"I don't believe you would have said so a month ago," Ronald Mervyn said, looking darkly at her. "This Gulston has come between us, that's what it is, and you cannot deny it."
"You are not behaving like a gentleman, Ronald," the girl said, quietly. "You have no right to say such things."
"I have a right to say anything," he burst out. "You have fooled me and spoilt my life, but you shall regret it. You think after all these years I am to be thrown by like an old glove. No, by Heaven; you may throw me over, but I swear you shall never marry this sailor or any one else, whatever I do to prevent it. You say I have the curse of the Carnes in my blood. You are right, and you shall have cause to regret it."
He leapt from the window, which Margaret had thrown open a short time before, for the fire had overheated the room, ran down to the stables, leapt on his horse, and rode off at a furious pace. Neither he nor Margaret had noticed that a moment before a man passed along the walk close under the window. It was Lieutenant Gulston. He paused for a moment as he heard his name uttered in angry tones, opened the hall door without ceremony, and hurried towards that of the drawing-room. Reginald Carne was standing close to it, and it flashed across Gulston's mind that he had been listening. He turned his head at the sailor's quick step. "Don't go in there just at present, Gulston, I fancy Margaret is having a quarrel with her cousin. They are quiet now, we had best leave them alone."
"He was using very strong language," the sailor said, hotly. "I caught a word or two as I passed the windows."
"It's a family failing. I fancy he has gone now. I will go in and see. I think it were best for you to walk off for a few minutes, and then come back again. People may quarrel with their relatives, you know, but they don't often care for other people to be behind the scenes."
"No, you are quite right," Gulston answered; "the fact is, for the moment I was fairly frightened by the violence of his tone, and really feared that he was going to do something violent. It was foolish, of course, and I really beg your pardon. Yes, what you say is quite right. If you will allow me I will have the horse put in the trap again. I got out at the gate and walked across the garden, telling the man to take the horse straight round to the stables; but I think I had better go and come again another day. After such a scene as she has gone through Miss Carne will not care about having a stranger here."
"No, I don't think that would be best," Reginald Carne said. "She would wonder why you did not come, and would, likely enough, hear from her maid that you had been and gone away again, and might guess you had heard something of the talking in there. No, I think you had better do as I said – go away, and come again in a few minutes."
The lieutenant accordingly went out and walked about the shrubbery for a short time, and then returned. Miss Carne did not appear at dinner, but sent down a message to say that she had so bad a headache she would not be able to appear downstairs that evening.
Reginald Carne did not play the part of host so well as usual.
"I think, Carne, I will not stop here to-night. Your sister is evidently quite upset with this affair, and no wonder. I shall feel myself horribly de trop, and would rather come again some other time if you will let me. If you will let your man put a horse in the trap I shall catch the ten o'clock train comfortably."
"Perhaps that would be best, Gulston. I am not a very lively companion at the best of times, and family quarrels are unpleasant enough for a stranger."
A few minutes later Lieutenant Gulston was on his way to the station. He had much to think about on his way home. In one respect he had every reason to be well satisfied with what he had heard, as it had left no doubt whatever in his mind that Margaret Carne had refused the offer of her cousin, and that the latter had believed that he had been refused because she loved him – Charlie Gulston. Of course she had not said so; still she could not have denied it, or her cousin's wrath would not have been turned against him.
Then he was sorry that such a quarrel had taken place, as it would probably lead to a breach between the two families. He knew Margaret was very fond of her aunt and the girls. Then the violence with which Ronald Mervyn had spoken caused him a deal of uneasiness. Was it possible that a sane man would have gone on like that? Was it possible that the curse of the Carnes was still working? This was an unpleasant thought; but that which followed was still more anxious.
Certainly, from the tone of his voice, he had believed that Ronald Mervyn was on the point of using violence to Margaret, and if the man was really not altogether right in his head there was no saying what he might do. As for himself, he laughed at the threats that had been uttered against him. Mad or sane, he had not the slightest fear of Ronald Mervyn. But if, as was likely enough, this mad-brained fellow tried to fix a quarrel upon him in some public way, it might be horribly unpleasant – so unpleasant that he did not care to think of it. He consoled himself by hoping that when Mervyn's first burst of passion had calmed down, he might look at the matter in a more reasonable light, and see that at any rate he could not bring about a public quarrel without Margaret's name being in some way drawn into it; that her cousin could not wish, however angry he might be with her.
