Johnny Ludlow.Sixth SeriesByMrs. Henry Wood
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Mrs. Henry Wood
THE MYSTERY AT NUMBER SEVEN
IN LATER YEARS
THE SILENT CHIMES
“God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
That they might touch the hearts of men,
And bring them back to heaven again.”
“Let us go and give her a turn,” cried the Squire.
Tod laughed. “What, all of us?” said he.
“To be sure. All of us. Why not? We’ll start to-morrow.”
“Oh dear!” exclaimed Mrs. Todhetley, dismay in her mild tones. “Children and all?”
“Children and all; and take Hannah to see to them,” said the Squire. “You don’t count, Joe: you will be off elsewhere.”
“We could never be ready,” said the Mater, looking the image of perplexity. “To-morrow’s Friday. Besides, there would be no time to write to Mary.”
“Write to her!” cried the Squire, turning sharply on his heel as he paced the room in his nankeen morning-coat. “And who do you suppose is going to write to her? Why, it would cause her to make all sorts of preparation, put her to no end of trouble. A pretty conjurer you’d make! We will take her by surprise: that’s what we will do.”
“But if, when we got there, we should find her rooms are let, sir?” said I, the possibility striking me.
“Then we’ll go into others, Johnny. A spell at the seaside will be a change for us all.”
This conversation, and the Squire’s planning-out, arose through a letter we had just received from Mary Blair—poor Blair’s widow, if you have not forgotten him, who went to his end through that Gazette of Jerry’s. After a few ups and downs, trying at this thing for a living, trying at that, Mrs. Blair had now settled in a house at the seaside, and opened a day-school. She hoped to get on in it in time, she wrote, especially if she could be so fortunate as to let her drawing-room to visitors. The Squire, always impulsive and good-hearted, at once cried out thatwewould go and take it.
“It will be doing her a good turn, you see,” he ran on; “and when we leave I dare say she’ll find other people ready to go in. Let’s see”—picking up the letter to refer to the address—“No. 6, Seaboard Terrace, Montpellier-by-Sea. Whereabouts is Montpellier-by-Sea?”
“Never heard of it in my life,” cried Tod. “Don’t believe there is such a place.”
“Be quiet, Joe. I fancy it lies somewhere towards Saltwater.”
Tod flung back his head. “Saltwater! A nice common place that is!”
“Hold your tongue, sir. Johnny, fetch me the railway guide.”
Upon looking at the guide, it was found there; “Montpellier-by-Sea;” the last station before getting to Saltwater. As to Saltwater, it might be common, as Tod said; for it was crowded with all sorts of people, but it was lively and healthy.
Not on the next day, Friday, for it was impossible to get ready in such a heap of a hurry, but on the following Tuesday we started. Tod had left on the Saturday for Gloucestershire. His own mother’s relatives lived there, and they were always inviting him.
“Montpellier-by-Sea?” cried the railway clerk in a doubting tone as we were getting the tickets. “Let’s see? Where is that?”
Of course that set the Squire exploding. What right had clerks to pretend to issue tickets unless they knew their business? The clerk in question coolly ran his finger down the railway list he had turned to, and then gave us the tickets.
“It is a station not much frequented, you see,” he civilly observed. “Travellers mostly go on to Saltwater.”
But for the train being due, and our having to make a rush for the platform, the Squire would have waited to give the young man a piece of his mind. “Saltwater, indeed!” said he. “I wonder the fellow does not issue his edict as to where people shall go and where they shan’t go.”
We arrived in due time at our destination. It was written up as large as life on a white board, “Montpellier-by-Sea.” A small roadside station, open to the country around; no signs of sea or of houses to be seen; a broad rural district, apparently given over entirely to agriculture. On went the whistling train, leaving the group of us standing by our luggage on the platform. The Squire was staring about him doubtfully.
“Can you tell me where Seaboard Terrace is?”
“Seaboard Terrace?” repeated the station-master. “No, sir, I don’t know it. There’s no terrace of that name hereabouts. For that matter there are no terraces at all—no houses in fact.”
The Squire’s face was a picture. He saw that (save a solitary farm homestead or two) the country was bare of dwelling-places.
“This is Montpellier-by-Sea?” he questioned at last.
“Sure enough it is, sir. Munpler, it’s called down here.”
“Then Seaboard Terrace must be somewhere in it—somewhere about. What a strange thing!”
“Perhaps the gentlefolks want to go to Saltwater?” spoke up one of the two porters employed at the little station. “There’s lots of terraces there. Here, Jim!”—calling tohis fellow—“come here a minute. He’ll know, sir; he comes from Saltwater.”
