"Yes, it was terrible! And she didn't say a single word in praise of what the soldier had done for her. Now that seems to me downright ungrateful, and not at all what I should have thought of Miss Armstrong."
"I suppose she thought, mother, that there was no occasion to express her opinion of his bravery or to mention her gratitude. The whole story seemed to me a cry of praise and a hymn of gratitude."
"Lord, Ruth, what fancies you do take in your head, to be sure! I never did hear such expressions!"
Two days passed without Ruth going up to the Armstrongs'; on the third day Mary again went down.
"Well, Ruth, as you have not been to see me, I have come to see you again."
"I was coming up this afternoon. If you don't mind, I will go back with you now, instead of your staying here. We are quieter there, you know. Somehow, one cannot think or talk when people come in and out of the room every two or three minutes."
"I quite agree with you, Ruth, and, if you don't mind my saying so, I would very much rather have you all to myself."
The two girls accordingly went back to the cottage. Mary, who was rather an industrious needlewoman, brought out a basket of work. Ruth, who for a long time had scarcely taken up a needle, sat with her hands before her.
When two people intend to have a serious conversation with each other, they generally steer wide of the subject at first, and the present was no exception.
"I think it would be better for you, Ruth, to occupy yourself with work a little, as I do."
"I used to be fond of work," Ruth replied, "but I don't seem to be able to give my attention to it now. I begin, and before I have done twenty stitches, somehow or other my thoughts seem to go away, and by the end of the morning the first twenty stitches are all I have done."
"But you oughtn't to think so much, Ruth. It is bad for any one to be always thinking."
"Yes, but I can't help it. I have so much to think about, and it gets worse instead of better. Now, after what you said to me the other night, I don't know what to do. It seemed right before. I did not think I was doing much harm in keeping silence; now I see I have been, oh, so wrong!" and she twined her fingers in and out as if suffering bodily pain.
"My poor Ruth!" Mary said, coming over to her and kneeling down by her side. "I think I know what is troubling you."
The girl shook her head.
"Yes, dear, I am almost sure you have known something all along that would have proved Captain Mervyn was innocent, and you have not said it."
Ruth Powlett did not speak for a minute or two, then she said, slowly:
"I do not know how you have guessed it, Mary. No one else even seems to have thought of it. But, yes, that is it, and I do so want some one to advise me what to do. I see now I have been very wicked. For a long time I have been fighting against myself. I have tried so hard to persuade myself that I had not done much harm, because Captain Mervyn was acquitted.
"Wait, Ruth," Mary said; "before you tell me your secret I must tell you mine. It would not be fair for you to tell me without knowing that. You remember the story I was telling you about my being carried off?"
A fresh interest came into Ruth's face.
"Yes," she said, "and you promised you would tell me the rest another time. I thought you meant, of course, you would tell me that when this war out there is over, you would some day marry the soldier who has done so much for you."
"I was going to tell you, Ruth, why I am not going to marry him."
"Oh, I thought you would be sure to," Ruth said in a tone of deep disappointment. "It seemed to me that it was sure to be so. I thought a man would never have risked so much for a woman unless he loved her."
"He did love me, Ruth, and I loved him. I don't think I made any secret of it. Somehow it seemed to me that he had a right to me, and I was surprised when the time went on and he didn't ask me. When the last day came before he was to march away to fight again, I think that if he had not spoken I should have done so. Do not think me unmaidenly, Ruth, but he was only a sergeant and I was a rich girl, for my father is a great deal better off than he seems to be, and I thought that perhaps some foolish sort of pride held him back, for I was quite sure that he loved me. But he spoke first. He told me that he loved me, but could never ask me to be his wife; that he could never marry, but he must go through the world alone to the end of his life."
"Oh, Mary, how terrible!" Ruth said, pitifully, "how terrible! Was he married before, then?"
"No, Ruth, it was worse than that; there was a great shadow over his life; he had been tried for murder, and though he had been acquitted, the stigma was still upon him. Go where he would he might be recognised and pointed out as a murderer; therefore, unless the truth was some day known and his name cleared, no woman could ever be his wife."
Ruth had given a little gasp as Mary Armstrong began, then she sat rigid and immovable.
"It was Captain Mervyn," she said, at last, in a low whisper.