It was an unpleasant business. If Margaret accepted him, he would take her away from all these associations. It was marvellous that she was so bright and cheerful, knowing this horrible story about that Spanish woman, and that there was a taint in the blood. That brother of hers, too, was enough to keep the story always in her mind. The doctor was certainly right about him. Of course he wasn't mad, but there was something strange about him, and at times you caught him looking at you in an unpleasant sort of way.
"He is always very civil," the lieutenant muttered to himself; "in fact, wonderfully civil and hospitable, and all that. Still I never feel quite at my ease with him. If I had been a rich man, and they had been hard up, I should have certainly suspected there was a design in his invitations, and that he wanted me to marry Margaret; but, of course, that is absurd. He can't tell that I have a penny beyond my pay; and a girl like Margaret might marry any one she liked, at any rate out of Devonshire. Perhaps he may not have liked the idea of her marrying this cousin of hers; and no doubt he is right there, and seeing, as I daresay he did see, that I was taken with Margaret, he thought it better to give me a chance than to let her marry Mervyn.
"I don't care a snap whether all her relations are mad or not. I know that she is as free from the taint as I am; but it can't be wholesome for a girl to live in such an atmosphere, and the next time I go over I will put the question I meant to put this evening, and if she says yes, I will very soon get her out of it all." And then the lieutenant indulged in visions of pretty houses, with bright gardens looking over the sea, and finally concluded that a little place near Ryde or Cowes would be in every way best and most convenient, as being handy to Portsmouth, and far removed from Devonshire and its associations. "I hope to get my step in about a year; then I will go on half-pay. I have capital interest, and I daresay my cousin in the Admiralty will be able to get me a dockyard appointment of some sort at Portsmouth; if not, I shall, of course, give it up. I am not going to knock about the world after I am married."
This train of thought occupied him until almost mechanically he left the train, walked down to the water, hailed a boat, and was taken alongside his ship.
Margaret Carne's message as to her inability to come down to dinner was scarcely a veracious one. She was not given to headaches, and had not, so far as she could remember, been once laid up with them, but after what had been said, she did not feel equal to going downstairs and facing Charlie Gulston. She had never quite admitted to herself that she loved the young sailor who had for the last few weeks been so much at the house, and of whose reason for so coming she had but little doubt; but now, as she sat alone in the room, she knew well enough the answer she should give to his question, when it came.
At present, however, the discovery of her own feelings caused alarm rather than pleasure. There had been no signs of fear in her face when her cousin raged and threatened, but she did not believe that the threats were empty ones; he had often frightened her when she was a child by furious bursts of passion, and although it was many years now since she had seen him thus, she felt sure that he would do as he had threatened, and was likely enough to take any violent step that might occur to him in his passion, to carry out his threat.
Although she had put a bold front on it, Margaret felt at heart that his reproach was not altogether unjustified. There had been a boy and girl understanding between them, and although it had not been formally ratified of late years, its existence was tacitly recognised in both families, and until a few months before she herself had considered that in the natural course of events she should some day be Ronald Mervyn's wife.
Had he reproached her gently, she would have frankly admitted this, and would have asked him to forgive her for changing her mind now that years had wrought a change in her feelings; but the harshness and suddenness of his attack had roused her pride, and driven her to take up the ground that there was no formal engagement between them, and that as he had not renewed the subject for years she was at perfect liberty to consider herself free. She had spoken but the truth in saying that their near relationship was in her eyes a bar to their marriage. Of late years she had thought much more than she had when a girl over the history of the family and the curse of the Carnes, and although she had tried her best to prevent herself from brooding over the idea, she could not disguise from herself that her brother was at times strange and unlike other men, and her recollections of Ronald's outbursts of temper, as a boy, induced the suspicion that he, too, had not altogether escaped the fatal taint. Still, had not Charlie Gulston come across her path, it was probable that she would have drifted on as before, and would, when the time came have accepted Ronald Mervyn as her husband.
