Ronald hardly knew whether to be glad or sorry that the secret was still kept. It would, he felt sure, come out sooner or later, and in some respects he would rather have an end of the suspense, and face it at once. His position was a strong one, his officers were all markedly kind to him, and his expedition into the Amatolas had rendered him the most popular man in the corps among his comrades. The fact, too, as told by Colonel Somerset to his officers, and as picked up by the men from their talk, that he had refused a commission, added to his popularity; the men were glad to think that their comrade preferred being one of them to becoming an officer, and that the brave deed they were all proud of had not been done to win promotion, but simply to save women in distress.
There had been sly laughter among the men when their comrades told them how pretty was the girl Ronald had brought back; and there had been keen wagering in the regiment that there would be a wedding before they marched, or at any rate that they should hear there would be one on their return from the war. The one contingency had not occurred. The other it seemed was not to take place, for in answer to a question as to how the wounded colonist was going on, Ronald had said carelessly that he was mending fast, and would be well enough to be taken down to the coast in a fortnight, and that the doctor thought by the time he reached England he would be completely set up again. So the bets were paid, but the men wondered that their sergeant had not made a better use of his opportunities, for all agreed that a girl could hardly refuse a man who had done so much for her, even if her father were a wealthy colonist, and he only a trooper in the Mounted Rifles.
The landlord of the "Carne's Arms" was somewhat puzzled by a stranger who had just been dropped at his door by the coach from Plymouth. He did not look like either a fisherman or an artist, or even a wandering tourist. His clothes were somewhat rough, and the landlord would have taken him for a farmer, but what could any strange farmer be stopping at Carnesford for? There were no farms vacant in the neighbourhood, nor any likely to be, so far as the landlord knew; besides, the few words his guest had spoken as he entered had no touch of the Devonshire dialect. While he was standing at the door, turning the matter over in his mind – for he rather prided himself upon his ability to decide upon the calling and object of his guests, and was annoyed by his failure to do so in the present instance – the man he was thinking of came out of the coffee-room and placed himself beside him.
"Well, landlord, this is a pretty village of yours; they told me in Plymouth it was as pretty a place as any about, and I see they were right."
"Yes, most folks think it's pretty," the landlord said, "although I am so accustomed to it myself I don't see a great deal in it."
"Yes, custom is everything.
"I should think it is quiet enough farming there," the landlord said. "I have heard from folk who have been out in some of those parts that you often haven't a neighbour nearer than four miles away."
"That's true enough, landlord, but the life is not always quiet for all that. It's not quiet, for instance, when you hear the yell of a hundred or so savages outside your windows, or see a party driving half your cattle away into the bush."
"No, I shouldn't call that quiet; and that is what you have been doing?"
"Yes, I was in the disturbed part when the Kaffirs rose. Most of our neighbours were killed, and we had a hard time of it, but some mounted police came up just in time. I have had trouble three or four times before, and it's no use going on for years rearing cattle if they are to be all swept away by the natives, and you are running the risk of getting your throat cut in the bargain; so, after this last affair, I locked up my farmhouse, drove off what cattle I had got left, and sold them for what I could get for them, and here I am."
"Yes, here you are," repeated the landlord; "and what next?"
"The ship touched at Plymouth, and I thought I might as well get out there as anywhere else. Well, there is too much noise and bustle at Plymouth. I haven't been used to it, and so now I am just looking for a little place to suit me. I have been up to Tavistock, and then some one said that Carnesford was a pretty village. I said I would look at Carnesford, and so you see here I am."
"What sort of a place are you looking for?" the landlord asked, looking at his visitor closely, and mentally appraising his worth.
"Oh, quite a little place, I should say about twenty pounds a year. I suppose one could get a girl to help from the village, and could live for another eighty. That's about what I could afford."
"Oh, yes, I should say you could do that," said the landlord, thoughtfully, "but I don't know that there is any such place to let anywhere about here. There is a nice cottage at the other end of the village just empty. It's got a good garden, and is rather away from the rest of the houses; but the rent is only half-a-crown a week. That wouldn't do for you."
