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The Australian authoress Mary Helena Fortune (ca. 1833-1911) was one of the first women to write detective fiction, and probably the first to write it from the viewpoint of the detective. Her opus includes several novels and over 500 stories, many of which feature a detective by the name of Mark Sinclair. She wrote under the pseudonyms "Waif Wander" and "W.W."
IT happened some years ago that, when my yearly allowance of holidays became due, I took it into my head to spend them at the seaside, and I chose a locality to sojourn in which, for obvious reasons, I shall not give its own name to, but call it Remona. I was recommended to put up at a boarding-house kept by a man named Ozer, as being at once the cheapest and most likely to afford me amusement in offering a frequent change of characters to study.
I need not tell you the style of people who patronized Ozer's, for they were the sort to be found in all seaside boarding places where the charge is not high. The families of tradesmen or small business folk, young women in search of health or flirtations, young men worn out by fast and low living and believing, or trying to believe, that a daily ablution in the sea would perform far more miraculous cures than the healing waters of Jordan on the leprosy of the Syrian Naaman; old women tottering down the hill of life, and finding only on the seashore sad memories of their youth, with an occasional bespattering of low larrikinism, both male and female—all were there coming and going during the time I stopped at Remona.
From the day I arrived there was a young man, of about three-and-twenty, with whom I seemed to get on better than with any of the others, perhaps because he was of a quiet manner, and did not annoy me with talk. Of all things in this sphere, I think an obtrusively talkative person is the most annoying and disgusting; but young Markham was not one of these, and he would sit and smoke or think in silence as long as silence was agreeable to his companion, yet he could talk well when occasion offered.
"What brought you down here?" I asked him once when we had become pretty well acquainted. "Was it for your health?"
"No; I am, I think, in perfect health."
"Change, then, I suppose?"
"Not exactly; I will tell you why I came. Last mail brought me intelligence that I had became heir to a large property, with papers, etc., for my signature. When I had done all that was necessary in appending my name, I left the rest in the hands of my solicitor, and ran away to be out of the road."
"What did you want to be out of the way for?" I asked, and he lifted a fine pair of eyes to mine with a smile as he answered.
"I suppose I must confess to make you understand. Well, the fact is that I could not trust myself until the excitement was over. I knew that I could have what money I wanted, and knew too that it was ten to one I should put it to a bad use in town, so I ran away from temptation."
"A sensible action on your part, but will not the danger be as great whenever you go back?"
"I hope not. The excitement will be over. I shall have had time to seriously think of my duties in life, increased as they will be by my change of position, and, according to my experience, the power of the sea as a preacher to the souls of men is unsurpassed."
I thought more of Markham than ever after this, and he seemed to place confidence in me as the days passed. He had been trying to work a small sheep station for some years past, I found, but had been hampered for want of means.
"Now, as soon as all is settled," he would say, "I shall improve my station and send for my dear mother."
"Have you only a mother?" I asked.
"Only a mother; but, surely, that is enough."
"Until you get a wife," I replied, laughing.
"I shall never get a wife," he said, with great seriousness. "I never yet met a girl I could wish to call by that name, and I do not think I ever shall."
"Nonsense! Your time will come some day. And so your mother is your only relative?"
"Not exactly. I have a cousin about my own age, who is coming out to join me even now—his ship will be due in a few days, but I suppose he will expect to find me on the station and go direct there."
"And in the meantime you are alone, and you sit by the seaside and dream of the future."
"No. I dream, but, strange to say, it is not of any future I dream. I often wonder at the strange state of mind I find myself in, for I cannot think; that is to say, I cannot think out anything. My mind floats away from it, out to sea, as it were. Floating, when I come to think of it, is the exact word, for my very thoughts are inert and dreamy as the scarce rippled surface of a summer sea."
"You describe a feeling that is not an unusual one in a holiday," I said; "but you can feel it quite as well lying on your back among the grass under a shady tree in a quiet land. I think it proceeds from the perfect enjoyment of an unusual idleness."
"I don't think in my case that that is the solution. I do not enjoy, for I do not feel as if anything exists. I cannot explain it to you, but at Remona I feel as if I had come to the end of all time."
Poor young fellow, how often I afterwards thought of that strange saying!
"What kind of fellow is this cousin of yours?" I asked one day, as we sat in a favourite seat among the rooks.
"Do you mean in appearance?"
"In every way."
He laughed his low quiet laugh as he said, "I am flattered by the interest you seem to take in my interests, for I know you are not asking me simply from an anxiety to give me pleasure."
"I am not indeed," I answered. "I feel an unusual interest in you, and in all that concerns you."
"I am glad to know and believe that. Well, Jack Markham, in appearance, greatly resembles me, only that the greater vitality he possesses gives a quick, sprightly character to both his expression and manners. Our fathers were brothers; our mothers were sisters. We were born within a month of each other, and were both christened John, but, to distinguish us, he was called Jack, a diminutive far more suited to his jolly, lively ways than the John which I retained. The uncle from whom I have inherited took a great dislike to Jack's mode of life and manners ever since he was old enough to assert himself, so that the small legacy he has left him could scarcely be a disappointment, my cousin being fully aware that uncle would leave the bulk of his wealth to me. It will revert to him, however, when I and mother die."
"Are those the terms of your uncle's will?"
"The terms are strictly that I or mine hold all only in the event of my death without will or heirs, in which case all goes to Jack."
"Without a will? Have you made your will, then?"
"I am going to do it," he said, seriously, "only I should like to see if my cousin has changed in many ways since I saw him in England. He says he has, but he was leading such a wild life that I want to know by my own experience."
"Your uncle had doubtless good cause for not leaving him wealth," I observed.
"Yes, he had; but I blamed greatly for it all the influence of a bad woman."
"Ah! That is an influence whose power no living man can fully gauge."
"She was one of the worst, I think, and was the occasion of all Jack's trouble with his family. Older than he by some years, and having a diabolical dark beauty of her own, she could twist him round her finger as easily as she would twine a ribbon. He says she has cut him since uncle entirely repudiated him, and I am thankful that it is so."
"What is this woman's name?" I asked.
"Charlotte Brayler—that is to say, if it is true, as Jack has always declared, that he has not made her his wife."
"I would make my will if I were you," I said.
He looked at me with a smile as he returned, "How seriously you speak!"
"It is a serious matter," I replied. "If anything was to happen to you, your mother would be left at the mercy of that bad woman."
"You think Jack has not dropped her then?"
"She has not dropped him; no woman such as you describe would drop any man while he has the chance of inheriting a fortune, be assured of that, and make your will."
"You are so earnest," he said, looking at me almost pleadingly. "Do you think mine is a bad life? I am in perfect health."
"That may be, but no man who has property at his disposal should let one day or hour pass without settling his affairs; it is but a just and wise precaution that he should do so."
"I think you are right," he said, after a thoughtful pause, in which his large grey eyes were looking far out to sea, "and if I could do it without a fuss, I would do it this day."
"You can do it this hour if you like," I said, "and without a soul, save I and a friend of mine, being the wiser. The form of a will is the simplest thing in the world, we can get one from any almanac."
