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Title: A Voice from the Dead Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2001011h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2020 Most recent update: September 2020 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy 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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IT was quite late at night, and they had just returned from a bridge party. The two of them were discussing the people who had been present, as they were drinking a nightcap cup of tea.
"And then Camilla Brendon," said Mrs. James, a lively little woman, seemingly full of the joy of life, "isn't she smart and hasn't she kept her good looks? Do you know, dear, she's turned forty-two? Oh, yes, I know it for certain! We went to the same school together and she's a year older than I, and I'm forty-one."
"Well, she could have passed for thirty tonight," commented the other. "Hasn't she got a clever face?"
"And she is clever, Lucy; the cleverest woman I know. She's well read and highly intellectual. She's the president of our Literary Society and none of the men can take her down."
"But her husband looks very ordinary. I mean he's not a bit clever. I can't imagine her marrying a man like him."
"Neither can anyone else," commented Mrs. James, "but then Ted Brendon's a dear old chap. As you say, he's not a bit clever, but he's an ideal family man, and he just worships Camilla and the children."
Lucy smiled. "Then, of course, she married him for money. I remember old man Brendon left plenty when he died."
Her friend shook her head. "No, dear, you're wrong there. Camilla never was that sort. Besides, she was doing journalistic work then, and must have had quite a good salary." She looked thoughtful. "No, Lucy, she didn't marry him for money and I'm certain she didn't marry him for love. I rather think she married him out of gratitude for his kindness to the man she'd been engaged to before. That one died as the result of a terrible accident when they were miles away from everywhere, and Ted had nursed him and cared for him until he was dead."
"Then she had had a lover before her present husband!" exclaimed Lucy. She nodded. "And I suppose she loved him!"
"Yes, passionately," replied Mrs. James with emphasis. She smiled. "Under the mask of that proud and cold face of hers, Camilla hides what is left of feelings of the deepest passion.
"As a girl, as you can guess, she was very lovely, but no man appealed to her until Ransom Hellingsby came into her life. Then from an icicle she became the burning fiery furnace. I knew her intimately then, and she confided in me more than she did in anyone else. She just idolised this Ransom of hers."
"And what sort of man was he? An Adonis superman, with all the virtues!"
Her friend sighed. "At any rate, she thought so. Oh, yes, he was good-looking, right enough, and very clever, too. He was a barrister, and everyone said he had a great future. He just swept Camilla off her feet and she loved him with every nerve and drop of blood in her."
"And he worshipped her in return?"
Mrs. James hesitated. "Yes and no. He couldn't help being fond of her in a man's sort of way, for she was so lovely to look at. Still, he'd been fond of many others before her, and, even when he was engaged to Camilla, he's supposed to have had other girl friends." She shook her head. "He wouldn't have made her the husband Ted Brendon has." She nodded again. "There were tales, too, that he drank."
"Well, what happened to him? You haven't told me."
"Oh, he was killed on a holiday! He and Ted Brendon and Michael Barling, now His Honor Judge Barling, were away shooting and fishing on Kangaroo Island, and in the wildest and most desolate part, Ransom fell over a cliff and got terribly hurt. His injuries were so bad, they daren't move him. Their car was 20 miles away, and, leaving Ted to look after him, Michael started to tramp 20 miles to get help. He sprained his ankle on the way, however, and it was two days before he was able to direct the rescue party to where Ransom was lying. Ted had done everything he could for him, but only a skilful surgeon could have saved him, and he was dead when they arrived."
"What a dreadful tragedy!" exclaimed Lucy. "I wonder it didn't kill Camilla."
"It almost did. She was heart-broken, and it was only to Ted Brendon she could ever bring herself to talk about what had happened. He often saw her, and, as Ransom's greatest friend, I suppose she thought he was all of Ransom that was left to her. At any rate, she must have been so grateful to him for his devotion to her dead Ransom and become so accustomed to him, that in the end she thought she could put up with him always. She could see, as everyone else did, that he was desperately in love with her. So two years later she married him."