"Yes, Ruth. Sergeant Blunt was Captain Mervyn; he had changed his name, and gone out there to hide himself, but even there he had already been recognised; and, as he said – for I pleaded hard, Ruth, to be allowed to share his exile – go where he would, bury himself in what out-of-the-way corner he might, sooner or later some one would know him, and this story would rise up against him, and, much as he loved me – all the more, perhaps, because he loved me so much – he would never suffer me to be pointed at as the wife of a murderer."
"You shall not be," Ruth said, more firmly than she had before spoken. "You shall not be, Mary. I can clear him, and I will."
It was Mary Armstrong's turn to break down now. The goal had been reached, Ronald Mervyn would be cleared; and she threw her arms round Ruth and burst into a passion of tears. It was some time before the girls were sufficiently composed to renew the conversation.
"First of all, I must tell you, Mary," Ruth began, "that you may not think me more wicked than I am, that I would never have let Captain Mervyn suffer the penalty of another's crime. Against the wish, almost in the face of the orders of the doctor, I remained in court all through the trial, holding in my hand the proof of Captain Mervyn's innocence, and had the verdict been 'guilty' I was ready to rush forward and prove that he was innocent. I do not think that all that you suffered when you were in the hands of the Kaffirs was worse than I suffered then. I saw before me the uproar in court: the eyes that would be all fixed upon me; the way that the judge and the counsel would blame me for having so long kept silence; the reproach that I should meet with when I returned home; the shame of my dear old father; the way in which every soul in the village would turn against me; but I would have dared it all rather than that one man should suffer for the sin of another. And now, having told you this first, so that you should not think too hardly of me, I will tell you all."
Then Ruth told her of her girlish love for George Forester; how she had clung to him through evil report, and in spite of the wishes of her father and mother, but how at last the incident of the affray with the gamekeepers had opened her eyes to the fact that he was altogether reckless and wild, and that she could never trust her happiness to him. She told how Margaret Carne had spoken to her about it, and how she had promised she would give him up; then she told of that meeting on the road on the way to church; his passionate anger against herself; the threats he had uttered against Miss Carne for her interference, and the way in which he had assaulted her.
"I firmly believe," Ruth said, "he would have murdered me had he not heard people coming along the road." Then she told how she found the open knife stained with blood at Margaret Carne's bedside, and how she had hidden it. "I did not do it because I loved him still, Mary," she said. "My love seemed to have been killed. I had given him up before, and the attack he made upon me had shown me clearly how violent he was, and what an escape I had had; but I had loved him as a boy, and it was the remembrance of my girlish love, and not any love I then had, that sealed my lips; but even this would not have silenced me, I think, had it not been for the sake of his father. The old man had always been very, very kind to me, and the disgrace of his son being found guilty of this crime would have killed him. I can say, honestly, it was this that chiefly influenced me in deciding to shield him. As to Captain Mervyn, I was, as I told you, determined that though I would keep silent if he were acquitted, I would save him if he were found guilty. I never thought for a moment that acquittal would not clear him. It seemed to me that the trouble that had fallen on him was thoroughly deserved for the way in which he had spoken to Miss Carne; but I thought when he was acquitted he would take his place in his regiment again, and be none the worse for what had happened. It was only when I found that he had left the regiment, and when Mrs. Mervyn and her daughters shut up the house and went to live far away, that I began to trouble much. I saw now how wicked I had been, though I would never quite own it even to myself. I would have told then, but I did not know who to tell it to, or what good it could do if told. Mr. Forester was dead now, and the truth could not hurt him. George Forester had gone away, and would never come back; you know they found a verdict of wilful murder against him for killing the keeper. Somehow it seemed too late either to do good or harm. Every one had gone. Why should I say anything, and bring grief and trouble on my father and mother, and make the whole valley despise me? It has been dreadful," she said, wanly. "You cannot tell how dreadful. Ever since you came here and tried to make a friend of me, I have been fighting a battle with myself. It was not right that you should like me – it was not right that any one should like me – and I felt at last that I must tell you; you first, and then every one. Now after what you have told me it will not be so hard. Of course I shall suffer, and my father will suffer; but it will do good and make you and Captain Mervyn happy for the truth to be known, and so I shall be able to brave it all much better than I should otherwise have done. Who shall I go to first?"
