him for weeks, and I have been making enquiries in all sorts of quarters. I know much that goes on, owing to the faculties I have, for discovering things people would rather were kept quiet. Jerce, to the world, is a genial philanthropist, and a famous physician. But you know, as I know, that he is one of the fastest men in London, and a complete scoundrel, and under the rose has spent no end of money on worthless women. His pretended visits to Whitechapel were all bosh. He really went on the spree. I wonder he has not been found out long ago. You must have found him out, living in the same house with him, Mr. Baird. Did Jerce make you murder Horran, or did Barras?”
“Barras?” said Clarice, still more surprised, and wondering how much of this was true. The whole story seemed too terrible to be believed.
“Barras is quite as bad as Jerce, as I happen to know. I am going to see that lawyer, and utilise my knowledge of his shady doings, to make him part, Mr. Baird. England is getting too hot for me, so I intend to leave the country. But Barras and Jerce are in league in some way. Barras is Horran’s lawyer, so their league may have something to do with the property.”
“Perhaps it has,” murmured Clarice, white as a corpse under her mask. She felt that it would be impossible to sustain her manly character much longer under these accumulated horrors.
“Pah!” said Osip, scornfully, as he rose to his feet. “What is the use of pretending? You know everything, as I do. I don’t care if you did murder Horran, as I commit murders myself, and have a fellow-feeling for such daring. In fact, I rather admire you, Mr. Baird, and if I could remain in England I should propose a partnership, since my partners are dead. There’s heaps of money to be made with the Purple Fern yet, you know.”
“What a villain you are!” cried Clarice, involuntarily.
“Pooh! You say that because you are new to the criminal business. I am no more a villain than a swindling stockbroker in the city, or one of your pious, chapel-going hypocrites who sweat those they employ. You must get rid of your conscience, if you want to succeed, Mr. Baird, although I admit that you have made an excellent start. It was a clever idea to use the Purple Fern stamp, to shift the murder of Horran on to my shoulders. I know that I am accused, but you know that I am innocent.”
“Of this crime, perhaps, but not of others.”
“Of four others,” said Osip, politely. “I murdered four people, Clarke murdered one, and our third partner, who was hanged, poor chap, killed the remaining two. I invented the Purple Fern Murder Syndicate, so I had to do most of the work.”
“No. I must try and harden you, as I have taken a fancy to you, for your boldness and for your cleverness in using the stamp to implicate me. It’s a pity we can’t start the Syndicate again, with you and Jerce and Barras. Upon my word,” said Osip, musingly, and lighting a cigar, “it would be a splendid idea, and no one would suspect. We made heaps of money, you know, Mr. Baird. Some of the people we killed were put out of the way by the desire of relatives, who paid very largely for the crimes. I have saved money myself, but have not enough. Clarke—or Exton, as he called himself—was a spendthrift, and indulged in swagger things. You remember the gold box—a neat design, but risky, wasn’t it? Clarke’s idea—poor ass.”
“And the stationery?” asked Clarice, recollecting the superfine paper upon which the letters had been written.
“Clarke’s also, but I rather approved of that, as I like to do things neatly. Of course, you saw the stamped fern I sent to your guardian, Mr. Baird. It was a hint that he should look out, as I guessed that Jerce, having the stamp, intended business. I also sent the letter to Ackworth, forbidding him to marry your sister, unless he wanted to see you in the dock.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I wanted to make Miss Baird—your sister—think that Jerce was mixed up with the Purple Fern business, as I guessed that she would recognise the paper of the stamped fern and the paper of my letter to Ackworth to be the same. You see, I have been trying all along to get at Jerce, and learn why he wished Horran killed, and how he managed to make use of you. Besides, I want money. Jerce has money, and so has Barras. I will get large sums from both, as soon as I can prove that they are mixed up with Horran’s murder. You committed it, so you must confess all. If you don’t, I’ll leave England, but before leaving I’ll send a note to Scotland Yard telling the truth. Then both you and Zara will be arrested.”
“She is innocent, as I am.”
“Oh, she is innocent, of course,” said Osip, easily, “but I dare say the police can build up a case against her, since she was near the scene of the crime, and practically saw you commit the murder. She could be brought in as an accomplice after the fact, you know.”
“Did she—did she—see me—commit the crime?” stammered Clarice, hoarsely. “Well, no; but she saw you stamp the corpse, and—”
“Stop! for heaven’s sake stop!” cried the girl, and, sick with fear for her miserable brother, she fell forward on the Turkish table, and on her outstretched arms, not insensible, but nearly so. By this time the Desert was crowded with people, and many were wandering aimlessly here and there near at hand. Camels were grunting, mules squealing, Arabs shrieking, nautch-girls were dancing, and the busy, glittering life of pleasure hummed everywhere with feverish persistency. Osip, rather amazed at what he took to be Baird’s unmanly weakness, was about to stoop and raise “him,” when he saw Ackworth running rapidly forward. He did not know the soldier, but saw that some man was bearing straight down on him. “A trap—a trap,” said Osip, with a glare at Clarice, and she overheard.
“No! no!” she gasped, with a last effort, “but I am a woman—Baird’s sister!”
“Damn!” breathed Osip, thoroughly taken aback, and casting one fearful look around at the people, whose attention was now attracted, he slipped away amongst the crowd. Anthony raced up, breathless.
“What has he done? Let me give the alarm. He must be—”
Clarice clutched his arm desperately, and raised herself to her feet. “No, no! for my sake—for Ferdy’s—for—” and then she fainted in earnest.
“The heat—the heat,” said Ackworth, sharply, to an officious attendant. “My friend—ill-health—delicate boy. I’ll look after him. Get out, clear the way, damn you.”
And the crowd, accepting the natural excuse, fell back.
The next day, late in the afternoon, Clarice sat in the drawing-room of The Laurels, waiting for the arrival of several people. It was a very wet day, and the rain beat drowsily against the windows. Through the streaming panes she could see the dull grey skies, the leafless gardens, and the soaking lawns, dismal and depressing. With a sigh, the girl thought how the hopeless weather resembled her life at the present moment. Her brother was in danger of arrest, and even if he were not arrested, how could she have anything to do with him again, when he was practically a murderer? Even now, and in spite of Zara’s evidence, as reported by Osip, the girl could not bring herself to believe that Ferdy had actually struck the blow. But only from his own lips could she hear the truth—that is if he could be induced to speak it, and she was anxiously waiting for him to be brought over from Gattlinsands by Ackworth. Until Clarice accused him herself, she and Anthony had arranged that Ferdy should be left in ignorance that the secrets of his life had been discovered. Also a telegram had been sent to Sir Daniel Jerce, asking him to come down on especial business, and he likewise was ignorant of the true significance of the message. Finally, Mr. Clarke was expected.
These meetings had been arranged by Clarice, who could see no other way to clear up the many mysteries which seemed to environ the death of Henry Horran. It was necessary to take some steps, to come to some decision, and as speedily as possible, for it was likely that Osip, out of revenge for the trick Clarice had played him, would inform Scotland Yard of Ferdy’s guilt. So Clarice, clothed in her mourning for the dead man, waited in silence and in sorrow.
Never would she forget the return journey on the previous night. After being revived by a glass of brandy, Anthony had taken her at once in a cab to Liverpool Street Station, and there they had been fortunate enough to catch a late train to the Junction. Ackworth had telegraphed for a closed brougham, and in this he drove with Clarice to Crumel, some miles distant. Then, after he had seen her safely in the hands of Mrs. Rebson, he had departed in the fly for Gattlinsands, promising to bring over Ferdy on the afternoon of the ensuing day. All that could be done had been done, and now Clarice waited with a sick heart for the coming interviews with Ferdy and Jerce. Both promised to be stormy ones.
Exactly as the clock struck four, Ferdy’s voice, gay and bright, was heard in the hall. Clarice shuddered as she heard him. It was extraordinary to her that Ferdy could laugh at all, seeing what he had on his conscience. But he entered quite gaily, smiling and brisk, with Anthony at his heels, looking grave. When the boy had kissed his sister, he commented on Ackworth’s low spirits, gaily.
“I can’t make out what’s up with Anthony,” said he, taking a seat by the fire and poking the coals into a blaze. “He came back late last night, looking like an owl. I was playing snooker with Flanigan, and he didn’t even take an interest in the game, although I made some ripping shots. What’s the matter with him?”
