He then discussed the question of still publishing Ruth Powlett's statement, giving first the cause of George Forester's enmity against Margaret Carne, and the threat he had uttered, and then the discovery of the knife.
"I fear you will be ashamed of me, Mary, when I tell you that, for a time, I almost yielded to the temptation of clearing myself at his expense. But you must make allowance for the strength of the temptation: on the one side was the thought of my honour restored, and of you won; on the other, the thought that, now George Forester was dead, this could not harm him. But, of course, I finally put the temptation aside; honour purchased at the expense of a dead man's reputation would be dishonour indeed. Now I can face disgrace, because I know I am innocent. I could not bear honour when I knew that I had done a dishonourable action; and I know that I should utterly forfeit your love and esteem did I do so. I can look you straight in the face now; I could never look you straight in the face then. Do not grieve too much over the disappointment. We are now only as we were when I said good-bye to you. I had no hope then that you would ever succeed in clearing me, and I have no hope now. I have not got up my strength again yet, and am therefore perhaps just at present a little more disposed to repine over the disappointment than I ought to do; but this will wear off when I get in the saddle again. There will, I think, be no more fighting – at any rate with the Sandilli Kaffirs – for we hear this morning that they have sent in to beg for peace, and I am certain we shall be glad enough to grant it, for we have not much to boast about in the campaign. Of course they will have to pay a very heavy fine in cattle, and will have to move across to the other side of the Kei. Equally of course there will be trouble again with them after a time, when the memory of their losses has somewhat abated. I fancy a portion of our force will march against the Basutos, whose attitude has lately been very hostile; but now that the Gaikas have given in, and we are free to use our whole force against them, it is scarcely probable they will venture to try conclusions with us. If they settle down peaceably I shall probably apply for my discharge, and perhaps go in for farming, or carry out my first idea of joining a party of traders going up the country, and getting some shooting among the big game.
"I know that, disappointed as you will be with the news contained in this letter, it will be a pleasure to you to tell the girl you have made your friend, that after all the man she once loved is innocent of this terrible crime. She must have suffered horribly while she was hiding what she thought was the most important part of the evidence; now she will see that she has really done no harm; and as you seem to be really fond of her, it will, I am sure, be a great pleasure to you to be able to restore her peace of mind in both these respects. I should think now that you and your father will not remain any longer at Carnesford, where neither of you has any fitting society of any sort, but will go and settle somewhere in your proper position.
"You said in your last letter that the discovery you had made had brought you four years nearer to happiness, but I have never said a word to admit that I should change my mind at the end of the five years that your father spoke of. Still, I don't know, Mary. I think my position is stronger by a great deal than it was six months ago. I told my captain who I was, and all the other officers now know. Most of them came up and spoke very kindly to me before I started on my way down here, and I am sure that when I leave the corps they will give me a testimonial, saying that they are convinced by my behaviour while in the corps that I could not have been guilty of this crime. I own that I myself am less sensitive on the subject than I was. One has no time to be morbid while leading such a life as I have been for the last nine months. Perhaps – but I will not say any more now. But I think somehow, that, at the end of the five years, I shall leave the decision in your hands. It has taken me two or three days to write this letter, for I am not strong enough to stick to it for more than half an hour at a time; but as the post goes out this afternoon I must close it now. We have been expecting a mail from England for some days. It is considerably overdue, and I need not say how I am longing for another letter from you. I hear the regiment will be back from the front to-night; men and horses want a few days' rest before starting on this long march to Basutoland. I shall be very glad to see them back again. Of course, the invalids who, like myself, are somewhat pulled down by their wounds, are disgusted at being kept here. The weather is frightfully hot, and even in our shirt sleeves we shall be hardly able to enjoy Christmas day."
