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1. MARCH THE TWENTY-FIRST. MORNING Next morning the steward went out as usual. He shortly told his companion, Anne, that he had almost matured their scheme, and that they would enter upon the details of it when he came home at night.
The fortunate fact that the rector's letter did not require an immediate answer would give him time to consider.
Anne Seaway then began her duties in the house. Besides daily superintending the cook and housemaid one of these duties was, at rare intervals, to dust Manston's office with her own hands, a servant being supposed to disturb the books and papers unnecessarily. She softly wandered from table to shelf with the duster in her hand, afterwards standing in the middle of the room, and glancing around to discover if any noteworthy collection of dust had still escaped her.
Her eye fell upon a faint layer which rested upon the ledge of an old-fashioned chestnut cabinet of French Renaissance workmanship, placed in a recess by the fireplace. At a height of about four feet from the floor the upper portion of the front receded, forming the ledge alluded to, on which opened at each end two small doors, the centre space between them being filled out by a panel of similar size, making the third of three squares. The dust on the ledge was nearly on a level with the woman's eye, and, though insignificant in quantity, showed itself distinctly on account of this obliquity of vision. Now opposite the central panel, concentric quarter-circles were traced in the deposited film, expressing to her that this panel, too, was a door like the others; that it had lately been opened, and had skimmed the dust with its lower edge.
At last, then, her curiosity was slightly rewarded. For the right of the matter was that Anne had been incited to this exploration of Manston's office rather by a wish to know the reason of his long seclusion here, after the arrival of the rector's letter, and their subsequent discourse, than by any immediate desire for cleanliness.
Still, there would have been nothing remarkable to Anne in this sight but for one recollection. Manston had once casually told her that each of the two side-lockers included half the middle space, the panel of which did not open, and was only put in for symmetry.
It was possible that he had opened this compartment by candlelight the preceding night, or he would have seen the marks in the dust, and effaced them, that he might not be proved guilty of telling her an untruth. She balanced herself on one foot and stood pondering.
She considered that it was very vexing and unfair in him to refuse her all knowledge of his remaining secrets, under the peculiar circumstances of her connection with him. She went close to the cabinet. As there was no keyhole, the door must be capable of being opened by the unassisted hand. The circles in the dust told her at which edge to apply her force. Here she pulled with the tips of her fingers, but the panel would not come forward. She fetched a chair and looked over the top of the cabinet, but no bolt, knob, or spring was to be seen.
'O, never mind,' she said, with indifference; 'I'll ask him about it, and he will tell me.' Down she came and turned away. Then looking back again she thought it was absurd such a trifle should puzzle her. She retraced her steps, and opened a drawer beneath the ledge of the cabinet, pushing in her hand and feeling about on the underside of the board.
Here she found a small round sinking, and pressed her finger into it. Nothing came of the pressure. She withdrew her hand and looked at the tip of her finger: it was marked with the impress of the circle, and, in addition, a line ran across it diametrically.
'How stupid of me; it is the head of a screw.' Whatever mysterious contrivance had originally existed for opening the puny cupboard of the cabinet, it had at some time been broken, and this rough substitute provided. Stimulated curiosity would not allow her to recede now. She fetched a screwdriver, withdrew the screw, pulled the door open with a penknife, and found inside a cavity about ten inches square. The cavity contained-Letters from different women, with unknown signatures, Christian names only (surnames being despised in Paphos). Letters from his wife Eunice. Letters from Anne herself, including that she wrote in answer to his advertisement. A small pocket-book. Sundry scraps of paper.
The letters from the strange women with pet names she glanced carelessly through, and then put them aside. They were too similar to her own regretted delusion, and curiosity requires contrast to excite it.
The letters from his wife were next examined. They were dated back as far as Eunice's first meeting with Manston, and the early ones before their marriage contained the usual pretty effusions of women at such a period of their existence. Some little time after he had made her his wife, and when he had come to Knapwater, the series began again, and now their contents arrested her attention more forcibly. She closed the cabinet, carried the letters into the parlour, reclined herself on the sofa, and carefully perused them in the order of their dates.
'JOHN STREET, October 17, 1864.
'MY DEAREST HUSBAND,--I received your hurried line of yesterday, and was of course content with it. But why don't you tell me your exact address instead of that "Post-Office, Budmouth?" This matter is all a mystery to me, and I ought to be told every detail. I cannot fancy it is the same kind of occupation you have been used to hitherto. Your command that I am to stay here awhile until you can "see how things look" and can arrange to send for me, I must necessarily abide by. But if, as you say, a married man would have been rejected by the person who engaged you, and that hence my existence must be kept a secret until you have secured your position, why did you think of going at all?
'The truth is, this keeping our marriage a secret is troublesome, vexing, and wearisome to me. I see the poorest woman in the street bearing her husband's name openly--living with him in the most matter-of-fact ease, and why shouldn't I? I wish I was back again in Liverpool.
'To-day I bought a grey waterproof cloak. I think it is a little too long for me, but it was cheap for one of such a quality. The weather is gusty and dreary, and till this morning I had hardly set foot outside the door since you left. Please do tell me when I am to come.--Very affectionately yours, EUNICE.' 'JOHN STREET, October 25, 1864.
'MY DEAR HUSBAND,--Why don't you write? Do you hate me? I have not had the heart to do anything this last week. That I, your wife, should be in this strait, and my husband well to do! I have been obliged to leave my first lodging for debt--among other things, they charged me for a lot of brandy which I am quite sure I did not taste. Then I went to Camberwell and was found out by them. I went away privately from thence, and changed my name the second time. I am now Mrs. Rondley. But the new lodging was the wretchedest and dearest I ever set foot in, and I left it after being there only a day. I am now at No. 20 in the same street that you left me in originally. All last night the sash of my window rattled so dreadfully that I could not sleep, but I had not energy enough to get out of bed to stop it. This morning I have been walking--I don't know how far--but far enough to make my feet ache. I have been looking at the outside of two or three of the theatres, but they seem forbidding if I regard them with the eye of an actress in search of an engagement. Though you said I was to think no more of the stage, I believe you would not care if you found me there. But I am not an actress by nature, and art will never make me one. I am too timid and retiring; I was intended for a cottager's wife. I certainly shall not try to go on the boards again whilst I am in this strange place. The idea of being brought on as far as London and then left here alone! Why didn't you leave me in Liverpool?