"I know," he said, as he rose from the rock on which he had been sitting, "and I will go and do it now if you wish."
We walked along the beach, and as we walked I explained to him that within a mile there was a small police station, at which an old chum of mine, named Smith, was in charge. Still I could not help expressing my fear that my suggestion had made him doubtful and melancholy, for he was more serious and silent than usual as our steps crackled among the shells and dry seaweed of the sun-bleached beach.
"You will not die any the sooner for making a will, you know, and there is another thing to be thought of," I said. "If your cousin knows that your will is made, it would be a satisfaction to him, if he has any honourable feelings left, since he could not then be suspected of any ulterior motives in his dealings with you."
"That is true," he said in a tone of relief. "I had not thought of it in that light, and as my dear mother knows all about him and my hopes of him, Jack's interests would be safe in her hands."
We found Smith at home, and before an hour had elapsed were on our way back to Ozer's with a signed and attested will, in which he bad left everything to his mother, and alluded to his cousin Jack in a simple, kindly way, in his band; it was written on a half sheet of foolscap, and as we walked almost silently for the first half of the way, he held the paper in his hand, thinking, as it seemed, and looking at it occasionally. At last he stopped and looked straight out to sea, where, between the heads, a full rigged vessel was making her way up the Bay.
"Jack might be in that very ship," he said, pointing toward the vessel with the folded paper in his hand. "I wonder if he is changed."
"Did you like him? Was he a favourite of yours?" I asked.
"When we were boys, yes; but he got so different after. No, I cannot truthfully say that I liked poor Jack of late years, but it was all that wretched woman's fault. I am sure of that, for there was nothing originally mean or unprincipled in my cousin."
"My dear fellow, the root of evil must have been there, or no culture would have urged its growth."
He sighed, and then reached out to me the paper on which such issues unconsciously hung. "I want to give this into your charge," he said. "I somehow don't like to see it, or keep it, and it will be safe with you."
"Perfectly," I replied, as I put it carefully away. "You know I am always to be found among the D's; and when you make another on your marriage—to which you will, of course, invite me—I shall faithfully return you this."
He laughed a little, and as that was all I wanted our usual intercourse was renewed without another allusion to the will.
It was only the day following when a telegram from town reached Markham, and he came to me with his fine face lit up pleasantly.
"Jack has arrived," he said, "in the Stromboli, the very ship we saw going up yesterday, and I have sent him word to come down. He will be here by the 6.40, I expect. Do you know, I feel quite nervous and shaky over it, Sinclair."
"Have a nip of brandy," I said, with a laugh, "and I'll have another to console me for the loss of your society, for I shall not see much of you now."
"You will see as much as ever; poor Jack would not content himself at any time with my society, and there are no secrets to discuss between us. No, my dear fellow, you will not lose my society; but we can have the nip all the same, for I feel as nervous as a young lady expecting her first proposal of marriage."
"Where do young ladies feel nervous on such occasions?" I asked. "You will find it is not in Australia at all events.
"You are talking treason, Sinclair."
"I have had experience, and I have eyes and ears," I snapped, and so the hours passed until the train brought us Jack Markham.
I had felt from the first an interest for which it would be difficult to account in this young man, and when he stood before me, and held his cousin's hand, I watched him with an eagerness that might have surprised him had he observed it. Had I not known that there was so little difference between the ages of the cousins I should have taken the new arrival to be twenty eight or nine, if it was only from the savoir faire of his manner, and the haughty, self-contained eyes with which he scanned the faces around him, even while he was listening to his cousin's greeting and welcome. As I was introduced, his bold dark eyes shot a look of inquiry into mine that had an unpleasant expression of suspicion in it, a suspicion doubtless engendered by my apparent intimacy with his cousin John.
He was a far handsomer and more manly looking man than my friend. There was no denying that; yet the family likeness between them was great, but I disliked Jack Markham from the very first. He was so calm and collected, so non-impulsive and careful in his replies and conduct, that one could scarcely believe that he was but three and twenty or so, and only in a strange and interesting new world for a short twenty-four hours. I didn't like him, I have written, and I repeat it with the addition that before he was two hours at Remona I detested him.
After tea, at which made her first appearance a widow lady who had come down by the same train as Markham, John, my friend, proposed a stroll and a cigar on the beach; so, in the last light of a setting sun, we walked on the shingle toward our favourite resting-place and sat down on the rocks, John and I in our usual positions, and the cousin on a stone a little nearer to the sea. The cigars were in full play, and for a little while only the rollers at our feet broke the silence around us. At length John tossed the butt of his cigar into the sea, and exclaimed joyously—
"How beautiful and enjoyable all this is! How beautiful and enjoyable life is altogether!"
"What a discovery!" I cried. "Only yesterday you felt floating away, and had come to the end of all time, as you expressed it."
"My cousin's arrival has brought me in from sea on a springtide," he returned, laughingly. "How sorry I am that you will go away so soon, my dear Jack."
"You forget that I have been weeks—weary weeks on the sea that you so much admire," the young man who was addressed said; "and that it has tumbled and tossed and battered me until I am sick of it. It is all very well for rich fellows like you to lounge on the sands looking at the sea, but I have to work for my living, and the sooner I am at work the better."
I think there was a suspicion of being ill-used by his uncle in the matter of his legacy that wounded John Markham slightly, for his tone was greatly cooler than it had been as he replied—
"I daresay you are right. Jack; at all events, you have a right to please yourself. When do you start for the station?"
"Tomorrow; and you?"
"I shall join you as soon as ever my solicitor is done with me." There was another silence here, and I had risen to lift for examination a bunch of seaweed lying at a little distance, when John suddenly turned toward his cousin.
"I hope, Jack, that in the matter of that woman you have not deceived me. I would not have her enter my life even by name for half uncle's gold."
"If you are alluding to Charlotte Brayler, you need not name her. I have done with her forever;" but as he answered his eyes fell, and a hot flush mounted up into his averted face.
"I am more than glad, Jack. I have blamed her for all and everything of your troubles; she has been the ruin of your life."
"No more, please, the subject is quite as disagreeable to me as to you," and as he too rose and drew up his fine figure haughtily, I saw that his eyes were flashing with an angry light, and that around his lips and nostrils there was the white mark as of a frozen hand. I doubted and disliked the man from that hour.
The widow I have alluded to was my vis-à-vis at breakfast next morning, and I began my usual observation so as to know among what class of seaside visitors I should place her. She was, as the landlord informed us, a Mrs. Gerant, and her widow's cap and deep crepe told the rest. A woman of over thirty, I guessed, with an airy, vivacious manner and a decided inclination to flirting. I set her down to be a silly, useless woman, who found herself uncomfortable in her widowhood, and not disinclined to terminate it by making a favourable second marriage. She had languishing dark eyes, and a great frizz of fair hair over her low, broad forehead.
"What do you think of Mrs. Gerant?" I asked Markham after we had seen his cousin off.
"I—don't know. I caught her eyes fixed on me twice during breakfast, and I didn't like them."
"Ah, ha! making eyes at you already is she? My dear fellow, be sure you're booked for the poor departed's place." But he didn't seem to enjoy the joke, and the subject dropped.
