The Curse of Carne's Hold: A Tale of Adventure
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"She is quiet now. I will come back again when I have had my dinner. Sit close by her, and if you see any signs of change, sprinkle a little water on her face and send for me; and you may pour a few drops of brandy down her throat. If her breathing continues regular, and as slow as it is at present, do nothing until I return."
For a fortnight Ruth Powlett lay between life and death, then she turned the corner, and very slowly and gradually began to recover. Six weeks had passed by, and she was about again, a mere shadow of her former self. No further evidence of any kind had been obtained with reference to the murder at The Hold. Mrs. Mervyn had a detective down from London, and he had spent days in calling at all the villages within twenty miles in the endeavour to find some one who had heard a horseman pass between the hours of twelve and three. This, however, he failed to do; he had tracked the course of Ronald Mervyn up to ten o'clock, but after that hour he could gather no information. Even a reward of fifty pounds failed to bring any tidings of a horseman after that hour. Ronald Mervyn had followed a circuitous route, apparently going quite at random, but when heard of at ten o'clock he was but thirteen miles distant, which would have left an ample margin of time for him to have ridden to The Hold and carried out his designs.
The description of Margaret Carne's watch and jewellery had been circulated by the police throughout England, but so far none of it appeared to have been offered for sale at any jeweller's or pawnbroker's in the country. In South Devonshire, people were divided into two parties on the subject of Ronald Mervyn's guilt or innocence. No one remained neutral on the subject. Some were absolutely convinced that, in spite of appearances, he was innocent. Others were equally positive that he was guilty. The former insisted that the original hypothesis as to the murder was the correct one, and that it had been committed by some tramp. As to the impossibility of this man having killed Margaret Carne in her sleep, they declared that there was nothing in it. Every one knew that tramps were rough subjects, and this man might be an especially atrocious one. Anyhow, it was a thousand times more probable that this was how it came about than that Ronald Mervyn should have murdered his cousin.
The other party were ready to admit that it was improbable that a man should murder his cousin, but they fell back upon the evidence that showed he and no one else had done it, and also upon the well-known curse upon Carne's Hold, and the fact that Mervyn on his mother's side had the Carne blood in his veins. Every one knew, they argued, that mad people murder their husbands, wives, or children; why, then, not a cousin?
There was a similar difference of opinion on the subject among the little conclave in the snuggery at the "Carne's Arms."
Jacob Carey and the old clerk were both of opinion that Ronald Mervyn was guilty, the former basing his opinion solely upon the evidence, and the latter upon the curse of the Carnes.The landlord maintained a diplomatic reserve. It was not for him to offend either section of his customers by taking a decided side. He therefore contented himself by saying, "There's a great deal in what you say," to every argument brought forward in the coffee-room, the tap-room, or snuggery.
The "Carne's Arms" was doing a larger trade than it had ever done before. There were two detectives staying in the house, and every day coaches brought loads of visitors from Plymouth; while on Saturday and Monday hundreds of people tramped over from the railway station, coming from Plymouth and Exeter to have a view of the house where the tragedy had taken place. The pressure of business was indeed so great that the landlord had been obliged to take on two extra hands in the kitchen, and to hire three girls from the village to attend to the customers in the coffee-room and tap-room.
Hiram Powlett was Captain Mervyn's champion in the snuggery. It was true he had few arguments to adduce in favour of his belief, and he allowed the smith and Reuben Claphurst to do the greater part of the talking, while he smoked his pipe silently, always winding up the discussion by saying: "Well, neighbours, I can't do much in the way of arguing, and I allow that what you say is right enough, but for all that I believe Captain Mervyn to be innocent. My daughter Ruth won't hear a word said as to his being guilty, and I think with her."
Hiram Powlett and his wife had indeed both done their best to carry out the doctor's orders that nothing should be said in Ruth's hearing of the murder. But the girl, as soon as she was sufficiently recovered to talk, was always asking questions as to whether any further clue had been discovered as to the murderer, and she was indeed so anxious and urgent on the matter that the doctor had felt it better to withdraw his interdict, and to allow her father to tell her any little scraps of gossip he had picked up.
"The idea has evidently got possession of her mind, Hiram," the doctor said. "She was very attached to her mistress, and is no doubt most anxious that her murderer shall be brought to justice. I have changed my opinion, and think now that you had better not shirk the subject. She has been a good deal more feverish again the last day or two. Of course she must stay here now until after the trial, which will come off in a fortnight. When that is over, I should strongly recommend you to send her away from here for a time; it doesn't matter where she goes to, so that she is away from here. If you have any friends or relations you can send her to, let her go to them; if not, I will see about some home for convalescent patients where she would be taken in. There are several of them about; one at the Isle of Wight, I believe. That would suit her very well, as the climate is mild. Anyhow, she must not stop here. I shall be heartily glad myself when the trial is over. Go where I will I hear nothing else talked about. No one attends to his own business, and the amount of drunkenness in the place has trebled. If I had my way, I would have a regulation inflicting a heavy fine upon every one who after the conclusion of the trial ventured to make any allusion, however slight, to it. It's disgusting to see the number of people who come here every day and go up the hill to have a look at the house."