"Is she happy?"
"Oh, yes, I think so—in a way. She's got two boys, the elder is 17, and a lovely girl of 15, and everything in the way of money she could want. Still, although it's more than 20 years ago, I think she still lives a bit in the past. When no one's watching her, her face in repose is sad."
The next morning the object of their conversation was seated alone in the breakfast room of her beautiful and well-appointed house. She had just seen her husband off in his car, but had returned to the table to finish her cup of coffee and glance through the morning newspaper.
As her old school friend had stated, she was still, at 42, a very handsome woman. She was well and tastefully dressed, and everything about her spoke of the woman of refinement. She had a good profile and perfect complexion. Her eyes were large and of a deep blue. She held herself gracefully and her general poise was as of one who was very sure of herself.
It happened to be the 18th anniversary of her wedding, and she smiled faintly as she thought of the warm good-bye her husband had just given her.
Dear old Ted, she had known him since she was a little child, but had never given it a thought that he had been in love with her in those far-off years when she was only a long-legged girl just out of pigtails!
But then Ted had always been shy, and one to keep himself in the background. Even all that time after her great trouble he would have never dared to speak of his feelings for her if she hadn't taken pity on him and met him three parts of the way.
Well, he had proved the kindest of husbands for her, and she could not wish for anyone more considerate. He was so unselfish, too, and without a trace of jealousy. He had not minded in the least when she had asked if their first little one could be called Ransom, whereas most men would not have liked it that their son should be named after an old lover of their wife's, but he had just smiled and bowed his head in sorrowful memory, she had known, for the dead. Of course, he had loved Ransom, too. David and Jonathan they had been called at school, and in their college life, later, they had been inseparable.
Then that awful tragedy when Ransom had been killed! What torture it had been for Ted to give her all the ghastly details. But she had insisted she should know all at once, so that there should never be anything more terrible to tell her.
Her thoughts wandered then to her children and her mother's heart warmed within her. What a splendid man her elder son Ransom the second was going to be! Strong, masterful, and capable as the other Ransom had been. Indeed, she always liked to think he was not unlike him in appearance, too. And that must be, so her secret thoughts ran, because her first lovers image had remained so vivid in her mind.
Then her daughter, 15, only two years younger than Ransom, how lovely she was, and what a sweet disposition was hers. She had her father's ways, and what a treasure she would be for some man one day! She was—but her thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of the maid with the letters.
She ran through them carelessly, and then her face brightened as she saw one in the handwriting of her one-time lover's sister. She had always liked old Miss Hellingsby, who had been ten years older than Ransom.
The letter was a thick one in a big envelope, and, opening it, she found another envelope wrapped round with a piece of white paper, upon which was written, "Do not open this until you have read my letter." Miss Hellingsby's letter read:—
"Dearest Camilla—I was clearing out an old cupboard yesterday and came
across a jacket of poor Ransom's. It was the spare one he must have
taken with him on that dreadful holiday. As I was handling it, I felt
something which had slipped down in the lining. It was this letter
from him to you, which I now enclose. Of course, I have not opened it,
and at first was inclined to burn it. But, then, I realised it really
belonged to you, and so send it along.
Your affectionate friend,
Camilla caught her breath, and, even after all those years, her heart beat much quicker. She opened the enclosed letter with trembling fingers, and her eyes wonderingly devoured what was written. It was dated Thursday, December 29. "The day before the accident," she murmured. "It was on the Friday he fell over that awful cliff."
After a few lines of endearment, and his declaring he was quite well, except for an occasional bout of neuralgia which bothered him a little, she came to a part which made her face blanch, and almost choked her as she breathed.