"Well, I wanted something better than that; but still I might have a look at it. Of course if I took it I should want to stay, and I might as well spend a little money in doing it up to my fancy as in paying higher rent. By the way, my name is Armstrong. Perhaps you wouldn't mind putting on your hat and showing me this place you speak of. We have been used to roughing it, and don't want anything fine."
The cottage was certainly large and roomy, and stood in a pretty garden. But its appearance was not prepossessing, for it differed from most of the other little houses in the village inasmuch as it was not, like them, half hidden by roses and creepers climbing over it.
"Yes, it's rough, decidedly rough," Mr. Armstrong said, "still there is a pretty view down the valley. Now I should save nearly fourteen pounds in rent by taking this instead of a twenty pound a year house; and if one were to put up a verandah round it, touch up the windows somehow, and put pretty paper on the walls, I should say that at the end of two years it would stand me in just the same. That and plenty of roses and things would make it a pretty little place. Who is the landlord?"
"The landlord is Mr. Carne, up at The Hold; that's the big house on the hill. But he is away at present. Mr. Kirkland, a lawyer at Plymouth, is his agent, and sees to the letting of his houses and that sort of thing. His clerk comes over once a month to collect the rents. I expect you would have to go to him even if Mr. Carne was at home. Squire was never much down in the village in the best of times, and we have hardly seen his face since his sister's death."
"Yes, they were telling us about that affair at Plymouth," the colonist said, quietly. "It was a bad business. Well, have you got some pretty sociable sort of fellows in the village? I like a chat as well as any man, and I should want some one to talk to."
"Well, I don't know that they would be your sort," the landlord said, doubtfully. "There's the clergyman – and the doctor – "
"Oh, no. I don't want to have to do with clergymen and doctors – we colonists are pretty rough and ready fellows, and it's no odds to us what a man is. A man stops at your door, and in he comes, and he is welcome – though he is only a shepherd on the look-out for work; sometimes one of the Kaffir chiefs with nothing on but a blanket and a leather apron, will stalk in and squat down and make himself at home. Oh, no. It's tradesmen I mean, and perhaps the small farmers round."
"Well, we are pretty well off for that, Mr. Armstrong. There is Hiram Powlett, the miller, and Jacob Carey, the blacksmith – they drop in pretty regular every evening and smoke a pipe with me, in what I call my snuggery; and there's old Reuben Claphurst – he was the clerk at one time, and is a wonderful chap for knowing the history of every family for miles round; and there's some of the farmers often come in for a glass – if you are not too proud for that sort of company."
"Proud! Bless your heart, what is there to be proud about; ain't I been working as a farmer for years and years with no one to talk to but my own hands? – I mean my own men. No, that's just the thing to suit me; anyhow, I think I will try the experiment. If at the end of a couple of years I don't like it, why, there is no harm done."
"Well, I am sure we shall be all glad to have you here, Mr. Armstrong; we like getting some one from outside, it freshens our ideas up a bit and does us good. We are cheerful enough in summer with the artists that come here sketching, and with the gentlemen who sometimes come to fish; but the rest of the year I don't often have a stranger at the 'Carne's Arms.'"
Two days later Mr. Armstrong returned to Carnesford with a builder from Plymouth. The following day, five or six workmen appeared, and in a fortnight a considerable transformation had been made in the cottage. A verandah was run round the front and two sides. Some rustic woodwork appeared round the windows, and the interior of the house was transformed with fresh paper and paint. Nothing could be done in the way of roses and creepers, as these could not be moved at that time of year, for it was now just midsummer.
The day after the workmen went out, a waggon load of furniture, simple and substantial, arrived, and on the following day the coach brought down the new tenants. A girl had already been engaged in the village to act as servant. Miss Armstrong was quietly and plainly dressed, and might, by her attire, be taken for the daughter of a small farmer, and the opinion in the village, as the newcomers walked through on their way to the cottage, was distinctly favourable. In a very short time Mr. Armstrong became quite a popular character in Carnesford, and soon was on speaking terms with most of the people. He won the mothers' hearts by patting the heads of the little girls, and praising their looks. He had a habit of carrying sweets in his pockets, and distributing them freely among the children, and he would lounge for hours at the smith's door, listening to the gossip that went on, for in Carnesford, as elsewhere, the forge was the recognised meeting-place of those who had nothing to do. He was considered a wonderful acquisition by the frequenters of the snuggery at the "Carne's Arms," and his stories of life at the Cape gave an added interest to their meetings. Hearing from Hiram Powlett that he had a wife and daughter, he asked him to get them, as a matter of kindness, to visit his daughter; and within a fortnight of his arrival, he and Mary went to tea to the Mill.
