"They may think what they like," he said, sullenly; "it is nothing to me what they think."
There was a change in the tone of his voice that caused the doctor to put his hand on his wrist again.
"Let me give you a few drops more of brandy, Carne."
"No, I will not," the dying man said. "I suppose you want to keep me alive to get some more out of me, but you won't. I won't speak again."
The others held a whispered conversation in the corner.
"He is going fast," the doctor said. "It is a marvel that his voice is as strong as it is. He certainly won't live till morning. It is likely he may die within an hour."
"I will ask him another question or two," Mr. Volkes said. "If we could but get something to corroborate his story, it would be invaluable."
But Reginald Carne spoke no more.
He heard what was said to him, for he laughed the same malicious laugh that had thrilled the crowd as he stood on the parapet, but it was low and feeble now. In hopes that he might yet change his mind, Mr. Volkes and the clergyman remained with Dr. Arrowsmith for another hour. At the end of that time Reginald Carne startled them by speaking again, clearly and distinctly:
"I tell you it's all over, you witch; you have done us harm enough, but I have beaten you. It was you against me, and I have won. There is nothing more for you to do here, and you can go to your place. Carne's Hold is down, and the curse is broken."
As he ceased speaking the doctor moved quietly up to the side of the stretcher, put his finger on his wrist, and stood there for a minute, then he bent down and listened.
"He is gone," he said, "the poor fellow is dead." The three gentlemen went outside the cottage; some of the people were standing near waiting for news of Reginald Carne's state. "Mr. Carne has just died," the doctor said, as he went up to them. "Will one of you find Mrs. Wilson and tell her to bring another woman with her and see to him? In the morning I will make arrangements to have him taken down to the village."
"What do you think we had better do about this, Dr. Arrowsmith?" Mr. Volkes asked as he rejoined them. "Do you believe this story?"
"Unquestionably I do," the doctor replied. "I believe every word of it."
"But the man was mad, doctor."
"Yes, he was mad and has been so for a long time in my opinion, but that makes no difference whatever in my confidence that he was speaking truly. Confessions of this kind from a madman are generally true; their cunning is prodigious, and as long as they wish to conceal a fact it is next to impossible to get it from them; but when, as in the present case, they are proud of their cleverness and of the success with which they have fooled other people, they will tell everything. You see their ideas of right and wrong are entirely upset; the real lunatic is unconscious of having committed a crime, and is inclined even to glory in it."
"I wish we could have got him to sign," the magistrate said.
"I am sure he could not have held the pen," Dr.
"There was one part, doctor, that surprised me even more than the rest – that was the part relating to the man Forester. I don't believe a soul suspected him of being in any way connected with the crime. At least we heard nothing of a knife being found, nor, of course, of the quarrel between Forester and the girl; Ruth Powlett, was it not?"
"No; that is all new to us," the doctor said.
"I think the best way would be to see her in the morning. She may not like to confess that she concealed the knife, if she did so. Of course, if she does, it will be an invaluable confirmation of his story, and will show conclusively that his confession was not a mere delusion of a madman's brain."
"Yes, indeed," the doctor agreed, "that would clench the matter altogether, and I am almost certain you will find that what he has said is true. The girl was in my hands a short time before Miss Carne's death. They said she had had a fall, but to my mind it seemed more like a severe mental shock. Then after Miss Carne's death she was very ill again, and there was something about her that puzzled me a good deal. For instance, she insisted upon remaining in court until the verdict was given, and that at a time when she was so ill she could scarcely stand. She was so obstinate over the matter that it completely puzzled me; but if what Carne said was true, and she had the knowledge of something that would have gone very far to prove Ronald Mervyn's innocence, the matter is explained. The only difficulty before us is to get her to speak, because, of course, she cannot do so without laying herself open to a charge – I don't mean a criminal charge, but a moral one – of having suppressed evidence in a manner that concerned a man's life. I think the best plan will be for us to meet at your house, Mr. Volkes, at eleven o'clock to-morrow. I will go into the village before that, and will bring Ruth Powlett up in my gig, and if you will allow me I will do the talking to her. I have had her a good deal in my hands for the last year, and I think she has confidence in me, and will perhaps answer me more freely than she would you as a magistrate."
"Very likely she would, doctor. Let the arrangement stand as you propose."
The next morning, at half-past ten, Dr. Arrowsmith drove up in his gig to the mill. Ruth came to the door.