The Cape Rifles arrived at King Williamstown an hour after the post had left, and in the evening the colonel and several of the officers paid a visit to the hospital to see how their wounded were getting on. Ronald, who was sitting reading by his bedside, and the other invalids who were strong enough to be on their feet, at once got up and stood at attention. Stopping and speaking a few words to each of the men of his own corps, the colonel came on. "Mervyn," he said, as he and the officers came up to Ronald, "I want to shake your hand. I have heard your story from Captain Twentyman, and I wish to tell you, in my own name and in that of the other officers of the regiment, that we are sure you have been the victim of some horrible mistake. All of us are absolutely convinced that a man who has shown such extreme gallantry as you have, and whose conduct has been so excellent from the day he joined, is wholly incapable of such a crime as that with which you were charged. You were, of course, acquitted, but at the same time I think that it cannot but be a satisfaction for you to know that you have won the esteem of your officers and your comrades, and that in their eyes you are free from the slightest taint of that black business. Give me your hand."
Ronald was unable to speak; the colonel and all the officers shook him by the hand, and the former said: "I must have another long talk with you when we get back from the Basuto business. I have mentioned you very strongly in regimental orders upon two occasions for extreme gallantry, and I cannot but think that it would do you some good in the eyes of the public were a letter signed by me to appear in the English papers, saying that the Sergeant Blunt of my regiment, who has so signally distinguished himself, is really Captain Mervyn, who in my opinion and that of my officers is a cruelly injured man. But we can talk over that when I see you again."
After the officer left the room, Ronald Mervyn sat for some time with his face buried in his hands. The colonel's words had greatly moved him. Surely such a letter as that which Colonel Somerset had proposed to write would do much to clear him. He should never think of taking his own name again or re-entering any society in which he would be likely to be recognised, but with such a testimonial as that in his favour he might hope in some quiet place to live down the past, and should he again be recognised, could still hold up his head with such an honourable record as this to produce in his favour. Then his thoughts went back to England. What would Mary and her father say when they read such a letter in the paper? It would be no proof of his innocence, yet he felt sure that Mary would insist upon regarding it as such, and would hold that he had no right to keep her waiting for another four years. Indeed he acknowledged to himself that if she did so he would have no right to refuse any longer to permit her to be mistress of her own fate.
Things went on quietly with Mr. Armstrong and his daughter after the latter had despatched her letter, saying that Ruth Powlett was ready to confess the truth respecting George Forester. The excitement of following up the clue was over, and there was nothing to do until they heard from Ronald as to how he wished them to proceed. So one morning Mr. Armstrong came down and told Mary to pack up at once and start with him at twelve o'clock for London. "We are getting like two owls, and must wake ourselves up a bit." Mary ran down to the mill to say good-bye to Ruth, and tell her that she and her father had to go to London for a short time. They were ready by the time named, for there was little packing to do, and at twelve o'clock the trap from the "Carne's Arms" came up to the door, and took them to the station. A month was spent in London, sight-seeing. By the end of that time both had had enough of theatres and exhibitions, and returned to Carnesford.
"Well, what is the news, neighbours?" Mr. Armstrong asked, as he entered the snuggery on the evening of his return.
"There is not much news here," Jacob Carey said; "there never is much news to speak of in Carnesford; but they say things are not going on well up at The Hold."
"In what way, Mr. Carey?"
"Well, for some time there has been a talk that the Squire was getting strange in his ways. He was never bright and cheerful like Miss Margaret, but always seemed to be a-thinking, and as often as not when he rode through here, would take no more notice of you when he passed than if you hadn't been there. He was always wonderful fond of books they say, and when a man takes to books, I don't think he is much good for anything else; but ever since Miss Margaret's death, he has been queerer than before, and they said he had a way of walking about the house all hours of the night. So it went on until just lately. Now it seems he is worse than ever. They can hear him talking to himself, and laughing in a way as would make you creep. Folks say as the curse of the Carnes has fallen on him bad, and that he is as mad as his grandfather was. The women have all left except the old cook, who has got a girl to stay with her. They lock the door at night, and they have got the men from the stable to sleep in the house unknown to the master. One day last week, when Mr. Carne was out for the day, old Hester came down and saw the parson, and he sent for Dr. Arrowsmith, and they had a quiet talk over it. You see it is a mighty awkward thing to meddle with. Mr. Carne has got no relations so far as is known, except Mrs. Mervyn's daughters, who are away living, I hear, at Hastings, and Captain Mervyn, who is God knows where. Of course, he is the heir, if the Squire doesn't marry and have children, and if he were here it would be his business to interfere and have the Squire looked after or shut up if needs be; but there don't seem any one to take the matter up now. The doctor told Hester that he could do nothing without being called in and seeing for himself that Mr. Carne was out of his mind. The parson said the only thing she could do was to go to Mr. Volkes, the magistrate, and tell him she thought there was danger of murder if something wasn't done. Hester has got plenty of courage, and said she didn't think there was any danger to her, 'cause the Squire had known her from the time he had known anything."
