George Henty.

The Curse of Carne's Hold: A Tale of Adventure



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"In the latter case he must have been provided with silent matches, or the noise would have awakened the sleeper. Of one thing you may be sure, Captain Mervyn had not provided himself with silent matches; but even had not the sound of an ordinary match being struck awakened the sleeper, surely the sudden light would have done so. I ask you from your own experience whether, however soundly you might be sleeping, the effect of a candle being lit in your room would not awaken you; therefore I think it safe to assume that in the first place, because no match was found, and in the second place, because had a candle been lit it would assuredly have awakened the sleeper, and we know that she was not awakened, that no candle was lighted in the room.

"How then did the assassin manage after entering the room to avoid the dressing-table, the chairs, and other furniture, and to see to manipulate the bedclothes so gently that the sleeper was not awakened? Why, gentlemen, by means of the implement carried by every professional burglar, I mean, of course, a dark lantern. Opening the shade slightly, and carefully abstaining from throwing the light towards the bed, the burglar would make his way towards it, showing sufficient light to carry out his diabolical purpose, and then opening it freely to examine the room, open the trinket-box, and carry away the valuables.

"The counsel for the prosecution, gentlemen, has not even ventured to suggest that the prisoner, Captain Mervyn, was possessed of such an article. His course has been traced through every village that he rode, up to ten o'clock at night, by which time every shop had long been closed, and had he stopped anywhere to buy such an article we should surely have heard of it. Therefore, gentlemen, I maintain that even if this fact stood alone, it ought to convince you of the innocence of the prisoner.

"In his reply, the counsel for the prosecution had admitted that some weight must be attached to this point, but that it was quite possible that whoever entered the window might have felt on the table until he found a candlestick, and lit it, stooping down behind the table, or at the bottom of the bed, and so shading it with his coat that its light would not fall on the face of the sleeper. As for the point made that no match had been found, no great weight could be attached to it; the prisoner might have put it in his pocket or thrown it out of the window."

When the defence was concluded, and the counsel for the prosecution rose to speak, the feeling in the court was still against the prisoner.

In all that had been said the evidence pointed against him, and him only, as the author of the crime; no hint of suspicion had been dropped against any other person; and the manner in which the crime had been committed indicated strongly that it was the act of a person actuated by jealousy, or animosity rather than that of a mere burglar. This view of the case was strongly brought out by the counsel for the prosecution.

"The theory of the prosecution is," he said, "not that this unfortunate gentleman, while in the full possession of his senses, slew this lady, to whom he was nearly related, and for whom he had long cherished a sincere affection – the character you have heard given him by so many witnesses would certainly seem to show him to be a man incapable of such a crime.

Our theory is that the latent taint of insanity in his blood – that insanity which, as you have heard from Dr. Arrowsmith and other witnesses, is hereditary in his ancestors on his mother's side, and has, before now, caused calamities, almost if not quite as serious as this – suddenly flamed out. We believe that, as has been shown by witnesses, he galloped away many miles over the country, but we believe that at last, wrought up to the highest pitch of frenzy, he returned, scaled the wall, opened the window, and murdered Miss Carne. You have heard that he was subject to moody fits, when he shunned all society; these fits, these wild rides you have heard of, are symptoms of a disordered mind. Perhaps had all gone happily with him, the malady would not have shown itself in a more serious form.

"Unfortunately, as we know, there was sharp and sudden unhappiness – such unhappiness as tries the fibre even of the sanest men, and might well have struck a fatal blow to his mind. It is not because you see him now, calm and self-possessed, that you are to conclude that this theory is a mistaken one. Many, even the most dangerous madmen, have long intervals when, apparently, their sanity is as perfect as that of other people. Then suddenly, sometimes altogether without warning, a change takes place, and the quiet and self-possessed man becomes a dangerous lunatic – perhaps a murderer.

"Such, gentlemen, is the theory of the prosecution. You will, of course, weigh it carefully in your minds, and it will be your duty, if you agree with it, to give expression to your opinion in your verdict."