I shall never forget that last evening we spent together on the sands, poor Markham and I, and I have recalled every word that passed between us so often that they are stereotyped in my memory.
It was an evening of threatening weather, and there was an angry sound in the breaking waves as they rolled sullenly in to the grey shore, and a pale light under the clouds on the western horizon that told of wild weather, and I have never since seen those threatening symptoms by the sea without recalling the pale, handsome face of my lost friend as he sat near me against a background of brown, damp rocks.
We had been speaking of his cousin John, and he with so much repression that I observed it.
"You are disappointed in him," I said. "I can hear that in the very sound of your words."
"Yes, I am, I do not deny it. I am sadly disappointed about him somehow. He might well say he was changed, for I never saw such a change in a human being."
"How is he changed?"
"I have tried to think, but I cannot explain, not in words. I never met his eyes once—he seemed to avoid looking at me, as if he disliked me. And then his manner was so abrupt, and his sentences so short and snappish, that I could not but notice it. I am almost sorry now that I sent for him at all."
"It was you who sent for him, then?"
"Yes; at his urgent solicitation, as soon as ever I could spare the means, I sent them to bring him out."
"Your uncle was alive, then?"
"Yes. I received a telegram stating his death about a week after Jack had sailed. I wonder why he was so very anxious to get away from me? In his place I should have enjoyed, of all things, a quiet rest after such a voyage."
"My dear Markham, you and your cousin are very differently constituted, and he will doubtless prefer spending that cheque I saw you slipping into his hand in some folly of town dissipation; but I confess to you that he impressed me very unfavourably, and I for one am rejoiced at his departure. I don't think the fair widow was though, for I saw her gazing wistfully after the train as it bore him away."
"How wild and lonely it looks on the sea tonight, Sinclair," he said, after one of our usual pauses; "as it grows darker, the waves seem to jostle one another for precedence, and roar angrily as they lash each other with broken foam. There, too, is a grand sight," and he pointed to the eastward, where, under a straight, heavy line of black clouds, the full moon was rising, round and red as a ball of blood, and laying a far stretching path of light across the rolling waters to our very feet.
"It promises to be a wild night," I returned; "and it's weird and lonely here with the seagulls and fishes. Let us go back to Ozer's, for it will be pleasant to see even lamplight on such a night as this!"
On our return we found in the sitting-room the flirty widow with the great eyes. Markham threw himself on a couch as if he was tired, while I drew a chair near that of Mrs. Gerant, who was pretending to do some frippery tatting work that resembled the web of a spider with her delicate and bejeweled fingers.
"Have you been out this beautiful evening, Mrs. Gerant?" I questioned insinuatingly, and she shot a bewitching glance from under her long lathes at me as she answered.
"No, indeed, I could not of course go alone, and I was not so fortunate as to have an escort."
"Now, that was too bad; if I had only guessed how delighted I should have been to offer you my arm."
"And leave your friend alone?"
"Under such circumstances I am sure my friend would only have been too happy to have joined us."
"Indeed? From his appearance I should guess him to be a devotee of solitude and melancholy," and she glanced up from her fingers toward Markham as she said so.
"You would be mistaken in drawing such a conclusion," I observed; yet, as I also looked at Markham, I saw that he looked more depressed than I had yet seen him. He was sitting on the couch with his elbows on his knees and his head resting in a weary attitude upon his palms.
"You are tired, old fellow?" I asked. "Would you like to turn in?"
"Yes, I do feel tired somehow, Sinclair," he replied, as he rose up and turned to the door. "I think I will go to my room, but that needn't hurry you. Give me a look in before you retire for the night;" and, slightly bowing to the lady, whose eyes were fixed upon him as he did so, Markham went out and shut the door behind him.
I was thus at liberty to flirt with the widow as much as she permitted, and I received sufficient encouragement to detain me for nearly an hour, and before we parted she had agreed to join me in an early stroll on the beach after her morning bath.
Markham's room was next to mine, and, as he wished, I went in before going to bed. To my astonishment, instead of in bed, I found him sitting upon it still dressed, and in the same attitude as he had taken on the couch.
"You are not well, I am afraid, Markham?" I asked, as I noticed the unusual pallor of his countenance as he lifted his head on hearing the door open. "What is the matter, my dear fellow?"
"I don't know, nothing bodily at all events, but I feel strangely depressed. You know how cold and wild it looked out at sea a little ago? Well I feel as if a dreary sea, covered with mist and without a ray of sunlight upon it, was lying spread out before my mental vision tonight. I feel disinclined to lie down, and almost afraid to shut my eyes, as a child who has been frightened with ghost stories. I have got the oddest idea in my head too, and have written it down on this bit of paper, but it is such a foolish one that I know you would laugh at me; so I will wait till tomorrow, when I hope I may be able to join you and laugh at myself too."
As he spoke he opened his hand and showed me, crumpled up in his palm, a scrap of paper.
"You are hipped, Markham," was what I said to him in reply. "Naturally sensitive, and inclined to melancholy, this life is too tame for you, and the approaching storm is depressing you, as it does many of a nervous temperament. Say your prayers, my dear boy, and go to bed fearless of ghosts."
"You have hit it, Sinclair!" he exclaimed, as he rose and grasped my hand. "Nothing will trouble those whom God guard. Good night, my friend, and may God bless you!"
I pressed his hand in return, and went to my room, between which and his there was but a wooden partition, so that as I undressed and lay down I could distinctly hear the murmured words in which poor Markham commended his body and spirit to the safe keeping of Him who doeth all things well; but it was long ere I slept, for over me too an uneasy shadow seemed to have fallen, and every moan of the rising wind sounded to me as a sigh or a groan from a human breast.
The sun had barely risen when, after a restless and very uncomfortable night, I rose on the following morning. All traces of the storm had passed save in the heavy swell of the sea before it surged musically on the long, bleached sands, as I went down to have my usual swim before breakfast. In this morning bath it was not the custom of Markham to join me, so I did not attempt to disturb him as I passed his door on my way out.
I had thoroughly enjoyed the fresh coolness of the waves, and, having dressed, was standing on a rock looking along toward the bathing-boxes, when I saw coming out of one of them a lady in a showy striped bathing-dress. I was not near enough to make my watch seem indelicate, so I stood and saw the unknown gambol in the waves like an amphibious creature, and float or swim as though a fish or a bird. I confess that I enjoyed the sight, and was sorry when the fair swimmer left the sea and again disappeared in the bathing-box to resume her walking attire.
Looking at my watch, I perceived that it was not far from the time Mrs. Gerant had appointed for our walk on the sands, and all at once it struck me that it might have been the widow herself whose performances in the water I had seen. Nor was I mistaken, for by the time I reached the vicinity of the boxes that lady emerged from them in a bewitching morning dress of half-mourning.
"And so it was you whom I fancied at first to be a sea-bird floating on the waves?" I said, when we had exchanged our morning greetings. "But I do not think so early a bath can agree with you, for you are pale and trembling, too."
"Yes, it was I. So you were watching me? Oh, that is nothing! The water is a little chilly, and it is some time since I have bathed. In another morning or two I shall have become more inured to it."