"I cannot tell you, Ruth. I must speak to my father, and he will think it over, and perhaps he will write and ask Ronald how he would like it done. There is no great hurry, for he cannot come home anyhow till the war is finished, and it may last for months yet."
"Well, I am ready to go anywhere and to tell every one when you like," Ruth said. "Do not look so pitiful, Mary. I am sure I shall be much happier, whatever happens, even if they put me in prison, now that I have made up my mind to do what is right."
"There is no fear of that, I think, Ruth. They never asked you whether you had found anything; and though you certainly hid the truth, you did not absolutely give false evidence."
"It was all wrong and wicked," Ruth said, "and it will be quite right if they punish me; but that would be nothing to what I have suffered lately. I should feel happier in prison with this weight off my mind. But can you forgive me, Mary? Can you forgive me causing such misery to Captain Mervyn, and such unhappiness to you?"
"You need not be afraid about that," Mary said, laying her hand assuringly on Ruth's shoulder. "Why, child, you have been a benefactor to us both! If you had told all about it at first, Ronald would never have gone out to the Cape; father and I would have been killed in the first attack; and if we had not been, I should have been tortured to death in the Amatolas; and, last of all, we should never have seen and loved each other. Whatever troubles you may have to bear, do not reckon Ronald's displeasure and mine among them. I shall have cause to thank you all the days of my life, and I hope Ronald will have cause to do so too. Kiss me, Ruth; you have made me the happiest woman in the world, and I would give a great deal to be able to set this right without your having to put yourself forward in it."
Ruth was crying now, but they were not tears of unhappiness. They talked for some time longer, sitting hand in hand; and then, as Mr. Armstrong's step was heard coming up to the cottage, Ruth seized her hat and shawl.
"I dare not see him," she said; "he may not look at it as you do."
"Yes, he will," Mary said. "You don't know my father; he is one of the tenderest hearted of men." But Ruth darted out just as the door opened.
"What is it?" Mr. Armstrong asked in surprise. "Ruth Powlett nearly knocked me down in the passage, and rushed off without even the ordinary decency of apologising."
"Ruth has told me everything, father. We can clear Ronald Mervyn as soon as we like." And Mary Armstrong threw her arms round her father's neck.
"I thank God for that, Mary. I felt it would come sooner or later, but I had hardly hoped that it would come so soon. I am thankful, indeed, my child; how did it all come about?"
Mary repeated the story Ruth Powlett told her.
"Yes, there's no doubt about it this time," her father said. "As you say, there could be no mistake about the knife, because she had given it to him herself, and had had his initials engraved upon it at Plymouth. I don't think any reasonable man could have a doubt that the scoundrel did it; and now, my dear, what is to be done next?"
"Ah, that is for you to decide. I think Ronald ought to be consulted."
"Oh, you think that?" Mr. Armstrong said, quickly. "You think he knows a great deal better what ought to be done than I do?"
"No, I don't exactly mean that, father; but I think one would like to know how he would wish it to be done before we do anything. There is no particular hurry, you know, when he once knows that it is all going to be set right."
"No, beyond the fact that he would naturally like to get rid of this thing hanging over him as soon as he can. Now, my idea is that the girl ought to go at once to a magistrate and make an affidavit, and hand over this knife to him. I don't know how the matter is to be re-opened, because Ronald Mervyn has been acquitted, and the other man is goodness knows where."
"Well, father, there will be time enough to think over it, but I do think we had better tell Ronald first."
"Very well, my dear, as you generally have your own way, I suppose we shall finally settle on that, whether we agree now or three days hence. By the way, I have got a letter in my pocket for you from him. The Cape mail touched at Plymouth yesterday."
"Why did you not tell me of it before, father?" the girl said, reproachfully.
"Well, my dear, your news is so infinitely more important, that I own I forgot all about the letter. Besides, as this is the fourth that you have had since you have been here, it is not of such extreme importance."
But Mary was reading the letter and paid no attention to what her father was saying. Presently she gave a sudden exclamation.
"What is it, my dear; has he changed his mind and married a Kaffir woman? If so, we need not trouble any more about the affair."
"No, papa; it is serious – quite serious."
"Well, my dear, that would be serious; at least I should have thought you would consider it so."
"No, father; but really this is extraordinary. What do you think he says?"
"It is of no use my thinking about it, Mary," Mr. Armstrong said, resignedly, "especially as I suppose you are going to tell me. I have made one suggestion, and it seems that it is incorrect."