Jim approached, and settled the doubt at once. He knew Seaboard Terrace very well indeed; it was at Saltwater; just out at the eastern end of it.
Yes, it was at Saltwater. And there were we, more than two miles off it, on a broiling hot day, when walking was impracticable, with all our trunks about us, and no fly to be had, or other means of getting on. The Squire went into one of his passions, and demanded why people living at Saltwater should give their address as Montpellier-by-Sea.
He had hardly patience to listen to the station-master’s explanation—who acknowledged that we were not the first travelling party that had been deluded in like manner. Munpler (as he and the rest of the natives persisted in calling it) was an extensive, straggling rural parish, filled with farm lands; an arm of it extended as far as Saltwater, and the new buildings at that end of Saltwater had rechristened themselves Montpellier-by-Sea, deeming it more aristocratic than the common old name. Had the Squire been able to transport the new buildings, builders and all, he had surely done it on the spot.
Well, we got on to Saltwater in the evening by another train, and to No. 6, Seaboard Terrace. Mary Blair was just delighted.
“If I had but known you were coming, if you had only written to me, I would have explained that it was Saltwater Station you must get out at, not Montpellier,” she cried in deprecation.
“But, my dear, why on earth do you give in to a deception?” stormed the Squire. “Why call your place Montpellier when it’s Saltwater?”
“I do what other people do,” she sighed; “I was told it was Montpellier when I came here. Generally speaking, I have explained, when writing to friends, that it is reallySaltwater, in spite of its fine name. I suppose I forgot it when writing to you—I had so much to say. The people really to blame are those who named it so.”
“And that’s true, and they ought to be shown up,” said the Squire.
Seaboard Terrace consisted of seven houses, built in front of the sea a little beyond the town. The parlours had bay windows; the drawing-rooms had balconies and verandahs. The two end houses, Nos. 1 and 7, were double houses, large and handsome, each of them being inhabited by a private family; the middle houses were smaller, most of them being let out in lodgings in the season. Mary Blair began talking that first evening as we sat together about the family who lived in the house next door to her, No. 7. Their name was Peahern, she said, and they had been so very, very kind to her since she took her house in March. Mr. Peahern had interested himself for her and got her several pupils; he was much respected at Saltwater. “Ah, he is a good man,” she added; “but——”
“I’ll call and thank him,” interrupted the Squire. “I am proud to shake hands with such a man as that.”
“You cannot,” she said; “he and his wife have gone abroad. A great misfortune has lately befallen them.”
“A great misfortune! What was it?”
I noticed a sort of cloud pass over Mary Blair’s face, a hesitation in her manner before she replied. Mrs. Todhetley was sitting by her on the sofa; the Squire was in the armchair opposite them, and I at the table, as I had sat at our tea-dinner.
“Mr. Peahern was in business once—a wholesale druggist, I believe; but he made a fortune, and retired some years ago,” began Mary. “Mrs. Peahern has bad health and is a little lame. She was very kind to me also—very good and kind indeed. They had one son—no other children; I think he was studying for the Bar; I am not sure; but helived in London, and came down here occasionally. My young maid-servant, Susan, got acquainted with their servants, and she gathered from their gossip that he, Edmund Peahern, a very handsome young man, was in some way a trouble to his parents. He was down at Easter, and stayed three weeks; and in May he came down again. What happened I don’t know; I believe there was some scene with his father the day he arrived; anyway, Mr. Peahern was heard talking angrily to him; and that night he—he died.”
She had dropped her voice to a whisper. The Squire spoke.
“Died! Was it a natural death?”
“No. A jury decided that he was insane; and he was buried here in the churchyard. Such a heap of claims and debts came to light, it was said. Mr. Peahern left his lawyer to pay them all, and went abroad with his poor wife for change of scene. It has been a great grief to me. I feel so sorry for them.”
“Then, is the house shut up?”
“No. Two servants are left in it—the two housemaids. The cook, who had lived with them five and twenty years and was dreadfully affected at the calamity, went with her mistress. Nice, good-natured young women are these two that are left, running in most days to ask if they can do anything for me.”
“It is good to have such neighbours,” said the Squire. “And I hope you’ll get on, my dear. How came you to be at this place at all?”
“It was through Mr. Lockett,” she answered—the clergyman who had been so much with her husband before he died, and who had kept up a correspondence with her. Mr. Lockett’s brother was in practice as a doctor at Saltwater, and they thought she might perhaps do well if she came to it. So Mary’s friends had screwed a point or two to put herinto the house, and gave her besides a ten-pound note to start with.
