"How can you say so, father?" Mary said, indignantly; "you would not compare – "
"No, no, Mary; I would not compare the two men; but I think you will admit that even had the evidence against Ronald Mervyn been ten times as conclusive as it was, you would still have maintained his innocence against all the world."
"Of course I should, father."
"Quite so, my dear; that is what I am saying; however, if our supposition is correct in this case, the girl does believe him to be guilty, but she wishes to shield him, either because she loves him still or has loved him. It is astonishing how women will cling to men even when they know them to be villains. I think, dear, that the best way of proceeding will be for you to endeavour to find out from Ruth Powlett what she knows. Of course it will be a gradual matter, and you can only do it when she has got to know and like you thoroughly."
"But, father," Mary said, hesitating, "will it not be a treacherous thing for me to become friends with her for the purpose of gaining her secret?"
"It depends how you gain it, Mary. Certainly it would be so were you to get it surreptitiously. That is not the way I should propose. If this girl has really any proof or anything like strong evidence that the murder was committed by this man Forester, she is acting wrongly and cruelly to another to allow the guilt to fall upon him. In time, when you get intimate with her, intimate enough to introduce the subject, your course would be to impress this upon her so strongly as to induce her to make an open confession. Of course you would point out to her that this could now in no way injure the man who is her lover, as he has gone no one knows where, and will certainly never return to this country, as upon his appearance he would at once be arrested and tried on the charge of killing the gamekeeper. All this would be perfectly open and above-board. Then, Mary, you could, if you deemed it expedient, own your own strong interest in the matter. There would be nothing treacherous in this, dear. You simply urge her to do an act of justice. Of course it will be painful for her to do so, after concealing it so long. Still, I should think from the little I have seen of her that she is a conscientious girl, and is, I doubt not, already sorely troubled in her mind over the matter."
"Yes, father, I agree with you. There would be nothing treacherous in that. I have simply to try to get her to make a confession of anything she may know in the matter. I quite agree with you in all you have said about the man, but I do not see how Ruth Powlett can know anything for certain, whatever she may suspect; for if she was, as you say, dangerously ill for a long time after the murder, she cannot very well have seen the man, who would be sure to have quitted the country at once."
"I am afraid that that is so, Mary. Still, we must hope for the best, and if she cannot give us absolute evidence herself, what she says may at least put us in the right track for obtaining it.
"Very well, father; now you have done your part of the work by finding out the clue, I will do mine by following it up. Fortunately, Ruth Powlett is a very superior sort of girl to any one in the village, and I can make friends with her heartily and without pretence. I should have found it very hard if she had been a rough sort of girl, but she expresses herself just as well as I do, and seems very gentle and nice. One can see that even that sharp-voiced stepmother of hers is very fond of her, and she is the apple of the miller's eye. But you must not be impatient, father; two girls can't become great friends all at once."
"I think, on the whole, Miss Armstrong," her father said, "you are quite as likely to become impatient as I am, seeing that it is your business much more than mine."
"Well, you may be sure I shall not lose more time than I can help, father." Mary Armstrong laughed. "You don't know how joyous I feel to-night, I have always been hopeful, but it did seem so vague before. Now that we have got what we think to be a clue, and can set to work at once, I feel ever so much nearer to seeing Ronald again."
The consequence of this conversation was that Mary Armstrong went very frequently down to the mill, and induced Ruth Powlett, sometimes, to come up and sit with her.
"I am very glad, Mr. Armstrong," Hiram Powlett said, one evening, when they happened to be the first two to arrive in the snuggery, "that my Ruth seems to take to your daughter. It's a real comfort to Hesba and me. You would have thought that she would have taken to some of the girls she went to school with, but she hasn't. I suppose she is too quiet for them, and they are too noisy for her. Anyhow, until now, she has never had a friend, and I think it will do her a world of good. It's bad for a girl to be alone, and especially a girl like Ruth. I don't mind telling you, Mr. Armstrong, that Hesba and I have an idea that she has got something on her mind, she has been so changed altogether since Miss Carne's murder. I might have thought that she had fretted about that scamp Forester going away, for at one time the girl was very fond of him, but before it happened she told me that she had found out he would never make her a good husband, and would break it off altogether with him; so you see I don't think his going away had anything to do with it. Once or twice I thought she was going to say something particular to me, but she has never said it, and she sits there and broods and broods till it makes my heart ache to see her. Now she has got your daughter to be friends with, perhaps she may shake it off."