"I don't know," Mr. Armstrong said. "Mad people are often more dangerous to those they care for than to strangers. Really, this is very serious, for from what you have told me, the madness of the Carnes is always of a dangerous kind. One thing is quite evident – Captain Mervyn ought to come back at once. There have been tragedies enough at Carne's Hold without another."
"Ay, and there will be," put in Reuben Claphurst, "as long as Carne's Hold stands; the curse of the Spanish woman rests upon it."
"What you say is right enough, Mr. Armstrong," Hiram Powlett agreed. "No doubt the Miss Mervyns know where their brother is, and could let him know; but would he come back again? I have always said as how we should never see Captain Mervyn back again in these parts until the matter of Miss Carne's death was cleared up."
Mr. Armstrong sat looking at the fire. "He must be got back," he said. "If what you say is true, and Mr. Carne's going off his head, he must be got back."
Hiram Powlett shook his head.
"He must come back," Mr. Armstrong repeated; "it's his duty, pleasant or unpleasant. It may be that he is on his way home now; but if not, it would hasten him. You look surprised, and no wonder; but I may now tell you, what I haven't thought it necessary to mention to you before – mind, you must promise to keep it to yourselves – I met Captain Mervyn out at the Cape, and made his acquaintance there. He was passing under another name, but we got to be friends, and he told me his story. I have written to him once or twice since, and I will write to him now and tell him that if he hasn't already started for home, it's his duty to do so. I suppose it was partly his talking to me about this place that made me come here to see it at first, and then I took to it."
The surprise of the others at finding that Mr. Armstrong knew Ronald was very great. "I wonder you didn't mention it before," Jacob Carey said, giving voice to the common feeling. "We have talked about him so often, and you never said a word to let us know you had met him."
"No, and never should have said a word but for this. You will understand that Captain Mervyn wouldn't want where he was living made a matter of talk; and though when he told me the story he did not know I was coming to Carnesford, and so didn't ask me not to mention it, I consider I was bound to him to say nothing about it. But now that I know he is urgently required here, I don't see there's occasion any longer to make a secret of the fact that he is out in South Africa."
"Yes, I understand, Mr. Armstrong," Hiram Powlett agreed. "Naturally, when he told you about himself, he did not ask it to be kept a secret, because he did not know you would meet any one that knowed him. But when you did meet such, you thought that it was right to say nothing about it, and I agree with you; but of course this matter of the Squire going queer in his mind makes all the difference, and I think, as you says, Captain Mervyn ought to be fetched home. When he has seen the Squire is properly taken care of, he can go away where he likes."
"That is so," Jacob Carey agreed. "Mervyn ought to know what is doing here, and if you can write and tell him that he is wanted you will be doing a good turn for the Squire as well as for him. And how was the captain looking, Mr. Armstrong?"
"He was looking very well when I first knew him," Mr. Armstrong replied; "but when I saw him last he had got hurt in a brush with the natives but it was nothing serious, and he was getting over it."
"The same set as attacked your farm, Mr. Armstrong, as you was telling us about?"
"I don't suppose it was the same party, because there were thousands of them scattered all over the colony, burning and plundering. Captain Mervyn had a narrow escape from them, and was lucky in getting out of it as well as he did."
"They said he was a good fighter," Jacob Carey put in. "The papers said as he had done some hard fighting with them Afghans, and got praised by his general."
"Yes, he's a fine fellow," Mr. Armstrong said, "and, I should say, as brave as a lion."
"No signs of the curse working in him?" Hiram Powlett asked, touching his forehead. "They made a lot of it at the trial about his being related to the Carnes, and about his being low in spirits sometimes; but I have seen him scores of times ride through the village when he was a young chap, and he always looked merry and good-tempered."
"No," Mr. Armstrong said, emphatically, "Ronald Mervyn's brain is as healthy and clear as that of any man in England. I am quite sure there is not the slightest touch of the family malady in him."