“I tell you what it is, young Joe: if you run and reve yourself into that scarlet heat, you shan’t come here with me again.”
“But I like to race with the donkeys,” replied young Joe. “I can run almost as fast as they, Johnny. I like to see the donkeys.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to ride a donkey, lad?”
He shook his head. “I have never had a ride but once,” he answered: “I’ve no sixpences for it. That once Matilda treated me. She brings me on the sands.”
“Who is Matilda?”
“Matilda at No. 7—Mr. Peahern’s.”
“Well, if you are a good boy, young Joe, and stay by me, you shall have a ride as soon as the donkeys come back.”
They were fine sands. I sat down on a bench with a book; little Joe strained his eyes to look after the donkeys in the distance, cantering off with some young shavers like himself on their backs, their nursemaids walking quickly after them. Poor little Joe!—he had the gentlest, meekest face in the world, with his thoughtful look and nice eyes—waited and watched in quiet patience. The sands were crowded with people this afternoon; organs were playing, dancing dolls exhibiting; and vessels with their white sails spread glided smoothly up and down on the sparkling sea.
“And will you really pay the sixpence?” asked the little fellow presently. “They won’t let me get on for less.”
“Really and truly, Joe. I’ll take you for a row in a boat some calm day, if mamma will allow you to go.”
Joe looked grave. “I don’t much like the water, please,” said he, timidly. “Alfred Dale went on it in a boat and fell in, and was nearly drowned. He comes to mamma’s school.”
“Then we’ll let the boats alone, Joe. There’s Punch! He is going to set himself up yonder: wouldn’t you like to run and see him?”
“But I might miss the donkeys,” answered Joe.
He stood by me quietly, gazing in the direction taken by the donkeys; evidently they were his primary attraction. The other child, Mary, who was a baby when her father died (poor Baked Pie, as we boys used to call him at Frost’s), was in Wales with Mrs. Blair’s people. They had taken the child for a few months, until she saw whether she should get along at Saltwater.
But we thought she would get along. Her school was a morning school for little boys of good parentage, all of whom paid liberal terms; and she would be able to let her best rooms for at least six months in the year.
“There’s Matilda! Oh, there’s Matilda!”
It was quite a loud shout for little Joe. Looking up, I saw him rush to a rather good-looking young woman, neatly dressed in a black-and-white print gown and small shawl of the same, with black ribbons crossed on her straw bonnet. Servants did not dress fine enough to set the Thames on fire in those days. Joe dragged her triumphantly up to me. She was one of the housemaids at No. 7.
“It’s Matilda,” he said; and the young woman curtsied. “And I am going to have a donkey-ride, Matilda; Mr. Johnny Ludlow’s going to give the sixpence for me!”
“I know you by sight, sir,” observed Matilda to me. “I have seen you go in and out of No. 6.”
She had a pale olive complexion, with magnificent, melancholy dark eyes. Many persons would have called her handsome. I took a sort of liking for the girl—if only for her kindness to poor little fatherless Joe. In manner she was particularly quiet, subdued, and patient.
“You had a sad misfortune at your house not long ago,” I observed to her, at a loss for something to say.
“Oh, sir, don’t talk of it, please!” she answered, catching her breath. “I seem to have had the shivers at times ever since. It was me that found him.”
Up cantered the donkeys; and presently away went Joe on the back of one, Matilda attending him. The ride was just over, and Joe beginning to enlarge on its delights to me, when another young woman, dressed precisely similar to Matilda, even to the zigzag white running pattern on the prim gown, and the black cotton gloves, was seen making her way towards us. She was nice-looking also, in a different way—fair, with blue eyes, and a laughing, arch face.
“Why, there’s Jane Cross!” exclaimed Matilda. “What in the world have you come out for, Jane? Have you left the house safe?”
“As if I should leave it unsafe!” lightly retorted the one they had called Jane Cross. “The back door’s locked, and here’s the key of the front”—showing a huge key. “Why shouldn’t I go out if you do, Matilda? The house is none so lively a one now, to stop in all alone.”
“And that’s true enough,” was Matilda’s quiet answer. “Little master Joe’s here; he has been having a donkey-ride.”
The two servants, fellow-housemaids, strolled off towards the sea, taking Joe with them. At the edge of the beach they encountered Hannah, who had just come on with our two children, Hugh and Lena. The maids sat down for a gossip, while the children took off their shoes and stockings to dabble in the gently rising tide.
And that was my introductory acquaintanceship with the servant-maids at No. 7. Unfortunately it did not end there.