"I hope she may, Mr. Powlett. It's a bad thing for a girl to mope. I know Mary likes your daughter very much; perhaps, if she has anything on her mind, she will tell Mary one of these days. You see, when girls get to be friends, they open their hearts to each other as they won't do to any one else."
"I don't see what she can have on her mind," the miller said, shaking his head. "It may only be a fancy of mine. Hesba and I have talked it over a score of times."
"Very likely it's nothing, after all," Mr. Armstrong said. "Girls get strange fancies into their heads, and make mountains out of molehills. It may be nothing, after all; still, perhaps she would be all the better for the telling of it."
Hiram Powlett shook his head decidedly. "Ruth isn't a girl to have fancies. If she is fretting, she is fretting over something serious. I don't know why I am talking so to you, Mr. Armstrong, for I have never spoken to any one else about it; but your daughter seems to have taken so kindly to Ruth that it seems natural for me to speak to you."
"I am glad you have done so, Mr. Powlett, and I hope that good may come from our talk."
It was not until a fortnight after this chat that Mary had anything to communicate to her father, for she found that whenever she turned the conversation upon the topic of the murder of Miss Carne, Ruth evidently shrank so much from it that she was obliged to change the subject.
"To-day, father, I took the bull by the horns. Ruth had been sitting there for some time working without saying a word, when I asked her suddenly, as if it was what I had been thinking over while we were silent: 'What is your opinion, Ruth? Do you think that Captain Mervyn really murdered his cousin?' She turned pale. She has never much colour, you know, but she went as white as a sheet, and then said, 'I am quite sure that he did not do it, but I don't like talking about it.' 'No, of course not,' I said. 'I can quite understand that after the terrible shock you had. Still, it is awful to think that this Captain Mervyn should have been driven away from his home and made an outcast of if he is innocent.' 'It serves him right,' Ruth said, passionately. 'How dare he insult and threaten my dear Miss Margaret? Nothing is too bad for him.' 'I can't quite agree with you there,' I said. 'No doubt he deserved to be punished, and he must have been punished by being tried for his cousin's murder; but to think of a man spending all his life, branded unjustly with the crime of murder, is something too terrible to think of.' 'I dare say he is doing very well,' she said, after a pause. 'Doing well,' I said, 'doing well! What can you be thinking of, Ruth? What sort of doing well can there be for a man who knows that at any moment he may be recognised, that his story may be whispered about, and that his neighbours may shrink away from him; that his wife, if he ever marries, may come to believe that her husband is a murderer, that his children may bear the curse of Cain upon them? It is too terrible to think of. If Captain Mervyn is guilty, he ought to have been hung; if he is innocent, he is one of the most unfortunate men in the world.' Ruth didn't say anything, but she was so terribly white that I thought she was going to faint. She tried to get up, but I could see she couldn't, and I ran and got her a glass of water. Her hand shook so that she could hardly hold it to her lips. After she drank some she sat for a minute or two quiet, then she murmured something about a sudden faintness, and that she would go home. I persuaded her to stay a few minutes longer. At last she got up. 'I am subject to fainting fits,' she said; 'it is very silly, but I cannot help it. Yes, perhaps what you say about Captain Mervyn is right, but I never quite saw it so before. Good-bye,' and then she went off, though I could see she was scarcely able to walk steadily. Oh, father, I feel quite sure that she knows something; that she can prove that Ronald is innocent if she chooses; and I think that sooner or later she will choose. First of all she was so decided in her assertion that Ronald was innocent; she did not say 'I think,' or 'I believe,' she said 'I am quite sure.' She would never have said that unless she knew something quite positive. Then the way that she burst out that it served him right, seems to me, and I have been thinking about it ever since she went away an hour ago, as if she had been trying to convince herself that it was right that he should suffer, and to soothe her own conscience for not saying what would prove him innocent."
