"What do you mean, Mackenzie? Why do you ask such a question?"
"You have not answered mine. Is there insanity in the blood?"
"There has been," the lieutenant said, reluctantly.
"I felt sure of it. I think you have heard me say my father made a special study of madness; and when I was studying for my profession I have often accompanied him to lunatic asylums, and I devoted a great deal of time to the subject, intending to make it my special branch also. Then the rambling fit seized me and I entered the service; but I have never missed following the subject up whenever I have had an opportunity. I have therefore visited asylums for lunatics whenever such existed, at every port which we have put into since I have been in the service.
"When my eye first fell upon Mr. Carne he was standing behind several other people, watching the dancing, and the expression of his face struck me as soon as my eye fell upon him. I watched him closely all through the evening. He did not dance, and rarely spoke to any one, unless addressed. I watched his face and his hands – hands are, I can tell you, almost as expressive as faces – and I have not the smallest hesitation in saying that the man is mad. It is possible, but not probable, that at ordinary times he may show no signs of it; but at times, and last night was one of those times, the man is mad; nay, more, I should be inclined to think that his madness is of a dangerous type.
"Now that you tell me it is hereditary, I am so far confirmed in my opinion that I should not hesitate, if called upon to do so, to sign a certificate to the effect that, in my opinion, he was so far insane as to need the most careful watching, if not absolute confinement."
The colour had faded from the lieutenant's face as the doctor spoke.
"I am awfully sorry," he said, in a low tone, "and I trust to God, doctor, that you are mistaken. I cannot but think that you are. I was introduced to him by his sister, and he was most civil and polite, indeed more than civil, for he asked me if I was fond of shooting, and when I said that I was extremely so, he invited me over to his place. He said he did not shoot himself, but that next week his cousin Mervyn and one or two others were coming to him to have two or three days' pheasant shooting, and he would be glad if I would join the party; and, as you may suppose, I gladly accepted the invitation."
"Well," the doctor said, drily, "so far as he is concerned, there is no danger in your doing so, if, as you say, he doesn't shoot. If he did, I should advise you to stay away; and in any case, if you will take the advice which I offer, you won't go. You will send an excuse."
The lieutenant made no answer for a minute or two, but paced the room in silence.
"I won't pretend to misunderstand you, Mackenzie. You mean there's no danger with him, but you think there may be from her. That's what you mean, isn't it?"
The doctor nodded.
"I saw you were taken with her, Gulston; that is why I have spoken to you about her brother."
"You don't think – confound it, man – you can't think," the lieutenant said, angrily, "that there is anything the matter with her?"
"No, I don't think so," the doctor said, gravely.
"Not now; not at present. I will at some other time. You have given me a shock, and I must think it over."
The doctor nodded, and commenced to talk about other matters. A minute or two later the lieutenant made some excuse, and turned into the cabin. Dr. Mackenzie shook his head.
"The lad is hard hit," he said, "and I am sorry for him. I hope my warning comes in time; it will do if he isn't a fool, but all young men are fools where women are concerned. I will say for him that he has more sense than most, but I would give a good deal if this had not happened."
Lieutenant Gulston was, indeed, hard hit; he had been much struck with the momentary glance he had obtained of Margaret Carne as he stood on the steps of the "Carne Arms," and the effect had been greatly heightened on the previous day. Lieutenant Gulston had, since the days when he was a middy, indulged in many a flirtation, but he had never before felt serious. He had often laughed at the impressibility of some of his comrades, and had scoffed at the idea of love at first sight, but now that he began to think matters seriously over, the pain the doctor's remarks had given him opened his eyes to the fact that it was a good deal more than a passing fancy.
Thinking it over in every light, he acknowledged the prudent course would be to send some excuse to her brother, with an expression of regret that he found that a matter of duty would prevent his coming over, as he had promised, for the shooting. Then he told himself that after all the doctor might be mistaken, and that it would be only right that he should judge for himself. If there was anything in it, of course he should go no more to The Hold, and no harm would be done. Margaret was certainly very charming; she was more than charming, she was the most lovable woman he had ever met. Still, of course, if there was any chance of her inheriting this dreadful thing, he would see her no more. After all, no more harm could be done in a couple of days than had been done already, and he was not such a fool but that he could draw back in time. And so after changing his mind half-a-dozen times, he resolved to go over for the shooting.