Perhaps you thought I might have told somebody that my real name was Mrs. Manston. As if I had a living friend to whom I could impart it--no such good fortune! In fact, my nearest friend is no nearer than what most people would call a stranger. But perhaps I ought to tell you that a week before I wrote my last letter to you, after wishing that my uncle and aunt in Philadelphia (the only near relatives I had) were still alive, I suddenly resolved to send a line to my cousin James, who, I believe, is still living in that neighbourhood. He has never seen me since we were babies together.
I did not tell him of my marriage, because I thought you might not like it, and I gave my real maiden name, and an address at the post-office here. But God knows if the letter will ever reach him.
'Do write me an answer, and send something.--Your affectionate wife, EUNICE.' 'FRIDAY, October 28.
'MY DEAR HUSBAND,--The order for ten pounds has just come, and I am truly glad to get it. But why will you write so bitterly? Ah --well, if I had only had the money I should have been on my way to America by this time, so don't think I want to bore you of my own free-will. Who can you have met with at that new place? Remember I say this in no malignant tone, but certainly the facts go to prove that you have deserted me! You are inconstant--I know it. O, why are you so? Now I have lost you, I love you in spite of your neglect. I am weakly fond--that's my nature. I fear that upon the whole my life has been wasted. I know there is another woman supplanting me in your heart--yes, I know it. Come to me--do come.
EUNICE.' '41 CHARLES SQUARE, HOXTON, November 19.
'DEAR AENEAS,--Here I am back again after my visit. Why should you have been so enraged at my finding your exact address? Any woman would have tried to do it--you know she would have. And no woman would have lived under assumed names so long as I did. I repeat that I did not call myself Mrs. Manston until I came to this lodging at the beginning of this month--what could you expect?
'A helpless creature I, had not fortune favoured me unexpectedly.
Banished as I was from your house at dawn, I did not suppose the indignity was about to lead to important results. But in crossing the park I overheard the conversation of a young man and woman who had also risen early. I believe her to be the girl who has won you away from me. Well, their conversation concerned you and Miss Aldclyffe, _very peculiarly_. The remarkable thing is that you yourself, without knowing it, told me of what, added to their conversation, completely reveals a secret to me that neither of you understand. Two negatives never made such a telling positive before. One clue more, and you would see it. A single consideration prevents my revealing it--just one doubt as to whether your ignorance was real, and was not feigned to deceive me.
Civility now, please.
EUNICE.' '41 CHARLES SQUARE, Tuesday, November 22.
'MY DARLING HUSBAND,--Monday will suit me excellently for coming. I have acted exactly up to your instructions, and have sold my rubbish at the broker's in the next street. All this movement and bustle is delightful to me after the weeks of monotony I have endured. It is a relief to wish the place good-bye--London always has seemed so much more foreign to me than Liverpool The mid-day train on Monday will do nicely for me. I shall be anxiously looking out for you on Sunday night.
'I hope so much that you are not angry with me for writing to Miss Aldclyffe. You are not, dear, are you? Forgive me.--Your loving wife, EUNICE.' This was the last of the letters from the wife to the husband. One other, in Mrs. Manston's handwriting, and in the same packet, was differently addressed.
'THREE TRANTERS INN, CARRIFORD, November 28, 1864.
'DEAR COUSIN JAMES,--Thank you indeed for answering my letter so promptly. When I called at the post-office yesterday I did not in the least think there would be one. But I must leave this subject.
I write again at once under the strangest and saddest conditions it is possible to conceive.
'I did not tell you in my last that I was a married woman. Don't blame me--it was my husband's influence. I hardly know where to begin my story. I had been living apart from him for a time--then he sent for me (this was last week) and I was glad to go to him.
Then this is what he did. He promised to fetch me, and did not --leaving me to do the journey alone. He promised to meet me at the station here--he did not. I went on through the darkness to his house, and found his door locked and himself away from home. I have been obliged to come here, and I write to you in a strange room in a strange village inn! I choose the present moment to write to drive away my misery. Sorrow seems a sort of pleasure when you detail it on paper--poor pleasure though.
'But this is what I want to know--and I am ashamed to tell it. I would gladly do as you say, and come to you as a housekeeper, but I have not the money even for a steerage passage. James, do you want me badly enough--do you pity me enough to send it? I could manage to subsist in London upon the proceeds of my sale for another month or six weeks. Will you send it to the same address at the post-office? But how do I know that you . . . ' Thus the letter ended. From creases in the paper it was plain that the writer, having got so far, had become dissatisfied with her production, and had crumpled it in her hand. Was it to write another, or not to write at all?
The next thing Anne Seaway perceived was that the fragmentary story she had coaxed out of Manston, to the effect that his wife had left England for America, might be truthful, according to two of these letters, corroborated by the evidence of the railway-porter. And yet, at first, he had sworn in a passion that his wife was most certainly consumed in the fire.
If she had been burnt, this letter, written in her bedroom, and probably thrust into her pocket when she relinquished it, would have been burnt with her. Nothing was surer than that. Why, then, did he say she was burnt, and never show Anne herself this letter?
The question suddenly raised a new and much stranger one--kindling a burst of amazement in her. How did Manston become possessed of this letter?
That fact of possession was certainly the most remarkable revelation of all in connection with this epistle, and perhaps had something to do with his reason for never showing it to her.
She knew by several proofs, that before his marriage with Cytherea, and up to the time of the porter's confession, Manston believed --honestly believed--that Cytherea would be his lawful wife, and hence, of course, that his wife Eunice was dead. So that no communication could possibly have passed between his wife and himself from the first moment that he believed her dead on the night of the fire, to the day of his wedding. And yet he had that letter.
How soon afterwards could they have communicated with each other?
The existence of the letter--as much as, or more than its contents --implying that Mrs. Manston was not burnt, his belief in that calamity must have terminated at the moment he obtained possession of the letter, if no earlier. Was, then, the only solution to the riddle that Anne could discern, the true one?--that he had communicated with his wife somewhere about the commencement of Anne's residence with him, or at any time since?
It was the most unlikely thing on earth that a woman who had forsaken her husband should countenance his scheme to personify her --whether she were in America, in London, or in the neighbourhood of Knapwater.
Then came the old and harassing question, what was Manston's real motive in risking his name on the deception he was practising as regarded Anne. It could not be, as he had always pretended, mere passion. Her thoughts had reverted to Mr. Raunham's letter, asking for proofs of her identity with the original Mrs. Manston. She could see no loophole of escape for the man who supported her.