"Take my arm, and let us have & sharp walk to get up your circulation," I advised, as I held out my arm for acceptance.
"Nay, I will run you a race," was the laughing reply, as she started off on the hard, smooth sand, and with the activity of a deer ran on for some distance without looking back even to see if I was following her; then she stopped and turned, walking to rejoin me.
I have often wondered what feeling prompted my next action. If I had accepted her challenge and followed, I should not have seen the handkerchief that lay on the sand at my feet as she ran; and if she had not gone so far, I should not have put it in my pocket without examining it, and forgotten it after. I think I intended to run, only I saw what a start she had gained on me, and before I had decided not to do so I crammed the handkerchief into my pocket to be out of the way.
Mrs. Gerant had not seen it, nor had she missed it apparently. At all events, she made no allusion to the handkerchief, but chaffed me unmercifully on shirking the race.
"It was not fair," I cried; "you were off before I had time to think. What chance should I have had against such little winged feet?"
"Oh, flattery won't make your case more excusable, so don't try it," she retorted. "Yet, see how little good my race has done me—my hands are absolutely perishing;" and she held them out, pretty and ungloved, yet not unornamented, for upon them shone more than one rare gem.
"Let me try to warm them," I pleaded, as I took the little hands in mine and pressed them closely. "Are you not afraid to lose some of those rings in the sea? It is rather a risky thing to trust them to the waves."
My reply was a shriek, so wild, so piercing, so awful altogether, that the horror of it chilled me to the marrow.
"I have lost one. Oh! What shall I do? What shall I do?"
She had drawn her hands from me, and was staring at them with fear-distended eyes. Every vestige of colour had gone from her very lips, and I believe that if I had not put my arm around her she would have fallen on the sands at my feet.
"Calm yourself," I said. "Surely no ring can be of such value as to cause you to despair like this; and, besides, we may yet find it."
And she shrieked out, "God forbid!" and covered her face with her hands.
I couldn't understand it, and thought she must have taken leave of her senses, so when she dropped the hands and clasped them in each other with a wringing motion of utter despair, I seized them, and shook her so that her whole body swayed as I asked her, "What is the matter with you, Mrs. Gerant? Surely the temporary, or even eternal, loss of a ring cannot be a matter of such moment. Let us go and examine the beach and the bathing box—you may have dropped it as you undressed!"
"Yes, yes, it might, I had forgotten; there is a chance yet."
She said the words with a catching breath, and walked by my side as I led the way; but our search was vain, on beach or anywhere else there was no ring, and she sat down on a stone such a changed woman, gazing silently, and with an awful horror in her eyes, out over the rolling surf and the sunlit swell.
I looked at her hands as they lay supine on her knee, and I noted the rings that yet remained. On her right hand was a seal ring, with a pale sapphire in it. This ring was on her second finger, and the sight of it all at once recalled to my memory the fact that I had noticed on the first finger of the same hand at the tea-table a peculiar slender ring of plain gold with a star of the very tiniest brilliants at the back.
"Oh, I know now what ring you have lost!" I cried, as I remembered it; "it must be the star of diamonds you wore at tea last evening!"
"Oh! What am I to do?" was the returning moan.
"Do? Why get up and come back to breakfast. After a cup of tea the world may be endurable to you even though you have lost a gage d'amour."
She rose and looked me in the face with a strange searching look. I know now of what she was thinking, though I little guessed then. She was wondering if I was a man to be influenced by a bribe either of love or gold—she was gauging the depth of the evil she hoped to find in me; but she read no weakness in the eyes that met hers, and only a strange suspicion of, I did not know what, that I most undoubtedly felt as I looked at her, so she walked on toward Ozer's with me, silent, and shuddering at intervals, as if with cold or terror.
I took her into the dining-room, where breakfast was not yet laid, and I went and brought her a cup of warm tea, into which I poured a little brandy from my own private flask.
"Now drink that, and forget the ring," I said. "Why, you may even yet find it in your bedroom."
And, as if the idea gave her new life, she hastily swallowed the beverage, and, without saying even "Thank you," set down the cup, and hurried out of the room.
I followed and saw her turn into the door opposite Markham's just as I was searching in my pocket for my own key. Before I found the key, however, I lighted on Mrs. Gerant's handkerchief, which I had picked up from the sands, and, with a natural curiosity, I examined the initials in the corner. They were "C. B."
Upon what apparent trifles do the most serious events in life hinge! Had it not been that Mrs. Gerant's door had closed behind her I should undoubtedly have handed it to her; as it was, I replaced the handkerchief in my pocket, and knocked at Markham's door.
How well I remember every trifle that occurred as I stood and listened for my friend's reply! It seemed only then that I discerned the most peculiar perfume that emanated from the handkerchief for it lingered on my fingers, and, to ascertain what it was, I took the bit of cambric out once more and raised it to my face.
"Faugh!" I thought, "What a strange scent! That article would have been benefited by a bath in the sea as well as its mistress," and again I knocked at the door, to receive no reply.
I opened it, utterly unconscious of evil, and, thinking only how soundly Markham must be sleeping, as I called him twice by name, ere I advanced to the bed. The green blind was dropped, yet there was ample light to discern from where I stood the young man's form, lying on his back with one arm tossed on the pillow above his head; yet, somehow, there fell upon my senses the strangest dread of I knew not what, and I fancied that even in the room I could discern strongly the singular scent I had already inhaled from the widow's handkerchief.
"Markham, my dear fellow, the breakfast is ready! How soundly you sleep!"
Ay, he slept soundly, so soundly that nothing should ever again arouse him, but the great Trumpet of Doom! As I went and bent my face over his, I saw under the half-open blue eyelids, awful dead eyes, and as I laid my hand on the high pale forehead, it was as if I had laid it on a cold stone. My poor Markham had been dead for many hours.
I was stupid for a little. I felt as if I had received a blow on the brain. Was I dreaming or mad? It couldn't be Markham who was lying there unconscious and stone cold before me. But all at once it flashed upon me but too plainly that it was true; and I went out softly, drawing the key from the door, locking it from outside, and placing the key in my pocket.
There was no one in the passage, but Mrs. Gerant's door remained still closed. I went back to the dining room, in search of the landlord, and found him very busy in getting the tables ready for breakfast.
"Ozer," I said, "I want to speak to you instantly, and without any one observing us. Come into the private parlor," and, much wondering, the man followed me in.
"Something dreadful has occurred in your house, Ozer," I said, "and before I tell you what it is, I warn you to restrain yourself, and attend to breakfast as usual, without letting your boarders know anything about it for the present."
"What can you mean?" asked the man, stupidly.
"I mean that I have just been into Mr. Markham's room, to call him up, and I found him stark dead and cold in his bed."
"Good God! Oh, Mr. Sinclair, I hope you are mistaken. It must be a fit; let me send for a doctor!"
"It is no fit! The poor young fellow has been dead for hours," and my throat felt choking as I uttered the, to me, sad truth.
"Oh, this is dreadful! It will frighten the people awfully! What am I to do—what would you advise me to do?"