“You are—” said Clarice, indignantly.
Ferdy dropped the poker with a clatter. “I am?” he echoed. “Why, what do you mean?”—he glanced at Ackworth. “I say, old chap, what’s the joke? Have I been doing anything wrong?”
Ackworth shrugged his shoulders and walked to the window. Then he glanced at his watch, and mentally noted that Jerce’s train was almost due. If Ferdy was to be disposed of, before the doctor arrived it would be necessary to make him confess at once. Ferdy eyed Anthony in astonishment, but no reason for this pointed silence occurred to his shallow brain. He turned to his sister. “I say, Clarry!—”
“Sit down!” she commanded, harshly.
“What do you mean?” he flushed up. “Don’t speak to me in that way.”
Anthony crossed the room rapidly, and, taking Ferdy by the shoulders, made him sit down. “You must not speak to your sister in that manner, while I am by,” he declared, sternly. “You are about to be spoken to, in a way you won’t like.”
“Then I’ll go,” raged Ferdy, evading Ackworth’s grip, and making for the door. “How dare you lay hands on me—how dare you?”
“If you leave the room, Ferdy,” said Clarice, in a quiet and level voice, “you will run straight into the hands of the police.”
The young man’s face changed immediately to a chalky white, and he fell nervelessly into a chair near the door. “The police?” he whispered.
“Yes,” said Clarice, pitilessly, for his unmanly terror disgusted her; “you will probably spend your night in gaol.”
“Clarice!” Ferdy staggered to his feet, violently trembling. “I—I—I—don’t know what you mean.”
Ackworth gave a low laugh of scorn, and strolled to the hearth-rug to take up his position before the fire. “You had better confess,” he said, in his sharp, military way.
“Oh!” Clarice clenched her hands and her eyes shot fire. “Why will you keep up this pretence? You know well enough what you have to confess. Will you do so here, or in the dock?”
“In the dock?” Ferdy flung forward half-way across the room. “I don’t—I never did—what is it?—oh, Clarry, you are making a mistake.”
“Is this a mistake?” asked his sister, and showed him the stamp.
Ferdy was drawn towards it like the ship to the fabled magnetic rocks in the Arabian tale. “Where—where did you get it?” he whispered.
“In your room—hidden away.”
“And who put it—who hid it—who—oh—” he caught his breath—“this is a conspiracy to ruin me.”
“Zara will ruin you—”
“Jerce will ruin you—”
“Osip will ruin you.”
“Osip! Osip! Osip!”
“Only Anthony and I can save you. Tell the truth—the whole truth.”
“Clarry!”—Ferdy collapsed into a chair—“I—I never killed him.”
“Zara declares that you did. She saw you through the window.”
“She saw me—yes—she told me she saw me—but I was marking the forehead of Uncle Henry with that”—he pointed to the stamp. “He was dead when I entered the room; I swear that he was.”
“Then you WERE in Uncle Henry’s room on that night?” cried Clarice, springing to her feet with horror-filled eyes. “You DID stamp his poor flesh with that accursed Purple Fern. Oh, Anthony, Anthony,” she rushed towards her lover and caught at him with both hands, “how can I bear it—how can I bear it? Disgrace—shame—murder—”
Ferdy slipped on to the floor, and clutched at her dress. He was terrified at seeing Clarice desert him in this way, and whimpered like a child that had been left alone in the dark. “Not murder. No! no! I swear not murder. But—but—but—” he broke down crying, and hid his shameful face in his hands, sobbing bitterly.
A silence ensued. Clarice concealed her face in Anthony’s breast, and he held her tightly to him, feeling absolutely helpless under the strain of the moment, and feeling also that he was unable to console her in any way. The door creaked and swung inward gently under a scratching paw, and old Jane hobbled into the room, on the look-out for afternoon tea. Seeing Ferdy on the ground, she went up to him and licked the hands which concealed his face. In a mechanical manner he smoothed her head, and in the stillness the clock on the mantelpiece could be heard ticking steadily in the pauses of the beating rain. Anthony was the first to recover his composure. “We must come to some arrangement before Jerce arrives,” he said.
“Jerce!” Ferdy leaped to his feet so unexpectedly that Jane ran under the sofa with a howl of dismay. “Jerce?”
“He is coming down—he will be here in a few minutes. Clarice, dear”—he led her to an armchair—“sit down and compose yourself.”
“I am all right now,” said Clarice, in a suffocating voice, and calmed her unruly nerves with a violent effort. “Now then, Ferdy,” she said, in an ominously quiet voice, “we are waiting for your story.”
“How much do you know of it?” asked the miserable young man.
“As much as Zara could tell me,” said his sister, in a sad voice, “as much as Osip knew.”
“You have seen Osip?”
“Yes. I need not tell you how I came to meet him. But he accuses you of the murder of Uncle Henry, and for all I know, he may already have given notice to the police.”
“What?” asked Ferdy, in a grating voice, “when he is wanted himself, and for that crime?”
“Osip is innocent of this particular crime,” interposed Ackworth.
“Then if he did not kill Uncle Henry, I don’t know who did,” declared Ferdy, his face becoming sullen.
“You WILL tell lies,” said Clarice, between her teeth.
“It is the truth; I swear it is the truth.”
“Tell your story and let us judge,” said Ackworth, imperiously, “and remember, that your life is at stake.”
“Would you betray me?”
“We would save you, and only by knowing the absolute truth can we save you. Come, Baird, out with it.”
Ferdy stared at the ground, and felt that he was being very hardly treated by the two before him. He stole a look at their set faces, and saw that he would have to lay bare the secrets of his shallow, false life. A bolder man would have braved the matter out; a weaker man would have fainted in the extremity of his terror. But Ferdy Baird, half fool, half knave, acted up to his double character—that is, he told all that could place him in a pleasant light, and suppressed what he could. But by questioning and browbeating the lovers got the truth out of him at last. In substance his story came to this, but he told it in a somewhat different way:—
“Since you must know all,” he said, sullenly, and with his eyes on the carpet, “Jerce is the one to blame for the whole trouble; and Uncle Henry is also—”
“Not a word against him,” said Clarice, sternly, and placed her hand in that of Ackworth’s, for she felt that she needed what solace she could obtain in this hour of sorrow and disgrace.
“Uncle Henry should have allowed me more money,” said Ferdy, doggedly, “and then I should not have got into trouble with Jerce. I thought that I would be able to get what I wanted, since I was heir to two thousand a year, and when I went to London I had a good time.”
“A mad time—a reckless time—a wicked time,” said Clarice.
“That depends upon the way you look at it,” said the young man. “I had a ripping time, I say, but it cost money. Jerce lent me some, because he wanted to marry you, Clarry, and wished me to use my influence to bring about the marriage.”
“You never had any influence,” said Clarice, while Anthony looked at his future brother-in-law with the air of a man who wished to kick him out of the house.
“Jerce thought I had, and lent me money. But I got into debt. I was in love with Zara a year ago, and she made me spend no end of cash on motor-drives and flowers and jewels, and all the rest of it.”
“But you told me of two thousand pounds, Ferdy. Was there more?”
“Much more. I gambled, you see, and lost heavily on bridge. But it’s no use saying what I did, or how I spent the money, as I was simply desperate. I did not dare to go to Uncle Henry, so I asked Jerce again. He refused to help me, so I—I—” here Ferdy kicked a mat with his feet and blurted out the shameful truth unwillingly, “I forged his cheque for two hundred pounds.”
“What!” Clarice nearly fainted.
“You young scoundrel!” gasped Ackworth, his face growing red.
“That’s right. Preach away and kick a chap when he’s down. I didn’t exactly forge the name, but I altered the figures of a cheque for twenty pounds given me by Jerce, to one for two hundred. So you see I am not quite a forger,” ended Ferdy, cheerfully.
“Go on,” commanded Anthony, curtly, and soothed the girl, who was weeping bitterly. “Hush, Clarice, darling. We have heard the worst now; nothing more shameful can be revealed.”
“A forger and a murderer,” cried Clarice, in agony—“my own brother.”