"Ruth," he said, "I want you to put on your bonnet and shawl and let me drive you a short distance. I have something particular that I want to talk to you about, and want to have you to myself for a bit."
A good deal surprised, Ruth went into the house and reappeared in two or three minutes warmly wrapped up.
"That's right," the doctor said; "jump in."
Ruth Powlett was the first to speak.
"I suppose it is true, sir, that poor Mr. Carne is dead?"
"Yes, he died at two o'clock. Ruth, I have a curious thing to tell you about him; but I will wait until we get through the village; I have no doubt that it will surprise you as much as it surprised me."
Ruth said nothing until they had crossed the bridge over the Dare.
"What is it?" she asked at last.
"Well, Ruth, at present it is only known to Mr. Vickery, Mr. Volkes, and myself, and, whatever happens, I want you to say nothing about it until I give you leave. Now, Ruth, I have some sort of idea that what I am going to tell you will relieve your mind of a burden."
Ruth turned pale.
"Relieve my mind, sir!" she repeated.
"Yes, Ruth; I may be wrong, and if I am I can only say beforehand that I am sorry; but I have an idea that you suspect, and have for a long time suspected, that George Forester murdered Miss Carne."
Ruth did not speak, but looking down, the doctor saw by the pallor of her cheeks and the expression of her face that his supposition was correct.
"I think, Ruth, that has been your idea. If so, I can relieve your mind. Mr. Carne before his death confessed that he murdered his sister." Ruth gave a start and a cry. She reeled in her seat, and would have fallen had not the doctor thrown his arm round her. "Steady, my child, steady," he said; "this is a surprise to you, I have no doubt, and, whatever it is to others, probably a joyful one."
Ruth broke into a violent fit of sobbing. The doctor did not attempt to check her, but when she gradually recovered he said, "That is strange news, is it not, Ruth?"
"But did he mean it, sir?" she asked. "Did he know what he was saying when he said so?"
"He knew perfectly well, Ruth; he told us a long story, but I will not tell you what it is now. We shall be at Mr. Volkes's in a minute, and we shall find Mr. Vickery there, and I want you to tell us what you know about it before you hear what Mr. Carne's story was. I do hope that you will tell us everything you know. Only in that way can we clear Captain Mervyn."
"I will tell you everything I know, sir," Ruth said, quietly; "I told Miss Armstrong five weeks ago, and was only waiting till she heard from some one she has written to before telling it to every one."
The gig now drew up at the door of the magistrate's house, and Dr. Arrowsmith led Ruth into the sitting-room, where Mr. Volkes and the clergyman were awaiting her.
"Sit down here, Ruth," the doctor said, handing her a chair. "Now, gentlemen, I may tell you first that I have told Miss Powlett that Mr. Carne has confessed that he killed his sister. I have not told her a single word more. It was, of course, of the highest importance that she should not know the nature of his story before telling you her own. She has expressed her willingness to tell you all she knows. Now, Miss Powlett, will you please begin in your own way."
Quietly and steadily Ruth Powlett told her story, beginning with the conversation that she had had with Margaret Carne relative to her breaking off the engagement; she described her interview with George Forester, his threats against Miss Carne and his attack on herself; and then told how she had found his knife by the bedside on the morning of the murder. She said she knew now that she had done very wrong to conceal it, but that she had done it for the sake of George Forester's father. Lastly, she told how she had gone to the trial taking the knife with her, firmly resolved that in case a verdict of guilty should be returned against Captain Mervyn, she would come forward, produce the knife, and tell all that she knew.
Her three hearers exchanged many looks of satisfaction as she went on.
When she had finished, Mr. Volkes said: "We are very much obliged to you for your story, Miss Powlett. Happily it agrees precisely with that told us by Mr. Carne. It seems that he was in the wood and overheard your quarrel with Forester, and the threats against Miss Carne suggested to him the idea of throwing the blame upon Forester, and to do this he placed the knife that he had found on the scene of the poaching affray a short time before, in his sister's room. After this confirmation given by your story, there can be no doubt at all that Mr. Carne's confession was genuine, and that it will completely clear Captain Mervyn of the suspicion of having caused his cousin's death. We shall be obliged, I am afraid, to make your story public also, in order to confirm his statement. This will naturally cause you much pain and some unpleasantness, and I hope you will accept that as the inevitable consequence of the course – which you yourself see has been a very mistaken one – you pursued in this affair."