The judge summed up the case with great care. After going through the evidence piecemeal, he told the jury that while the counsel for the defence had insisted upon the uncertainty of circumstantial evidence, and the numerous instances of error that had resulted from it, it was his duty to tell them that in the majority of cases of murder there could be, from the nature of things, only circumstantial evidence to go upon, for that men did not commit murder in the open streets in sight of other people. At the same time, when circumstantial evidence alone was forthcoming, it was necessary that it should be of the most conclusive character, and that juries should, before finding a verdict of guilty, be convinced that the facts showed that it was the prisoner, and he only, who could have done the deed.

"It is for you, gentlemen, to decide whether the evidence that has been submitted to you does prove, absolutely and conclusively to your minds, that the prisoner must have been the man who murdered Miss Carne. Counsel on both sides have alluded to the unquestioned fact that madness is hereditary in the family of the prisoner; whether or not it is inherited by him, is also for you to decide in considering your verdict. You will have to conclude first whether the prisoner did or did not commit this murder. If you believe that he did so, and that while he did so he was insane, and incapable of governing his actions, your duty will be to find him not guilty upon the ground of insanity."

The general tenor of the summing-up certainly showed that in the opinion of the judge the evidence, although strong, could not be considered as absolutely conclusive. Still, the bias was not strongly expressed, and when the jury retired, opinions in court were nearly equally divided as to what the verdict would be.

When he left the witness-box, Dr. Arrowsmith made his way to the corner in which one of the policemen had placed Ruth after giving her evidence. She had done this with a steadiness and composure that had surprised the doctor; she had fortunately escaped much questioning, for the counsel saw how fragile and weak she looked, and as she had but entered the room, seen her mistress dead, fainted and left again, there was but little to ask her. The questions put were: "Was the jewellery safe in the box when she left the room the night before? Did she remember whether the window was fastened or not?" To this her reply was negative. Miss Carne had shut it herself when she went up in the afternoon, and she had not noticed whether it was fastened. "Was the blind a Venetian or an ordinary roller blind?"

"A roller blind."

"Then, if the window opened, it could be pushed aside without noise. Did you notice whether the candlesticks were standing where you had left them?"

"I noticed that they were on the table and in about the same place where they were standing the night before, but I could not say exactly."

"I want you to go out, Ruth," Dr. Arrowsmith said, when he reached her after the jury had retired. "They may be an hour or more before they make up their minds. You are as white as death, child. Let me lead you out."

Ruth shook her head, and murmured, "I must stay." The doctor shrugged his shoulders and returned to his seat. It was an hour and a half before the door opened and the foreman of the jury entered. As he was unaccompanied, it was evident he wanted to ask a question.

"My lord," he said, "we are unanimous as to one part of the verdict, but we can't agree about the other."

"How do you mean, sir?" the judge asked. "I don't want to know what you are unanimous about, but I don't understand what you mean about being unanimous about one part of the verdict and not unanimous on the other."

The foreman hesitated. Then, to the astonishment of the court, the prisoner broke in in a clear steady voice:

"I will not accept acquittal, sir, on the ground of insanity. I am not mad; if I had been the events of the last two months would have driven me so. I demand that your verdict be guilty or not guilty."

The judge was too surprised to attempt to check the prisoner when he first began to speak, and although he attempted to do so before he had finished, the interruption was ineffectual.

"Go back, sir," the judge then said to the foreman. "You must be unanimous as to the whole of your verdict."

The interruption of the prisoner had enlightened those in court as to the nature of the foreman's question. Undoubtedly he had divined rightly. The jury were in favour of the verdict not guilty, but some of them would have added on the ground of insanity. The interruption, although irregular, if not unprecedented, had a favourable effect upon his hearers. The quickness with which the accused had seized the point, and the steady, resolute voice in which he had spoken, told in his favour, and many who before, had they been in the jury-box, would have returned the verdict of not guilty on the ground of insanity, now doubted whether they would add the concluding words.

A quarter of an hour later the jury returned.

"We are now unanimous, my lord. We say that the prisoner at the bar is not guilty."

A sound like a sigh of relief went through the court. Then every one got up, and there was a movement to the doors. The policeman lifted the bar, and Ronald Mervyn stepped out a free man, and in a moment was surrounded by a number of his fellow officers, while some of his neighbours also pressed forward to shake him by the hand.

"I will shake hands with no man," he said, drawing back; "I will greet no man so long as this cloud hangs over me – so long as it is unproved who murdered Margaret Carne."