“I am neither the one nor the other,” said Ferdy, in a brazen manner. “If you’ll only listen to me, I can explain. Jerce got the cheque and held it over me as a whip. He said that he would put me in gaol, if I did not do what he wanted. For a long time he left me alone, and then”—Ferdy sank his voice to a terrified whisper—“then he brought me the stamp of the Purple Fern, and told me that I was to kill Uncle Henry and stamp his forehead with the fern, so that the crime would look like the work of Osip.”
“And you accepted?” shrieked Clarice, with horror.
“I accepted to gain time,” said Ferdy, sulkily. “What else could I do? I was in Jerce’s power, and could be sent to prison. But I never intended to kill Uncle Henry.”
“Why did Jerce want him killed?” asked Ackworth, suddenly.
“Well, he said that Uncle Henry’s disease puzzled him, and that the reason could not be found out, unless he was dead and his body was examined. It was scientific curiosity.”
“Pshaw!” said Anthony, while Clarice heard this explanation with incredulous horror. “Do you mean to tell me that Jerce would place his neck in a noose in order to gain surgical knowledge?”
“He was going to place my neck in a noose,” corrected Ferdy, sulkily, “and Jerce was quite mad about science. I found out a lot about his devilries when I lived with him. He was a vivisection enthusiast, too. Yes! You often wondered, Clarry, why Jane”—he glanced at the dog lying quietly under the sofa—“why Jane hated Jerce so. Well, it was because he started to vivisect her, and lamed her leg.”
“What a wretch,” cried Clarice, trembling with horror. “Oh, Anthony, I can’t bear it—I can’t bear it.”
“Hush, dear, hush.” He sat beside her in the chair, and held her in his arms like a mother nursing a babe. “Go on, Baird,” he commanded.
“Jerce wasn’t altogether bad,” said Ferdy, grudgingly. “He let Jane go, when he found that she wasn’t much use as a subject, and gave her to you, Clarry.”
“Jane! Jane!” called the girl, faintly, and when the dog came she patted the smooth head. “My poor Jane, how cruelly you have been treated,” whereon Jane licked the kind hand which caressed her, and sat down with her tongue out, the picture of happiness.
“Well,” said Ferdy, after a pause, “you see how I was placed. I had to kill Uncle Henry, or go to gaol through Jerce. I tried to find out something against Jerce that would give me the whip hand of him, but he was too clever. But I did find out some things. Jerce used to pretend to go to Whitechapel, and sometimes he did, but usually he changed his dress and went on the spree.”
“What do you mean by on the spree?” asked Clarice, sharply.
“I shouldn’t like to tell you,” said Ferdy, with great simplicity, “for Jerce was a terror. I’m no great shakes, but Jerce was worse. He spent money like water on women, buying jewels and houses and furniture and dresses, and running race-horses, and gambling, and, in fact,” ended Ferdy, with an air of fatigue, “Jerce was, and is, a blackguard; and even I, don’t know everything about him.”
“It’s impossible that a well-known man like Sir Daniel Jerce could go on in this way,” said Anthony, decidedly.
“Oh, but he did. I found lots of shady people who knew him. But Jerce was clever in covering his trail. Then Barras was in with him.”
“Good heavens!” cried Clarice, in despair. “Are there no good men?”
“Barras wasn’t good. He used to lark about also, but I think Jerce led him away, from what I can gather.”
“Remember, dear,” said Anthony, bending over Clarice, “we saw them together at the Shah’s Rooms.”
“What?” cried Ferdy, quickly, “have you been there?”
“Never you mind, go on with your story. You say that Jerce wanted Uncle Henry to be killed so that he might find out the reason for the disease?”
“That was the reason Jerce gave me, and said that it would be a merciful release, as Uncle Henry could not live long. But one night I overheard a conversation between Barras and Jerce—not the whole of it, but scraps, and I gathered that Barras was giving Jerce some of Uncle Henry’s money—that is our money.”
“Oh!” Clarice started to her feet, “the forty thousand pounds. I am beginning to see. Sir Daniel Jerce had that money.”
“I can’t say—I’m not sure. But there was some question of our money being lent; for Barras—as I heard—said something about Uncle Henry becoming suspicious of the business. I couldn’t exactly make out what was meant,” ended Ferdy, “but I gathered that the finances of the estate—our estate—were wrong.”
“I can see,” said Clarice, quickly, “I can understand. Barras told a lie when he said that he gave Uncle Henry the forty thousand in gold. He gave it to Jerce, and made Uncle Henry the scapegoat. Nothing wrong was ever suspected by poor Uncle Henry. He told me some days before he was murdered that I should find everything in order.”
“Well, you did.”
“Yes,” said Clarice, indignantly, “because Mr. Barras cooked the accounts, and put the blame of the missing thousands on to my poor guardian, who could not defend himself. The villain. And you knew this, Ferdy—you knew this, and did not tell me?”
“How could I, when I was in Jerce’s power over that bill? Besides, I didn’t clearly understand things. I only heard bits of the conversation, you know.”
“Go on—go on,” said Ackworth, quickly, “tell us how you committed the murder.”
“I did not—I did not,” cried Ferdy, furiously. “I swear I am innocent of that crime. After Christmas, Jerce said that if I didn’t kill Uncle Henry before the end of the year, that he would denounce me. He said that if I stamped the corpse with the Purple Fern everyone would think that Osip had killed him. Then he told me about Frank Clarke, and how he had given him the stamp and the gold box.”
“Then he did have the gold box?” asked Clarice.
“Yes. He gave me the stamp, but he kept the box in his pocket, as he thought it was safest there. He feared lest it should be found, and lest the amethyst fern on it should give him away. When Osip attacked him out there”—Ferdy pointed to the terrace—“Jerce managed to throw it away, and then bamboozled me when I came up, about not having Osip arrested. He dared not,” cried Ferdy, tauntingly, “as Osip might have given him away.”
“Oh, great heavens!” moaned Clarice, rocking herself to and fro, “is there much more of this?”
“No,” said her brother, quickly. “I’m sure I want to end it as much as you do, Clarry. I never intended to kill Uncle Henry, but Jerce insisted.”
“You’ve said that several times,” said Anthony, impatiently.
“And I say it again. I got drunk on that night because Jerce worried me so. I was quite feverish.”
“Were you really drunk?” asked Clarice, eagerly.
“Yes, I was. Mother Dumps had been feeding me up with bad champagne in honour of Zara’s coming home. I came back, and you locked me in my room, Clarry. I fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until nearly two o’clock in the morning.”
“Are you sure of the time?” asked his sister, quickly.
“Yes, I am. I lighted the candle and looked at my watch. Then I drank some water, and sat on the bed to think of what I should do. I felt jolly miserable, I can tell you,” said Ferdy, in an aggrieved tone, “what with all my debts, and being in love with Prudence, and with Zara worrying me, and with Jerce making things hot. Then I thought that it would be best to go down and see Uncle Henry, and tell him all. Remembering the conversation of Jerce and Barras, I fancied that the accounts were wrong, and that if Jerce made it hot for me over the bill, that Uncle Henry could make it hot for Jerce. I swear,” cried Ferdy again, “that when I went down the stairs I never intended to lay a hand on the man who had been like a father to me. I intended to tell him all, and throw myself on his mercy.”
“How did you get out, when I had locked you in?”
Ferdy cast a contemptuous look on her, “Why, I had another key, of course. You locked me in several times, and thought that I was safe, but I could get out whenever I liked. I unlocked the door, and went down to see Uncle Henry in my cloth slippers and dressing-gown.”
“If you intended no harm,” asked Anthony, “why did you take the stamp with you—the Purple Fern stamp?”
“I intended to give it to Uncle Henry, and tell him how Jerce had got it from Frank Clarke, and the use he intended to make of it. Well, then, I went down carefully, and opened the bedroom door. I thought that Uncle Henry might be awake. But he wasn’t; he was dead.”
There was a pause. “Are you sure?” asked Clarice, in a husky voice.
“I can swear to it. He was dead—stabbed to the heart—with the bedclothes all disarranged, and I very nearly gave the alarm. Then I thought that as Uncle Henry was dead, all I had to do was to stamp his forehead with the Purple Fern, to get the cheque from Jerce into my possession. I was about to do so,” said Ferdy, frankly, while his sister groaned at this fresh instance of callous wickedness, “when I heard a noise outside, and slipped under the bed.”
