Ronald Mervyn led so active a life for some months after the departure of Mr. Armstrong and his daughter, that he had little time to spend in thought, and it was only by seizing odd minutes between intervals of work that he could manage to send home a budget at all proportionate in size to that which he regularly received. When the courier came up with the English mails there had been stern fighting, for although the British force was raised by the arrival of reinforcements from India and England to over 5,000 men, with several batteries of artillery, it was with the greatest difficulty that it gradually won its way into the Kaffir stronghold. Several times the troops were so hardly pressed by the enemy that they could scarcely claim a victory, and a large number of officers and men fell. The Cape Mounted Rifles formed part of every expedition into the Amatolas, and had their full share of fighting. Ronald had several times distinguished himself, especially in the fight in the Water Kloof Valley, when Colonel Fordyce, of the 74th, and Carey and Gordon, two officers of the same regiment, were killed, together with several of their men, while attacking the enemy in the bush. He was aware now that his secret was known to the men. He had fancied that searching and inquisitive glances were directed towards him, and that there was a change in the demeanour of certain men of his troop, these being without exception the idlest and worst soldiers. It was Sergeant Menzies who first spoke to him on the subject. It was after a hard day's march when, having picketed their horses and eaten their hastily cooked rations, the two non-commissioned officers lit their pipes and sat down together at a short distance from the fire.
"I have been wanting to speak to you, lad, for the last day or two. There is a story gaining ground through the troop that, whether it is true or whether it is false, you ought to know."
"I guessed as much, Menzies," Ronald said. "I think I know what the story is, and who is the man who has spread it. It is that I bore another name in England."
"Yes, that's partly it, lad. I hear that you are rightly Captain Mervyn."
"Yes, that's it, Menzies, and that I was tried and acquitted for murder in England."
"That's the story, my lad. Of course, it makes no difference to us who you are, or what they say you have done. We who know you would not believe you to have committed a murder, much less the murder of a woman, if all the juries in the world had said you had. Still I thought I would let you know that the story is going about, so that you might not be taken aback if you heard it suddenly. Of course, it's no disgrace to be tried for murder if you are found innocent; it only shows that some fools have made a mistake, and been proved to be wrong. Still, as it has been talked about, you ought to know it. There is a lot of feeling in the regiment about it now, and the fellow who told the story has had a rough time of it, and there's many a one would put a bullet into him if he had the chance.
"The man might have held his tongue, perhaps," Ronald said, quietly; "but I never expected that he would do so. The fellow comes from my neighbourhood, and bore a bad character. A man who has shot a gamekeeper would be pretty sure to tell anything he knew to the disadvantage of any one of superior rank to himself. Well, sergeant, you can only tell any one who asks you about it that you have questioned me, and that I admitted at once that the story was true – that I was Captain Mervyn, and that I was tried for murder and acquitted. Some day I hope my innocence may be more thoroughly proved than it was on the day I was acquitted. I daresay he has told the whole of the facts, and I admit them freely."
"Well, lad, I am glad you have spoken. Of course it will make no difference, except perhaps to a few men who would be better out of the corps than in it; and they know too well what the temper of the men is to venture to show it. I can understand now why you didn't take a commission. I have often wondered over it, for it seemed to me that it was just the thing you would have liked. But I see that till this thing was cleared up you naturally wouldn't like it. Well, I am heartily sorry for the business, if you don't mind my saying so. I have always been sure you were an officer before you joined us, and wondered how it was that you left the army. You must have had a sore time of it. I am sorry for you from my heart."
Ronald sat quiet for some time thinking after Sergeant Menzies left him, then rose and walked towards the fire where the officers were sitting.
"Can I speak with you a few minutes, Captain Twentyman?" he said. The officer at once rose.
"Anything wrong in the troop, sergeant?"
"No, sir; there is nothing the matter with the troop, it is some business of my own. May I ask if you have heard anything about me, Captain Twentyman?"
"Heard anything! In what way do you mean, sergeant?"
"Well, sir, as to my private history."
"No," the officer said, somewhat puzzled.
"Well, sir, the thing has got about among the men. There is one of them knew me at home, and he has told the others. Now that it is known to the men, sooner or later it will be known to the officers, and therefore I thought it better to come and tell you myself, as captain of my troop."
"It can be nothing discreditable, I am quite sure, sergeant," the officer said, kindly.