"I will tell you. Send at once to C— for a policeman. I have locked the door and have the key in my pocket. It has not been necessary for me to tell you before, but you will now be glad to hear that I am a policeman in the detective force myself, so that all is right so far. Now, then, send a messenger to C—at once, and serve the breakfast as usual!"
He went out, taking a very white face with him, and I sat down under the veranda which faced the sea and tried to think. I couldn't. I was only conscious of a whirl of dreadful feelings, in which sorrow, anger, suspicion, and determination were revolving together, without combining or remaining isolated long enough for any one to make a firm picture on my brain. I saw the families in twos and threes coming up from the sea to breakfast. I heard the voices of women and children, and the heavy steps of men as they passed me, but it was the sight of Mrs. Gerant that alone aroused me.
She stood before me in her sweeping, crêped black dress, and with the coquettish widow's head-dress as before, but she stood like a statue, and the sight of her made me my cool detective self in an instant. I rose and addressed her as lightly as if there was no dead friend lying in a near chamber, and as if no evil thoughts of her had tried for a place in my own mind a moment before.
"Have you found your ring?" I asked.
"Nor recovered its loss either? Come, this will never do; come in to breakfast, and rather than see you so unlike yourself, I will buy you another the very first time I go up to town."
"I will never wear another ring as long as I live!" and as she said so, I looked at her band and saw that there was not a single gleam of gold or gem upon either of them.
We ate our breakfast as others will do when you and I are lying as cold as poor Markham was lying that morning. Ozer attended table like an automaton, with firmly closed lips and a rigid face, but he never once trusted himself to look at me until the last boarder left the table; then he paused and told me the boy had gone to C—.
"All right!" said I in return. "By the time the constable gets here most of your people will be out. I will wait the man's arrival on the veranda."
It seemed so strange to see and hear the ordinary life at the seaside going on around me, while I pictured that dread form in Markham's room. The chatter and bustle with which women accoutre their youngsters for some hours on the beach—the quarrel over wooden spade or bucket—the gossip of men about the morning paper or its fresh aspect of political life, all went on as if Markham was not dead, and I could have cursed the selfish lot, unheeding the fact of their ignorance of my sorrow or its cause.
In a little over an hour Senior-Constable Dunning, of C—, made his appearance, and was soon made acquainted with the sad state of affairs.
"You have made no search or examination?" he said.
"No; I waited for you, and now we will go in company—Ozer might as well accompany us as witness."
So I took the key out of my pocket, and then the touch of her handkerchief reminded me of the widow.
"Send the girl into Mrs. Gerant's room," I said; "it is just as well that we should know if she is there or not."
And we waited until Ozer told us that the widow's room was empty, then we went in, Dunning and Ozer following me when I had opened the door.
The sleeper still slept calmly and soundly, and it was with a very gentle hand that I drew up the Venetian, as if fearing to awaken him; but the first object my eyes rested on as the light fell upon the toilet was a note addressed to my own self! I was surprised, and, after showing it to my awestruck companions, I unfolded it with trembling fingers.
I had often seen Markham's writing, and had even at that moment his signature on the will in my pocket, and I did not doubt the lines I read were written by him, yet how strange they read to me!
My Dear Friend Sinclair,—
For a friend I am sure you are, though you little know, with all the confidence I place in you, what a secret sorrow is dragging me to my end. I am tired of it—even wealth will not purchase a forever-lost happiness, and I end my own sad life in hopes of a happier hereafter. May God bless you and forgive me.
Those were the words, and, as I handed them to Dunning for perusal, I looked at Markham's still, white face, and could not realize that he had ever even thought them. Still, as I recalled his strange, melancholy words among the rocks, and his unaccountable dread of the previous night, and the very words he said to me, I did not for one second doubt that the temptation to self-destruction was on him even as he said them.
I told the two men standing by the bed what had passed, and I repeated the words.
"'I feel strangely depressed. You know how cold and wild it looked out at sea a little ago. Well I feel as if a dreary sea, covered with mist and without a ray of sunlight upon it, was lying spread out before my mental vision tonight. I feel disinclined to lie down, and almost afraid to shut my eyes, as a child who has been frightened with ghost stories!' Ah I yes, it was a clear case of suicide."
"It must be poison, I think," observed Dunning. "Do you notice the queer smell in the room?"
"Yes, I have noticed it, and here is the cause." I had turned down the bed-clothes from poor Markham's shoulders, and picked up a little phial that might have dropped from the clenched fingers that lay upon his breast. It is the smell of bitter almonds, and there is yet enough of prussic acid in that to kill another man!"
As I said the words I was handing the phial to the constable, but my eyes were yet resting on those clenched fingers. What was that close to them gleaming on the white night-shirt? I felt every drop of blood first recede to my heart and then rush to my face, as I pointed it out to Dunning, and then lifted it and put it in my pocket. The room seemed to swim with me at first, and I sat down in silence, while Dunning examined more closely the position and surroundings of the corpse.
On a chair beside me were the clothes Markham had worn on the previous evening. Mechanically I searched the pockets and took note of the contents. The purse, notebook, handkerchief, knife, etc., I took due notes of, and in the trousers pocket was a bunch of keys and a bit of paper crushed close. All at once that reminded me that the poor fellow had showed me a bit of paper, and said something about an odd idea that he had written down upon the paper on his palm that he would not show me until morning. Had he pushed it into his pocket when I left the room, and was this it? I opened it and read in pencil—
"I can't get it out of my head, Sinclair, that this pseudo-widow, a Mrs. Gerant, is no other than my cousin Jack's wicked Charlotte Brayler."
"Charlotte Brayler!" Ah! How plain it was to me now. The initials on the handkerchief, my find near the hand of my dead friend, the woman's terrible agitation on the beach, were all as plain to me as printed words. Oh! The wretch, abandoned to the very will of the evil one, how I hated her! How I gloried in the certainty of punishing her for the cruel deed she had done, and all in vain had done, for the dead man's will was safe in my friendly pocket-book.
Our consultation was short in that sad chamber, and when we emerged and re-locked the door it was left in charge of Dunning, while I went to telegraph for Jack Markham. I was not afraid of losing the widow with whom I promised myself such cruel delight as the cat enjoys with the poor mouse within its sharp claws; and, besides, she was not far away, for, attired to kill and once more with a colour in, or on, her cheeks, Mrs. Gerant was sauntering up the grassy street.
"Are you going for a walk?" she asked, with one of her bewitching smiles.
"No; only up to the office to send a telegram."
"How odd. So am I. Let us go together."
"I shall be delighted, and all the more so as I see you have got over your loss. I suppose I cannot congratulate you on having recovered the ring?"
"Well, never mind; you know I promised you another one, and I will certainly keep my word."
"You are too kind; but I could not accept such a present from a gentleman."
"I am sure you will not refuse to accept one from me; but here we are at the office—can I send your telegram for you?"
"Oh, no thank you; I am in no hurry; it will be quite time enough when, yours is dispatched."
There was a table, with forms and pen and ink for the use of the public in the passage outside the delivery-window, and on a form I wrote first a message to the coroner, and then another to our Flinders Lane office. The next I paused a little over, for it was intended to summon Jack Markham. How should I word it? "Come at once—a very serious matter," was at last all I wrote, with my own signature and the address attached. This I addressed to the hotel in town at which he had hinted a possibility of staying for a day or two before going up to Markham's station.