"It looks like it, Mary; it certainly looks like it. We are on the right trail, my girl, I am sure. That was a very heavy blow you struck her to-day, and she evidently felt it so. Two or three more such blows, and the victory will be won. I have no doubt now that Ruth Powlett somehow holds the key of this strange mystery in her hand, and I think that what you have said to her to-day will go a long way towards inducing her to unlock it. Forester was the murderer of Miss Carne, I have not a shadow of doubt, though how she knows it for certain is more than I can even guess."
Upon the morning after the conversation with his daughter, Mr. Armstrong had just started on his way up the village when he met Hiram Powlett.
"I was just coming to see you, Mr. Armstrong, if you can spare a minute."
"I can spare an hour – I can spare the whole morning, Mr. Powlett. I have ceased to be a working bee, and my time is at your disposal."
"Well, I thought I would just step over and speak to you," Hiram began, in a slow, puzzled sort of a way. "You know what I was telling you the other day about my girl?"
"Yes; I remember very well."
"You don't know, Mr. Armstrong, whether she has said anything to your daughter?"
"No; at least not so far as I have heard of. Mary said that they were talking together, and something was said about Miss Carne's murder; that your daughter turned very pale, and that she thought she was going to faint."
"That's it; that's it," Hiram said, stroking his chin, thoughtfully, "that murder is at the bottom of it. Hesba thinks it must be that any talk about it brings the scene back to her; but it does not seem to me that that accounts for it at all, and I would give a lot to know what is on the girl's mind. She came in yesterday afternoon as white as a sheet, and fainted right off at the door. I shouldn't think so much of that, because she has often fainted since her illness, but that wasn't all. When her mother got her round she went upstairs to her room, and didn't come down again. There is not much in that, you would say; after a girl has fainted she likes to lie quiet a bit; but she didn't lie quiet. We could hear her walking up and down the room for hours, and Hesba stole up several times to her door and said she was sobbing enough to break her heart. She is going about the house again this morning, but that white and still that it is cruel to look at her. So I thought after breakfast that I would put on my hat and come and have a talk with you, seeing that you were good enough to be interested in her. You will say it's a rum thing for a father to come and talk about his daughter to a man he hasn't known more than two months. I feel that myself, but there is no one in the village I should like to open my mind to about Ruth, and seeing that you are father of a girl about the same age, and that I feel you are a true sort of a man, I come to you. It isn't as if I thought that my Ruth could have done anything wrong. If I did, I would cut my tongue out before I would speak a word. But I know my Ruth. She has always been a good girl: not one of your light sort, but earnest and steady. Whatever is wrong, it's not wrong with her. I believe she has got some secret or other that is just wearing her out, and if we can't get to the bottom of it I don't believe Ruth will see Christmas," and Hiram Powlett wiped his eyes violently.
"Believe me, I will do my best to find it out if there is such a secret, Mr. Powlett. I feel sure from what I have seen of your daughter, that if a wrong has been done of any kind it is not by her. I agree with you that she has a secret, and that that secret is wearing her out. I may say that my daughter is of the same opinion. I believe that there is a struggle going on in her mind on the subject, and that if she is to have peace, and as you say health, she must unburden her mind. However, Mr. Powlett, my advice in the matter is, leave her alone. Do not press her in any way. I think that what you said to me before is likely to be verified, and that if she unburdens herself it will be to Mary; and you may be sure whatever is the nature of the secret, my daughter will keep it inviolate, unless it is Ruth's own wish that it should be told to others."
"Thankee, Mr. Armstrong, thankee kindly; I feel more hopeful now. I have been worrying and fretting over this for months, till I can scarce look after my work, and often catch myself going on drawing at my pipe when it's gone out and got cold. But I think it's coming on; I think that crying last night meant something, one way or the other. Well, we shall see; we shall see. I will be off back again to my work now; I feel all the better for having had this talk with you. Hesba's a good woman, and she is fond of the child; but she is what she calls practical – she looks at things hard, and straight, and sensible, and naturally she don't quite enter into my feelings about Ruth, though she is fond of her too. Well, good morning, Mr. Armstrong; you have done me good, and I do hope it will turn out as you say, and that we shall get to know what is Ruth's trouble."