"I am prepared for that, sir," Ruth said, quietly; "I had already told Miss Armstrong about it, and was ready to come here to tell you the story even when I thought that by so doing I should have to denounce George Forester as a murderer. I am so rejoiced that he is now proved to be innocent, I can very well bear what may be said about me."
"But why not have come and told me at once when you made up your mind to do so?" Mr. Volkes asked. "Why delay it?"
"I was waiting, sir; I was waiting – but – " and she paused, "that secret is not my own; but I think, sir, that if you will go to Mr. Armstrong, he will be able to tell you something you will be glad to know."
"Who is Mr. Armstrong?" Mr. Volkes asked, in some surprise.
"He is a gentleman who has been living in the village for the last four or five months, sir. I do not think there can be any harm in my telling you that he knows where Captain Mervyn is to be found."
"That is the very information we want at present. We must get Ronald Mervyn back among us as soon as we can; he has indeed been very hardly treated in the matter. I think, Miss Powlett, we will get you to put your story into the form of a sworn information. We may as well draw it up at once, and that will save you the trouble of coming up here again."
This was accordingly done, and Ruth Powlett walked back to the village, leaving Mr. Volkes and the two other gentlemen to draw up a formal report of the confession made by Reginald Carne.
Ruth Powlett went straight to the cottage occupied by the Armstrongs.
"What is your news, Ruth?" Mary said, as she entered. "I can see by your face that you have something important to tell us."
"I have, indeed," Ruth replied. "I have just been up to Mr. Volkes, the magistrate, and have told him all I knew."
"What induced you to do that, Ruth?" Mary asked, in surprise. "I thought you had quite settled to say nothing about it until we heard from Captain Mervyn."
"They knew all about it before I told them, and only sent for me to confirm the story. Mr. Carne, before he died last night, made a full confession before Mr. Volkes, Dr. Arrowsmith, and Mr. Vickery. It was he who in his madness killed his sister, and who placed George Forester's knife by the bedside, and Captain Mervyn's glove on the grass, to throw suspicion on them. Captain Mervyn and George Forester are both innocent."
The news was so sudden and unexpected that it was some time before Mary Armstrong could sufficiently recover herself to ask questions. The news that Ronald was proved to be innocent was not so startling as it would have been had she not previously believed that they were already in a position to clear him; but the knowledge that his innocence would now be publicly proclaimed in a day or two, filled her with happiness. She was glad, too, for Ruth's sake that George Forester had not committed this terrible crime; and yet there was a slight feeling of disappointment that she herself had had no hand in clearing her lover, and that this had come about in an entirely different way to what she had expected.
Mr. Volkes and the clergyman called that afternoon, and had a long talk with Mr. Armstrong, and the following day a thrill of excitement was caused throughout the country by the publication in the papers of the confession of Reginald Carne. Dr. Arrowsmith certified that, although Reginald Carne was unquestionably insane, and probably had been so for some years, he had no hesitation in saying that he was perfectly conscious at the time he made the confession, and that the statement might be believed as implicitly as if made by a wholly sane man. In addition to this certificate and the confession, the three gentlemen signed a joint declaration to the effect that the narrative was absolutely confirmed by other facts, especially by the statement made by Miss Powlett, without her being in any way aware of the confession of Reginald Carne. This, they pointed out, fully confirmed his story on all points, and could leave no shadow of doubt in the minds of any one that Reginald Carne had, under the influence of madness, taken his sister's life, and had then, with the cunning so commonly present in insanity, thrown suspicion upon two wholly innocent persons.
The newspapers, commenting on the story, remarked strongly upon the cruel injustice that had been inflicted upon Captain Mervyn, and expressed the hope that he would soon return to take his place again in the county, uniting in his person the estate of the Mervyns and the Carnes. There were some expressions of strong reprobation at the concealment by Ruth Powlett of the knife she had found in Miss Carne's room. One of the papers, however, admitted that "Perhaps altogether it is fortunate now that the girl concealed them. Had the facts now published in her statement been given, they would at once have convinced every one that Captain Mervyn did not commit the crime with which he was charged, but at the same time they might have brought another innocent man to the scaffold. Upon the whole, then, although her conduct in concealing this important news is most reprehensible, it must be admitted that, in the interests of justice, it is fortunate she kept silent."
