The gardener was speaking.
"It's no use to work at the pumps; there are only four or five pails. If it was only at one end we might prevent its spreading, but it's got hold all over."
"I can't make it out," the groom said. "One of the horses was sick, and I was down there giving him hot fomentations with my mate. I had been there perhaps an hour when I saw a light coming out of the drawing-room window, and I ran up shouting; and then I saw there was a light in the dining-room and library too. Then I ran round to the back of the house, and the housekeeper's room there was alight, too. I run in at the kitchen door and upstairs, and woke the gardeners and got them out. The place was so full of smoke, it was as much as we could do to get downstairs. Then we got a long ladder, and put it against Mrs. Wilson's window, and got her and the girl down. Then we came round this side, and I got up and broke a pane in Mr. Carne's window and shouted. I could not make him hear, so I broke another pane and unfastened the window and lifted it, and went in. I thought he must have been stifled in bed, for the smoke was as thick as possible, and I had to crawl to the bed. Well, master wasn't there. I felt about to see if he was on the floor, but I could find nothing of him; the door was open, and I expect he must have been woke up by the smoke, and went out to see what was the matter, and perhaps got choked by it. I know I was nearly choked myself by the time I got my head out of the window again."
"He may have got to the upper storey," Jacob Carey said. "We had best keep a look-out round the house, so as to be ready to put the ladder up at once if we see him. There is nothing else to do, is there, Mr. Armstrong? You are accustomed to all sorts of troubles, and may know best what we ought to do."
"I can't think of anything," Mr. Armstrong replied. "No, if he's not in his own room it seems hopeless to search for him. You see the flames have broken out from several windows of the first floor. My own idea is, from what you say as to the fire having spread into all the rooms on the ground floor when you discovered it, that the poor gentleman must have set fire to the house himself in half-a-dozen places, and as likely as not may have been suffocated almost at once."
"I shouldn't wonder if that was it," the smith said. "It's not natural that the fire should have spread all over the lower part of the house in such a short time. You know what we were saying this evening. It's just the sort of trick for a madman to play."
The smith was interrupted by a sudden exclamation from those standing round, followed by a shout of "There he is!" A dormer window on the roof of the oldest part of the house opened, and a figure stepped out on to a low parapet that ran round the house.
"All right, sir, all right," Jacob Carey shouted out at the top of his voice; "we will have a ladder for you in no time," and he and a score of men ran to fetch the long ladder that was leaning against the side of the house.
It was soon lowered, brought round, and placed against the parapet close to where Reginald Carne was standing.
"Now then, sir," Jacob Carey shouted again, "it's all right.
But Mr. Carne paid no attention to the shout; he was pacing up and down along the parapet and was tossing his arms about in a strange manner. Suddenly he turned, seized the ladder, and pushed it violently sideways along the parapet. Those below vainly tried to keep it steady.
"Look out!" the smith shouted, "leave go and clear out, or he will have it down on you."
The men holding the ladder dashed away from the foot, and the ladder fell with a crash upon the ground, while a peal of wild laughter broke out from above.
"The Squire has gone clean mad," Jacob Carey said to Mr. Armstrong, as he joined him; "either the fire has driven him mad, or, what is more likely, he went mad first and then lit the fire. However, we must save him if we can."
"Look there, Carey, if we lifted the ladder and put it up between that chimney and the window next to it, he can't slide it either one way or another, as he did before; and he certainly could not throw it backwards, if we plant the foot well away from the house."
"That's right enough," the smith agreed, "but if he won't come down, he won't."
"We must go up and make him, Carey. If you and I and a couple of strong men go up together, we ought to be able to master him. Of course, we must take up rope with us, and bind him and then lower him down the ladder."
"We might do that," the smith said; "but supposing the ladder catches fire?"
"The fire won't touch it at that point, Carey. You see, it will go up just between the rows of windows."
"So it will; anyhow, we might take up a long rope, if they have got one, so as to lower ourselves down if the ladder does catch fire."
He spoke to one of the grooms. "Have you got plenty of rope?"
"Plenty," the man said. "I will fetch you a couple of long coils from the stables. Here, one of you, come along with me."
"Now we will get the ladder up," Mr. Armstrong said.