An hour later, Mary Armstrong went down to the mill to inquire after Ruth. She found her quiet and pale.
"I am glad you have come in, Miss Armstrong," Hesba said, "our Ruth wants cheering up a bit. She had a faint yesterday when she got back from your place, and she is never fit for anything after that except just to sit in her chair and look in the fire. I tell her she would be better if she would rouse herself."
"But one cannot always rouse oneself, Mrs. Powlett," Mary said; "and I am sure Ruth does not look equal to talking now. However, she shall sit still, and I will tell her a story. I have never told you yet that I was once carried off by the Kaffirs, and that worse than death would have befallen me, and that I should have been afterwards tortured and killed, if I had not been rescued by a brave man."
"Lawk-a-mussy, Miss Armstrong, why you make my flesh creep at the thought of such a thing? And you say it all happened to you? Why, now, to look at you, I should have thought you could hardly have known what trouble meant, you always seem so bright and happy; that's what Ruth has said, again and again."
"You shall judge for yourself, Mrs. Powlett, if you can find time to sit down and listen, as well as Ruth."
"I can find time for that," Hesba said, "though it isn't often as I sits down till the tea is cleared away and Hiram has lit his pipe."
Mary sat down facing the fire, with Ruth in an arm-chair on one side of her, and Mrs. Powlett stiff and upright on a hard settle on the other. Then she began to tell the story, first saying a few words to let her hearers know of the fate of women who fell into the hands of the Kaffirs. Then she began with the story of her journey down from King Williamstown, the sudden attack by natives, and how after seeing her father fall she was carried off. Then she told, what she had never told before, of the hideous tortures of the other two women, part of which she was compelled to witness, and how she was told that she was to be preserved as a present to Macomo. Then she described the dreary journey. "I had only one hope," she said, "and it was so faint that it could not be called a hope; but there was one man in the colony who somehow I felt sure would, if he knew of my danger, try to rescue me. He had once before come to our aid when our house was attacked by Kaffirs, and in a few minutes our fate would have been sealed had he not arrived. But for aught I knew he was a hundred miles away, and what could he do against the three hundred natives who were with me? Still, I had a little ray of hope, the faintest, tiniest ray, until we entered the Amatolas – they are strong steep hills covered with forest and bush, and are the stronghold of the Kaffirs, and I knew that there were about twenty thousand natives gathered there. Then I hoped no longer. I felt that my fate was sealed, and my only wish and my only longing was to obtain a knife or a spear, and to kill myself."
Then Mary described the journey through the forest to the kraal, the long hours she had sat waiting for her fate with every movement watched by the Kaffir women, and her sensations when she heard the message in English. Then she described her rescue from the kraal, her flight through the woods, her concealment in the cave, her escape from the Amatolas, the ride with the trooper holding her on his saddle, and the final dash through the Kaffirs.
Her hearers had thrown in many interjections of horror and pity, loud on the part of Hesba, mere murmurs on that of Ruth, who had taken Mary's hand in hers, but the sympathetic pressure told more than words.
"And you shot four of them, Miss Armstrong!" Hesba ejaculated, in wide-eyed astonishment. "To think that a young girl like you should have the death of four men on her hands! I don't say as it's unchristian, because Christians are not forbidden to fight for their lives, but it does seem downright awful!"
"It has never troubled me for a single moment," Mary said. "They tried to kill me, and I killed them. That is the light I saw it in, and so would you if you had been living in the colony."
"But you have not finished your story," Ruth said, earnestly. "Surely that is not the end of it!"
"No; my father recovered from his wound, and so did the soldier who saved me, and as soon as my father was able to travel, he and I went down to the coast and came home."
"That cannot be all," Ruth whispered; "there must be something more to tell, Mary."
"I will tell you another time, Ruth," Mary said, in equally low tones, and then rising, put on her hat again, said good-bye, and went out.
"Did you ever, Ruth?" Hesba Powlett exclaimed as the door closed. "I never did hear such a story in all my life. And to think of her shooting four men! It quite made my flesh creep; didn't it yours?"
"There were other parts of the story that made my flesh creep a great deal more, mother."