The Curse of Carne's Hold: A Tale of Adventure
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"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.Even if no legal evidence can be obtained, we might get enough clues, with what we have already, to convince the world that whereas hitherto there seemed no alternative open as to Mervyn's guilt, there was in fact another against whom there is at any rate a certain amount of proof, and whose character is as bad as that of Captain Mervyn is good. This would in itself be a great step. Mervyn has been acquitted, but as no one else is shown to have been connected with it in any way, people are compelled, in spite of his previous character, in spite of his acquittal, in spite in fact even of probability, to consider him guilty. Once shown that there is at least reasonable ground for suspicion against another, and the opinion, at any rate of all who know Mervyn, would at once veer round."
"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."