With the aid of a dozen men – for the whole village was now upon the spot – the ladder was again lifted, and dropped so that the upper end fell between a chimney and a dormer window. Reginald Carne again attempted to cast it down, but a number of men hung on to the lower part of the ladder, and he was unable to lift it far enough to get it out of the niche into which it had fallen. Then he turned round and shook his fist at the crowd. Something flashed in the light of the flames, and half-a-dozen voices exclaimed: "He has got a knife." At this moment the clergyman and doctor arrived together on the scene.
"What is to be done, doctor?" Jacob Carey asked. "I don't mind going up, with some others to back me, to have a tussle with him on the roof; but he would knife us one by one as we got up to the parapet, and, though I don't think as I am a coward, I don't care about chucking away my life, which is of use to my wife and children, to save that of a madman whose life ain't of no use to hisself or any one else."
"No, I don't see why you should, Carey," the doctor said; "the best plan will be to keep away from the ladder for the present. Perhaps, when he thinks you are not going to make the attempt, he will move away, and then we can get up there before he sees us. I will go first because he knows me, and my influence may quiet him, but we had better arm ourselves with sticks so as to knock that knife out of his hand."
Reginald Carne stood guarding the ladder for a few minutes. By this time the whole of the first floor was in a blaze, the flames rushing out with fury from every window. Seeing that he did not move, the doctor said at last:
"Well, we must risk it. Give me a stick, Carey, and we will make a try, anyhow."
"You can't go now," Mr. Armstrong said, suddenly; "look, the ladder is alight."
This was indeed the case. The flames had not absolutely touched it, but the heat was so great that it had been slowly charring, and a light flame had now suddenly appeared, and in a moment ten or twelve feet of the ladder were on fire.
"It is of no use," the doctor said, dropping the stick that Jacob Carey had just cut for him in the shrubbery; "we can do nothing for him now."
There was scarcely a word spoken among the little crowd of spectators on the lawn. Every moment was adding to their number as Mr. Volkes, the magistrate, and several other gentlemen rode up on horseback, and men came up from all the farmhouses and cottages within a circle of a couple of miles. All sorts of suggestions were made, but only to be rejected.
"It is one thing to save a man who wants to be saved," the doctor said, "but quite another thing to save one who is determined not to be saved." This was in answer to a proposal to fasten a stone on to a light line and throw it up on to the roof. "The man is evidently as mad as a March hare."
There could be no doubt of that. Reginald Carne, seeing that his assailants, as he considered them, could not get at him, was making gestures of triumph and derision at them. Now from the second floor windows, the flames began to spurt out, the glass clattering down on to the gravel below.
"Oh, father, what a pitiful sight!"
Mr. Armstrong turned. "What on earth brings you here, Mary? Run away, child. This is a dreadful business, and it will be haunting you."
"I have seen more shocking things, father," she said, quietly. "Why did you not bring me up with you at first? I ran upstairs to get my hat and shawl, and when I came back you were gone. Of course, I came up at once, just as every one else in the village has done, only I would not come and bother you when I thought you were going to do something. But there's nothing to be done now but wait. This must surely be the end of the curse of Carne's Hold, father?"
"It ought to be, my dear. Yes, let us earnestly hope that it all terminates here, for your sake and every one else's. Mervyn will be master of Carne's Hold now."
"Not of Carne's Hold, thank God!" the girl said with a shudder. "There will be nothing left of Carne's Hold to-morrow but a heap of ruins. The place will be destroyed before he becomes its master. It all ends together, The Hold and the direct line of the Carnes."
"Let us turn and walk away, Mary. This is too dreadful."
"I can't," and Mary shook her head. "I wish I could, father, but it has a sort of horrible fascination. Look at all these upturned faces; it is the same with them all. You can see that there is not one who would not go if he could."
The doctor again went forward towards the house.
"Carne, my dear fellow," he shouted, "jump off at the end of the house into the shrubs on the beds there, it's your only chance."
Again the mocking laugh was heard above the roar of the fire. The flames were breaking out through the roof now in several places.
"It will not be long before the roof falls through," Mr. Armstrong said. "Come away, Mary. I will not let you stay here any longer." Putting his arms round his daughter, he led her away. She had not gone ten steps when there was a tremendous crash. She looked back; the roof was gone and a volcano of flame and sparks was rising from the shell of the house. Against these the figure of the madman stood out black and clear. Then a sudden puff of wind whirled the flames round him. He staggered, made a half step backwards, and fell, while a cry went up from the crowd.
"It's all over, dear," Mr. Armstrong said, releasing his hold of his daughter; and then with Jacob Carey and three or four other men, he ran forward to the house, lifted the body of Reginald Carne and carried it beyond danger of a falling wall.