"Maybe not, maybe not," Reuben Claphurst said; "the curse is on The Hold, and he has nothing to do with The Hold yet. If anything happens to the Squire, and he comes to be its master, you will see it begin to work, if not in him, in his children."
"God forbid!" Mr. Armstrong said, so earnestly that his hearers were almost startled. "I don't much believe in curses, Mr. Claphurst, though, of course, I believe in insanity being in some instances hereditary; but, at the same time, if I were Ronald Mervyn and I inherited Carne's Hold, I would pull the place down stone by stone, and not leave a vestige of it standing. Why, to live in a house like that, in which so many tragedies have taken place, is enough in itself to turn a sane man into madness."
"That's just how I should feel," Hiram Powlett said. "Now a stranger who looked at The Hold would say what a pleasant, open-looking house it was; but when you took him inside, and told him what had happened there, it would be enough to give him the creeps. I believe it was being up there that was the beginning of my daughter's changing so. I never made a worse job of a thing than I did when I got her up there as Miss Carne's maid, and yet it was all for her good. And now, neighbours, it's my time to be off. It's a quarter to nine and that is five minutes later than usual."
Mr. Armstrong and Mary sat talking until nearly eleven about what he had heard about Mr. Carne. She had not been gone upstairs a minute when she ran down again from her bedroom, which was at the back of the house.
"Father, there is a light in the sky up at the top of the hill, just where Carne's Hold lies. I went to the window to draw down the blinds and it caught my eye at once."
Mr. Armstrong ran out into the road.
As Mary had said, there was a glare of light over the trees on the hill, rising and falling. "Sure enough it's a fire at The Hold," he said, as he ran in and caught up his hat. Then he hurried down the village, knocking at each door and shouting, "There is a fire at The Hold!"
Just as he reached the other end a man on horseback dashed down the hill, shouting "Fire!" It was one of the grooms at The Hold.
"Is it at the house?" Mr. Armstrong asked, as he drew up for a moment at the inn.
"Yes, it's bursting out from the lower windows; it has got a big hold. I am going to the station, to telegraph to Plymouth and Exeter for engines."
"How about those in the house?" Mr. Armstrong asked.
"Some of them got out by the back way, and we got some of them out by ladders. The others are seeing to that. They sent me off at once."
A minute or two later, men came clattering down the quiet street at a run, and some of them overtook Mr. Armstrong as he hurried up the hill.
"Is that you, Mr. Armstrong?" a voice asked behind him.
"Yes, it's me, Carey."
"I thought it was," the smith said. "I caught sight of your figure against the light up there in front. I couldn't help thinking, when you shouted at my door that there was a fire at The Hold, what we were talking about this evening, and your saying that if the place was yours you would pull it down stone by stone. But perhaps we may save it yet. We shall have a couple of score of men there in a few minutes."
"I fancy there is not much chance of that, Carey. I spoke to the groom as he rode through, and he tells me that the fire when he came away was bursting from several of the lower windows; so it has got a good hold, and they are not likely to have much water handy."
"No, that's true enough. There's a big well a hundred feet deep in the stable-yard, and a force pump, which takes two men to work. It supplied the house as well as the stables. That's the only water there will be, and that won't be much good," he added, as, on emerging from the wood, they suddenly caught sight of the house.
From the whole of the lower windows in front the flames were bursting out.
"It's travelled fast," the smith said. "The dining-room and drawing-room and library are all on fire."
"Yes, that's curious, too," Mr. Armstrong remarked. "One would have thought it would have mounted up to the next floor long before it travelled so far along on a level. Ah, it's going up to the floor above now."
As he spoke a spout of light flame suddenly appeared through the window over the front door.
"That's the staircase window, I suppose."
Two or three minutes' running took them up on to the lawn.
"I will go and lend a hand at those pumps," Jacob Carey said.
"It's not the slightest use," Mr. Armstrong replied. "You might as well try to blow out that fire with your breath as to put it out by throwing a few pails of water on it. Let us see that every one is out first; that's the main matter."
They joined a group of men and women, who were standing looking at the flames: they were the two women, the groom and gardener, and four or five men who had already come up from the village.