"Now here's something very strange, sweetheart," she read, "and I can't
make it out. It sounds incredible, but something's happened to Ted, and
I believe that for some reason he has come to hate me. Yesterday I had
caught him several times looking very queerly at me when he thought I
wasn't watching, and last night I half think he wanted me to do myself
"It was like this. Our camp is in a hollow just behind a big cliff, with a bit of a creek on the land side, where one can often get a duck when they come over about dusk. Well, after tea I went out by myself to try and pot some, and was in hiding behind some bushes. Of course, I had got my gun loaded. Then something, I don't know what, made me take the cartridges out and have a squint down the barrels of the gun. Perhaps I thought I hadn't cleaned them the previous day after we had been out after quail. At any rate, to my horror, I found one of the barrels was choked up hard with caked mud. Only one of them, that was the funny part, but if I had fired the gun, then, good God! I might have got my hand blown off or even worse than that.
"I knew the day before that the ground had been very muddy after the rain, and I had certainly put down my gun once or twice, but I couldn't credit the barrel having got in that state. Of course, that Ted has really been looking at me queerly and that he put the mud in the barrel of the gun may be all imagination, and I only tell you so that when you write back you may tell me what an ass I am. I have such great faith in your good sense. Some days fishing boats come in close to the shore, and I may get one to take this tomorrow."
The letter finished up with more endearing terms.
Camilla sat on with a white, set face. It was inconceivable, but what if Ransom had been pushed over that cliff and had not fallen over as had been made out?
When he had been killed there had been practically no enquiry at all. The island sergeant of police had made his report, and the coroner, to save himself trouble, everyone said, had not thought it necessary to hold any inquest.
But Ted——a murderer! It was incredible! Still, who could fathom the secrets of a man's heart where the passion for a woman was concerned? Had not history told over and over again how the natures of the gentlest and most inoffensive of men could harden and become brute-like when baulked in their pursuit of one of the other sex. They, too, then had lost all sense of conscience.
And Ted had been loving her all the time! He had told her so and how miserable his life had been, believing as he did then, that she could never be his!
Oh, how sorry she was she had been given that letter! Her affection for her husband had never merged into real passion, and she would loathe him now if she learnt he had had any part in Ransom's death.
Again she told herself it was impossible, but she added she could not let the matter rest there. No, she would go and see Michael Barling, the judge, and get the truth out of him that very day. He had been there with Ted when the accident had occurred, and so she would spring the letter upon him, being confident that, from the expression upon his face, she would be able to make out whether her husband had been guilty or not. It was vacation time, and the judge would probably be working in his garden in the afternoon. He was a bachelor, and flowers were the absorbing hobby of his life.
As she had expected, she found the judge at home, and he took her at once into his study.
"Michael," she said solemnly, "I can trust you, can't I? You'll always tell me the truth."
A distinguished looking man, with a keen, intellectual face and calm grey eyes, he regarded her curiously. "Certainly, Camilla," he replied, and he added, "there should surely have been no need for you to ask me that?"
"Well, here's a letter of Ransom's," she went on quickly, "and it was only given me this morning. His sister found it in the lining of the spare jacket he took away with him when you all went on that dreadful holiday." Her voice shook. "It is dated the day before he died. Here it is. Yes, read it right through and then you'll be sure it's his letter."
The judge took the letter from her with a calm impassive face, but he was soon frowning heavily. A long silence followed, for he read the letter twice before he looked up at her.
He spoke very quietly. "I don't know what to tell you, Camilla," he said. He tapped the letter disdainfully. "But, of course, what he suggests about Ted is all nonsense. All our guns were liable to get muddied, and Ransom was notoriously careless about his."
"Then what do you mean by saying you didn't know what to tell me?" asked Camilla sharply. "Are you keeping anything back?" Her voice shook. "Didn't Ransom die in the way it was given out?" She almost broke down. "Did my husband push him over the cliff?"