“Why on earth did you do that?” demanded Anthony, bluntly.
“It was very natural,” protested Ferdy, sulkily. “I was afraid lest the murderer should return and kill me; and, of course, I didn’t want anyone to see me beside the dead body of Uncle Henry, considering the circumstances. I fancied Chalks might be coming, and dreaded lest I should get into trouble, as I had no business in the room at that time. Oh, there were plenty of reasons for me to make myself scarce.”
“Well, and was it Chalks?” said Clarice, tapping her foot, impatiently.
“No, it wasn’t. Old Clarke came in at the window calling softly on Uncle Henry. I heard his voice, and peeped out to see him. He nearly squealed when he spotted the body, so I don’t think that he is guilty. Then he groaned and prayed, and, for some reason, arranged the bedclothes smoothly. Afterwards he cut as hard as he could, frightened out of his life, as I was. In a few minutes I crept out, and stamped the corpse’s forehead, which was the only thing I could do to put myself square with Jerce. When I crept upstairs and locked myself again in my room, I thought that everything was safe. But it wasn’t,” grumbled Ferdy, apparently thinking himself aggrieved. “Zara was knocking about, and spotted me through the window. She made me break off with Prudence by threatening to tell the police. I said that Prudence wouldn’t let me off, but Zara said she could manage that, and she did too, by telling the poor girl that Mr. Clarke had committed the crime, which I swear he hadn’t,” finished Ferdy, generously.
“Is that all?” questioned Clarice, when he ended out of breath.
“What more do you wish me to say?” asked Ferdy, indignantly. “I’m not to blame, as I couldn’t help Uncle Henry being killed. And I never forged the cheque—that is, the name, you know, Clarry—I only altered the figures a little. And I swear I never stabbed Uncle Henry, but just stamped him with the Fern.”
“That was an abominable thing to do,” cried Ackworth, angrily.
“I don’t see that,” said the young man, obstinately. “What did it matter when Uncle Henry was dead? I had to get even with Jerce, and save myself somehow. And I did, too. Jerce, when he came for the post-mortem, and saw the stamp on the forehead, gave me back the cheque right enough, and I burnt it, so no one can harm me in that way. I think you are making a great row over nothing,” ended Ferdy, in an injured tone, “as I am quite innocent.”
Clarice looked at Anthony, and Anthony at Clarice, in despair. Both of them were amazed at the callous view Ferdy took of the case. He really did not seem to be aware of the enormity of his fault, and looked upon his crimes—for crimes they were—as merely mistakes of ordinary life. Perhaps Anthony—for Clarice was too heart-broken to speak—would have proceeded to lecture Ferdy on his iniquities, but that a ring came to the front door. Jane, at Miss Baird’s feet, raised her head, and Ackworth went to the drawing-room door. When he opened it the cheerful, bland voice of Sir Daniel Jerce was heard remarking on the bad weather to Mrs. Rebson. At once Jane began to growl, and she flew across the room.
“Anthony, catch her,” cried Clarice, and the young man had only time to grip Jane by the scruff of the neck, and swing her aside, when the doctor entered the room. Jerce looked quiet and smiling, and apparently had no idea of the danger of his position. He laughed, when he saw Jane snapping and snarling with blazing eyes, the picture of impotent wrath. “I really wonder why that dog hates me so?” said Sir Daniel, shrugging.
“She knows you better than we do,” retorted Clarice, sternly.
Sir Daniel looked surprised when he heard Clarice’s remark, and glanced from her to Ferdy. He saw that both brother and sister were white and troubled, but, feeling absolutely safe, he never ascribed their emotion to anything connected with himself. Advancing to the fire, he warmed his hands, and smiled more blandly than ever. “I should think you should know me by this time, Miss Baird,” he said, cheerfully. “Wet weather, isn’t it?”
Clarice said nothing, and Ferdy evaded the eye of Jerce, while Anthony, having put Jane out into the garden, returned and closed the drawing-room door. Considering what was to be said, it was best, as he thought, to keep the conversation as private as possible. The doctor also noted that Ackworth looked stern and white. By this time, he showed a slight uneasiness, as trouble was too palpably in the air for him to ignore it. Perhaps some thought of betrayal crossed his mind, for he suddenly looked apprehensively at young Baird. Ferdy dodged his eye again, and the doctor, to break an oppressive silence, made an uneasy joke.
“You are all very quiet,” said he, smiling in a wry way. “Is it because I have forgotten my manners, and have not shaken hands? I ask all your pardons, and will do so now, Miss Baird.”
“No,” said Clarice, putting her hands behind her back, “and I wonder that you have the assurance even to speak to me.”
“Considering that you asked me down, that is a strange speech,” said Jerce, frowning, and losing his suave looks. “I thought that you were satisfied with my assurance that I never wrote that anonymous letter of which you complained?”
“I know that you did not write it.”
“In that case, I shall be glad to know why you greet me in this way?” said Jerce, in icy tones. “Is it that Captain Ackworth is angry with me because I dared to love you?”
“No,” said Anthony, in his turn, “and to save you further surmises as to what is the matter, allow me to inform you, Dr. Jerce—”
“Sir Daniel, if you please,” interrupted the other, his large face becoming watchful and cunning; “give me my proper title.”
“I can do that,” said Clarice, who was restraining her wrath with great difficulty, “you are a scoundrel.”
“Indeed,” said Jerce, blanching and wincing, but maintaining his composure in a most wonderful manner, considering the provocation. “I regret that you should call an old friend by so harsh a name.”
“An old friend who plotted the death of—”
“It’s a lie,” broke in Jerce, with a sudden flash of rage. “I never intended Horran any harm.”
“By your own mouth you are condemned,” said Anthony, quickly. “Miss Baird never mentioned names. Why should you think that she meant Mr. Horran, I ask you?”
“Because Horran is dead, and death was mentioned,” said Jerce, striving to extricate himself from the difficulty. “Perhaps you will explain why I have been asked here to be insulted?”
“Would you rather that the police insulted you?” asked Anthony, coldly.
“You speak in riddles, Captain Ackworth.”
“I think you can answer them, Sir Daniel.”
“I fear that I cannot,” rejoined Jerce, shrugging.
But with all his calmness, an air of fear pervaded his whole bearing, and his cold eyes glanced uneasily from one person to another. “Will you explain the meaning of all this, Ferdinand?” he said, addressing himself to the one person in the room who had not yet spoken.
“I have explained,” said Ferdy, half afraid and half defiantly; “they know everything.”
“Concerning what?” asked Jerce, wincing again, but still self-controlled.
“Clarice and Anthony know the whole business,” cried the young man, his voice loud and angry, as he strove to assert himself in the presence of the man he so greatly feared. “I have told them how you got the Purple Fern stamp, and how you tried to make me kill Uncle Henry. There! You can say what you like now.”
Sir Daniel’s nostrils dilated, and his eyes grew hard. “You are talking nonsense, I think,” he said, perfectly calmly.
“Nonsense!” stormed Ferdy, quailing under those stern eyes. “It is not nonsense, and you know it. I have had quite enough of being bullied by you, Jerce”—he did not pay him the compliment of a respectful use of the great man’s title. “You have been my master too long. It is my turn now. And who are you to dictate to me?—you, who lead a fast life, who squander money, who play fast and loose with women of the worst—”
“Stop!” cried Jerce, so loudly that the young man’s voice died away. “Remember that your sister is present. My character is high enough to need no denial to the charges you bring against it. The King does not honour men such as you have described, with knighthoods.”
“Ah, you have always been clever enough to keep things dark,” said Ferdy, bitterly. “But I overheard you talking to Barras. I know that you were in league with him to cheat Uncle Henry out of our money, and the forty thousand pounds went into—”
“You lie—you lie,” interrupted the doctor, losing his temper, and a perspiration broke out on his high bald forehead. “You know that you lie. You can’t prove a word you say.”
“Barras can, and Barras will.”
“Barras will not. Send for Barras now. I appeal to you, Miss Baird. I appeal to you, Captain Ackworth. My character is at stake. I demand that you telegraph to London for Barras, that he may be confronted with this young liar. I am not afraid to face the truth.”