As the day for the trial approached, Ruth Powlett became more and more anxious and nervous about it. It kept her awake at nights, and she brooded on it during the day. For hours she would sit with her eyes fixed upon the fire without opening her lips, and the doctor became seriously anxious lest she should be again laid up before it became necessary to give her evidence.
There was indeed a terrible fight going on in Ruth's mind. She knew that Captain Mervyn was innocent; she knew that George Forester was guilty, and yet the memory of her past life was still so strong in her that she could not bring herself to denounce him, unless it became absolutely necessary to do so to save Ronald Mervyn's life. Ronald had insulted and threatened her mistress, and had not George Forester been beforehand with him, he might have done her some grievous harm, or he might perhaps have murdered Lieutenant Gulston, for whom Ruth felt a strong attraction because she had discerned that Margaret loved him.
It was right, then, that Ronald Mervyn should suffer, but it was not right that he should be hung. If he could clear himself without her being obliged to denounce George Forester, let him do so; but if not, if he were found guilty, then she had no other course open to her. She must come forward and produce the knife and describe how she had found it, and confess why she had so long concealed it. All this would be very terrible. She pictured to herself the amazement of the court, the disapproval with which her conduct would be received, the way in which she would be blamed by all who knew her, the need there would be for going away from home afterwards and living somewhere where no one would know her story; but not for this did she ever waver in her determination. Ronald Mervyn must be saved from hanging, for she would be as bad as a murderess if she kept silent and suffered him to be executed for a crime she knew that he had not committed.
Still she would not do it until the last thing; not till everything else failed would she denounce George Forester as a murderer. She loved him no longer; she knew that had he not been interrupted he would perhaps have killed her. It was partly the thought of their boy-and-girl life, and of the hours they had spent together by the side of the Dare, that softened her heart; this and the thought of the misery of the kind old man, his father.
"I don't understand Ruth," the doctor said one day to Mrs. Powlett. "She ought to get better faster than she does. Of course she has had a terrible shock, and I quite understand its affecting her as it did, just as she was recovering from her former illness; but she does not mend as she ought to do. She has lost strength instead of gaining it during the past week. She is flushed and feverish, and has a hunted look about her eyes. If I had known nothing of the circumstances of the case I should have said that she has something on her mind."
"There is nothing she can have on her mind," Hesba Powlett replied. "You know we had trouble with her about that good-for-nothing George Forester?" The doctor nodded. It was pretty well known throughout the village how matters stood.
"She gave him up weeks and weeks ago, just at the time he went away, when he was wanted for the share he had in that poaching business up in the Carne Woods. She told her father that she saw we had been right, and would have nothing more to say to him. That was a week or more before she had that fall on the hill, and I have never heard her mention his name since. I feel sure that she is not fretting about him. Ruth has always been a sensible girl, and once she has made up her mind she wasn't likely to turn back again."
"No, I should not say that she was fretting on his account, Mrs. Powlett. Fretting in young women shows itself in lowness of spirits and general depression and want of tone. In her case it appears to me to be rather some sort of anxiety, though about what I cannot guess. If it had been any other girl in the village, I should have had my suspicion that she had taken a fancy in some way to Ronald Mervyn, and was anxious about the trial; but of course that is out of the question in Ruth's case. No doubt she is anxious about the trial, and has a nervous dread of being obliged to stand up and describe the scene again in a crowded court, and perhaps be questioned and cross-questioned. It's a trying thing for any one; still more so, of course, for a girl whose nerves have been shattered, and who is in a weak and debilitated state of health. Well, I shall be heartily glad when it's all over, and we settle down into our ordinary ways."
"What do you think will be the verdict, sir? Do you think they will find Captain Mervyn guilty?"
"I do not like to give an opinion, Mrs. Powlett. It depends so much on the jury, and on the way the counsel and judge put it, but I hardly think that the evidence is sufficient to hang a man. There are, of course, grave grounds for suspicion, but I should doubt whether any jury would find Mervyn guilty upon them. It would be amply sufficient if it were merely a case of robbery, but men don't like to find a verdict when there is a possibility of their finding out too late to save a man's life that they have been mistaken. At any rate, Mrs. Powlett, do your best to keep Ruth's thoughts from dwelling on the subject. I wish it was summer weather, and that she could sit out in the garden. Of course she is not strong enough to be able to walk, except for a hundred yards or so, but I would get her to take a little turn, if it's only once round the garden now and then."