With the three in my hand I went, not to the window, but to a door which opened directly into the office. The young operator was sitting at his desk, coolly reading the morning paper, and he looked rather surprised as I walked so unceremoniously into his private room, but he got no time to comment ere I spoke.
"I am a detective," I said, shortly, as I laid my card on the desk before him, "and I want these three telegrams sent at once. There is a lady waiting outside also to send one, and in the interests of justice it is necessary for me to know what, and to whom, she telegraphs. Copy her message and pass it through the window to me as a receipt, but do not forward the message unless I say 'all right' as you give it me—do you understand?"
He had read my messages and looked at me, as he replied, "I quite understand. Is it murder, do you think?"
"Hush! I cannot pass an opinion now," and I went out to Mrs. Gerant.
She was leaning against the low fence, and playing idly with a spray of woodbine that clambered over it. Who ever could have supposed that the well-got-up face and form belonged to a creature whose deeds made a strong man shudder only to think of, or that under those folds of silk and crepe beat a heart that held all the unbending cruelty of a tiger? She turned with a smile as she heard me, a smile which deepened as I hoped I had not detained her too long.
"Oh, dear, no; you have not detained me at all; see, I have only to hand it in, and the matter is disposed of."
She held out a folded form as she went to the window and passed it in.
"Do you wait for a reply?" I asked.
"Oh, no. Do you?"
"No, my reply will be sent to Ozer's."
"Your receipt, sir."
It was the telegraph clerk who spoke, as he pushed me a paper. I read the words, they were simple, but damning as additional evidence against this wretch.
THE BUSINESS IS CONCLUDED—expect FURTHER NEWS.
That was all, with the address, "John Markham, Esq., Cleal's Hotel."
I lifted my eyes to the young man and said, "All right," tearing the paper into shreds as I did so, and turned away to walk again by the widow's side.
"Surely a receipt for a telegram sent is not necessary?" she said.
"Oh no, that was another matter which, in the prospect of a walk with you, I had quite forgotten,"
"How well you flatter!"
"Flattery would be impossible where Mrs. Gerant is concerned."
"If you do not talk sense, I shall not walk with you."
"Will it be considered sense if I ask you to go out boating with me? It is a charming morning, and I know you are fond of the water."
"Oh! I shall be delighted. Of all things in the world at this moment, I should enjoy going far out to sea, and leaving behind me the troubles of the hateful land!"
"Then we will go; but there are troubles we can never leave behind us, they follow and cling to us until our hearts have throbbed their last beat."
"You must mean sins, and not troubles," she said in a low tone, while she looked half fearfully in my face.
"I mean the memory of our sins; as for the sins themselves, we know that they may be forgiven us, but the memory of them can never leave us for all that."
"How strangely you talk. One would think you must have an awful bad conscience."
"My conscience is not a blank," I said; "but, thank God, there are no letters writ in blood upon it."
"You terrify me!" she cried, drawing from me in alarm. "What has got into your head this morning?"
I laughed out loud, a laugh that sounded awful in my own ears, but seemed to reassure my companion.
"The fact is, I have been reading a tragedy," I said, and it has impressed itself strongly on my mind. Come, here is a boat; step in, and I will work the abnormal gloom out of my system."
"For goodness sake do!" she exclaimed, as she stepped into the boat. "And if I was you I should cease to read sensational stories, as they affect you so. How lovely this is! How calm, and cool, and pleasant! I should like to go on and on, and never stop until there was nothing to be seen but water and sky for ever and ever."
"Talk of sensation, if that's not a strong touch of it, I give up. What? Row on and on and never stop? You could not live without food and water; besides there are such things as storms, and they are not pleasant things to encounter in a cockleshell of a boat."
"Well, one could but die."
A sigh accompanied the words, which were dreamy, and said more to herself than to me, I thought.
"True; and drowning is said not to be an unpleasant death, and, at all events, it is preferable to hanging. But look at that ship, Mrs. Gerant. If you were fortunate enough to be on board of her, you might go on and on as you wished, and with a fair chance of keeping above water."
"I would give a fortune, if I possessed it, to be a lawful passenger on board of her this moment."
I watched the wretched woman as she sat with clasped hands gazing at the fine vessel that, under a cloud of white canvas, was making her way out to the open sea. How well I guessed her feelings! Before her mental vision lay the dead face of her victim, whom she yet supposed undiscovered, yet dreaded to hear tidings of. I knew that, and was glad of it, and I knew also that she would truly give all the gold she had sinned for to be safe from justice on board that white-winged ship.
I was resting on the oars as she turned her haggard face to me and asked suddenly, "How far are we from Ozer's now!"
"Ozer's? A very short distance; why you can see its white walls distinctly—so distinctly that I can even trace the window of my friend Markham's bedroom. By-the-by, I wonder why he has not made his appearance yet?"
I was watching her closely, but she dare not lift her eyes to mine. I saw the blood recede from her lips, and her fingers clench into each other as she was saying to herself, "It is coming! For your life be calm, and do not betray yourself!"
"Is the gentleman not up yet? Lazy fellow; and at the seaside, too! I would teach him early rising if I were you."
The heartless woman! I could have throttled her as she sat smiling her false, cruel lips at me, and showing her white teeth like a treacherous dog! As it was I seized the oars and rowed hard, until the shore was so near that I could see the sand at the bottom, and the fish darting terrified away from my strokes. I saw that she was getting alarmed again, but she said no word until I had headed the boat toward the bathing-boxes.
"You cannot land there," she said, "at least without wetting your feet."
"Oh, yes, I can; by stepping on those low rocks we can land without a drop touching your shoe."
"But the boat?"
"Will be safe enough—see, there is the owner coming down from the pier to meet us."
"But why not go to the ordinary landing place?" she persisted, still looking at me with an expression of combined fear and doubt.
"Because I want to look for your ring—this is the spot where you missed it; just here. Suppose I should find it just here?"
I stared into her face as I asked the question, and I saw that she was in mortal dread. She drew back a little, and I could read her thoughts as plainly as though she had spoken them, but she said nothing.
"No, I am not mad, really; I am as sane as you."
My fingers were on the ring, and I drew it from my pocket and held it before her frightened eyes so that the sun sparkled upon the diamond cross.
"I told you I should find it. Listen! I can hear your heart beat, for you guess that I found it on the body of your victim. You are a fiend! If you had fifty lives I would hunt them down to avenge the one you slew."
"Oh God!" she chokingly gasped; "who are you?"
"I am a policeman," I cried, "and I arrest you, Charlotte Brayler, for the murder of my friend, John Markham."
She stared at me, and grew rigid, but made no single movement. Her great eyes actually seemed to lose light and grow stony and glazed. I thought the shock had killed her, and I put out my hand to prevent her from falling, but the touch seemed to bring back life and speech, for she drew a hard breath, and held out her wrists for the handcuffs.
"Now it is all over," she said, "and you can take me where you please, but from this moment to the hour of my death I will never open my lips again." You will read how she kept her word.