The doctor spoke so bravely and so fiercely that for the moment Anthony and Clarice wavered in their belief of Ferdy’s story. They knew well that Ferdy was a supreme liar, and, on the face of it, Sir Daniel Jerce’s character had always been above reproach. The doctor saw that he had made an impression, and followed up his advantage, swiftly and vehemently.
“That Ferdinand should accuse me is no surprise,” he went on, in a ringing voice. “I have done so much for him, that it is natural he should be ungrateful. I have always found that those I have helped have been my worst enemies. Ferdinand is indebted to me for money, for advice, for education, and for liberty.”
“For liberty?” echoed Clarice, drawing near to the speaker.
“Yes! That young whelp received a cheque from me for twenty pounds as a loan. He altered the figures and the writing to two hundred pounds with a cleverness which would have done credit to an accomplished forger. I could have put him in gaol. But I forgave him, and this ingratitude is my reward.”
“One moment, Ferdy,” said Clarice, checking her brother’s speech with a gesture, “where is the forged cheque, Sir Daniel?”
Jerce was taken aback. “I gave it to Ferdinand,” he said, sullenly.
“You did, when you could have used it to stop his evil doings?”
“I wished to give him another chance of reforming,” protested Jerce.
“You liar!” shouted Ferdy, beside himself with rage. “You gave me the cheque after I had stamped Uncle Henry’s dead body with the Purple Fern according to your directions.”
“Yes,” said Jerce, rashly losing his self-control, “and after you had murdered your guardian.”
“I did not! I did not!”
“On what grounds do you base this accusation, Jerce?” asked Ackworth.
“On the grounds that Felix Exton, the young man who died in Tea Street, Whitechapel, gave me the stamp of the Purple Fern—”
“You never said that before.”
“There was no need. I never said so, because Ferdinand stole the stamp from me, and I thought that he might make use of it. Horran was angry with him, and Ferdinand wished to get rid of him, thinking that he would then come into the money. I base my accusation upon the fact that the Purple Fern was stamped on my poor friend’s forehead, and only Ferdinand, who possessed the stamp, could have done that. For your sake, Miss Baird, I have held my peace, cruelly though you have treated me; but now, when Ferdinand seeks to throw the blame of his wickedness on me, I must speak out, to protect myself. If need be I shall go to the police, and tell all that I know. I am not a man to be defied with impunity.”
The clever turn which the doctor gave to Ferdy’s story startled Clarice, as she saw how dangerous the man was, and to what lengths he was prepared to go to save his own skin. “You had the gold box,” she said, rather weakly.
“Pardon me. Osip dropped that when he searched me.”
“He denies that. He said that you had the box, for which he was looking, and threw it away.”
“Osip says that—and how comes it that you have seen Osip?”
“I saw him by appointment at the Shah’s Rooms last night,” said Clarice, boldly; “and there I also saw you and Mr. Barras.”
“What of that?” said Jerce, coolly. “I have a right to go to any place I choose, I should hope. So you saw Osip, and you did not have him arrested for the murder of your guardian.”
“You forget,” said Anthony, swiftly, “you have just accused Ferdinand of that crime, Sir Daniel.”
“And I do still. Ferdinand is Osip’s accomplice. Both of them are concerned in the matter. And I am accused falsely. There is no one can prove that I am guilty in any way.”
A knock came to the door, and Mrs. Rebson made her appearance. “Will you please to come out here, Miss?” she said, “there is a gentleman wants to see you.”
Sir Daniel wriggled uneasily, and went a shade whiter. But he still maintained his defiant attitude; while Clarice, wondering who had come to visit her, and anticipating fresh trouble with a sinking heart, went into the hall, closing the drawing-room door after her. Here she found Mr. Clarke, looking more wild and wan than ever, and very much agitated. On seeing her, he came up at once, while Mrs. Rebson discreetly withdrew to her own room.
“Is it true that Sir Daniel Jerce is here?” asked Clarke, abruptly.
“Yes, I sent for him to clear up things. Why did you not come in?”
“I don’t wish to see Sir Daniel,” said Clarke, nervously; “he has behaved very badly to me. He threatened to tell about something connected with a—a—a—a relative,” ended Clarke, evasively.
Clarice knew as well as if he had spoken openly that the vicar referred to his scapegoat son. However, it was not her aim to frighten Clarke away by pretending to know too much, so she merely picked up some newly arrived letters from the hall table, as she replied, “You must come in and face Sir Daniel Jerce,” she said quietly; “We are bringing him to book.”
“Bringing him to book. What do you mean?”
“Go in and you’ll hear,” said Clarice, and was about to usher the vicar into the room, when she caught sight of the writing on one of the letters. “Go in—go in,” she said, hurriedly. “I’ll follow shortly.”
Rather perplexed, and not at all anxious to face Jerce, the vicar approached the drawing-room door with hesitating steps. There he glanced back, and saw Clarice hurriedly reading a letter, with a white face and an agitated manner. For the moment, he was inclined to return, but gathering his courage together, he boldly opened the door, and saw Sir Daniel Jerce, facing Ferdy, defiantly.
“You can say what you like,” were the words which struck the parson’s ear, “but you know that I am as innocent of Horran’s death as you are guilty. You stabbed him, you—”
“No!” cried Clarke, coming forward rapidly. “What do you mean, Sir Daniel, by accusing this young man of such a crime?”
Jerce wheeled, and his eyes flashed when he beheld Clarke. The vicar had quite thrown aside his nervous, hesitating manner, and with an unflinching face he looked at the great doctor. Anthony, anticipating some fresh revelation, rose from his seat, while Ferdy stared open-mouthed at Prudence’s father. He had never seen the vicar look so bold.
“I accuse him,” said Jerce, with a snarl, and keeping his hard eyes firmly on the weak face of the parson, “because he is guilty.”
“Not of murder. I swear not of murder.”
“There, you see,” cried Ferdy, triumphantly. “I never killed Uncle Henry.”
“You did!” said Jerce, fiercely. “I defy Clarke to contradict me.”
“I do contradict you.”
“Remember, Clarke, what I know,” said Jerce, menacingly.
“Know,” said the vicar, despairingly, “yes, you know, and you have made use of what you know to make me act unjustly towards Ferdinand. I should have had him for a son-in-law but for you, and my poor girl would have been happy. I held my peace, because you threatened to expose my unhappy son’s guilt. But I shall do so no longer. I refuse to stand by and see Ferdinand accused of murder.”
“Your own son is a murderer,” said Jerce, savagely.
“Ah,” said Anthony, significantly, “So you knew that.”
“He knew it, and he threatened me with it. He wanted to let all the world know that Felix Exton was Frank Clarke,” cried the vicar, “and I—for my daughter’s sake—held my peace.”
“About what?” asked Anthony, quickly.
“Take care, Clarke—take care,” said Jerce, despairingly.
“I take care no longer,” said the parson, fiercely; “I have told my son’s shame here, and if necessary I shall tell it to all the world, rather than let Ferdinand suffer unjustly. He did not murder Horran.”
“Then who did?” asked Clarice, entering swiftly, and standing with her back to the door.
Clarke pointed to the doctor. “Sir Daniel Jerce.”
“You liar!” foamed the accused man.
“I saw you in your motor coming along by the common during my midnight walk,” said Clarke, rapidly. “I saw you hide the motor in the woods. I followed you secretly to the house. You entered by the window, and I stole up to see you kill Horran with the assegai, which you tore from the wall. You fled, and I ran after you. I caught you in the lane, near the wood, and accused you. Then you told me that Frank was a murderer—one of the Purple Fern gang—and swore to denounce him, dead though he was, unless I held my peace. I did so—yes, God help me—I did so, and concealed your wickedness to save the good name of my dead son. While Osip was accused, I still held my peace, for another murder set down to him mattered little. But now that you accuse Ferdinand, I say boldly, and I will say it to the police, that you and none other murdered Henry Horran.”
“It’s false,” gasped Jerce, quailing and shrinking, and looking towards the window, as though anxious to escape.
“It is true. After I left you, I went back to the room—”
“That was when I was under the bed,” said Ferdy, quickly.
“Were you? I did not know; but you are innocent, my poor boy. I arranged the bedclothes, and then returned home. Zara Dumps accused me and I said nothing, although I knew the truth. But there stands the murderer,” he pointed to Jerce, who trembled; “go for the police.”