"You don't mean it, Mervyn; you will think better of it in a few days," one of his fellow officers said, as they emerged into the open air. "What you have gone through has been an awful trial, but now that you are proved to be innocent you will get over it."

"I am not proved to be innocent, though I am not proved to be guilty. They have given me the benefit of the doubt; but to the end of my life half the world will believe I did it. Do you think I would go through life to be pointed at as the man who murdered his cousin? I would rather blow out my brains to-night. No, you will never see me again till the verdict of guilty has been passed on the wretch who murdered my cousin. Good-bye. I know that you believe me innocent, but I will not take your hands now. When you think it over, you will see as well as I do that you couldn't have a man in the regiment against whom men as he passed would whisper 'murderer.' God bless you all." And Ronald Mervyn turned and walked rapidly away. One or two of the officers would have followed him, but the colonel stopped them.

"Leave him alone, lads, leave him alone. We should feel as he does were we in his place. Good Heavens! how he must have suffered. Still, he's right, and however much we pity him, we cannot think otherwise. At the present moment it is clear that he could not remain in the regiment."

As soon as the crowd had turned away, Dr. Arrowsmith made his way to the point where Ruth had been standing. Somewhat to his surprise he found her still on her feet. She was leaning back in the corner with her eyes closed, and the tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Come, my dear," he said, putting his arm under hers, "let us be moving. Thank God it has all ended right."

"Thank God, indeed, doctor," she murmured. "I had hardly hoped it, and yet I have prayed so much that it might be so."

The doctor found that though able to stand while supported by the wall, Ruth was unable to walk. With the aid of a policeman he supported her from the court, placed her in a vehicle, and took her to an hotel.

"There, my dear," he said, when Ruth had been assisted up to a bedroom by two of the maids, "now you go to bed, and lie there till to-morrow morning. I will have a basin of strong broth sent you up presently. It's quite out of the question your thinking of going home to-night. I have several friends in the town, and am glad of the excuse to stay over the night. I will call for you at ten o'clock in the morning; the train goes at half-past ten; I will have your breakfast sent up here. I will go down to the station now. There are lots of people over here from Carnesford, and I will send a messenger back to your mother, saying that you have got through it better than I expected, but I wanted you to have a night's rest, and you will be home in the morning."

"Thank you, doctor; that is kind of you," Ruth murmured.

"Help her into bed, girls. She has been ill, and has had a very trying day. Don't ask her any questions, but just get her into bed as soon as you can."

Then the doctor went downstairs, ordered the broth and a glass of sherry for Ruth, and a bedroom for himself, and then went off to see his friends. In the morning he was surprised, when Ruth came downstairs, to see how much better she looked.

"My prescription has done you good, Ruth. I am glad to see you look wonderfully better and brighter."

"I feel so, sir. I went to sleep directly I had taken the broth and wine you sent me up, and I did not wake till they called me at half-past eight. I have not slept for an hour together for weeks. I feel as if there was such a load taken off my mind."

"Why, Ruth, you didn't know Captain Mervyn to speak to, did you, that you should feel such an interest in him?" the doctor said, looking at her sharply.

"No, sir, I have never once spoken to him that I know of."

"Then why do you care so much about his being acquitted?"

"It would have been dreadful if he had been found guilty when he was innocent all the time."

"But then no one knew he was innocent for certain," the doctor said.

"I felt sure he was innocent," Ruth replied.

"But why did you feel sure, Ruth?"

"I can't exactly say, sir, but I did feel that he was innocent."

The doctor looked puzzled, but at this moment the cab arrived at the station, and the subject was not renewed, but the doctor afterwards wondered to himself more than once whether Ruth could have any particular reason for her assurance of Ronald Mervyn's innocence.

For another ten days the Mervyn trial was the great topic of conversation throughout the country, and the verdict was canvassed with almost as much keenness and heat as the crime had been before the trial. Now that Ronald Mervyn was no longer in hazard of his life, the feeling of pity which had before told so strongly in his favour was wanting. If a man so far forgets himself as to use threats to a woman, he must not be surprised if he gets into trouble. Of course, now the jury had given a verdict of "Not guilty," there was no more to be said. There was no doubt he was a very lucky fellow, and the jury had given him the benefit of the doubt. Still, if he hadn't done it, who had killed Margaret Carne?