"You go on to Ozer's and I will follow you," I said, and she walked on stiffly, without looking to the right or left, her hands crossed over each other, and the handcuffs gleaming in the sunlight. She made no effort to cover them, nor did I even offer to do so, as I would undoubtedly have done if there had been the slightest doubt of her guilt on my mind.
Before I even came to Ozer's I could see that the awful news had leaked out, and there was quite a commotion about the premises. Men, and women too, were under the veranda, and groups here and there on the road in front of the house, and I saw the well-known uniform on two men standing at the door.
Every eye was turned upon the prisoner as I got closer to her and made straight for the house. There were muttered curses and clenched fists among the brown fishermen, and expletives uttered by motherly looking women that must have been hard to bear by the wretched murderess, but she did not seem either to see or hear, only looked once anxiously up toward the railway station and around her on the veranda. One of our men handed me two telegrams as I gave the woman in charge, so, as I read them, I knew that the denouement was not far off.
"The coroner will be down at two o'clock," I said, "so you need not remove the prisoner from the house, as the inquest will be held here. Take her inside, and do not leave her side for one moment."
"Where will we put her?" one of the constables inquired. "The man of the house has locked every private room in the place except—"
"Take her there, then. You may take off the handcuffs now that she is under cover."
My second telegram was from John Markham the living. He was coming down by the nearly due train, and I went to meet him. How would this man face the deed he had undoubtedly sanctioned? How meet the disappointment that was in store for him! My hope was to keep my suspicions of him entirely unknown to him until I was in a position to arrest him as an accessory, which I trusted to be able to do when the accomplices met.
The train duly arrived, and from a first-class smoking carriage John Markham alighted. From my chosen position at the window of the waiting room I saw how white his face was, and how his hand trembled as he tried to open the carriage door, but his face brightened a little as he saw me approaching.
"What has happened?" he asked, quickly. "Something terribly wrong; I see it in your face. It is my cousin, I know. Oh, my God, what a fool I have been!"
As he cried out these words he dropped on a seat and hid his face in both hands. What did the man mean? What dodge was he up to? What plan had he laid? I wondered all this, but I said nothing, hoping that in his impatience he would give me some clue to work upon.
"I guess only too truly," he said, again lifting his white face, "something has happened poor John; what is it?"
"How did you know anything had happened to your cousin?" I asked, with a sneering lip I could not hide. "Have you heard anything?"
"Oh, no! How could I hear anything? It is not two hours since I got your telegram; but I had an awful dream last night about poor John."
"Ay? Dreams are strange things. Your cousin is indeed dead."
"Oh dear, oh dear! Was it sudden? Was it an accident?"
"It was murder," I said, "and the murderer is arrested."
He had not expected this, and he staggered as we were leaving the station for the road.
"Murdered? Heaven above, you are not serious?"
"I am quite serious—so serious that I shall not eat or sleep in peace till I see John Markham's murderers suffer death for their crime."
"Murderers!" he gasped.
"Yes, the woman had doubtless an accomplice, whom it will be our delight to discover."
"I—I don't understand you. Why do you look at me so? You do not think that I poisoned my cousin, do you?"
Ha! He had let out his knowledge that it was poison, but I did not let on that I noticed the admission.
"I know it was not you, of course, since the woman is arrested, but you might indeed have been suspected had not this been so."
"Because you have so much to gain by his death."
He was beginning to suspect that I knew too much, and looked at me in awful silence.
"As yet, however, I do not think that any one is aware of that fact but me," I went on, "but of course I shall give my evidence at the inquest."
"Evidence! Not of that?"
"Not of what?"
"Of—of me being heir to my uncle's property in case of John's death?"
"Of course, why should I not? Every tithe bearing on the affair will be valuable as a due to this creature's accomplice. By-the-by, you have not yet asked who the wretch is?"
"Oh, mercy, mercy, don't speak of her, the cruel-hearted animal! Was it a love affair, or what?"
"No, it was not a love affair, from what I know it was rather an affair of hate; but they shall pay dearly for it, I swear."
I saw he could not bear much more; great drops were standing on his face, and the light bag he carried seemed a very burden to him. There was an hotel close at hand, and he paused and turned toward it.
"I am ill," he said, "I will get a glass of spirits," and I followed him to the door, for I knew he would need all the stimulant he could get to face what was before him.
"Now I feel better," he said, as he joined me again. "Tell me all about it while I can listen."
"There is little to tell. I discovered your cousin dead in bed this morning, and the woman has been arrested for the murder. The inquest is to be held in an hour, and you will hear all the evidence. Better wait till then."
"But—about me? You won't say anything about me inheriting, will you?"
"Don't you see how suspicious it will look? An accomplice is suspected, you say, and they might think I had some hand in it."
"How could you? You know nothing of this woman! Why, you are only in the colony a day or two, how could you know anything of her? She didn't come to Ozer's until the evening after you—how could you know her?"
"True, but I do not like my name being brought in. See!" he added, as he stopped short and looked me doubtfully in the face. "I don't know you at all, but money will hurt no man. I will give you a thousand pounds to say nothing of your knowledge about my inheriting."
"If I believed that you had any hand in the crime, tens of thousands should not seal my lips; if you are innocent, you need not fear my evidence."
"True, perhaps I am silly to think so seriously of so slight a matter. What a number of people there are about Ozer's!"
"Yes, and there is not one of them but would like to have a hand in lynching the woman you do not know."
He looked at me furtively, and I could guess what terribly opposing thoughts were battling in his brain. Why should he fear? He had no hand in the deed, and he knew that the lost woman would lay down her life for him. It was for her interest, as well as his own, that the deed was done; and if she were only true to him, all would be well.
But she was arrested, and that had never been contemplated. He was afraid to ask in what way she had allowed suspicion to fall upon her even since she had sent him the telegram so shortly before. But, anyhow, it all turned on that one thing—would she be only true to him?
I led the way to the dead man's room, and opened the door to admit Markham. He had not expected the double ordeal he had to undergo, for the prisoner was there guarded by two constables who sat beside her. The blind was down and the light was but dim, so that as we entered from the bright sunlight without objects at first were barely distinguishable.
Of course the woman was unaware of the identity of my companion, but she had the advantage over him of expecting his arrival every moment, while he naturally concluded that, as she was arrested, she was in safe custody at the police station. She knew him the moment he entered, for I watched her closely, and he saw the uniforms of our men before I had locked the door behind him.
In comparison with any man under the same circumstances, what an admirable actor is woman! As his eyes turned from the constables to her there was not a muscle of her countenance trembled, while his eyes glared and he tried to shrink back upon me. In a moment, however, he gained strength from her look and drew himself up stiffly.
"It is so dim here that I cannot see," he said, addressing me. "Where is my poor cousin?"
"Here!" I answered, as I suddenly drew up the blind, and pointed to the bed, and, as the sunlight burst in upon the pale, rigid face of the corpse, the woman covered her face, and Markham stood gazing at the awful sight with an indescribable horror in his countenance.
"For mercy sake let me out of this room," he cried, as he turned away; "it is an awful sight—I cannot bear it."