True, in her own estimation, his worst alternative was not so very bad after all--the getting the name of libertine, a possible appearance in the divorce or some other court of law, and a question of damages. Such an exposure might hinder his worldly progress for some time. Yet to him this alternative was, apparently, terrible as death itself.
She restored the letters to their hiding-place, scanned anew the other letters and memoranda, from which she could gain no fresh information, fastened up the cabinet, and left everything in its former condition.
Her mind was ill at ease. More than ever she wished that she had never seen Manston. Where the person suspected of mysterious moral obliquity is the possessor of great physical and intellectual attractions, the mere sense of incongruity adds an extra shudder to dread. The man's strange bearing terrified Anne as it had terrified Cytherea; for with all the woman Anne's faults, she had not descended to such depths of depravity as to willingly participate in crime. She had not even known that a living wife was being displaced till her arrival at Knapwater put retreat out of the question, and had looked upon personation simply as a mode of subsistence a degree better than toiling in poverty and alone, after a bustling and somewhat pampered life as housekeeper in a gay mansion.
'Non illa colo calathisve Minervae Foemineas assueta manus.' 2. AFTERNOON Mr. Raunham and Edward Springrove had by this time set in motion a machinery which they hoped to find working out important results.
The rector was restless and full of meditation all the following morning. It was plain, even to the servants about him, that Springrove's communication wore a deeper complexion than any that had been made to the old magistrate for many months or years past.
The fact was that, having arrived at the stage of existence in which the difficult intellectual feat of suspending one's judgment becomes possible, he was now putting it in practice, though not without the penalty of watchful effort.
It was not till the afternoon that he determined to call on his relative, Miss Aldclyffe, and cautiously probe her knowledge of the subject occupying him so thoroughly. Cytherea, he knew, was still beloved by this solitary woman. Miss Aldclyffe had made several private inquiries concerning her former companion, and there was ever a sadness in her tone when the young lady's name was mentioned, which showed that from whatever cause the elder Cytherea's renunciation of her favourite and namesake proceeded, it was not from indifference to her fate.
'Have you ever had any reason for supposing your steward anything but an upright man?' he said to the lady.
'Never the slightest. Have you?' said she reservedly.
'Well--I have.' 'What is it?' 'I can say nothing plainly, because nothing is proved. But my suspicions are very strong.' 'Do you mean that he was rather cool towards his wife when they were first married, and that it was unfair in him to leave her? I know he was; but I think his recent conduct towards her has amply atoned for the neglect.' He looked Miss Aldclyffe full in the face. It was plain that she spoke honestly. She had not the slightest notion that the woman who lived with the steward might be other than Mrs. Manston--much less that a greater matter might be behind.
'That's not it--I wish it was no more. My suspicion is, first, that the woman living at the Old House is not Mr. Manston's wife.' 'Not--Mr. Manston's wife?' 'That is it.' Miss Aldclyffe looked blankly at the rector. 'Not Mr. Manston's wife--who else can she be?' she said simply.
'An improper woman of the name of Anne Seaway.' Mr. Raunham had, in common with other people, noticed the extraordinary interest of Miss Aldclyffe in the well-being of her steward, and had endeavoured to account for it in various ways. The extent to which she was shaken by his information, whilst it proved that the understanding between herself and Manston did not make her a sharer of his secrets, also showed that the tie which bound her to him was still unbroken. Mr. Raunham had lately begun to doubt the latter fact, and now, on finding himself mistaken, regretted that he had not kept his own counsel in the matter. This it was too late to do, and he pushed on with his proofs. He gave Miss Aldclyffe in detail the grounds of his belief.
Before he had done, she recovered the cloak of reserve that she had adopted on his opening the subject.
'I might possibly be convinced that you were in the right, after such an elaborate argument,' she replied, 'were it not for one fact, which bears in the contrary direction so pointedly, that nothing but absolute proof can turn it. It is that there is no conceivable motive which could induce any sane man--leaving alone a man of Mr.
Manston's clear-headedness and integrity--to venture upon such an extraordinary course of conduct--no motive on earth.' 'That was my own opinion till after the visit of a friend last night--a friend of mine and poor little Cytherea's.' 'Ah--and Cytherea,' said Miss Aldclyffe, catching at the idea raised by the name. 'That he loved Cytherea--yes and loves her now, wildly and devotedly, I am as positive as that I breathe. Cytherea is years younger than Mrs. Manston--as I shall call her--twice as sweet in disposition, three times as beautiful. Would he have given her up quietly and suddenly for a common--Mr. Raunham, your story is monstrous, and I don't believe it!' She glowed in her earnestness.
The rector might now have advanced his second proposition--the possible motive--but for reasons of his own he did not.
'Very well, madam. I only hope that facts will sustain you in your belief. Ask him the question to his face, whether the woman is his wife or no, and see how he receives it.' 'I will to-morrow, most certainly,' she said. 'I always let these things die of wholesome ventilation, as every fungus does.' But no sooner had the rector left her presence, than the grain of mustard-seed he had sown grew to a tree. Her impatience to set her mind at rest could not brook a night's delay. It was with the utmost difficulty that she could wait till evening arrived to screen her movements. Immediately the sun had dropped behind the horizon, and before it was quite dark, she wrapped her cloak around her, softly left the house, and walked erect through the gloomy park in the direction of the old manor-house.
The same minute saw two persons sit down in the rectory-house to share the rector's usually solitary dinner. One was a man of official appearance, commonplace in all except his eyes. The other was Edward Springrove.
The discovery of the carefully-concealed letters rankled in the mind of Anne Seaway. Her woman's nature insisted that Manston had no right to keep all matters connected with his lost wife a secret from herself. Perplexity had bred vexation; vexation, resentment; curiosity had been continuous. The whole morning this resentment and curiosity increased.
The steward said very little to his companion during their luncheon at mid-day. He seemed reckless of appearances--almost indifferent to whatever fate awaited him. All his actions betrayed that something portentous was impending, and still he explained nothing.
By carefully observing every trifling action, as only a woman can observe them, the thought at length dawned upon her that he was going to run away secretly. She feared for herself; her knowledge of law and justice was vague, and she fancied she might in some way be made responsible for him.