The next morning, when Ruth Powlett went as usual to call her mistress, she started with surprise as she opened the door, for the blind was already up and the window open. Closing the door behind her, she went in and placed the jug of hot water she carried by the washstand, and then turned round to arouse her mistress. As she did so a low cry burst from her lips, and she grasped a chair for support. The white linen was stained with blood, and Margaret lay there, white and still, with her eyes wide open and fixed in death. The clothes were drawn a short way down in order that the murderer might strike at her heart. Scarce had she taken this in, when Ruth felt the room swim round, her feet failed her, and she fell insensible on the ground.
In a few minutes the cold air streaming in through the open window aroused her. Feebly she recovered her feet, and, supporting herself against the wall, staggered towards the door. As she did so her eye fell on an object lying by the side of the bed. She stopped at once with another gasping cry, pressed her hand on her forehead, and stood as if fascinated, with her eyes fixed upon it. Then slowly and reluctantly, as if forced to act against her will, she moved towards the bed, stooped and picked up the object she had seen.
She had recognised it at once. It was a large knife with a spring blade, and a silver plate let into the buckhorn handle, with a name, G. Forester, engraved upon it. It was a knife she herself had given to her lover a year before. It was open and stained with blood. For a minute or two she stood gazing at it in blank horror. What should she do, what should she do? She thought of the boy who had been her playmate, of the man she had loved, and whom, though she had cast him off, she had never quite ceased to love. She thought of his father, the old man who had always been kind to her. If she left this silent witness where she had found it there would be no doubt what would come of it. For some minutes she stood irresolute.
"God forgive me," she said at last. "I cannot do it." She closed the knife, put it into her dress, and then turned round again. She dared not look at the bed now, for she felt herself in some way an accomplice in her mistress's murder, and she made her way to the door, opened it, and then hurried downstairs into the kitchen, where the servants, who were just sitting down to breakfast, rose with a cry as she entered.
"What is it, Ruth? What's the matter? Have you seen anything?"
Ruth's lips moved but no sound came from them, her face was ghastly white, and her eyes full of horror.
"What is it, child?" the old cook said, advancing and touching her, while the others shrank back, frightened at her aspect.
"Miss Margaret is dead," came at last slowly from her lips. "She has been murdered in the night," and she reeled and would have fallen again had not the old servant caught her in her arms and placed her in a chair. A cry of horror and surprise had broken from the servants, then came a hubbub of talk.
"It can't be true." "It is impossible." "Ruth must have fancied it." "It never could be," and then they looked in each other's face as if seeking a confirmation of their words.
"I must go up and see," the cook said. "Susan and Harriet, you come along with me; the others see to Ruth. Sprinkle some water on her face. She must have been dreaming."
Affecting a confidence which she did not feel, the cook, followed timidly by the two frightened girls, went upstairs. She stood for a moment hesitating before she opened the door; then she entered the room, the two girls not daring to follow her. She went a step into the room, then gave a little cry and clasped her hands.
"It is true," she cried; "Miss Margaret has been murdered!"
Then the pent-up fears of the girls found vent in loud screams, which were echoed from the group of servants who had clustered at the foot of the stairs in expectation of what was to come.
A moment later the door of Reginald Carne's room opened, and he came out partly dressed.
"What is the matter? What is all this hubbub about?"
"Miss Margaret is murdered, sir," the two girls burst out, pausing for an instant in their outcry.
"Murdered!" he repeated, in low tones. "You are mad; impossible!" and pushing past them he ran into Margaret's room.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, in a long, low note of pain and horror. "Good God, who can have done this?" and he leaned against the wall and covered his face with his hands. The old servant had advanced to the bed, and laid a hand on the dead girl. She now touched her master.
"You had better go away now, Mr. Reginald, for you can do nothing. She is cold, and must have been dead hours. We must lock the door up till the police come."
So saying, she gently led him from the room, closed the door and locked it. Reginald Carne staggered back to his room.
"Poor master," the old servant said, looking after him, "this will be a terrible blow for him; he and Miss Margery have always been together. There's no saying what may come of it," and she shook her head gravely; then she roused herself, and turned sharply on the girls.