"How does she bear it who did the deed?"
"Is that the woman? Oh, woman, how could you?"
At the question she dropped her hands from her white face, and looked straight into his eyes.
"Mrs. Gerant, alias Charlotte Brayler, I am about to ask you a question—but I warn you that your reply may be used against you in evidence—do you know this man?"
She had said she would not speak, but she did not know when she said that, wretched woman that she was, that her silence might militate against the safety of him she loved. She replied promptly—
"I never saw him in my life before."
"And you? Do you recognize the woman, Mr. Markham?"
"Your question is an insult, sir," and he turned to go from the room, but his limbs trembled under him.
"Stay," I said to him, "it is time that you should know your real position. I arrest you, John Markham, as an accomplice with Charlotte Brayler in the murder of your cousin."
As the handcuffs clicked upon his wrists, the woman succumbed to the strain upon her and fainted, while I led the stunned man, now my prisoner, to another room and to the charge of another constable.
The strange circumstances which followed during the next hour have remained to this day a subject for wonder in the locality and I cannot recall them without a vivid recollection of the bitter disappointment they occasioned me. The train by which the coroner was expected was nearly due, and I went down to meet it, so that I might have an opportunity of acquainting him myself with the circumstances on our way to Ozer's. I was in a great state of excitement, and greedily anxious for the committal of the woman and her accomplice for trial, and the moments I had to wait on the platform for the train seemed to be almost hours. At last, however, it did glide in, and, to my utter disappointment, brought no coroner.
"The inquest will have to be postponed," I thought to myself, as I turned moodily back again.
Ozer's was barely ten minutes walk from the railway station and quite visible as soon as I left the station gates, and if I live my present years over again I shall not forget my consternation at the sight and sounds which awaited me as I reached the road. From back and front of Ozer's one mass of flame mingled with black smoke was bursting and roaring and cracking, and shouts of fear were plainly to be heard from the terrified persons running hither and thither in their vain efforts to stay the flames.
The prisoners were my first thought, and I ran distractedly toward the scene. Among the noise of the fire and cries of the boarders and those whom curiosity had collected to hear the result of an inquest, I heard a woman's scream, as I fancied, proceeding from the room in which the body had been, and there as I approached it I saw two of our men, covered with sweat and with singed hair, making vain efforts to drag from the blazing room the body of poor Markham.
It was a terrible sight. As the flames burst through the burning window the men had to let go of the blanket in which they had wrapped the body, and it fell back into the fire.
"Flesh and blood can do no more," said Dunning, who was one of them, and was seriously singed. "Nothing can save him now!"
"In the name of Heaven, how has this happened?" I cried; "and where are the prisoners?"
"God only knows how it happened, and the prisoners have bolted. Seton and Myers are after the woman—she has headed for the sea," Dunning replied.
"You were in the room with her and the body," I said to the other man angrily. "How in the name of wonder did you lose sight of her?"
"I don't know; I couldn't tell if I was to get my discharge through it. We were both busy throwing water on the woman to recover her from the faint she was in when you left, when all at once a blaze burst up round the bed and through the floor at our very feet. The woman was insensible as we thought, and both Myers and I rushed to save the body, but only got it as far as the window, when we saw the door open and the woman gone. We followed to find the whole house in a blaze, and the woman running for the sea."
"And John Markham, the man I left in Seton's charge?"
"Gone, too, I expect, but I know nothing about it, and I am in great pain, for my hands are badly burned."
Nothing could now exist near the burning building, which was one mass of flames. It was wood throughout, even the roof being of shingles, and in an hour there was nothing left of Ozer's save three brick chimneys, surrounded by heaps of ashes and bits of charred wood. To this day that fire has never been accounted for, but it was known that Ozer was heavily insured, and there were people ready enough to declare that the fire was arranged for and intended before the discovery of the murder. One thing is certain, I heard with my own ears Ozer remark—"The loss is not so great to me after all, and I should never have been able to do any business after that murder in the house"—a suspicions remark under the circumstances.
Every inhabitant and being in the place had collected to the scene, and as I took my bitter disappointment through the crowd a hand was laid on my shoulder. I shook it off at first, for I was in no humour to talk, but the voice of a man made me stop as if I had been shot.
"I should like to know how I stand in this matter, Mr. Detective Sinclair."
It was John Markham, as cool and delighted over the result as I was upset and distracted.
"How you stand? You stand a villain, as you always were, and always will be to the end of the chapter."
"Actionable words, I should say, but I make allowances, as you are of course disappointed, and you make your living by these sort of things. I asked how I stand, meaning as to the arrest you put me under a little ago?"
"Of course you are under it yet," I said, shortly.
"To what purpose? I was accused of being an accomplice in the murder of a man whose body is totally destroyed. As I take it, it is impossible now to even prove that a murder was ever committed nor do I believe that there was."
"Look here!" I cried, "you think you have escaped, and that your ends are secured by the murder of your cousin, whose blood is on your head as surely as though you had yourself dropped the poison on his lips; but you are mistaken. In the sun of midday, in the darkness of night, that young man's face will be before you. When you lie down and when you rise his memory will haunt and curse you, but the gold you sinned for will not purchase change of scene to make you forget your sin, thank God for that."
His face changed again, and he shrank back from me.
"What do you mean? If you are alluding to my cousin's property, I cannot help that it reverts to me on his death, however much I may grieve for it."
"You do not grieve for it, and nothing reverts to you. You hear and understand? You have committed murder for nothing. I have in my pocket at this moment a duly signed and attested will of your cousin's, in which he leaves everything to his mother. Go out of my sight, wretch that you are! If I want you I can lay my hand on you easier than you think."
I left him and went down to the shore. All my plans had been mislaid in consequence of the fire, and he was right so far as the law was concerned. I could not even prove the murder of my poor young friend, but I knew that being foiled in his object of inheriting would be perhaps a more bitter punishment to one so devoid of conscience as he.
At the end of the pier a few fishermen were collected, staring out to sea, where, at a little distance, I saw a boat being rowed in by two men. As they neared us I recognized the two constables who had gone in pursuit of Charlotte Brayler. I don't know what I expected, but I saw that they were alone in the boat, and as they stood on the landing place, I waited for them to speak.
"It's all up," said Myers, as he turned his flushed face toward me.
"Has she escaped?"
He shook his head. "No, but by all that's talked of she deserved to escape for her pluck! I never before saw a woman that could swim like that."
"Tell me the story at once. Where is the prisoner?"
"Dead," was the answer. "You see that sail boat out there? Well, she was making for it, as sure as fate, when we got the boat, and thought to overtake her easily; but she sank as we were within fifty yards of her—went down like a stone."
"What's left of her will come in with the tide some morning," one man said stolidly; and it was true. Some days after the double tragedy a mutilated woman's body was found lying on the white beach, with its awful face turned up to the red morning sun. It was Charlotte Brayler, who had gone to receive sentence at the Great Bar for the murder at Ozer's.
In seeing and settling affairs connected with poor Markham's will in his mother's favour, I had a good deal of communication with the Markhams in England, but of Jack Markham, the traitor, no word ever again reached me.
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