In the afternoon he went out of the house again, and she watched him drive away in the direction of the county-town. She felt a desire to go there herself, and, after an interval of half-an-hour, followed him on foot notwithstanding the distance--ostensibly to do some shopping.
One among her several trivial errands was to make a small purchase at the druggist's. Near the druggist's stood the County Bank.
Looking out of the shop window, between the coloured bottles, she saw Manston come down the steps of the bank, in the act of withdrawing his hand from his pocket, and pulling his coat close over its mouth.
It is an almost universal habit with people, when leaving a bank, to be carefully adjusting their pockets if they have been receiving money; if they have been paying it in, their hands swing laxly. The steward had in all likelihood been taking money--possibly on Miss Aldclyffe's account--that was continual with him. And he might have been removing his own, as a man would do who was intending to leave the country.
3. FROM FIVE TO EIGHT O'CLOCK P.M.
Anne reached home again in time to preside over preparations for dinner. Manston came in half-an-hour later. The lamp was lighted, the shutters were closed, and they sat down together. He was pale and worn--almost haggard.
The meal passed off in almost unbroken silence. When preoccupation withstands the influence of a social meal with one pleasant companion, the mental scene must be surpassingly vivid. Just as she was rising a tap came to the door.
Before a maid could attend to the knock, Manston crossed the room and answered it himself. The visitor was Miss Aldclyffe.
Manston instantly came back and spoke to Anne in an undertone. 'I should be glad if you could retire to your room for a short time.' 'It is a dry, starlight evening,' she replied. 'I will go for a little walk if your object is merely a private conversation with Miss Aldclyffe.' 'Very well, do; there's no accounting for tastes,' he said. A few commonplaces then passed between her and Miss Aldclyffe, and Anne went upstairs to bonnet and cloak herself. She came down, opened the front door, and went out.
She looked around to realize the night. It was dark, mournful, and quiet. Then she stood still. From the moment that Manston had requested her absence, a strong and burning desire had prevailed in her to know the subject of Miss Aldclyffe's conversation with him.
Simple curiosity was not entirely what inspired her. Her suspicions had been thoroughly aroused by the discovery of the morning. A conviction that her future depended on her power to combat a man who, in desperate circumstances, would be far from a friend to her, prompted a strategic movement to acquire the important secret that was in handling now. The woman thought and thought, and regarded the dull dark trees, anxiously debating how the thing could be done.
Stealthily re-opening the front door she entered the hall, and advancing and pausing alternately, came close to the door of the room in which Miss Aldclyffe and Manston conversed. Nothing could be heard through the keyhole or panels. At a great risk she softly turned the knob and opened the door to a width of about half-an-inch, performing the act so delicately that three minutes, at least, were occupied in completing it. At that instant Miss Aldclyffe said-'There's a draught somewhere. The door is ajar, I think.' Anne glided back under the staircase. Manston came forward and closed the door. This chance was now cut off, and she considered again. The parlour, or sitting-room, in which the conference took place, had the window-shutters fixed on the outside of the window, as is usual in the back portions of old country-houses. The shutters were hinged one on each side of the opening, and met in the middle, where they were fastened by a bolt passing continuously through them and the wood mullion within, the bolt being secured on the inside by a pin, which was seldom inserted till Manston and herself were about to retire for the night; sometimes not at all.
If she returned to the door of the room she might be discovered at any moment, but could she listen at the window, which overlooked a part of the garden never visited after nightfall, she would be safe from disturbance. The idea was worth a trial.
She glided round to the window, took the head of the bolt between her finger and thumb, and softly screwed it round until it was entirely withdrawn from its position. The shutters remained as before, whilst, where the bolt had come out, was now a shining hole three-quarters of an inch in diameter, through which one might see into the middle of the room. She applied her eye to the orifice.
Miss Aldclyffe and Manston were both standing; Manston with his back to the window, his companion facing it. The lady's demeanour was severe, condemnatory, and haughty. No more was to be seen; Anne then turned sideways, leant with her shoulder against the shutters and placed her ear upon the hole.
'You know where,' said Miss Aldclyffe. 'And how could you, a man, act a double deceit like this?' 'Men do strange things sometimes.' 'What was your reason--come?' 'A mere whim.' 'I might even believe that, if the woman were handsomer than Cytherea, or if you had been married some time to Cytherea and had grown tired of her.' 'And can't you believe it, too, under these conditions; that I married Cytherea, gave her up because I heard that my wife was alive, found that my wife would not come to live with me, and then, not to let any woman I love so well as Cytherea run any risk of being displaced and ruined in reputation, should my wife ever think fit to return, induced this woman to come to me, as being better than no companion at all?' 'I cannot believe it. Your love for Cytherea was not of such a kind as that excuse would imply. It was Cytherea or nobody with you. As an object of passion, you did not desire the company of this Anne Seaway at all, and certainly not so much as to madly risk your reputation by bringing her here in the way you have done. I am sure you didn't, AEneas.' 'So am I,' he said bluntly.
Miss Aldclyffe uttered an exclamation of astonishment; the confession was like a blow in its suddenness. She began to reproach him bitterly, and with tears.
'How could you overthrow my plans, disgrace the only girl I ever had any respect for, by such inexplicable doings! . . . That woman must leave this place--the country perhaps. Heavens! the truth will leak out in a day or two!' 'She must do no such thing, and the truth must be stifled somehow --nobody knows how. If I stay here, or on any spot of the civilized globe, as AEneas Manston, this woman must live with me as my wife, or I am damned past redemption!' 'I will not countenance your keeping her, whatever your motive may be.' 'You must do something,' he murmured. 'You must. Yes, you must.' 'I never will,' she said. 'It is a criminal act.' He looked at her earnestly. 'Will you not support me through this deception if my very life depends upon it? Will you not?' 'Nonsense! Life! It will be a scandal to you, but she must leave this place. It will out sooner or later, and the exposure had better come now.' Manston repeated gloomily the same words. 'My life depends upon your supporting me--my very life.' He then came close to her, and spoke into her ear. Whilst he spoke he held her head to his mouth with both his hands. Strange expressions came over her face; the workings of her mouth were painful to observe. Still he held her and whispered on.
The only words that could be caught by Anne Seaway, confused as her hearing frequently was by the moan of the wind and the waterfall in her outer ear, were these of Miss Aldclyffe, in tones which absolutely quivered: 'They have no money. What can they prove?' The listener tasked herself to the utmost to catch his answer, but it was in vain. Of the remainder of the colloquy one fact alone was plain to Anne, and that only inductively--that Miss Aldclyffe, from what he had revealed to her, was going to scheme body and soul on Manston's behalf.