"Well, sir, it is discreditable; that is to say, I lie under a heavy charge, from which I am unable to clear myself. I have been tried for it and found not guilty, but I am sure that if I had been before a Scotch jury the verdict would have been not proven, and I left the court acquitted indeed, but a disgraced and ruined man."
"What was the charge?"
"The charge was murder," Ronald said, quietly. Captain Twentyman started, but replied:
"Ridiculous. No one who knew you could have thought you guilty for a moment."
"I think that none who knew me intimately believed in my guilt, but I am sure that most people who did not so know me believed me guilty. I daresay you saw the case in the papers. My real name, Captain Twentyman, is Ronald Mervyn, and I was captain in the Borderers. I was tried for the murder of my cousin, Margaret Carne."
"Good Heavens! Is it possible?" Captain Twentyman exclaimed. "Of course I remember the case perfectly. We saw it in the English papers somewhere about a year ago, and it was a general matter of conversation, owing, of course, to your being in the army. I didn't know what to think of it then, but now I know you, the idea of your murdering a woman seems perfectly ridiculous. Well, is there anything you would wish me to do!"
"No, sir; I only thought you ought to be told. I leave it with you to mention it to others or not. Perhaps you will think it best to say nothing until the story gets about. Then you can say you are aware of it."
"Yes, I think that would be the best," Captain Twentyman said, after thinking it over. "I remember that I thought when I read the account of that trial that you were either one of the most lucky or one of the most unfortunate men in the world. I see now that it was the latter."
A few days later, an hour or two before the column was about to march, a flag hoisted at the post-office tent told the camp that the mail had arrived, and orderlies from each corps at once hurried there. As they brought the bags out they were emptied on the ground. Some of the sergeants set to work to sort the letters, while the officers stood round and picked out their own as they lay on the grass.
"Here, Blunt, here's one for you," Sergeant Menzies said, when Ronald came up.
Ronald took the letter, and sauntering away a short distance, threw himself on the ground and opened it. After reading the first line or two he leaped to his feet again, and took a few steps up and down, with his breath coming fast, and his hands twitching. Then he stood suddenly still, took off his cap, bent his head, put his hand over his eyes, and stood for a few minutes without moving. When he put his cap on again his face was wet with tears, his hands were trembling so that when he took the letter again he could scarce read it. A sudden exclamation broke from him as he came upon the name of Forester. The letter was so long that the trumpets were sounding by the time he had finished. He folded it and put it in his tunic, and then strode back with head erect to the spot where the men of his troop were saddling their horses. As he passed on among them a sudden impulse seized him, and he stopped before one of the men and touched him on the shoulder.
"You villain," he said, "you have been accusing me of murder. You are a murderer yourself."
The man's face paled suddenly.
"I know you, George Forester," Ronald went on, "and I know that you are guilty. You have to thank the woman who once loved you that I do not at once hand you over to the provost-marshal to be sent to England for trial, but for her sake I will let you escape. Make a confession and sign it, and then go your way where you will, and no search shall be made for you; if you do not, to-morrow you shall be in the hands of the police."
"There is no evidence against me more than against another," the man said, sullenly.
"No evidence, you villain?" Ronald said. "Your knife – the knife with your initials on it – covered with blood, was found by the body."
The man staggered as if struck.
"I knew I had lost it," he said, as if to himself, "but I didn't know I dropped it there."
At this moment the bugle sounded.
"I will give you until to-morrow morning to think about it," and Ronald ran off to mount his horse, which he had saddled before going for his letter.
Sergeant Menzies caught sight of his comrade's face as he sprang into the saddle.
"Eh, man," he said, "what's come to you? You have good news, haven't you, of some kind? Your face is transfigured, man!"
"The best," Ronald said, holding out his hand to his comrade. "I am proved to be innocent."
Menzies gave him a firm grip of the hand, and then each took his place in the ranks. There was desperate fighting that day with the Kaffirs. The Cape Mounted Rifles, while scouting ahead of the infantry in the bush, were suddenly attacked by an immense body of Kaffirs. Muskets cracked, and assegais flew in showers. Several of the men dropped, and discharging their rifles, the troopers fell back towards the infantry. As they retreated, Ronald looked back. One of the men of his troop, whose horse had been shot under him, had been overtaken by the enemy, and was surrounded by a score of Kaffirs. His cap was off, and Ronald caught sight of his face. He gave a shout, and in an instant had turned his horse and dashed towards the group.
