Helen Vardon’s Confession - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

Helen Vardon’s Confession ebook

R. Austin Freeman

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Helen Vardon narrates her own story and one in which Dr. Thorndyke barely features until the final chapters. Helen Vardon contracts to a marriage without full knowledge of the circumstances regarding her father’s financial status. This leads to a dastardly trail of intrigue and deception and ends in murder. Dr. Thorndyke appears at the eleventh hour but does he save the day? Dr. Thornedyke is left to piece together the clues in this enticing mystery. This novel is a departure from the previous Dr. Thornedyke mysteries in narrator choice, form, and eventual resolution, with much less of the medical and scientific reasoning of prior volumes.

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Liczba stron: 640

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Contents

PROLOGUE

BOOK I

TRAGEDY

I.THE CRACK OF DOOM

II.ATRA CURA

III.THE COVENANT

IV.THE ELEVENTH HOUR

V. ON THE BRINK

VI.A MEETING AND A PARTING

VII.THE TERMS OF RELEASE

VIII.“WHOM GOD HATH JOINED—”

IX.TESTIMONY AND COUNSEL

X.THE TURNING OF THE PAGE

BOOK II

ROMANCE

XI.A HARBOUR OF REFUGE

XII.THE HIDDEN HAND

XIII.A CRYSTAL-GAZER AND OTHER MATTERS

XIV. JASPER DAVENANT

XV.THE MAGIC PENDULUM

XVI.THE SWEATED ARTIST

XVII. THE APOTHEOSIS OF THE TITMOUSE

XVIII. AMONG THE BREAKERS

XIX. ILLUSIONS AND DISILLUSION

XX. CLOUD AND SUNSHINE

XXI. A DREADFUL INHERITANCE

XXII. THE CATASTROPHE

BOOK III

CRIME

XXIII. THE DEAD HAND

XXIV. THE GATHERING CLOUDS

XXV. SUSPENSE—AND A DISCOVERY

XXVI. THE ADJOURNED INQUIRY

XXVII. THE INDICTMENT

XXVIII. THE VERDICT

EPILOGUE

PROLOGUE

TO every woman there comes a day (and that all too soon) when she receives the first hint that Time, the harvester, has not passed her by unnoticed. The waning of actual youth may have passed with but the faintest regret, if any; regret for the lost bud being merged in the triumph at the glory of the opening blossom. But the waning of womanhood is another matter. Old age has no compensations to offer for those delights that it steals away. At least, that is what I understand from those who know, for I must still speak on the subject from hearsay, having received from Father Time but the very faintest and most delicate hint on the subject.

I was sitting at my dressing-table brushing out my hair, which is of a docile habit, though a thought bulky, when amidst the black tress–blacker than it used to be when I was a girl–I noticed a single white hair. It was the first that I had seen, and I looked at it dubiously, picking it out from its fellows to see if it were all white, and noticing how like it was to a thread of glass. Should I pluck it out and pretend that it was never there? Or should I, more thriftily–for a hair is a hair after all, and enough of them will make a wig–should I dye it and hush up its treason?

I smiled at the foolish thought. What a to-do about a single white hair! I have seen girls in their twenties with snow-white hair and looking as sweet as lavender. As to this one, I would think of it as a souvenir from the troubled past rather than a harbinger of approaching age; and with this I swept my brush over it and buried it even as I had buried those sorrows and those dreadful experiences which might have left me white-headed years before.

But that glassy thread, buried once more amid the black, left a legacy of suggestion. Those hideous days were long past now. I could look back on them unmoved–nay, with a certain serene interest. Suppose I should write the history of them? Why not? To write is not necessarily to publish. And if, perchance, no eye but mine shall see these lines until the little taper of my life has burned down into its socket, then what matters it to me whether praise or blame, sympathy or condemnation, be my portion. Posterity has no gifts to offer that I need court its suffrages.