The sensation caused in Carnesford by the publication of this news was tremendous. Fortunately, Ruth Powlett was not there to become the centre of talk, for she had that morning been carried off by Mr. Armstrong and Mary to stay with them for a while in London. The cottage was shut up, and upon the following day a cart arrived from Plymouth to carry off the furniture, which had been only hired by the month. The evening before leaving, Mr. Armstrong had intercepted Hiram Powlett on his way to the snuggery, and taking him up to the cottage, where Ruth was spending the evening with Mary, informed him on the way of the strange discovery that had been made, and Ruth's share in it.
"I trust, Mr. Powlett," he said, "that you will not be angry with your daughter. She was placed in a terrible position, having the option of either denouncing as a murderer a man she had loved, or permitting another to lie under the imputation of guilt. And you must remember that she was prepared to come forward at the trial and tell the truth about the matter had Captain Mervyn been found guilty. No doubt she acted wrongly; but she has suffered terribly, and I think that as my daughter has forgiven her for allowing Captain Mervyn to suffer for her silence, you may also do so."
Hiram Powlett had uttered many expressions of surprise and concern as he listened to the story. It seemed to him very terrible that his girl should have all the time been keeping a secret of such vital importance. He now said in a tone of surprise:
"I don't understand you, Mr. Armstrong, about your daughter. What has Miss Mary to do with forgiving? How has she been injured?"
"I don't know that upon the whole she has been injured," Mr. Armstrong said. "At least, I am sure she does not consider so. Still, I think she has something to forgive, for the fact is she is engaged to be married to Captain Mervyn, and would have been his wife a year ago had he not been resolved never to marry so long as this cloud remained over him."
Hiram Powlett was so greatly surprised at this news that his thoughts were for a moment diverted from Ruth's misdemeanours. Captain Mervyn, the owner of the Hall, and now of the Carne estate also, was a very great man in the eyes of the people of Carnesford, and the news that he was engaged to be married to the girl who was a friend of his daughter's, and who had several times taken tea at the mill, was almost bewildering to him.
"I dare say you are surprised," Mr. Armstrong said, quietly, "but you see we are not exactly what we appear. We came here somewhat under false colours, to try and find out about this murder, and in the hope we might discover some proofs of Captain Mervyn's innocence. Now we have been successful we shall go up to London and there await Captain Mervyn's return. I have been talking it over with my daughter, and if you and Mrs. Powlett offer no opposition, we propose to take Ruth away to stay with us for two or three months. It will be pleasant for all parties. Your girl and mine are fond of each other, and Ruth will be a nice companion for Mary. The change will do your daughter good. She has for a long time been suffering greatly, and fresh scenes and objects of interest will take her mind off the past, and lastly, by the time she returns here, the gossip and talk that will arise when all this is known, will have died away."
"It is very good of you to think of it, Mr. Armstrong," Hiram Powlett said, "and it will be a fine thing for Ruth. Of course, she has been wrong, very wrong; but she must have suffered very much all these months. I told you I thought she had something on her mind, but I never thought it was like this. Well, well, I shan't say anything to her. I never was good at scolding her when she was a child, and I think she has been severely punished for this already."
"I think so too," Mr. Armstrong agreed; "and now let us go in. I told her that I should speak to you this evening, and she must be waiting anxiously for you."
When they entered, Ruth rose timidly.
"Oh! father" – she began.
"There, don't say any more about it, Ruth," Hiram interrupted, taking her tenderly in his arms. "My poor girl, you have had a hard time of it. Why didn't you tell me all at first?"
"I could not, father," she sobbed. "You know – you know – how you were set against him."
"Well, that is so, Ruth, and I should have been still more set against him if I had known the rights of that fall of yours upon the hill; but there, we won't say anything more about it. You have been punished for your fault, child, and I hope that when you come back again to us from the jaunt that Mr. Armstrong is going to be good enough to take you, you will be just as you were before all this trouble came upon you."
And so the next morning Mr. Armstrong, his daughter, and Ruth went up to London.
Two months later, Mary received Ronald's letter, telling of George Forester's death, and of his own disappointment at finding his hopes of clearing himself dashed to the ground. Mary broke the news of Forester's death to Ruth; she received it quietly.
"I am sorry," she said, "but he has been nothing to me for a long time now, and he could never have been anything to me again. I am sorry," she repeated, wiping her eyes, "that the boy I played with is gone, but for the man, I think it is, perhaps, better so. He died fighting bravely, and as a soldier should. I fear he would never have made a good man had he lived."