Dr. Arrowsmith, the clergyman, and several of the neighbours at once hurried to the spot.
"He is not dead," Jacob Carey said, as they came up, "he groaned when we lifted him; he fell on to one of the little flower beds between the windows."
"No, his heart is beating," the doctor said, as he knelt beside him and felt his pulse, "but I fear he must have sustained fatal injuries." He took out a flask that he had, thinking that a cordial might be required, slipped into his pocket just before starting for the scene of the fire, and poured a few drops of spirit between Reginald Carne's lips.
There was a faint groan, and a minute later he opened his eyes. He looked round in a bewildered way, but when his eyes fell on the burning house, a look of satisfaction passed over his face.
"I have done it," he said. "I have broken the curse of Carne's Hold."
The doctor stood up for a moment and said to one of the grooms standing close by: "Get a stable door off its hinges and bring it here; we will carry him into the gardener's cottage."
As soon as Reginald Carne was taken away, Mr. Armstrong and his daughter returned to the village. A few of the villagers followed their example; but for most of them the fascination of watching the flames that were leaping far above the shell of the house was too great to be resisted, and it was not until the day dawned and the flames smouldered to a deep, quiet glow, that the crowd began to disperse.
"It has been a terrible scene," Mary said, as she walked with her father down the hill.
"A terrible scene, child, and it would have been just as well if you had stayed at home and slept comfortably. If I had thought that you were going to be so foolish, I would not have gone myself."
"You know very well, father, you could not have helped yourself. You could not have sat quietly in our cottage with the flames dancing up above the tree tops there, if you had tried ever so much. Well, somehow I am glad that The Hold is destroyed; but of course I am sorry for Mr. Carne's death, for I suppose he will die."
"I don't think you need be sorry, Mary. Far better to die even like that than to live till old age within the walls of a madhouse."
"Yes; but it was not the death, it was the horror of it."
"There was no horror in his case, my dear. He felt nothing but a wild joy in the mischief he had done. I do not suppose that he had a shadow of fear of death. He exulted both in the destruction of his house and in our inability to get at him. I really do not think he is to be pitied, although it was a terrible sight to see him. No doubt he was carrying out a long-cherished idea. A thing of this sort does not develop all at once. He may for years have been brooding over this unhappy taint of insanity in his blood, and have persuaded himself that with the destruction of the house, what the people here foolishly call the curse of the Carnes would be at an end."
"But surely you don't believe anything about the curse, father?"
"Not much, Mary; the curse was not upon the house, but in the insanity that the Spanish ancestors of the Carnes introduced into the family. Still I don't know, although you may think me weak-minded, that I can assert conscientiously that I do not believe there is anything in the curse itself. One has heard of such things, and certainly the history of the Carnes would almost seem to justify the belief. Ronald and his two sisters are, it seems, the last of those who have the Carnes' blood in their veins, and his misfortunes and their unhappiness do not seem to have anything whatever to do with the question of insanity. At any rate, dear, I, like you, am glad that The Hold is destroyed. I must own I should not have liked the thought of your ever becoming its mistress, and indeed I have more than once thought that before I handed you over to Ronald, whenever that event might take place, I should insist on his making me a promise that should he survive his cousin and come into the Carnes' estates, he would never take you to live there. Well, this will be a new incident for you to write to him about. You ought to feel thankful for that; for you would otherwise have found it very difficult to fill your letters till you hear from him what course he is going to adopt regarding this business of Ruth Powlett and Forester."
Mary smiled quietly to herself under cover of the darkness, for indeed she found by no means the difficulty her father supposed in filling her letters. "It is nearly four o'clock," she said, as she entered the house and struck a light. "It is hardly worth while going to bed, father."
"All right, my dear, you can please yourself. Now it is all over I acknowledge I feel both cold and sleepy, and you will see nothing more of me until between ten and eleven o'clock in the morning."
"Oh, if you go to bed of course I shall not stop up by myself," Mary said; "but I am convinced that I shall not close an eye."
"And I am equally convinced, Mary, that in a little over half an hour you will be sound asleep;" and in the morning Mary acknowledged that his anticipation had been verified.
Reginald Carne was laid down on the table in the gardener's cottage. The doctor could now examine him, and whispered to the clergyman that both his legs were broken, and that he had no doubt whatever he had received terrible internal injuries. "I don't think he will live till morning."