BOOK I

TRAGEDY

I. THE CRACK OF DOOM

THERE is no difficulty whatever in deciding upon the exact moment at which to open this history. Into some lives the fateful and significant creep by degrees, unnoticed till by the development of their consequences the mind is aroused and memory is set, like a sleuth-hound, to retrace the course of events and track the present to its origin in the past. Not so has it been with mine. Serene, eventless, its quiet years had slipped away unnumbered, from childhood to youth, from youth to womanhood, when, at the appointed moment, the voice of Destiny rang out, trumpet-tongued; and behold! in the twinkling of an eye all was changed.

“Happy,” it has been said, “is the nation which has no history!” And surely the same may be said with equal truth of individuals. So, at any rate, experience teaches me; for the very moment wherein I may be said to have begun to have a history saw a life-long peace shattered into a chaos of misery and disaster.

How well I remember the day–yea, and the very moment–when the blow fell, like a thunderbolt crashing down out of a cloudless sky. I had been sitting in my little room upstairs, reading very studiously and pausing now and again to think over what I had read. The book was Lecky’s “History of England in the Eighteenth Century,” and the period on which I was engaged was that of Queen Anne. And here, coming presently upon a footnote containing a short quotation from “The Spectator,” it occurred to me that I should like to look over the original letter. Accordingly, laying aside my book, I began to descend the stairs–very softly, because I knew that my father had a visitor–possibly a client–with him in his study. And when I came to the turn of the stair and saw that the study door was ajar, I stepped more lightly still, though I stole down quickly lest I should overhear what was being said.

The library, or book-room as we called it, was next to the study, and to reach it I had to pass the half-opened door, which I did swiftly on tip-toe, without hearing more than the vague murmur of conversation from within. “The Spectators” stood on a shelf close to the door; a goodly row clothed in rusty calf to which the worn gilt tooling imparted a certain sumptuousness that had always seemed very pleasant to my eye. My hand was on the third volume when I heard my father say:

“So that’s how the matter stands.”

I plucked the volume from the shelf, and, tucking it under my arm, stole out of the book-room, intending to dart up the stairs before there should be time for anything more to be said; but I had hardly crossed the threshold, and was, in fact, exactly opposite the study door, when a voice said very distinctly, though not at all loudly:

“Do you realise, Vardon, that this renders you liable to seven years’ penal servitude?”

At those terrible words I stopped as though I had been, in a moment, turned into stone: stopped with my lips parted, my very breathing arrested, clutching at the book under my arm, with no sign of life or movement save the tumultuous thumping of my heart. There was what seemed an interminable pause, and then my father replied: “Hardly, I think, Otway. Technically, perhaps, it amounts to a misdemeanour–”

“Technically!” repeated Mr. Otway.

“Yes, technically. The absence of any intent to defraud modifies the position considerably. Still, for the purpose of argument, we may admit that it amounts to a misdemeanour.”

“And,” said Mr. Otway, “the maximum punishment of that misdemeanour is seven years’ penal servitude. As to your plea of absence of fraudulent intent, you, as a lawyer of experience, must know well that judges are not apt to be very sympathetic with trustees who misappropriate property placed in their custody.”

“Misappropriate!” my father exclaimed.

“Yes, Mr. Otway, I say misappropriate. What other word could you apply? Here is a sum of money which has been placed in your custody. I come here with the intention to receive that money from you on behalf of the trustees, and you tell me that you haven’t got it. You are not only unable to produce it, but you are unable to give any date on which you could produce it. And meanwhile it seems that you have applied it to your own uses.”

“I haven’t spent it,” my father objected. “The money is locked up for the present, but it isn’t lost.”

“What is the use of saying that?” demanded Mr. Otway. “You haven’t got the money, and you can’t give any satisfactory account of it. The plain English of it is that you have used this trust money for your own private purposes, and that when the trustors ask to have it restored to them, you are unable to produce it.”