"Come back, man, come back!" Captain Twentyman shouted. "It's madness!"
But Ronald did not hear him. The man whose confession could alone absolutely clear him was in the hands of the Kaffirs, and must be saved at any cost. A moment later he was in the midst of the natives, emptying his revolvers among them. Forester had sunk on one knee as Ronald, having emptied one of his revolvers, hurled it in the face of a Kaffir; leaning over, he caught Forester by the collar, and, with a mighty effort, lifted and threw him across the saddle in front of him, then bending over him, he spurred his horse through the natives. Just at this moment Captain Twentyman and a score of the men rode up at full speed, drove the Kaffirs back for an instant, and enabled Ronald to rejoin his lines. Three assegais had struck him, and he reeled in the saddle as, amidst the cheers of his companions, he rode up.
"One of you take the wounded man in front of you," Lieutenant Daniels said, "and carry him to the rear. Thompson, do you jump up behind Sergeant Blunt, and support him. There is no time to be lost. Quick, man, these fellows are coming on like furies."
The exchange was made in half a minute; one of the men took George Forester before him, another sprang up behind Ronald and held him in his saddle with one hand, while he took the reins in the other. Then they rode fast to the rear, just as the leading battalion of infantry came up at a run and opened fire on the Kaffirs, who, with wild yells, were pressing on the rear of the cavalry.
When Ronald recovered his senses he was lying in the ambulance waggon, and the surgeon was dressing his wounds.
"That's right, sergeant," he said, cheeringly, "I think you will do. You have three nasty wounds, but by good luck I don't think any of them are vital."
"How is Forester?" Ronald asked.
"Forester?" the surgeon repeated in surprise, "Whom do you mean, Blunt?"
"I mean Jim Smith, sir; his real name was Forester."
"There is nothing to be done for him," the surgeon said. "Nothing can save him; he is riddled with spears."
"Is he conscious?" Ronald asked.
"No, not at present."
"Will he become conscious before he dies, sir?"
"I don't know," the surgeon replied, somewhat puzzled at Ronald's question. "He may be, but I cannot say."
"It is everything to me, sir," Ronald said. "I have been accused of a great crime of which he is the author. He can clear me if he will. All my future life depends upon his speaking."
"Then I hope he may be able to speak, Blunt, but at present I can't say whether he will recover consciousness or not. He is in the waggon here, and I will let you know directly if there is any change."
Ronald lay quiet, listening to the firing that gradually became more distant, showing that the infantry were driving the Kaffirs back into the bush. Wounded men were brought in fast, and the surgeon and his assistant were fully occupied. The waggon was halted now, and at Ronald's request the stretchers upon which he and Forester were lying were taken out and laid on the grass under the shade of a tree.
Towards evening, the surgeon, having finished his pressing work, came to them. He felt George Forester's pulse.
"He is sinking fast," he said, in reply to Ronald's anxious look. "But I will see what I can do."
He poured some brandy between George Forester's lips, and held a bottle of ammonia to his nose. Presently there was a deep sigh, and then Forester opened his eyes. For a minute he looked round vaguely, and then his eye fell upon Ronald.
"So you got me out of the hands of the Kaffirs, Captain Mervyn," he said, in a faint voice. "I caught sight of you among them as I went down. I know they have done for me, but I would rather be buried whole than hacked into pieces."
"I did my best for you, Forester," Mervyn said. "I am sorry I was not up a minute sooner. Now, Forester, you see I have been hit pretty hard, too; will you do one thing for me? I want you to confess about what I was speaking to you: it will make all the difference to other people."
"I may as well tell the truth as not," Forester said; "though I don't see how it makes much difference."
"Doctor," Ronald said, "could you kindly send and ask Captain Twentyman and Lieutenant Daniels to come here at once? I want them to hear."
George Forester's eyes were closed, and he was breathing faintly when the two officers, who had ridden up a few minutes before with their corps, came up to the spot.
The surgeon again gave the wounded man some strong cordial.
"Will you write down what he says?" Ronald asked Captain Twentyman.
The latter took out a note-book and pencil.