Miss Aldclyffe seemed now to have no further reason for remaining, yet she lingered awhile as if loth to leave him. When, finally, the crestfallen and agitated lady made preparations for departure, Anne quickly inserted the bolt, ran round to the entrance archway, and down the steps into the park. Here she stood close to the trunk of a huge lime-tree, which absorbed her dark outline into its own.
In a few minutes she saw Manston, with Miss Aldclyffe leaning on his arm, cross the glade before her and proceed in the direction of the house. She watched them ascend the rise and advance, as two black spots, towards the mansion. The appearance of an oblong space of light in the dark mass of walls denoted that the door was opened.
Miss Aldclyffe's outline became visible upon it; the door shut her in, and all was darkness again. The form of Manston returning alone arose from the gloom, and passed by Anne in her hiding-place.
Waiting outside a quarter of an hour longer, that no suspicion of any kind might be excited, Anne returned to the old manor-house.
4. FROM EIGHT TO ELEVEN O'CLOCK P.M.
Manston was very friendly that evening. It was evident to her, now that she was behind the scenes, that he was making desperate efforts to disguise the real state of his mind.
Her terror of him did not decrease. They sat down to supper, Manston still talking cheerfully. But what is keener than the eye of a mistrustful woman? A man's cunning is to it as was the armour of Sisera to the thin tent-nail. She found, in spite of his adroitness, that he was attempting something more than a disguise of his feeling. He was trying to distract her attention, that he might be unobserved in some special movement of his hands.
What a moment it was for her then! The whole surface of her body became attentive. She allowed him no chance whatever. We know the duplicated condition at such times--when the existence divides itself into two, and the ostensibly innocent chatterer stands in front, like another person, to hide the timorous spy.
Manston played the same game, but more palpably. The meal was nearly over when he seemed possessed of a new idea of how his object might be accomplished. He tilted back his chair with a reflective air, and looked steadily at the clock standing against the wall opposite to him. He said sententiously, 'Few faces are capable of expressing more by dumb show than the face of a clock. You may see in it every variety of incentive--from the softest seductions to negligence to the strongest hints for action.' 'Well, in what way?' she inquired. His drift was, as yet, quite unintelligible to her.
'Why, for instance: look at the cold, methodical, unromantic, business-like air of all the right-angled positions of the hands.
They make a man set about work in spite of himself. Then look at the piquant shyness of its face when the two hands are over each other. Several attitudes imply "Make ready." The "make ready" of ten minutes to one differs from the "make ready" of ten minutes to twelve, as youth differs from age. "Upward and onward" says twenty-five minutes to eleven. Mid-day or midnight expresses distinctly "It is done." You surely have noticed that?' 'Yes, I have.' He continued with affected quaintness:-'The easy dash of ten minutes past seven, the rakish recklessness of a quarter past, the drooping weariness of twenty-five minutes past, must have been observed by everybody.' 'Whatever amount of truth there may be, there is a good deal of imagination in your fancy,' she said.
He still contemplated the clock.
'Then, again, the general finish of the face has a great effect upon the eye. This old-fashioned brass-faced one we have here, with its arched top, half-moon slit for the day of the month, and ship rocking at the upper part, impresses me with the notion of its being an old cynic, elevating his brows, whose thoughts can be seen wavering between good and evil.' A thought now enlightened her: the clock was behind her, and he wanted to get her back turned. She dreaded turning, yet, not to excite his suspicion, she was on her guard; she quickly looked behind her at the clock as he spoke, recovering her old position again instantly. The time had not been long enough for any action whatever on his part.
'Ah,' he casually remarked, and at the same minute began to pour her out a glass of wine. 'Speaking of the clock has reminded me that it must nearly want winding up. Remember that it is wound to-night.
Suppose you do it at once, my dear.' There was no possible way of evading the act. She resolutely turned to perform the operation: anything was better than that he should suspect her. It was an old-fashioned eight-day clock, of workmanship suited to the rest of the antique furniture that Manston had collected there, and ground heavily during winding.
Anne had given up all idea of being able to watch him during the interval, and the noise of the wheels prevented her learning anything by her ears. But, as she wound, she caught sight of his shadow on the wall at her right hand.
What was he doing? He was in the very act of pouring something into her glass of wine.
He had completed the manoeuvre before she had done winding. She methodically closed the clock-case and turned round again. When she faced him he was sitting in his chair as before she had risen.
In a familiar scene which has hitherto been pleasant it is difficult to realize that an added condition, which does not alter its aspect, can have made it terrible. The woman thought that his action must have been prompted by no other intent than that of poisoning her, and yet she could not instantly put on a fear of her position.
And before she had grasped these consequences, another supposition served to make her regard the first as unlikely, if not absurd. It was the act of a madman to take her life in a manner so easy of discovery, unless there were far more reason for the crime than any that Manston could possibly have.
Was it not merely his intention, in tampering with her wine, to make her sleep soundly that night? This was in harmony with her original suspicion, that he intended secretly to abscond. At any rate, he was going to set about some stealthy proceeding, as to which she was to be kept in utter darkness. The difficulty now was to avoid drinking the wine.
By means of one pretext and another she put off taking her glass for nearly five minutes, but he eyed her too frequently to allow her to throw the potion under the grate. It became necessary to take one sip. This she did, and found an opportunity of absorbing it in her handkerchief.
Plainly he had no idea of her countermoves. The scheme seemed to him in proper train, and he turned to poke out the fire. She instantly seized the glass, and poured its contents down her bosom.
When he faced round again she was holding the glass to her lips, empty.
In due course he locked the doors and saw that the shutters were fastened. She attended to a few closing details of housewifery, and a few minutes later they retired for the night.
5. FROM ELEVEN O'CLOCK TO MIDNIGHT When Manston was persuaded, by the feigned heaviness of her breathing, that Anne Seaway was asleep, he softly arose, and dressed himself in the gloom. With ears strained to their utmost she heard him complete this operation; then he took something from his pocket, put it in the drawer of the dressing-table, went to the door, and down the stairs. She glided out of bed and looked in the drawer.