To this my father made no immediate reply; and in the silence that ensued I could hear my heart throbbing and the blood humming in the veins of my neck. At length my father asked: “Well, Otway, what are you going to do?”

“Do!” repeated Mr. Otway. “What can I do? As a trustee, it is my duty to get this money from you. I have to protect the interests of those whom I represent. And if you have misapplied these funds–well, you must see for yourself that I have no choice.”

“You mean that you’ll prosecute?”

“What else can I do? I can’t introduce personal considerations into the business of a trust; and even if I should decline to move in the matter, the trustors themselves would undoubtedly take action.”

Here there followed a silence which seemed to me of endless duration; then Mr. Otway said, in a somewhat different tone: “There is just one way for you out of this mess, Vardon.”

“Indeed!” said my father.

“Yes. I am going to make you a proposal, and I may as well put it quite bluntly. It is this. I am prepared to take over your liabilities, for the time being, on condition that I marry your daughter. If you agree, then on the day on which the marriage takes place, I pay into your bank the sum of five thousand pounds, you giving me an undertaking to repay the loan if and when you can.”

“Have you any reason to suppose that my daughter wishes to marry you?” my father asked.

“Not the slightest,” replied Mr. Otway; “but I think it probable that, if the case were put to her–”

“It is not going to be,” my father interrupted. “I would rather go to gaol than connive at the sacrifice of my daughter’s happiness.”

“You might have thought of her happiness a little sooner, Vardon,” Mr. Otway remarked. “We are not quite of an age, but she might easily find it more agreeable to be the wife of an elderly man than the daughter of a convict. At any rate, it would be only fair to give her the choice.”

“It would be entirely unfair,” my father retorted. “In effect, it would be asking her to make the sacrifice, and she might be fool enough to consent. And please bear in mind, Otway, that I am not a convict yet, and possibly may never be one. There are certain conceivable alternatives, you know.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Otway, “if you have resources that you have not mentioned, that is quite another matter. I understood that you had none. And as to sacrifice, there is no need to harp on that string so persistently. Your daughter might be happy enough as my wife.”

“What infernal nonsense you are talking!” my father exclaimed, impatiently. “Do you suppose that Helen is a fool?”

“No, I certainly do not,” Mr. Otway replied.

“Very well, then: what do you mean by her being happy as your wife? Here am I, standing over a mine–”

“Of your own laying,” interrupted Mr. Otway.

“Quite so; of my own laying. And here you come with a lighted match and say to my daughter, in effect: ‘My dear young lady, I am your devoted lover. Be my wife–consent this very instant or I fire this mine and blow you and your father to smithereens.’ And then, you think, she would settle down with you and live happy ever after. By the Lord, Otway, you must be a devilish poor judge of character.”

“I am quite willing to take the risk,” said Mr. Otway.

“So you may be,” my father retorted angrily, “but I’m not. I would rather see the poor girl in her grave than know that she was chained for life to a cold-blooded, blackmailing scoundrel–”

“Softly, Vardon!” Mr. Otway interrupted. “There is no need for that sort of language. And perhaps we had better shut the door.”

Here, as I drew back hastily into the book-room, quick footsteps crossed the study floor and I heard the door close. The interruption brought me back to some sense of my position; though, to be sure, what I had overheard concerned me as much as it concerned anyone. Quickly slipping the book back on the shelf, I ran on tip-toe past the study door and up the stairs; and even then I was none too soon; for, as I halted on the threshold of my room, the study door opened again and the two men strode across the hail.

“You are taking a ridiculously wrong-headed view of the whole affair,” I heard Mr. Otway declare.

“Possibly,” my father replied, stiffly. “And if I do, I am prepared to take the consequences.”

“Only the consequences won’t fall on you alone,” said Mr. Otway.

“Good afternoon,” was the dry and final response. Then the hall door slammed, and I heard my father walk slowly back to the study.

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