"Ruth, I want to speak to you seriously," Margaret Carne said to her maid two days after the ball. Ruth Powlett was the miller's daughter, and the village gossips had been greatly surprised when, a year before, they heard that she was going up to The Hold to be Miss Carne's own maid; for although the old mill was a small one, and did no more than a local business, Hiram was accounted to have laid by a snug penny, and as Ruth was his only child, she was generally regarded as the richest heiress in Carnesford. That Hiram should then let her go out into service, even as maid to Miss Carne at The Hold, struck every one with surprise.
It was generally assumed that the step had been taken because Hiram Powlett wanted peace in the house. He had, after the death of his first wife, Ruth's mother, married again, and the general verdict was that he had made a mistake. In the first place, Hiram was a staunch Churchman, and one of the churchwardens at Carnesford; but his wife, who was a Dareport woman – and that alone was in the opinion of Carnesford greatly against her – was a Dissenter, and attended the little chapel at Dareport, and entertained the strongest views as to the prospects and chances of her neighbours in a future state; and in the second place, perhaps in consequence of their religious opinions, she was generally on bad terms with all her neighbours.
But when Hiram married her she had a good figure, the lines of her face had not hardened as they afterwards did, and he had persuaded himself that she would make an excellent mother for Ruth. Indeed, she had not been intentionally unkind, and although she had brought her up strictly, she believed that she had thoroughly done her duty; lamenting only that her efforts had been thwarted by the obstinacy and perverseness of her husband in insisting that the little maid should trot to church by his side, instead of going with her to the chapel at Dareport.
Ruth had grown up a quiet and somewhat serious girl; she had blossomed out into prettiness in the old mill, and folks in the village were divided as to whether she or Lucy Carey, the smith's daughter, was the prettiest girl in Carnesford. Not that there was any other matter in comparison between them, for Lucy was somewhat gay and flirty, and had a dozen avowed admirers; while Ruth had from her childhood made no secret of her preference for George Forester, the son of the little farmer whose land came down to the Dare just where Hiram Powlett's mill stood.
He was some five years older than she was, and had fished her out of the mill-stream when she fell into it, when she was eight years old. From that time he had been her hero. She had been content to follow him about like a dog, to sit by his side for hours while he fished in the deep pool above the mill, under the shadow of the trees, quite content with an occasional word or notice. She took his part heartily when her stepmother denounced him as the idlest and most impertinent boy in the parish; and when, soon after she was fifteen, he one day mentioned that, as a matter of course, she would some day be his wife, she accepted it as a thing of which she had never entertained any doubt whatever.
But Hiram now took the alarm, and one day told her that she was to give up consorting with young Forester.
"You are no longer a child, Ruth, and if you go on meeting young Forester down at the pool, people will be beginning to talk. Of course I know that you are a good girl, and would never for a moment think of taking up with George Forester. Every one knows what sort of young fellow he is; he never does a day's work on the farm, and he is in and out of the 'Carne Arms' at all hours. He associates with the worst lot in the village, and it was only the other day that when the parson tried to speak to him seriously, he answered him in a way that was enough to make one's hair stand on end."
Ruth obeyed her father, and was no more seen about with George Forester; but she believed no tale to his disadvantage, and when at times she met with him accidentally, she told him frankly enough that though her father didn't like her going about with him, she loved him and meant to love him always, whatever they might say. Upon all other points her father's will was law to her, but upon this she was firm; and two years afterwards, when some words young Forester had spoken at a public-house about his daughter came to his ears, Hiram renewed the subject to her, she answered staunchly that unless he gave his consent she would not marry George Forester, but that nothing would make her give him up or go back from her word.
For once Hiram Powlett and his wife were thoroughly in accord. The former seldom spoke upon the subject, but the latter was not so reticent, and every misdeed of young Forester was severely commented upon by her in Ruth's hearing. Ruth seldom answered, but her father saw that she suffered, and more than once remonstrated with his wife on what he called her cruelty, but found that as usual Hesba was not to be turned from her course.