He had only restored to its place a small phial she had seen there before. It was labelled 'Battley's Solution of Opium.' She felt relieved that her life had not been attempted. That was to have been her sleeping-draught. No time was to be lost if she meant to be a match for him. She followed him in her nightdress. When she reached the foot of the staircase he was in the office and had closed the door, under which a faint gleam showed that he had obtained a light. She crept to the door, but could not venture to open it, however slightly. Placing her ear to the panel, she could hear him tearing up papers of some sort, and a brighter and quivering ray of light coming from the threshold an instant later, implied that he was burning them. By the slight noise of his footsteps on the uncarpeted floor, she at length imagined that he was approaching the door. She flitted upstairs again and crept into bed.
Manston returned to the bedroom close upon her heels, and entered it--again without a light. Standing motionless for an instant to assure himself that she still slept, he went to the drawer in which their ready-money was kept, and removed the casket that contained it. Anne's ear distinctly caught the rustle of notes, and the chink of the gold as he handled it. Some he placed in his pocket, some he returned to its place. He stood thinking, as it were weighing a possibility. While lingering thus, he noticed the reflected image of his own face in the glass--pale and spectre-like in its indistinctness. The sight seemed to be the feather which turned the balance of indecision: he drew a heavy breath, retired from the room, and passed downstairs. She heard him unbar the back-door, and go out into the yard.
Feeling safe in a conclusion that he did not intend to return to the bedroom again, she arose, and hastily dressed herself. On going to the door of the apartment she found that he had locked it behind him. 'A precaution--it can be no more,' she muttered. Yet she was all the more perplexed and excited on this account. Had he been going to leave home immediately, he would scarcely have taken the trouble to lock her in, holding the belief that she was in a drugged sleep. The lock shot into a mortice, so that there was no possibility of her pushing back the bolt. How should she follow him? Easily. An inner closet opened from the bedroom: it was large, and had some time heretofore been used as a dressing or bath room, but had been found inconvenient from having no other outlet to the landing. The window of this little room looked out upon the roof of the porch, which was flat and covered with lead. Anne took a pillow from the bed, gently opened the casement of the inner room and stepped forth on the flat. There, leaning over the edge of the small parapet that ornamented the porch, she dropped the pillow upon the gravel path, and let herself down over the parapet by her hands till her toes swung about two feet from the ground. From this position she adroitly alighted upon the pillow, and stood in the path.
Since she had come indoors from her walk in the early part of the evening the moon had risen. But the thick clouds overspreading the whole landscape rendered the dim light pervasive and grey: it appeared as an attribute of the air. Anne crept round to the back of the house, listening intently. The steward had had at least ten minutes' start of her. She had waited here whilst one might count fifty, when she heard a movement in the outhouse--a fragment once attached to the main building. This outhouse was partitioned into an outer and an inner room, which had been a kitchen and a scullery before the connecting erections were pulled down, but they were now used respectively as a brewhouse and workshop, the only means of access to the latter being through the brewhouse. The outer door of this first apartment was usually fastened by a padlock on the exterior. It was now closed, but not fastened. Manston was evidently in the outhouse.
She slightly moved the door. The interior of the brewhouse was wrapped in gloom, but a streak of light fell towards her in a line across the floor from the inner or workshop door, which was not quite closed. This light was unexpected, none having been visible through hole or crevice. Glancing in, the woman found that he had placed cloths and mats at the various apertures, and hung a sack at the window to prevent the egress of a single ray. She could also perceive from where she stood that the bar of light fell across the brewing-copper just outside the inner door, and that upon it lay the key of her bedroom. The illuminated interior of the workshop was also partly visible from her position through the two half-open doors. Manston was engaged in emptying a large cupboard of the tools, gallipots, and old iron it contained. When it was quite cleared he took a chisel, and with it began to withdraw the hooks and shoulder-nails holding the cupboard to the wall. All these being loosened, he extended his arms, lifted the cupboard bodily from the brackets under it, and deposited it on the floor beside him.
That portion of the wall which had been screened by the cupboard was now laid bare. This, it appeared, had been plastered more recently than the bulk of the outhouse. Manston loosened the plaster with some kind of tool, flinging the pieces into a basket as they fell.
Having now stripped clear about two feet area of wall, he inserted a crowbar between the joints of the bricks beneath, softly wriggling it until several were loosened. There was now disclosed the mouth of an old oven, which was apparently contrived in the thickness of the wall, and having fallen into disuse, had been closed up with bricks in this manner. It was formed after the simple old-fashioned plan of oven-building--a mere oblate cavity without a flue.
Manston now stretched his arm into the oven, dragged forth a heavy weight of great bulk, and let it slide to the ground. The woman who watched him could see the object plainly. It was a common corn-sack, nearly full, and was tied at the mouth in the usual way.
The steward had once or twice started up, as if he had heard sounds, and his motions now became more cat-like still. On a sudden he put out the light. Anne had made no noise, yet a foreign noise of some kind had certainly been made in the intervening portion of the house. She heard it. 'One of the rats,' she thought.
He seemed soon to recover from his alarm, but changed his tactics completely. He did not light his candle--going on with his work in the dark. She had only sounds to go by now, and, judging as well as she could from these, he was piling up the bricks which closed the oven's mouth as they had been before he disturbed them. The query that had not left her brain all the interval of her inspection--how should she get back into her bedroom again?--now received a solution. Whilst he was replacing the cupboard, she would glide across the brewhouse, take the key from the top of the copper, run upstairs, unlock the door, and bring back the key again: if he returned to bed, which was unlikely, he would think the lock had failed to catch in the staple. This thought and intention, occupying such length of words, flashed upon her in an instant, and hardly disturbed her strong curiosity to stay and learn the meaning of his actions in the workshop.
Slipping sideways through the first door and closing it behind her, she advanced into the darkness towards the second, making every individual footfall with the greatest care, lest the fragments of rubbish on the floor should crackle beneath her tread. She soon stood close by the copper, and not more than a foot from the door of the room occupied by Manston himself, from which position she could distinctly hear him breathe between each exertion, although it was far too dark to discern anything of him.
To secure the key of her chamber was her first anxiety, and accordingly she cautiously reached out with her hand to where it lay. Instead of touching it, her fingers came in contact with the boot of a human being.
She drooped faint in a cold sweat. It was the foot either of a man or woman, standing on the brewing-copper where the key had lain. A warm foot, covered with a polished boot.