"Hold your noise, you foolish things; what good will that do? Get downstairs at once."
Driving them before her, she went down to the kitchen, and out of the door leading to the yard, where one of the maids was at the moment telling the grooms what had happened.
"Joe, get on a horse and ride off and fetch Dr. Arrowsmith. He can't be of any good, but he ought to come. Send up Job Harpur, the constable, and then ride on to Mr. Volkes; he is the nearest magistrate, and will know what to do."
Then she went back into the kitchen.
"She has come to, Mrs. Wilson; but she don't seem to know what she is doing."
"No wonder," the cook said, "after such a shock as she has had; and she only just getting well after her illness. Two of you run upstairs and get a mattress off her bed and two pillows, and lay them down in the servants' hall; then take her in there and put her on them. Jane, get some brandy out of the cellaret and bring it here; a spoonful of that will do her good."
A little brandy and water was mixed, and the cook poured it between Ruth's lips, for she did not seem to know what was said to her, and remained still and impassive, with short sobs bursting at times from her lips. Then two servants half lifted her, and took her into the servants' hall, and laid her down on the mattress. All were sobbing and crying, for Margaret Carne had been greatly loved by those around her.
In half an hour the doctor arrived.
"Is it possible the news is true?" he asked as he leapt from his gig; the faces of those around were sufficient answer. "Good Heavens, what a terrible business! Tell Mr. Carne I am here."
Reginald Carne soon came down. He was evidently terribly shaken. He held out his hand in silence to the doctor.
"What does it all mean?" the latter said, huskily. "It seems too horrible to be true. Can it be that your sister, whom I have known since she was a child, is dead? Murdered, too! It seems impossible."
"It does seem impossible, doctor; but it is true. I have seen her myself," and he shuddered. "She has been stabbed to the heart."
The doctor wiped his eyes.
"Well, I must go up and see her," he said. "Poor child, poor child. No, you need not ring. I will go up by myself."
Dr. Arrowsmith had attended the family for many years, and knew perfectly well which was Margaret's room. The old cook was standing outside the door of the drawing-room.
"Here is the key, sir. I thought it better to lock the door till you came."
"Quite right," the doctor replied. "Don't let any one up till Mr. Volkes comes. The servant said he was going for him. Ah, here is Harpur. That is right, Harpur; you had better come up with me, but I shouldn't touch anything if I were you till Mr. Volkes comes; besides, we shall be having the Chief Constable over here presently, and it is better to leave everything as it is." They entered the room together.
"Dear, dear, to think of it now," the constable murmured, standing awe-struck at the door, for the course of his duty was for the most part simple, and he had never before been face to face with a tragedy like this.
The doctor moved silently to the bed, and leant over the dead girl.
"Stabbed to the heart," he murmured; "death must have been instantaneous." Then he touched her arm and tried to lift it.
"She has been dead hours," he said to the constable, "six or seven hours, I should say. Let us look round. The window is open, you see. Can the murderer have entered there?" He looked out. The wall was covered with ivy, and a massive stem grew close to the window. "Yes," he went on, "an active man could have climbed that. See, there are some leaves on the ground. I think, Harpur, your best plan will be to go down and take your station there and see no one comes along or disturbs anything. See, this jewel-box on the table has been broken open and the contents are gone, and I do not see her watch anywhere. Well, that is enough to do at present; we will lock this room up again until Mr. Volkes comes."
When they came downstairs, the cook again came out.
"Please, sir, will you come in here? Ruth Powlett, Miss Margaret's maid, seems very bad; it was she who first found it out, and it's naturally given her a terrible shock. She came down looking like a mad woman, then she fainted off, and she doesn't seem to have any sort of consciousness yet."
"Ruth Powlett! why, I have been attending her for the last three weeks. Yes, such a shock may be very serious in her case," and the doctor went in.
"Have you any sal volatile in the house?" he asked, after he had felt her pulse.
"There's some in the medicine chest, I think, sir, but I will soon see."
She went out and presently returned with a bottle. The doctor poured a teaspoonful into a glass and added a little water. Then he lifted Ruth's head, and forced it between her lips. She gasped once or twice, and then slightly opened her eyes.