“No! No!” cried Sir Daniel, ghastly white. “Let me go. I promise to destroy myself. Anything rather than public shame.”
“I’ll have you in gaol to-night,” said Ferdy, triumphantly.
“Take care!” snarled Jerce. “If I killed Horran, you stamped the fern on the forehead of the dead. I’ll swear that you were my accomplice.”
“Clarice,” cried Ferdy, gasping with fear, “you hear.”
“I hear, and I know how to act,” said Clarice, calm and white. “Anthony, have you pen and ink and paper? There they are,” she indicated a rosewood desk in the corner of the drawing-room. “Sit down and write what Sir Daniel says.”
“What would you do?” asked Ackworth, obeying her.
“I would save Ferdy.”
“And hang Jerce,” cried Ferdy, viciously.
“Hold your tongue,” cried his sister, harshly; “Sir Daniel,” she added, turning towards the miserable doctor, “if you will confess your crime, and sign the confession, you shall leave this house free.”
“No! No! No!” cried Anthony, from the desk, “you are wrong.”
“I am right,” insisted the girl; “with such a confession, we are safe. Ferdy will say nothing, neither will Mr. Clarke.”
“I shall hold my tongue, so long as Ferdinand is not arrested for a crime he never committed,” said the parson, “and so long as Frank’s good name is saved. Frank was an evil man, but he was also my son.”
“Confess, then,” said Clarice to Jerce.
He wiped his brow and accepted the situation without argument. It was impossible for him to face the direct evidence of Clarke. “I thank you for the chance of escape,” he said to the girl, quietly, “and I promise you that to-night I shall die. I will not live to run the risk of being hanged. Write, Captain Ackworth, and I shall sign.”
Anthony dipped the pen into the ink, and waited. Ferdy sat down. Mr. Clarke leaned against the wall, listening intently, and Clarice, determined not to let Jerce go until the confession was signed, stood with her back to the door. Sir Daniel cast a glance around, and, composing himself with a mighty effort, which showed the strong nature of the man, he began to speak quietly:
“I did murder Horran,” he said, slowly, “and for two reasons. One was that I wished to learn the nature of the disease which he suffered from, and that could only be made plain by a post-mortem examination. The other, and more ignoble motive, was that I was in league with Barras to get money out of him.”
“Then you had the forty thousand pounds?” inquired Clarice, quickly.
“And more,” answered the doctor, coolly. “I have a double nature—a Jekyl and Hyde nature, as in Stevenson’s wonderful story. As Sir Daniel Jerce, I have won my position by brain power and hard work, and am a philanthropist and a reasonable man. But as Daniel Jerce, the creature, I am devoured by passions, and am capable of lowering myself to the level of the beasts. My life in Harley Street was, and is, above reproach—but my other life—”
“Oh!” cried Clarice, with sudden horror. “Ferdy has told us something of that. Say no more—it’s too terrible.”
Jerce bowed. “You have been so kind, Miss Baird, that your wish is my law,” he said, politely. “Well, then, for my secret life. I required money. I made much, and spent it, and I wanted more. Horran, being only your guardian and not having money of his own, was too honest to help me. Barras came to me, years and years ago, to be cured of a disease. I did cure him, and he was grateful. He lent me his own money for a time, but I still wanted more. Then he lent me some that belonged to the estate, when I was in difficulties, and he lent it out of sheer gratitude to me. Don’t blame Barras, Miss Baird. He was as good a man as was Henry Horran. But to make a long story short, from the moment Barras tampered with the trust money, he was in my power, and I threatened to tell Horran unless I received more.”
“Blackmail,” muttered Anthony, with disgust, and swiftly writing.
“Yes, I told you that the Jekyl side of my character was unpleasant, Captain Ackworth. Well, then, Barras cooked the accounts—”
“I thought so—I said so,” muttered Clarice.
“Then you are very clever,” said Jerce, calmly, “for Barras managed to conceal things in a wonderful way. Of course, when Horran became ill, and gave Barras a power of attorney, it was easier to deceive him. And Barras also deceived you, Miss Baird, clever as you thought you were. Your ignorance of business helped him.”
“I quite understand,” said Clarice, coldly; “a girl such as I am, was unequal to such clever scoundrels. You got the money.”
“And I spent it,” said Jerce, coolly; “forty thousand pounds. Barras gave me the money as it came in, and used some himself. He made up the story about giving it to Horran in gold—”
“So that we might be deceived,” interposed Miss Baird. “Well, we were.”
“Oh, don’t blame yourself,” said Jerce, in a jeering manner; “Barras would have cheated a much more clever person than you are, Miss Baird, with the facilities at his command—Horran’s illness, the power of attorney—no one to interfere, and all the rest of it.”
“Spare me more details, Sir Daniel. You got the forty thousand pounds and spent it. Then you determined to kill Uncle Henry.”
“I did, because he was getting dangerous. Barras, according to Horran’s wish, had given Clarke here one thousand pounds—but on his own account he charged ten per cent. Clarke tried to see Horran, but to keep back that fact I used my medical power as Horran’s physician to prevent an interview.”
“But I did see him at length,” said the vicar, triumphantly.
“Yes,” snapped Jerce, “and so sealed Horran’s death warrant. Do you remember on the day preceding the murder that I had an interview with Horran?” he asked, turning to Clarice.
“Yes, and you said that Uncle Henry was angry with Ferdy.”
“He was angry with Barras, and declared that he would get the accounts looked into by a clever City man. I knew that was fatal. Barras and I could deceive Horran and you, but we couldn’t hope to deceive this accountant who was mentioned. I then determined to prevent the exposure by murdering Horran.”
“You villain!” cried Clarice, shuddering. “Your old friend.”
“He would have been my new enemy had he learned the truth about the accounts,” said Jerce, cynically. “However, we must get on,” he looked at his watch, “it is getting late. Well, then I went up to town, having arranged with Ferdinand here, that he should kill Horran and stamp his forehead with the Purple Fern. I need not tell you how I got that, Miss Baird.”
“I know,” she replied, with horror. “But were you arranging a deliberate murder with my brother, when Anthony and I saw you walking to the station?”
“Yes. You were driving, I believe. Ferdinand agreed to kill—”
“I did,” interrupted Ferdy, quickly, “but I intended to tell Uncle Henry everything. I never intended murder.”
“So I thought,” said Jerce, with a shrug; “you are such a weak fool that I fancied you would flinch at the last moment. That was why I came down during the night. I pretended to go to Whitechapel, and did not take my chauffeur, which was often the case. No suspicion was thus aroused in Harley Street as to my destination. I motored down to Crumel in a little over two hours, and acted in the way Clarke here has told you.”
“But the murder?”
“I expected to find Horran dead,” said Jerce, “and yet, knowing what a weak fool this boy is, I feared lest he should fail. I entered by the window, which that ass of a Wentworth had ordered to be opened, as I knew he would, and Horran raised himself in bed. He recognised me, and, unable to explain my intrusion, I caught an assegai from the wall and stabbed him to the heart. He cried out, but only feebly. Then I ran away and Clarke caught me. I kept him quiet by saying that I would tell about Frank. Afterwards, I motored back to town in another two hours and a trifle more, and regained my house in safety.”
“Oh, you villain!” said Clarice again, striking her hands together.
“Next day, as you know, I came down and played my part in the comedy, Miss Baird. I saw the mark of the Purple Fern, and Ferdinand here told me how he had stamped the dead body. I gave him back my cheque, and so acted honourably. So that is all, unless,” added Jerce, with hesitation, “my love for you—my true and genuine love—”
“Oh, no, no,” cried Clarice, with horror, and ran across to Anthony; “have you got it written down? Then let that wretch sign it, and send him out of the house.”
“But the police ought to be told,” said Ackworth, in a low voice.
“I say no,” cried Clarice, stamping her foot. “I will tell you why at a later period. Sign, Sir Daniel, sign, and rid this house of your wicked presence.”
Jerce looked at her gravely, then deliberately signed the paper on the spot pointed out by Ackworth. Anthony and Clarke signed as witnesses, and then the soldier handed the paper to Clarice, who thrust it into her bosom. This having been done, she went to the window and opened it. “Go!” she said to Sir Daniel.