The startling discovery so terrified her that she could hardly repress a sound. She withdrew her hand with a motion like the flight of an arrow. Her touch was so light that the leather seemed to have been thick enough to keep the owner of the foot in entire ignorance of it, and the noise of Manston's scraping might have been quite sufficient to drown the slight rustle of her dress.
The person was obviously not the steward: he was still busy. It was somebody who, since the light had been extinguished, had taken advantage of the gloom, to come from some dark recess in the brewhouse and stand upon the brickwork of the copper. The fear which had at first paralyzed her lessened with the birth of a sense that fear now was utter failure: she was in a desperate position and must abide by the consequences. The motionless person on the copper was, equally with Manston, quite unconscious of her proximity, and she ventured to advance her hand again, feeling behind the feet, till she found the key. On its return to her side, her finger-tip skimmed the lower verge of a trousers-leg.
It was a man, then, who stood there. To go to the door just at this time was impolitic, and she shrank back into an inner corner to wait. The comparative security from discovery that her new position ensured resuscitated reason a little, and empowered her to form some logical inferences:-1. The man who stood on the copper had taken advantage of the darkness to get there, as she had to enter.
2. The man must have been hidden in the outhouse before she had reached the door.
3. He must be watching Manston with much calculation and system, and for purposes of his own.
She could now tell by the noises that Manston had completed his re-erection of the cupboard. She heard him replacing the articles it had contained--bottle by bottle, tool by tool--after which he came into the brewhouse, went to the window, and pulled down the cloths covering it; but the window being rather small, this unveiling scarcely relieved the darkness of the interior. He returned to the workshop, hoisted something to his back by a jerk, and felt about the room for some other article. Having found it, he emerged from the inner door, crossed the brewhouse, and went into the yard.
Directly he stepped out she could see his outline by the light of the clouded and weakly moon. The sack was slung at his back, and in his hand he carried a spade.
Anne now waited in her corner in breathless suspense for the proceedings of the other man. In about half-a-minute she heard him descend from the copper, and then the square opening of the doorway showed the outline of this other watcher passing through it likewise. The form was that of a broad-shouldered man enveloped in a long coat. He vanished after the steward.
The woman vented a sigh of relief, and moved forward to follow.
Simultaneously, she discovered that the watcher whose foot she had touched was, in his turn, watched and followed also.
It was by one of her own sex. Anne Seaway shrank backward again.
The unknown woman came forward from the further side of the yard, and pondered awhile in hesitation. Tall, dark, and closely wrapped, she stood up from the earth like a cypress. She moved, crossed the yard without producing the slightest disturbance by her footsteps, and went in the direction the others had taken.
Anne waited yet another minute--then in her turn noiselessly followed the last woman.
But so impressed was she with the sensation of people in hiding, that in coming out of the yard she turned her head to see if any person were following her, in the same way. Nobody was visible, but she discerned, standing behind the angle of the stable, Manston's horse and gig, ready harnessed.
He did intend to fly after all, then, she thought. He must have placed the horse in readiness, in the interval between his leaving the house and her exit by the window. However, there was not time to weigh this branch of the night's events. She turned about again, and continued on the trail of the other three.
6. FROM MIDNIGHT TO HALF-PAST ONE A.M.
Intentness pervaded everything; Night herself seemed to have become a watcher.
The four persons proceeded across the glade, and into the park plantation, at equi-distances of about seventy yards. Here the ground, completely overhung by the foliage, was coated with a thick moss which was as soft as velvet beneath their feet. The first watcher, that is, the man walking immediately behind Manston, now fell back, when Manston's housekeeper, knowing the ground pretty well, dived circuitously among the trees and got directly behind the steward, who, encumbered with his load, had proceeded but slowly.
The other woman seemed now to be about opposite to Anne, or a little in advance, but on Manston's other hand.
He reached a pit, midway between the waterfall and the engine-house.
There he stopped, wiped his face, and listened.
Into this pit had drifted uncounted generations of withered leaves, half filling it. Oak, beech, and chestnut, rotten and brown alike, mingled themselves in one fibrous mass. Manston descended into the midst of them, placed his sack on the ground, and raking the leaves aside into a large heap, began digging. Anne softly drew nearer, crept into a bush, and turning her head to survey the rest, missed the man who had dropped behind, and whom we have called the first watcher. Concluding that he, too, had hidden himself, she turned her attention to the second watcher, the other woman, who had meanwhile advanced near to where Anne lay in hiding, and now seated herself behind a tree, still closer to the steward than was Anne Seaway.
Here and thus Anne remained concealed. The crunch of the steward's spade, as it cut into the soft vegetable mould, was plainly perceptible to her ears when the periodic cessations between the creaks of the engine concurred with a lull in the breeze, which otherwise brought the subdued roar of the cascade from the further side of the bank that screened it. A large hole--some four or five feet deep--had been excavated by Manston in about twenty minutes.
Into this he immediately placed the sack, and then began filling in the earth, and treading it down. Lastly he carefully raked the whole mass of dead and dry leaves into the middle of the pit, burying the ground with them as they had buried it before.
For a hiding-place the spot was unequalled. The thick accumulation of leaves, which had not been disturbed for centuries, might not be disturbed again for centuries to come, whilst their lower layers still decayed and added to the mould beneath.
By the time this work was ended the sky had grown clearer, and Anne could now see distinctly the face of the other woman, stretching from behind the tree, seemingly forgetful of her position in her intense contemplation of the actions of the steward. Her countenance was white and motionless.
It was impossible that Manston should not soon notice her. At the completion of his labour he turned, and did so.
'Ho--you here!' he exclaimed.
'Don't think I am a spy upon you,' she said, in an imploring whisper. Anne recognized the voice as Miss Aldclyffe's.
The trembling lady added hastily another remark, which was drowned in the recurring creak of the engine close at hand The first watcher, if he had come no nearer than his original position, was too far off to hear any part of this dialogue, on account of the roar of the falling water, which could reach him unimpeded by the bank.
The remark of Miss Aldclyffe to Manston had plainly been concerning the first watcher, for Manston, with his spade in his hand, instantly rushed to where the man was concealed, and, before the latter could disengage himself from the boughs, the steward struck him on the head with the blade of the instrument. The man fell to the ground.
'Fly!' said Miss Aldclyffe to Manston. Manston vanished amidst the trees. Miss Aldclyffe went off in a contrary direction.