"No, Hiram Powlett," she said, shutting her lips tightly together; "I must do my duty whether it pleases you or not, and it is my duty to see that Ruth does not throw away her happiness in this world and the next by her headstrong conduct. She does not belong to the fold, but in other respects I will do her credit to say she is a good girl and does her duty as well as can be expected, considering the dulness of the light she has within her; but if she were to marry this reprobate she would be lost body and soul; and whatever you may think of the matter, Hiram Powlett, I will not refrain from trying to open her eyes."
"I am quite as determined as you are, Hesba, that the child shall not marry this young rascal, but I don't think it does any good to be always nagging at her. Women are queer creatures; the more you want them to go one way the more they will go the other."
But though Hiram Powlett did not say much, he worried greatly. Ruth had always been quiet, but she was quieter than ever now, and her cheeks gradually lost their roses, and she looked pale and thin. At last Hiram determined that if he could not obtain peace for her at home he would elsewhere, and hearing that Miss Carne's maid was going to be married he decided to try to get Ruth the place. She would be free from Hesba's tongue there, and would have other things to think about besides her lover, and would moreover have but few opportunities of seeing him. He was shy of approaching the subject to her, and was surprised and pleased to find that when he did, instead of opposing it as he had expected, she almost eagerly embraced the proposal.
In fact, Ruth's pale cheeks and changed appearance were not due, as her father supposed, to unhappiness at her stepmother's talk against George Forester; but because in spite of herself she began to feel that her accusations were not without foundation. Little by little she learnt, from chance words dropped by others, that the light in which her father held George Forester was that generally entertained in the village. She knew that he often quarrelled with his father, and that after one of these altercations he had gone off to Plymouth and enlisted, only to be bought out a few days afterwards.
She knew that he drank, and had taken part in several serious frays that had arisen at the little beershop in the village; and hard as she fought against the conviction, it was steadily making its way, that her lover was wholly unworthy of her. And yet, in spite of his faults, she loved him. Whatever he was with others, he was gentle and pleasant with her, and she felt that were she to give him up his last chance would be gone. So she was glad to get away from the village for a time, and to the surprise of her father, and the furious anger of George Forester, she applied for and obtained the post of Margaret Carne's maid.
She had few opportunities of seeing George Forester now; but what she heard when she went down to the village on Sundays was not encouraging. He drank harder than before, and spent much of his time down at Dareport, and, as some said, was connected with a rough lot there who were fonder of poaching than of fishing.
Margaret Carne was aware of what she considered Ruth's infatuation. She kept herself well informed of the affairs of the village – the greater portion of which belonged to her and her brother – and she learnt from the clergyman, whose right hand she was in the choir and schools, a good deal of the village gossip. She had never spoken to Ruth on the subject during the nine months she had been with her, but now she felt she was bound to do so.
"What is it, Miss Margaret?" Ruth said, quietly, in answer to her remark.
"I don't want to vex you, and you will say it is no business of mine, but I think it is, for you know I like you very much, besides, your belonging to Carnesford. Of course I have heard – every one has heard, you know – about your engagement to young Forester. Now a very painful thing has happened. On the night of the dance our gamekeepers came across a party of poachers in the woods, as of course you have heard, and had a fight with them, and one of the keepers is so badly hurt that they don't think he will live. He has sworn that the man who stabbed him was George Forester, and my brother, as a magistrate, has just signed a warrant for his arrest.
"Now, Ruth, surely this man is not worthy of you. He bears, I hear, on all sides a very bad character, and I think you will be more than risking your happiness with such a man; I think for your own sake it would be better to give him up. My brother is very incensed against him; he has been out with the other keepers to the place where this fray occurred and he says it was a most cowardly business, for the poachers were eight to three, and he seems to have no doubt whatever that Forester was one of the party, and that they will be able to prove it. I do think, Ruth, you ought to give him up altogether. I am not talking to you as a mistress, you know, but as a friend."
"I think you are right, Miss Margaret," the girl said, in a low voice. "I have been thinking it over in every way. At first I didn't think what they said was true, and then I thought that perhaps I might be able to keep him right, and that if I were to give him up there would be no chance for him. I have tried very hard to see what was my duty, but I think now that I see it, and that I must break off with him. But oh! it is so hard," she added, with a quiver in her voice, "for though I know that I oughtn't to love him, I can't help it."