The judge's face was dark with indignation. "Don't be a fool, Camilla, and don't give way to hysteria. How dare you think such a thing about Ted?" He spoke scornfully. "I thought time had made you into a sensible, level-headed woman, and that——"
"But you said just now you didn't know what you ought to tell me," broke in Camilla tearfully, "and I thought you meant you were keeping something back."
"And so I was," commented the judge sternly, "but now I see I'll have to tell it you." He pointed to the letter he had given back to her. "For that neuralgia he refers to there, Ransom had been drinking heavily. He wasn't responsible for what he wrote, and, to make no bones about it, the next day he was drunk when he fell over that cliff."
Camilla covered her face with her hands. "Oh, but I can't believe it," she choked. "Ransom was always such a particular man. I'm sure he never drank too much."
"But he did," retorted the judge sharply. "He broke out occasionally when he was away. It wasn't often, but then he was as bad as anyone." He spoke regretfully. "I'm sorry, Cam, I had to tell you this, but you forced me to. I couldn't let the very faintest suspicion of anything rankle on in your mind."
"Then Ted wasn't near him when he fell over the cliff?" she asked faintly.
"Half the length of this room away," replied the judge. "I was much closer." He patted her kindly on the shoulder. "Look here, little woman, go back home and be the very nicest wife in the world to Ted. He's worth it, I tell you, every inch of him."
She began to mop her eyes. "I know that, Michael. He's been an ideal husband and father. I'll forget all about this letter, and burn it directly I get home. I've been very foolish."
"Yes, you have," smiled the judge, "but don't wait until you get home to burn this letter. Burn it straightaway in this grate. Here, give it to me and I'll set a match to it. That's right. There—it's all gone up in smoke," he raised his finger warningly, "and now you never breathe a word to your husband that you received it. Promise me, now. Good, you're a sensible woman again!"
He saw her out of the house, and then, returning to his study, sank back wearily into an armchair and wiped over his forehead with his handkerchief.
"Whew, that was unpleasant," he murmured with a wry face, "and may God forgive me for the lie!" He nodded. "Still, he was drunk right enough two nights before, or else, with Ted present, he'd have never let out about that other woman he was carrying on with. The brute, going to be married within a month to an innocent and lovely girl like Cam., and yet boasting about the mistress he'd got! Gad, how Ted glared at him, the devoted Ted who up to then had always regarded him as his hero! But with Ted's secret adoration of Cam. Ransom's admission was sacrilege of the vilest nature."
He sighed heavily. "Yes, I had to tell her that lie, or else their two lives would have become one long drawn-out misery. She'd have never forgiven Ted because, indirectly, of course, everything was due to him. He certainly provoked the fight by suddenly blurting out to Ransom what he thought of him. Still, the fighting was perfectly fair, I saw to that, and there'd have been no accident at all if Ransom hadn't staggered back too far under that blow and lost his balance." He sighed again. "But it was best for Cam that he was killed. He'd have made her a shocking husband, and I don't wonder old Ted told me the other day that he regretted nothing."
Then, suddenly, the judge's eyes happening to rove round the room, fell upon the ashes of the burnt letter in the grate and, with a gesture as if of great annoyance, he strode over and ground them to powder under his foot.
All at once, then, he started and stood stock still. His jaw dropped and his forehead became all puckered up in a puzzled frown. He stared into vacancy and held his breath as if he were listening. But he was not listening—it was only that a sudden thought had come to him, and for the moment he would not give it expression.
"God, I had quite forgotten about that!" he exclaimed at last. "What about the choked-up barrel of the gun? Men have been killed by less than that."
With seeming reluctance he followed up the train of thought. "Was Ransom purposely lying about it to prejudice Camilla against Ted, in case Ted told her anything? He could tell by Ted's manner what he thought of him. Or did Ted really block up that barrel? Did he deliberately intend to——"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I'll never ask him, anyhow. Goaded by Ransom's treachery to Camilla, it would have been a sort of wild justice, and with a man of Ted's kind and gentle disposition"—he half smiled—"the wrath of the sheep."