Such was the general opinion, and although Ronald had still some staunch adherents in his own neighbourhood, the tide of feeling ran against him.

Two months after the trial, Mrs. Mervyn died, broken down by grief, and while this naturally caused a renewal of the talk, it heightened rather than otherwise the feeling against her son. The general verdict was that it was his doing; whether he killed Margaret Carne or not, there was no doubt that he had killed his mother. All this was doubtless unfair, but it was not unnatural; and only those who believed thoroughly in Ronald's innocence felt how hard this additional pain must be for him.

Immediately the funeral was over, the two girls moved away to London, and the house was advertised to let, but the odour of the recent tragedy hung over it. No one cared to take a house with which such a story was connected. A month or two later there was a sale of the furniture; the house was then shut up and lost to the county. Ten days after the trial it was announced in The Gazette that Ronald Mervyn had retired from the service upon sale of his commission. No one had seen him after he had left the court a free man. His horses were sold a week later, and his other belongings forwarded from the regiment to an address he gave in London. His mother and sister had a few days later gone up for a day to town, and had met him there. He had already written to them that he intended to go abroad, and they did not seek to combat his resolution.

"I can never come back, mother, unless this is cleared up. You must feel as well as I do, that I cannot show my face anywhere. I am surprised that I have got off myself, and indeed if it were not that I am sure I never got off my horse that night, I should sometimes suspect that I must for a time have been really mad and have done what they accuse me of. I have already sent down a detective to the village. There must be some clue to all this if one could only hit upon it, but I own that at present I do not see where it is to be looked for. I do not believe that it was done by some passing tramp. I agree with every word that was said at my trial in that respect.

"Everything points to the fact that she was deliberately murdered, though who, except myself, could have entertained a feeling of animosity against Margaret, God only knows. There is one comfort, mother, and only one," he said with a hard laugh. "I can set our minds at ease on one point, which I have never felt sure about before, that is, that I have not inherited the curse of the Carnes. Had I done so, the last two months would have made a raving lunatic of me, whereas I have never felt my head cooler and my reason clearer than I have since the day I was arrested. But you mustn't grieve for me more than you can help, mother; now that it is over, I feel more for you and the girls than I do for myself. I have a sort of conviction that somehow, though I don't see how, the thing will be cleared up some day. Anyhow I mean to go and lead a rough life somewhere, to keep myself from brooding over it. The weight will really fall upon you, far more than upon me, and I should strongly advise you to shut up the house, let it if you can, and either come up here or settle in some place – either Brighton or Hastings – where this story will be soon forgotten and no one will associate your names with this terrible business."

About that time a stranger arrived at Carnesford. He announced that he was a carpenter from the North, and that he suffered from weak lungs, and had been recommended to live down South. After staying for a week at the "Carne's Arms," he stated that he liked the village so much that he should settle there if he saw a chance of making a livelihood, and as it happened that there was no carpenter in the village, the idea was received with favour, and a week later he was established in a cottage that happened to be vacant. As he was a man who seemed to have travelled about England a good deal, and was well spoken and informed, he soon took a good position in the place, and was even admitted to form one of the party in the snuggery, where he would talk well upon occasions, but was specially popular as an excellent listener.

When spring came there was a fresh sensation. The gardener at The Hold, in digging up some ground at the edge of the shrubbery, to plant some rhododendrons there, turned up the missing watch and jewellery of Margaret Carne. It was all buried together a few inches below the soil, without any wrapper or covering of any kind. Captain Hendricks arrived at Carnesford as soon as the news of the discovery reached him. Reginald Carne was himself away, having been absent ever since the trial took place. Most of the servants had left at once; the old cook and a niece of hers alone remaining in charge, and two stablemen from the garden also staying in the house.

Nothing came of the discovery; but it, of course, renewed the interest in the mystery of Margaret Carne's death, and the general opinion was that it was fortunate indeed for Ronald Mervyn that the discovery had not been made before his trial, for it completely demolished the theory that the murder was the work of a burglar. It was possible, of course, that such a man, knowing the active hue and cry that would be set on foot, and that it would be dangerous to offer the jewellery for sale, and still more dangerous to keep it about him, had at once buried it, intending to go back some day to recover it, for, as Reginald stated at the trial, the missing jewels were worth fifteen hundred pounds.



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