"I can quite understand that, Ruth," Margaret Carne agreed. "I know if I loved any one I should not give him up merely because everybody spoke ill of him. But, you see, it is different now. It is not merely a suspicion, it is almost absolute proof; and besides, you must know that he spends most of his time in the public-house, and that he never would make you a good husband."
"I have known that a long time," Ruth said, quietly; "but I have hoped always that he might change if I married him. I am afraid I can't hope any longer, and I have been thinking for some time that I should have to give him up. I will tell him so now, if I have an opportunity."
"I don't suppose you will, for my brother says he has not been home since the affair in the wood. If he has, he went away again at once. I expect he has made either for Plymouth or London, for he must know that the police would be after him for his share in this business. I am very sorry for it, Ruth, but I do think you will be happier when you have once made up your mind to break with him. No good could possibly come of your sacrificing yourself."
Ruth said no more on the subject, but went about her work as quietly and orderly as usual, and Margaret Carne was surprised to see how bravely she held up, for she knew that she must be suffering greatly.
Three days later the shooting party assembled. Several gentlemen came to stay at the house, while Ronald Mervyn and his party, of course, put up at Mervyn Hall. The shooting was very successful, and the party were well pleased with their visit. Reginald Carne was quiet and courteous to his guests, generally accompanying them through the day, though he did not himself carry a gun. After the first day's shooting there was a dinner party at Mervyn Hall, and the following evening there was one at The Hold.
Lieutenant Gulston enjoyed himself more than any one else, though he was one of the least successful of the sportsmen, missing easy shots in a most unaccountable manner, and seeming to take but moderate interest in the shooting. He had, very shortly after arriving at the house, come to the conclusion that the doctor was altogether mistaken, and that Reginald Carne showed no signs whatever of being in any way different from other men. "The doctor is so accustomed to us sailors," he said to himself, "that if a man is quiet and studious he begins to fancy directly there must be something queer about him. That is always the way with doctors who make madness a special study. They suspect every one they come across of being out of their mind. I shouldn't be at all surprised if he doesn't fancy I am cracked myself. The idea is perfectly absurd. I watched Carne closely at dinner, and no one could have been more pleasant and gentlemanly than he was. I expect Mackenzie must have heard a word let drop about this old story, and of course if he did he would set down Carne at once as being insane. Well, thank goodness, that's off my mind; it's been worrying me horribly for the last few days. I have been a fool to trouble myself so about Mackenzie's croakings, but now I will not think anything more about it."
On the following Sunday, as Ruth Powlett was returning from church in the morning, and was passing through the little wood that lay between Carnesford and The Hold, there was a rustle among the trees, and George Forester sprang out suddenly.
"I have been waiting since daybreak to see you, Ruth, but as you came with that old housekeeper I could not speak to you. I have been in Plymouth for the last week. I hear that they are after me for that skirmish with the keepers, so I am going away for a bit, but I couldn't go till I said good-bye to you first, and heard you promise that you would always be faithful to me."
"I will say good-bye, George, and my thoughts and prayers will always be with you, but I cannot promise to be faithful – not in the way you mean."
"What do you mean, Ruth?" he asked, angrily. "Do you mean that after all these years you are going to throw me off?"
Ruth was about to reply, when there was a slight rustling in the bushes.
"There is some one in the path in the wood."
George Forester listened for a moment.
"It's only a rabbit," he said, impatiently. "Never mind that now, but answer my question. Do you dare to tell me that you are going to throw me over?"
"I am not going to throw you off, George," she said, quietly; "but I am going to give you up. I have tried, oh! how hard I have tried, to believe that you would be better some day, but I can't hope so any longer. You have promised again and again that you would give up drinking, but you are always breaking your promise, and now I find that in spite of all I've said, you still hold with those bad men at Dareport, and that you have taken to poaching, and now they are in search of you for being one of those concerned in desperately wounding John Morton. No, George, I have for years withstood even my father. I have loved you in spite of his reproaches and entreaties, but I feel now that instead of your making me happy I should be utterly miserable if I married you, and I have made a promise to Miss Carne that I would give you up."