Presently there was a knock at the door. "Can I come in?" Mr. Volkes asked, when the doctor opened it. "I have known the poor fellow from the time he was a child. Is he sensible?"
"He is sensible in a way," the doctor said. "That is, I believe he knows perfectly well what we are saying, but he has several times laughed that strange, cunning laugh that is almost peculiar to the insane."
"Well, at any rate, I will speak to him," said Mr. Volkes.
"Do you know me, Reginald?" he went on in a clear voice as he came up to the side of the table.
Reginald Carne nodded, and again a low mocking laugh came from his lips. "You thought you were very clever, Volkes, mighty clever; but I tricked you."
"You tricked me, did you?" the magistrate said, cheerfully. "How did you trick me?"
"You thought, and they all thought, the dull-headed fools, that Ronald Mervyn killed Margaret. Ho! ho! I cheated you all nicely."
A glance of surprise passed between his listeners. Mr. Volkes signed to the others not to speak, and then went on:
"So he did, Reginald, so he did – though we couldn't prove it; you did not trick us there."
"I did," Reginald Carne said, angrily. "I killed her myself."
An exclamation of horror broke from the three listeners. Mr. Volkes was the first to recover himself.
"Nonsense, Reginald, you are dreaming."
"I am not," he said, vehemently. "I had thought it all out over and over again. I was always thinking of it. I wanted to put an end to this curse. It's been going on too long, and it troubled me. I had made up my mind to kill her long before; but I might not have done it when I did if I had not heard Ronald threatening her, and another man heard it too. This was a grand opportunity, you see. It was as much as I could do to sit quietly at dinner with that naval fellow, and to know that it was all right. It was glorious, for it would be killing two birds with one stone. I wanted to get rid of Ronald as much as I did of her, so that the curse might come to an end, and now it was all so easy. I had only to drop the glove he had left behind him on the grass close below her window, and after that quarrel he would be suspected and hung. Nothing could have worked better for me; and then, too, I thought it would puzzle them to give them another scent to work on. There was another man had a grudge against Margaret; that was Forester, the poacher. I had picked up his knife in the wood just where he had killed my keeper, and afterwards I heard him telling his sweetheart, who was Margaret's maid, that he would kill Margaret for persuading her to give him up; so I dropped the knife by the side of the bed, and I thought that one or other of them would be sure to be hung; but somehow that didn't come right. I believe the girl hid the knife, only I didn't dare question her about it. But that didn't matter; the fellow would be hung one way or the other for killing my keeper. But the other was a glorious thing, and I chuckled over it. It was hard to look calm and grave when I was giving evidence against Ronald, and when all the fools were thinking that he did it, when it was me all the time. Didn't I do it cleverly, Volkes? I hid her things where the gardener was sure to find them the first time he dug up the bed. They let Ronald off, but he will not come back again, and I don't suppose he will ever marry; so there is an end of the curse as far as he's concerned. Then I waited a bit, but the devil was always at my elbow, telling me to finish the good work, and last night I did it. I put the candle to the curtains in all the rooms downstairs, and stood and watched them blaze up until it got too hot to stay any longer. It was a grand sight, and I could hear the Spanish woman laughing and shouting. She has had her way with us for a long time, but now it's all over; the curse of the Carnes is played out. There, didn't I cheat you nicely, Volkes, you and all the others? You never suspected me, not one of you. I used to keep grave all day, but at night when I was in my room alone I laughed for hours to think of all the dogs on the wrong scent."
His three listeners looked at each other silently.
"It was a grand thing to put an end to the curse," Reginald Carne rambled on. "It was no pain to her; and if she had lived, the trouble would have come upon her children."
"You know that you are hurt beyond chance of recovery, Carne," the magistrate said, gravely. "It is a terrible story that you have told us. I think that you ought to put it down on paper, so that other people may know how it was done; because, you see, at present, an innocent man is suspected."
"What do I care? That is nothing to me one way or the other. I am glad I have succeeded in frightening Ronald Mervyn away, and I hope he will never come back again. You don't suppose I am going to help to bring him home!"
Mr. Volkes saw that he had made a mistake. "Yes, I quite understand you don't want him back," he said, soothingly. "I thought, perhaps, that you would like people to know how you had sacrificed yourself to put an end to the curse, and how cleverly you had managed to deceive every one. People would never believe us if we were to tell them. They would say either that you did not know what you were talking about, or that it was empty boasting on your part."