"This is what he says, father: 'You know that I told you a trooper in my company recognised me. I fancied I knew the man's face, but could not recall where I had seen it. The other day it suddenly flashed upon me; he is the son of a little farmer upon my cousin's estate, a man by the name of Forester. I often saw him when he was a young fellow, for I was fond of fishing, and I can remember him as a boy who was generally fishing down in the mill-stream. I fancy he rather went to grief afterwards, and have some idea he was mixed up in a poaching business in the Carne woods. So I think he must have left the country about that time. Curious, isn't it, his running against me here? However, it cannot be helped. I suppose it will all come out, sooner or later, for he has been in the guardroom several times for drunkenness, and one of these times he will be sure to blurt it out.'"
"Isn't that extraordinary, father?"
"It is certainly an extraordinary coincidence, Mary, that these two men – the murderer of Miss Carne and the man who has suffered for that murder should be out there together. This complicates matters a good deal."
"It does, father. There can be no doubt of what is to be done now."
"Well, now I quite come round on your side, Mary; nothing should be done until Mervyn knows all about it, and can let us know what his views are. I should not think that he could have this man arrested out there merely on his unsupported accusation, and I should imagine that he will want an official copy of Ruth Powlett's affidavit, and perhaps a warrant sent out from England, before he can get him arrested. Anyhow, we must go cautiously to work. When Ruth Powlett speaks, it will make a great stir here, and this Forester may have some correspondent here who would write and tell him what has happened, and then he might make a bolt of it before Ronald can get the law at work and lay hold of him."
"I should rather hope, for Ruth's sake, that he would do so, father. She is ready to make her confession and to bear all the talk it will make and the blame that will fall upon her; but it would be a great trial to her to have the man she once loved brought over and hung upon her evidence."
"So it would, Mary, so it would; but, on the other hand, it can be only by his trial and execution that Mervyn's innocence can be absolutely proved to the satisfaction of every one. It is a grave question altogether, Mary, and at any rate we will wait. Tell Mervyn he has all the facts before him, and must decide what is to be done. Besides, my dear, I think it will be only fair that Ruth should know that we are in a position to lay hands on this Forester before she makes the confession."
"I think so too, father. Yes, she certainly ought to be told; but I am sure that now she has made up her mind to confess she will not draw back. Still, of course, it would be very painful for her. We need not tell her at present; I will write a long letter to Ronald and tell him all the ins and outs of it, and then we can wait quietly until we hear from him."
"You need not have said that you will write a long letter, Mary," Mr. Armstrong said, drily, "considering that each time the mail has gone out I have seen nothing of you for twenty-four hours previously, and that I have reason to believe that an extra mail cart has had each time to be put on to carry the correspondence."
"It's all very well to laugh, father," Mary said, a little indignantly, "but you know that he is having fights almost every day with the Kaffirs, and only has our letters to look forward to, telling him how we are getting on and – and – "
"And how we love him, Mary, and how we dream of him, etc., etc."
"Never mind what I put in my letters, father, as long as he is satisfied with them."
"I don't, my dear. My only fear is that he will come back wearing spectacles, for I should say that it would ruin any human eyes to have to wade through the reams of feminine handwriting you send to him. If he is the sensible fellow I give him credit for, he only reads the first three words, which are, I suppose, 'my darling Ronald' and the last four, which I also suppose are 'your ever loving Mary.'"
The colour flooded Mary Armstrong's cheeks.
"You have no right even to guess at my letters, father, and I have no doubt that whether they are long or short, he reads them through a dozen times."
"Poor fellow, poor fellow!" Mr. Armstrong said, pityingly. "Nevertheless, my dear, important as all these matters are, I do not know why I should be compelled to fast. I came in an hour ago, expecting to find tea ready, and there are no signs of it visible. I shall have to follow the example of the villagers when their wives fail to get their meals ready, and go down to the 'Carne's Arms' for it."
"You shall have it in five minutes, father," Mary Armstrong said, running out. "Men are so dreadfully material that whatever happens their appetite must be attended to just as usual."
And so three days afterwards a full account of all that Ruth Powlett had said, and of the circumstances of the case, was despatched to "Sergeant Blunt, Cape Mounted Rifles, Kaffirland."