Several times the conversation in the snuggery turned upon the murder at The Hold. In no case did the new-comer lead up to it, but it cropped up as the subject which the people of Carnesford were never weary of discussing. He ventured no opinions and asked no questions upon the first few occasions when the subject was being discussed, but smoked his pipe in silence, listening to the conversation.
"It seems strange to me," he said at last, "that you in this village should never have had a suspicion of any one except this Captain Mervyn; I understand that you, Mr. Claphurst, and you, Mr. Carey, have never thought of any one else; but Mr. Powlett – he always says he is sure it isn't him. But if it wasn't him, Mr. Powlett, who do you think it was?"
"Ah, that is more than I can tell," Hiram replied. "I have thought, and I have thought, till my head went round, but I can't see who it can have been."
"Miss Carne seems to have had no enemies?"
"No, not one – not as I ever heard of. She was wonderful popular in the village, she was; and as for the Squire, except about poaching, he never quarrelled with any one."
"Had he trouble with poachers, then?"
"Well, not often; but last year, before that affair, there was a bad lot about. They were from Dareport – that's two miles away, down at the mouth of the river – with one or two chaps from this village, so it was said. About a fortnight – it may be three weeks – before Miss Carne was killed, there was a fight up in the woods between them and the gamekeepers. One of the keepers got stabbed, but he didn't die until some time afterwards; but the jury brought it in wilful murder all the same. It didn't matter much what verdict they brought in, 'cause the man as the evidence went against had left the country – at least, he hadn't been seen hereabouts."
"And a good job too, Hiram – a good job too," Jacob Carey put in.
"Yes," Hiram said, "I admit it; it was a good job as he was gone – a good job for us all. He would never have done any good here, anyway; and the best job as ever he did for himself, as I know of, was when he took himself off."
There was a general chorus of assent.
"What was the man's name?" Mr. Armstrong asked, carelessly.
"His name was George Forester," Jacob Carey said.
As they were going out from the snuggery that evening, the landlord made a sign to Mr. Armstrong that he wanted to speak to him. He accordingly lingered until the other men had left.
"Oh, I thought I would just tell you, Mr. Armstrong, seeing that your daughter and you have been to the Mill, it's just as well not to talk about the poaching and George Forester before Ruth Powlett. You see, it's rather a sore subject with her. She was engaged to that George Forester, and a lot of trouble it gave her father and mother. Well, I expect she must have seen now that she had a lucky escape. Still, a girl don't like a man as she has liked being spoken against, so I thought that I would say a word to you."
"Thank you; that's very friendly of you. Yes, you may be sure that I won't introduce the subject. I am very glad you told me, or I might have blundered upon it and hurt the girl's feelings. She doesn't look very strong, either. She has a nervous look about her, I think."
"She used to be very different, but she had a great shock. She was the first, you know, to go into Miss Carne's room and find her dead. She was her maid before that, and she was ill for weeks after. It came on the top of an illness, too. She fell down on the hill coming home from church, and they found her lying insensible there, and she was very bad – had the doctor there every day. Then came this other affair, and I dare say this business of George Forester's helped too. Anyhow, she was very bad, and the doctor thought at one time that she wouldn't get over it."
Mr. Armstrong walked home thoughtfully.
"Well, father, what is your news?" Mary Armstrong said, as he entered. "I can see you have heard something more than usual."
"Well, my dear, I don't know that it's anything, but at the same time it certainly is new, and gives us something to follow up. It seems that there was a fellow named George Forester living somewhere about here, and he was engaged to your friend, Ruth Powlett, but her father and mother disapproved of it highly. They say he was a bad lot; he got mixed up with a gang of poachers, and some little time before this murder, about three weeks before, they had a fight with Mr. Carne's keepers; one of the keepers was mortally wounded, it was said by this George Forester. The man lived for some time, but at last died of the wound, and the jury brought in a verdict of wilful murder against George Forester, who had been missing from the time of the fight."