"I don't think she would walk if she could, sir. When I was speaking the other day about her getting well enough to go out for walks, she turned white and shivered, and said she didn't want to go outside the door again, not for ever so long. That fall she got seems to have changed her altogether."
"Well, well, we must get her away, as I said, Mrs. Powlett. She wants more bracing air than you have got here, and to have the wind either coming straight off the sea or else to be in some hilly, breezy place."
"I am sure I don't know how it's to be managed. She can't go by herself, and I don't see how I am to leave Hiram."
"You will have to leave Hiram for a day or two, and take her wherever we fix upon as the best place and settle her there. Hiram will get on very well without you for a day or two. She is no more fit to travel alone than a baby. However, I must be off. Keep up her spirits as well as you can, and don't let her brood over this business."
At last the day when Ronald Mervyn was to be tried for murder arrived. The Assizes were at Exeter, and never in the memory of man had there been such numerous applications to the sheriff and other officials for seats in the court. The interest in the case had extended far beyond the limits of Devonshire. The rank in life of the victim and the accused, the cold-blooded nature of the murder, and the nature of the evidence rendered the affair a cause c?l?bre, and the pros and cons of the case were discussed far and wide.
The story of the curse of Carne's Hold had been given at full length by the reporters of the local papers and copied by all the journals of the kingdom, and the fact that madness was hereditary in the family went for much in the arguments of those who held that Captain Mervyn was guilty. Had it not been for this, the tide of public feeling would have been distinctly in favour of the accused.
By itself, the rest of the evidence was inconclusive. Men who have been jilted not unfrequently use strong language, and even threats, without anything coming of it. The fact of the glove having been found where it was was certainly suspicious, but, after all, that in itself did not count for much; the glove might have been blown to where it was found, or a dog might have picked it up and carried it there. A dozen explanations, all possible even if not probable, could be given for its presence, and before a man could be found guilty of murder upon circumstantial evidence, there must be no room whatever left for doubt. Therefore, the quarrel, the finding of the glove, and even the fact that Captain Mervyn was unable to prove an alibi, would scarcely have caused public opinion to decide against him had it not been for the fact of that taint of insanity in his blood. Call a dog mad and you hang him. Call a man mad and the public will easily credit him with the commission of the most desperate crimes; therefore, the feeling of the majority of those who assembled at the Court House at Exeter, was unfavourable to Ronald Mervyn.
The attitude of the prisoner did much to dispel this impression; he was grave, as one might well be with such a charge hanging over him, but there was nothing moody or sombre, still less wild, in his expression; he looked calmly round the court, acknowledged the encouraging nods given him by some of his fellow officers, who had come over to bear witness on the point of character, and who to a man believed him to be innocent. Certainly there was nothing to suggest in the slightest degree the suspicion of madness in his appearance; and many of those who had before been impressed by the story of the family taint, now veered round and whispered to their friends that the story of insanity was all nonsense, and that Ronald Mervyn looked wholly incapable of such a crime as that of which he was accused.
Dr. Arrowsmith had brought Ruth over under his personal charge. As she came out, when he called in his trap to take her to the station, he was surprised at the change which had taken place since he saw her the evening before. The anxious and nervous expression of her face was gone, and she looked calm and composed. There was indeed a certain determined expression in her face that led the doctor to believe that she had by a great effort conquered her fear of the ordeal to which she was to be exposed, and had nerved herself to go through it unflinchingly. As they journeyed in the train she asked him:
"Shall we be in the court all the time, doctor?"
"No, Ruth, I do not think you will be in court. I fancy the witnesses remain in a room together until they are wanted. I myself shall be in court, as the solicitor for the defence is a personal friend of mine, and will give me a place at his table."
"Do you think, sir, that after I have given my evidence they would let me stand there until it is done?"
"I should hardly think so, Ruth, and I am sure it would be a very bad thing for you."
"I have a particular reason for wanting to be there, Dr. Arrowsmith, and to hear it to the end. A most particular reason. I can't tell you what it is, but I must be there."
The doctor looked at her in surprise.
"You think you will not feel the suspense as much if you are in the court as you would outside Ruth? Is that what you mean?"
"That's it, partly, sir. Anyhow, I feel that I must be there."
"Very well, Ruth, if you see it in that way, I will do what I can for you. I will ask Captain Hendricks to speak to the policemen in the court, and tell them to let you remain there after you have given your evidence. There will be a great crowd, you know, and it will be very close, and altogether I think it is foolish and wrong of you."
"I am sorry you think so, sir; but I do want to be there, whatever happens to me afterwards."
"Of course you can do as you like, Ruth; but the probability is that you will faint before you have been there five minutes."
"I will try not to, sir, and I don't think I shall. It is only when I get a sudden shock that I faint, and I don't think I can get one there."