“Surely, you will let me get my coat and hat,” he said, quietly, and, with a last look at her, he went into the hall. Shortly he appeared at the door again. “Good-bye for ever,” he said, in an unemotional voice. “I’ll go this way—by the front door. And to-morrow you shall hear of my death.”
“Unhappy man!” cried Clarke. “Do not add sin to sin—” But Jerce was gone. He went out of the house, and into the gathering darkness of the night—but not to the merciful death he designed for himself. As he passed through the gate, Jane limped after him quietly, not barking as was her custom. She seemed to know that her time had come. And so Jerce, all unknowingly, went to his doom.
Hardly had Sir Daniel Jerce disappeared, when Clarice dropped like a log to the ground. The strain had been too much for her, and for the second time in her life she fainted. Anthony hastily summoned Mrs. Rebson, and the poor girl was taken up to her room. Then Captain Ackworth left the house. Business must go on, in spite of all untoward events, and he was forced to return to Gattlinsands and to his duties. But before leaving he told Mrs. Rebson that he would come over the next day, and then addressed himself to Ferdy. “You had better remain in the house,” he said, coldly, “as it will be necessary for Clarice and myself to arrange to-morrow about your future. You have escaped a great danger, and everything must be made safe, for your sister’s sake.”
“I can arrange my own future, thank you,” said Ferdy, haughtily.
“You will do exactly what you are told,” said Ackworth, stern and unbending, “or else I shall inform the police.”
“You would not dare—for Clarice’s sake.”
“For her sake I would dare. You have made her life miserable for years, and I won’t permit you to spoil it any longer. Also I wish to avoid a public scandal. If Osip holds his tongue this may be done. But my forbearance depends entirely upon your obeying orders.”
“But Clarry will rage at me all the evening,” whimpered Ferdy, now very afraid for his skin. “Let me go to the Vicarage.”
“Yes,” interposed the vicar, “let him come with me and see Prudence. Now there is no bar to the marriage.”
“What?” cried Ackworth, recoiling. “Would you have a scamp like this for your son-in-law?”
“I’m not a scamp,” cried Ferdy, furiously.
Clarke raised his hand mildly. “My own son is worse than this boy—that is, he was worse, seeing that he is dead. Frank was a murderer, so who am I to blame Ferdinand for his wickedness? He is all right if he is kept in the strait way, and Prudence shall do this.”
“Oh!” Anthony was too disgusted for words. “Would you force the girl to marry him?”
“No. But he shall tell Prudence everything. The acceptance, or refusal, shall rest with her.”
“You hear?” cried Ferdy, in triumph. “Other people are not so hard on me as you and Clarry are. Can I go to the Vicarage?”
“Yes,” said Ackworth, seeing the hopelessness of bringing Ferdy to a sense of his sins. “Go, and, for heaven’s sake, never let me see you again. You are worse than a villain, Ferdy—you are a fool,” and he walked out, wondering how a girl like Clarice ever came to have such a blackguard for a brother. The next morning Clarice rose, feeling as though a black cloud had been lifted from her life. Things were bad, certainly, but they were not so bad as they had been. She dressed herself with great care and ate a good breakfast in her room. Ferdy had sent up to ask her to come down to the meal, but she felt that she could not sit opposite to him again. Like Anthony, she wished to see the last of Ferdy, even though he was her twin brother. When she was getting ready to go downstairs and meet Ackworth, who was expected at eleven o’clock, Mrs. Rebson rushed in.
“Oh, deary me—oh, deary me,” she cried, wringing her hands, “what bad news, Miss Clarice—what dreadful news!”
“What is it now?” asked the girl, quietly. She had received so many shocks that one more or less mattered little. “Has Ferdy—?”
“He’s all right, miss—the darling boy. You have saved him, though what you had to save him from I don’t know, and he won’t tell his own dear Nanny.”
“Better not ask, Mrs. Rebson,” said Clarice, with a weary sigh. “But your news—what is it?”
“That doctor and Jane.”
“Yes, lovey—Sir Daniel as was.”
“Oh! he is dead. I quite expected to hear that.”
Mrs. Rebson stared. “You expected to hear that Sir Daniel was torn in pieces by Jane?” she asked, incredulously.
“What!” Clarice could scarcely believe her ears.
“It’s true, miss. You know that Jane always hated Sir Daniel, though why she did so—”
“I know why,” said Clarice, thinking of the vivisection. “Go on.”
“Well, then, miss, Jane followed Sir Daniel when he went away last night. The groom—Thomas—saw her. This morning he found her with her jaws all over blood, footsore and weary, as though she had come a long way. And she’s been stabbed in the side with a penknife, miss, as the wounds—three of them—are so small.”
“Well? Well?” asked Clarice, impatiently, while Mrs. Rebson stopped for sheer want of breath. “What has this to do with Sir Daniel?”
“What’s it got to do with him?” screeched the housekeeper, sitting down. “Why, miss, news has just come by a couple of labourers that the body of Sir Daniel has been found on Barnes Common, fifteen miles away, with his throat tore out, and the poor man as dead as a herring. It is thought that the dog did it, since she hated him, and the police are coming in an hour to make enquiries.”
“It’s impossible,” said Clarice, hardly able to believe that Jane had thus revenged herself on her enemy. “Sir Daniel went up to London by the train.”
“No, miss, he didn’t, begging your pardon. Mrs. Dumps saw him at the gate hesitating, and he really did walk towards the High Street, on his way to the station, may be. But then he changed his mind and went down the lane. She saw him pass, and Jane following him as good as gold. No doubt he walked on to Barnes Common, and there Jane killed him. Oh, ain’t it dreadful?” cried Mrs. Rebson, again wringing her wrinkled hands. “The Domestic Prophet never said anything like that.”
Clarice did not reply. She wondered why Jerce had walked. He must have seen the dog, who hated him, follow. But, perhaps, because Jane limped—the doctor’s own work—he did not think that she was dangerous. And it might be that Jerce intended to kill himself in the open instead of in his Harley Street house. But, be this as it may, Jerce was dead, and Jane had killed him. No doubt she had followed persistently all that long way, and, having been left behind, Jerce had sat down to rest. Clarice could picture the grim yellow-eyed dog stealing up in the dark night to the unsuspecting man, seated on some dripping bench on the Common. She could picture the silent spring, the closing of those long, white teeth on Jerce’s fat throat. And then the end, with the dead body lying on the soaking ground, and the dog trailing home, weary but satisfied, with blood-stained jaws. Truly, Jerce had not escaped punishment after all, and the gods had brought home his crime to him in a terrible way.
“Master Ferdy wants to see you, deary,” said Mrs. Rebson, after she had expressed her conviction that Jane would be shot, and had mentioned twice her wonder that a limping dog should have caught up with a smart walker. “I am coming down now,” said the girl, quietly, and leaving Mrs. Rebson to shake her head over the wickedness of Jane, she went into the breakfast-room, where Ferdy was impatiently waiting for her. “Clarry, have you heard the news?” he asked, shaking a newspaper. “Don’t call me that,” said Clarice, coldly. “I have done with you, Ferdinand. You are not worthy to be my brother.”
“Don’t go on like that, Clarice,” said the young man, struck to the heart by the stiff way in which she addressed him. “I’m in such trouble. That Osip will tell the police about my having the stamp, and then I’ll be arrested.”
“You deserve the worst that can befall you, Ferdinand. But Osip—”
“He’s arrested, and Barras is dead.”
Clarice sat down. How many more tragedies was she to hear of? Ferdy pointed out a sensational heading in the “Daily Planet.” “See Jerce—have you heard, Clarry?—has been killed by Jane, and now Osip has killed Barras. Their crimes have come home to them.”
“And your crimes ought to come home to you,” cried Clarice, feeling sick with Ferdy’s egotism. “You are—you are—but I can’t say what you are. Your wickedness and weakness are beyond the power of language to express. How did Osip kill Mr. Barras?”
Ferdy grew sulky, and apparently regarded himself as a very ill-used person. “Osip went to Barras’ office yesterday to get money out of him, and Barras kicked at the idea. Osip then murdered him, and rifled the safe with keys taken from Barras’ pocket. He stamped the Purple Fern on Barras’ forehead, and was cutting with the money, when someone came into the room. The alarm was given, and Osip fled down the street with everyone after him. A policeman caught him, and now he is in gaol. And I dare say he’ll give me away,” lamented Ferdy, selfishly. “So hard on me, just when everything is settled nicely. Prudence has promised to marry me and—”
“Prudence?” cried Clarice, starting to her feet, and throwing down the “Daily Planet” which she was reading. “Does she know what you are?”