"I make this confession," Forester said, faintly, "at the request of Captain Mervyn, who risked his life in getting me out from among the Kaffirs. My real name is George Forester, and at home I live near Carnesford, in Devonshire. I was one night poaching in Mr. Carne's woods, with some men from Dareport, when we came upon the keepers. There was a fight. One of the keepers knocked my gun out of my hand, and as he raised his stick to knock me on the head, I whipped out my knife, opened it, and stuck it into him. I didn't mean to kill him, it was just done in a moment; but he died from it. We ran away. Afterwards I found that I had lost my knife. I suppose I dropped it. That's all I have to say."
"Not all, Forester, not all," said Ronald, who had listened with impatience to the slowly-uttered words of the wounded man; "not all. It isn't that, but about the murder of Miss Carne I want you to tell."
"The murder of Miss Carne," George Forester repeated, slowly. "I know nothing about that. She made Ruth break it off with me, and I nearly killed Ruth, and would have killed her if I had had the chance, but I never had. I was glad when I heard she was killed, but I don't know who did it."
"But your knife was found by her body," Ronald said. "You must have done it, Forester."
"Murdered Miss Carne!" the man said, half raising himself on his elbow in surprise. "Never. I swear I had nothing to do with it."
A rush of blood poured from his mouth, for one of the spears had pierced his lung, and a moment later George Forester fell back dead. The disappointment and revulsion of feeling were too great for Ronald Mervyn, and he fainted. When he recovered, the surgeon was leaning over him.
"You mustn't talk, lad; you must keep yourself quite quiet, or we shall have fever setting in, and all sorts of trouble."
Ronald closed his eyes, and lay back quietly. How could this be? He thought of Mary Armstrong's letter, of the chain of proofs that had accumulated against George Forester. They seemed absolutely convincing, and yet there was no doubting the ring of truth in the last words of the dying man. His surprise at the accusation was genuine; his assertion of his innocence absolutely convincing; he had no motive for lying; he was dying, and he knew it. Besides, the thing had come so suddenly upon him there could have been no time for him to frame a lie, even if he had been in a mental condition to do so. Whoever killed Margaret Carne, Ronald Mervyn was at once convinced that it was not George Forester. There he lay, thinking for hours over the disappointment that the news would be to Mary Armstrong, and how it seemed more unlikely than ever that the mystery would ever be cleared up now. Gradually his thoughts became more vague, until at last he fell asleep.
Upon the following day the wounded were sent down under an escort to King Williamstown, and there for a month Ronald Mervyn lay in hospital. He had written a few lines to Mary Armstrong, saying that he had been wounded, but not dangerously, and that she need not be anxious about him any more, for the Kaffirs were now almost driven from their last stronghold, and that the fighting would almost certainly be over before he was fit to mount his horse again. "George Forester is dead," he said. "He was mortally wounded when fighting bravely against the Kaffirs. I fear, dear, that your ideas about him were mistaken, and that he, like myself, has been the victim of circumstantial evidence; but I will tell you more about this when I write to you next."
While lying there, Ronald thought over the evidence that had been collected against George Forester, and debated with himself whether it should be published, as Mary had proposed. It would, doubtless, be accepted by the world as proof of Forester's guilt and of his own innocence; and even the fact that the man, when dying, had denied it, would weigh for very little with the public, for men proved indisputably to be guilty often go to the scaffold asserting their innocence to the last. But would it be right to throw this crime upon the dead man when he was sure that he was innocent? For Ronald did not doubt for a moment the truth of the denial. Had he a right, even for the sake of Mary's happiness and his own, to charge the memory of the dead man with the burden of this foul crime? Ronald felt that it could not be. The temptation was strong, but he fought long against it, and at last his mind was made up.
"No," he said at last, "I will not do it. George Forester was no doubt a bad man, but he was not so bad as this. It would be worse to charge his memory with it than to accuse him if he were alive. In the one case he might clear himself; in the other he cannot. I cannot clear my name by fouling that of a dead man."
And so Ronald at last sat down to write a long letter to Mary Armstrong, telling her the whole circumstances; the joy with which he received her news; his conversation with George Forester, which seemed wholly to confirm her views; the pang of agony he had felt when he saw the man who he believed could alone clear him, in the hands of the Kaffirs, and his desperate charge to rescue him; and then he gave the words of the confession, and expressed his absolute conviction that the dying man had spoken the truth, and that he was really innocent of Margaret Carne's murder.