Anne Seaway was about to run away likewise, when she turned and looked at the fallen man. He lay on his face, motionless.
Many of these women who own to no moral code show considerable magnanimity when they see people in trouble. To act right simply because it is one's duty is proper; but a good action which is the result of no law of reflection shines more than any. She went up to him and gently turned him over, upon which he began to show signs of life. By her assistance he was soon able to stand upright.
He looked about him with a bewildered air, endeavouring to collect his ideas. 'Who are you?' he said to the woman, mechanically.
It was bad policy now to attempt disguise. 'I am the supposed Mrs.
Manston,' she said. 'Who are you?' 'I am the officer employed by Mr. Raunham to sift this mystery --which may be criminal.' He stretched his limbs, pressed his head, and seemed gradually to awake to a sense of having been incautious in his utterance. 'Never you mind who I am,' he continued. 'Well, it doesn't matter now, either--it will no longer be a secret.' He stooped for his hat and ran in the direction the steward had taken--coming back again after the lapse of a minute.
'It's only an aggravated assault, after all,' he said hastily, 'until we have found out for certain what's buried here. It may be only a bag of building rubbish; but it may be more. Come and help me dig.' He seized the spade with the awkwardness of a town man, and went into the pit, continuing a muttered discourse. 'It's no use my running after him single-handed,' he said. 'He's ever so far off by this time. The best step is to see what is here.' It was far easier for the detective to re-open the hole than it had been for Manston to form it. The leaves were raked away, the loam thrown out, and the sack dragged forth.
'Hold this,' he said to Anne, whose curiosity still kept her standing near. He turned on the light of a dark lantern he had brought, and gave it into her hand.
The string which bound the mouth of the sack was now cut. The officer laid the bag on its side, seized it by the bottom, and jerked forth the contents. A large package was disclosed, carefully wrapped up in impervious tarpaulin, also well tied. He was on the point of pulling open the folds at one end, when a light coloured thread of something, hanging on the outside, arrested his eye. He put his hand upon it; it felt stringy, and adhered to his fingers.
'Hold the light close,' he said.
She held it close. He raised his hand to the glass, and they both peered at an almost intangible filament he held between his finger and thumb. It was a long hair; the hair of a woman.
'God! I couldn't believe it--no, I couldn't believe it!' the detective whispered, horror-struck. 'And I have lost the man for the present through my unbelief. Let's get into a sheltered place.
. . . Now wait a minute whilst I prove it.' He thrust his hand into his waistcoat pocket, and withdrew thence a minute packet of brown paper. Spreading it out he disclosed, coiled in the middle, another long hair. It was the hair the clerk's wife had found on Manston's pillow nine days before the Carriford fire.
He held the two hairs to the light: they were both of a pale-brown hue. He laid them parallel and stretched out his arms: they were of the same length to a nicety. The detective turned to Anne.
'It is the body of his first wife,' he said quietly. 'He murdered her, as Mr. Springrove and the rector suspected--but how and when, God only knows.' 'And I!' exclaimed Anne Seaway, a probable and natural sequence of events and motives explanatory of the whole crime--events and motives shadowed forth by the letter, Manston's possession of it, his renunciation of Cytherea, and instalment of herself--flashing upon her mind with the rapidity of lightning.
'Ah--I see,' said the detective, standing unusually close to her: and a handcuff was on her wrist. 'You must come with me, madam.
Knowing as much about a secret murder as God knows is a very suspicious thing: it doesn't make you a goddess--far from it.' He directed the bull's-eye into her face.
'Pooh--lead on,' she said scornfully, 'and don't lose your principal actor for the sake of torturing a poor subordinate like me.' He loosened her hand, gave her his arm, and dragged her out of the grove--making her run beside him till they had reached the rectory.
A light was burning here, and an auxiliary of the detective's awaiting him: a horse ready harnessed to a spring-cart was standing outside.
'You have come--I wish I had known that,' the detective said to his assistant, hurriedly and angrily. 'Well, we've blundered--he's gone--you should have been here, as I said! I was sold by that woman, Miss Aldclyffe--she watched me.' He hastily gave directions in an undertone to this man. The concluding words were, 'Go in to the rector--he's up. Detain Miss Aldclyffe. I, in the meantime, am driving to Casterbridge with this one, and for help. We shall be sure to have him when it gets light.' He assisted Anne into the vehicle, and drove off with her. As they went, the clear, dry road showed before them, between the grassy quarters at each side, like a white riband, and made their progress easy. They came to a spot where the highway was overhung by dense firs for some distance on both sides. It was totally dark here.
There was a smash; and a rude shock. In the very midst of its length, at the point where the road began to drop down a hill, the detective drove against something with a jerk which nearly flung them both to the ground.
The man recovered himself, placed Anne on the seat, and reached out his hand. He found that the off-wheel of his gig was locked in that of another conveyance of some kind.
'Hoy!' said the officer.
'Hoy, you man asleep there!' he said again.
'Well, that's odd--this comes of the folly of travelling without gig-lamps because you expect the dawn.' He jumped to the ground and turned on his lantern.
There was the gig which had obstructed him, standing in the middle of the road; a jaded horse harnessed to it, but no human being in or near the vehicle.
'Do you know whose gig this is?' he said to the woman.
'No,' she said sullenly. But she did recognize it as the steward's.
'I'll swear it's Manston's! Come, I can hear it by your tone.
However, you needn't say anything which may criminate you. What forethought the man must have had--how carefully he must have considered possible contingencies! Why, he must have got the horse and gig ready before he began shifting the body.' He listened for a sound among the trees. None was to be heard but the occasional scamper of a rabbit over the withered leaves. He threw the light of his lantern through a gap in the hedge, but could see nothing beyond an impenetrable thicket. It was clear that Manston was not many yards off, but the question was how to find him. Nothing could be done by the detective just then, encumbered as he was by the horse and Anne. If he had entered the thicket on a search unaided, Manston might have stepped unobserved from behind a bush and murdered him with the greatest ease. Indeed, there were such strong reasons for the exploit in Manston's circumstances at that moment that without showing cowardice, his pursuer felt it hazardous to remain any longer where he stood.
He hastily tied the head of Manston's horse to the back of his own vehicle, that the steward might be deprived of the use of any means of escape other than his own legs, and drove on thus with his prisoner to the county-town. Arrived there, he lodged her in the police-station, and then took immediate steps for the capture of Manston.