"Yes, father, but that seems no great clue."
"Perhaps not, Mary, but it shows at least that there was one fellow about here who may be considered to have had a quarrel with the Carnes, and who was a thoroughly bad character, and who – and this is of importance – was engaged, with or without her parents' consent, to Miss Carne's own maid."
Mary gave a little gasp of excitement.
"Now it seems, further," her father went on, "that some time between this poaching affray and the murder – I could not inquire closely into dates – Ruth Powlett was found insensible on the road going up the hill, and was very ill for some days; she said she had had a fall, and of course she may have had, although it is not often young women fall down so heavily as to stun themselves. But it may of course have been something else."
"What else, father?"
"Well, it is possible she may have met this lover of hers, and that they may have had a quarrel. Probably she knew he had been engaged in this poaching affair, and may have told him that she would have nothing more to do with him, and he may have knocked her down. Of course, this is all mere supposition, but it is only by supposition that we can grope our way along. It seems she was well enough anyhow to go up to her place again at The Hold, for she was the first to discover the murder, and the shock was so great that she was ill for weeks, in fact in great danger; they say she has been greatly changed ever since. I don't know whether anything can be made of that, my dear."
"I don't know. I don't see what, father," Mary said, after thinking for some time, "unless she is fancying since that it was this man who did it. Of course, anyhow, it would be a fearful shock for a girl to find her mistress lying murdered, and perhaps it may be nothing more than that."
"No doubt, it may be nothing more than that, Mary; but it's the other side of the case we have to look at. Let us piece the things together. Here we have four or five facts, all of which may tell. Here is a bad character in the village; that is one point. This man had a poaching affray with Mr. Carne's keepers; he killed, or at any rate the coroner's jury found that he killed, one of the keepers. He is engaged to Miss Carne's own maid. This maid is just after this poaching business found insensible in the wood, and tells rather an improbable story as to how it came about. She is the first to enter her mistress's room, and then she has a serious illness. Of course, any girl would be shocked and frightened and upset, but it is not so often that a serious illness would be the result. And lastly, she has been changed ever since. She has, as you remarked to me the other day, an absent, preoccupied sort of way about her. Taken altogether, these things certainly do amount to something."
"I think so too, father; I think so too," Mary Armstrong said, walking up and down the little room in her excitement. "I do think there may be something in it; and you see, father, after this poaching business, the man wanted to get away, and he may have been in want of money, and so have thought of taking Miss Carne's watch and jewels to raise money to take him abroad."
"So he might, my dear. That is certainly a feasible explanation, but unfortunately, instead of taking them away, you see he buried them."
"Yes, father, but he only just pushed them into the ground, the report said; because on reading through the old files of the newspapers the other day I particularly noticed that. Well, father, you see, perhaps just as he was leaving the house a dog may have barked, or something may have given him a scare, and he may just have hidden them in the ground, intending to come for them next day; and then, what with the excitement and the police here, and the search that was being made, he could get no opportunity of getting them up again, and being afraid of being arrested himself for his share in the poaching affray, he dared not hang about here any longer, but probably went down to Plymouth and got on board ship there. Of course, all this is nothing more than supposition, still it really does not seem improbable, father. There is only one difficulty that I can see. Why should he have killed Miss Carne, because the doctors say that she was certainly asleep?"
"We cannot tell, dear. She may have moved a little. He may have thought that she would wake, and that he had better make sure. He was a desperate man, and there is no saying what a desperate man will do. Anyhow, Mary, this is a clue, and a distinct one, and we must follow it up. It may lead us wrong in the end, but we shall not be losing time by following it, for I shall keep my ears open, and may find some other and altogether different track."
"How had we better follow it?" Mary asked, after having sat silent for some minutes. "This Forester is gone, and we have no idea where. I think the only person likely to be able to help us is Ruth Powlett."
"Exactly so, my dear."
"And she would not be likely to speak. If she knows anything she would have said it at the trial had she not wished to shield this man, whom she may love in spite of his wickedness."
"Quite so, my dear; and besides," and he smiled, "young women in love are not disposed to believe in their lovers' guilt."