“Yes,” said Ferdy, sulkily, “and she knows that I am not a bad sort either. Her brother was a murderer, so she says that I’m not so bad as he was; and Mr. Clarke thinks the same. But we don’t want to stop in Crumel after we are married. Mr. Clarke says he will come with us to Australia. I think I shall like that,” ended Ferdy, musingly. “I hear it’s a ripping climate.”
Clarice looked at him helplessly. It seemed impossible to do anything with this blind fool. However, she made an attempt to frighten him.
“I suppose you forget that you may be arrested if Osip speaks?”
“Oh, Clarry, you must stop that,” said Ferdy, imploringly. “I know I’m not so good as I might be; but there are worse than I am—Jerce, for instance. Look what a bad—”
“Oh, be silent,” said Clarice, in sheer despair, “and listen. You are in no danger of arrest. Do you know why I allowed Sir Daniel Jerce to leave yesterday after he had signed the confession?”
“No, but I’m glad you did, as if he had been arrested he might have turned nasty.”
“Quite so. Well, then, I received a letter when I went to meet Mr. Clarke in the hall. It was from Osip. He said that because I had been so brave in trying to save you by meeting him at the Shah’s Rooms, and because I had not told the police about him, that he would acknowledge that he was guilty of Uncle Henry’s death.”
“No,” said Ferdy, delighted. “What a good chap. But why—”
“Ugh!” said his sister, her teeth on edge with Ferdy’s joy. “Osip can easily take a fifth murder on his conscience, since he will certainly be hanged for the other four. You can make yourself easy, Ferdinand; Osip will plead guilty to Jerce’s crime, and as the police and the public already believe in his guilt, no enquiries will be made. Sir Daniel Jerce’s wickedness will never be discovered, nor—as I will not move in the matter—will the defalcations of Mr. Barras come to light. The world will say that two good men are gone, and Osip will be hanged, while poor Jane will be shot for having killed a villain who thoroughly deserved his doom.”
So Clarice spoke, and after-events proved that she was a true prophetess. Jane was shot, Osip was hanged, keeping silence to the end, out of some odd admiration for her bravery in facing him, and the notices about Jerce and Barras were all that could be desired in the way of praising their good deeds and wonderful lives and amiable dispositions. There was something ironical about the whole business, and not the least ironical part was that Ferdy should be happy, when he deserved punishment.
There was only one danger, namely, that Zara Dumps, sooner than lose Ferdy, might reveal what she knew, and thus re-open the business. But when Anthony came an hour later to see Clarice, he found her alone, and was enabled to set her mind at rest on this point.
“I am late,” explained Anthony, when the two were seated on the old familiar sofa, “because I have been seeing Mrs. Dumps and her daughter.”
“Is Zara in Crumel?”
“Yes. She came yesterday, as she is not acting just now. A new man to play the part of the Chrysalis has to be obtained, and Zara finds some difficulty in getting the person she wants. I have explained to her that she and her mother must hold their tongues unless Zara wants to get into trouble.”
“In what way?” asked Clarice, quickly.
“Can you see? Zara could get into trouble for not having given the alarm when she saw Ferdy—as she thought—kill Horran. Then, again, the mere fact that Osip was in Zara’s company is suspicious. I have made it clear that Ferdy is innocent, and that Jerce was guilty, and that now the doctor and Barras are dead, and Osip is arrested, the best thing will be for Zara to give up Ferdy and hold her tongue for her own sake and for her mother’s.”
“And what does she say?”
“She has agreed, and so has Mrs. Dumps. They will neither of them say a single word.”
“But Mrs. Dumps has such a long tongue.”
“About other people’s affairs, but about her own she can be silent enough. You need have no fear, Clarice. The Purple Fern murders are at an end with the death of Barras.”
“But it is strange, dearest, that Osip should act in this way towards me,” said Clarice, who had explained the letter. Anthony agreed. “I can’t understand the man’s nature,” he said, “except that we are told that everything evil has some good in it. I suppose he was touched by your devotion to Ferdy.”
“I suppose he was,” said Clarice, wearily. “But now, Anthony, you must see the new lawyer”—she gave him the name—“and arrange everything for me. Send Ferdy to Australia with Prudence. I never wish to see him again. I am so sick and tired, and ill—oh”—she put her arms round his neck, and placed her cheek against his—“I am ill—I am very, very ill.”
And she was. Anthony had to carry her to her room, and there she lay for three weeks between life and death. Wentworth said that she had narrowly escaped an attack of brain fever. But the devotion of Mrs. Rebson brought her successfully back to health. Yet for weeks she was still weak, although out of danger, and Anthony would not allow her to talk of the past. She never asked for Ferdy, although the brother she had been devoted to never put in an appearance. Ackworth saw the new lawyer and arranged the affairs of the estate, and made all provisions for his marriage.
Six months later they were married very quietly in the parish church of Anthony’s native town, and went for the honeymoon to Switzerland. There, one day, while sitting on the mountains above Les Avants, watching the grey peak of Jaman soaring into the cloudless summer sky, Clarice heard all that her husband knew about the conclusion of the troubles which had begun with the death of Horran.
“Ferdy is in Australia, as you know, darling,” Said the lover-husband, “and is married to Prudence. Mr. Clarke writes me that Ferdy is behaving very well, and is studying for a doctor. Mr. Clarke himself has got a church up the country in Victoria. I think everything is right there.”
“He is getting the five hundred a year, as you arranged, my dear. When he is twenty-five, of course, he will get the two thousand, and let us hope he will be more sensible.”
“I hope so,” sighed Mrs. Ackworth, “but Ferdy is a most extraordinary character. He never seems to think that he is in the wrong.”
“Well, a wife like Prudence will keep him straight. Then Osip, as you know, is dead—”
“No! no!”—Clarice clung to her husband—“don’t talk of such things in this place, Anthony. I never wish to hear the man’s name again.”
“I won’t mention it,” said Anthony, gravely. “But for your peace of mind, dear, I may tell you that he held his tongue to the last. Everyone thinks that Osip killed Horran, as he killed Barras, and Jerce is looked upon as a martyr. Would you like me to read his obituary notices? I kept them.”
“No! I don’t wish to hear. But there are two things I should like to know,” added Clarice, thoughtfully. “Firstly, how you fancied that you saw Uncle Henry at the Shah’s Rooms?”
“Oh! Ferdy informed me that Barras masqueraded as his client, so as to deceive people into thinking that Mr. Horran was spending the money, and that his illness was a blind for profligacy.”
“What a wretch Mr. Barras was!”
“Well, he is dead, so we’ll forgive him.”
“Now,” said Clarice, “secondly? How did Zara know that the stamp was hidden in Ferdy’s bedroom?”
“She made him tell her where he had put it,” replied Anthony; “you know how weak Ferdy was.”
Clarice sighed: “It is weak people who usually get into trouble,” she said, “and know no escape. Has Zara held her tongue?”
“Yes, and they say—the Press says, I mean—that she is going to marry a wealthy American. For her own sake she will be silent. I don’t think we need worry any more about that past.”
“I am glad of that, Anthony. It is more pleasant to look forward to a bright and quiet future. But I still worry about Ferdy. After all, he is my twin brother, you know.”
“Don’t trouble about him, sweetest. He is not worth it, and you may be sure that he never gives you a thought.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Ackworth, gravely, “I don’t know that I mind. I have you, and you are my world. But there’s only one thing, Anthony—I’ll never wear purple, however fashionable it may become.”
Ackworth laughed at this truly feminine speech. “And you will never look at this again?” he said, teasingly, picking a fern.
“Ugh!” said Clarice, and, catching it from his hand, she flung it down on the sunny grass. “There—the past is gone with that.”
“The Purple Fern has gone with the green fern,” said Anthony. “Well, let it go, darling heart. You and I are together—”
“For ever and ever and ever,” said Clarice, nestling in his arms.
“Amen,” breathed the husband, piously, and truly meant it.
CLARKE, ALEXANDER & Co., LIMITED, LONDON AND NORWICH.
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