Twilight was coming on. We had been out and about all day, had dined as usual at one o’clock (not to give unnecessary trouble), and had just finished tea in Mrs. Blair’s parlour. It was where we generally took tea, andsupper also. The Squire liked to sit in the open bay window and watch the passers-by as long as ever a glimmer of daylight lasted; and he could not see them so well in the drawing-room above. I was at the other corner of the bay window. The Mater and Mary Blair were on their favourite seat, the sofa, at the end of the room, both knitting. In the room at the back, Mary held her morning school.
I sat facing towards the end house, No. 7. And I must here say that during the last two or three weeks I had met the housemaids several times on the sands, and so had become quite at home with each of them. Both appeared to be thoroughly well-conducted, estimable young women; but, of the two, I liked Jane Cross best; she was always so lively and pleasant-mannered. One day she told me why No. 7 generally called her by her two names—which I had thought rather odd. It appeared that when she entered her place two years before, the other housemaid was named Jane, so they took to call her by her full name, Jane Cross. That housemaid had left in about a twelvemonth, and Matilda had entered in her place. The servants were regarded as equals in the house, not one above the other, as is the case in many places. These details will probably be thought unnecessary and uncalled for, but you will soon see why I mention them. This was Monday. On the morrow we should have been three weeks at Saltwater, and the Squire did not yet talk of leaving. He was enjoying the free-and-easy life, and was as fond as a child of picking up shells on the sands and looking at Punch and the dancing dolls.
Well, we sat this evening in the bay window as usual, I facing No. 7. Thus sitting, I saw Matilda cross the strip of garden with a jug in her hand, and come out at the gate to fetch the beer for supper.
“There goes Jane Cross,” cried the Squire, as she passed the window. “Is it not, Johnny?”
“No, sir, it’s Matilda.” But the mistake was a very natural one, for the girls were about the same height and size, and were usually dressed alike, the same mourning having been supplied to both of them.
Ten minutes or so had elapsed when Matilda came back: she liked a gossip with the landlady of the Swan. Her pint jug was brimful of beer, and she shut the iron gate of No. 7 after her. Putting my head as far out at the window as it would go, to watch her indoors, for no earthly reason but that I had nothing else to do, I saw her try the front door, and then knock at it. This knock she repeated three times over at intervals, each knock being louder than the last.
“Are you shut out, Matilda?” I called out.
“Yes, sir, it seems like it,” she called back again, without turning her head. “Jane Cross must have gone to sleep.”
Had she been a footman with a carriage full of ladies in court trains behind him, she could not have given a louder or longer knock than she gave now. There was no bell to the front door at No. 7. But the knock remained unanswered and the door unopened.
“Matilda at No. 7 is locked out,” I said, laughing, bringing in my head and speaking to the parlour generally. “She has been to fetch the beer for supper, and can’t get in again.”
“The beer for supper?” repeated Mrs. Blair. “They generally go out at the back gate to fetch that, Johnny.”
“Anyhow, she took the front way to-night. I saw her come out.”
Another tremendous knock. The Squire put his good old nose round the window-post; two boys and a lady, passing by, halted a minute to look on. It was getting exciting, and I ran out. She was still at the door, which stood in the middle of the house, between the sitting-rooms on each side.
“So you have got the key of the street, Matilda!”
“I can’t make it out,” she said; “what Jane Cross can be about, or why the door should be closed at all. I left it on the latch.”
“Somebody has slipped in to make love to her. Your friend, the milkman, perhaps.”
Evidently Matilda did not like the allusion to the milkman. Catching a glimpse of her face by the street lamp, I saw it had turned white. The milkman was supposed to be paying court at No. 7, but to which of the two maids gossip did not decide. Mrs. Blair’s Susan, who knew them well, said it was Matilda.
“Why don’t you try the back way?” I asked, after more waiting.
“Because I know the outer door is locked, sir. Jane Cross locked it just now, and that’s why I came out this front way. I can try it, however.”
She went round to the road that ran by the side of the house, and tried the door in the garden wall. It was fastened, as she had said. Seizing the bell-handle, she gave a loud peal—another, and another.
“I say, it seems odd, though,” I cried, beginning to find it so. “Do you think she can have gone out?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, sir. But—no; it’s not likely, Master Johnny. I left her laying the cloth for our supper.”
“Was she in the house alone?”
“We are always alone, sir; we don’t have visitors. Anyway, none have been with us this evening.”
I looked at the upper windows of the house. No light was to be seen in any of them, no sign of Jane Cross. The lower windows were hidden from view by the wall, which was high.
“I think she must have dropped asleep, Matilda, as you say. Suppose you come in through Mrs. Blair’s and get over the wall?”
I ran round to tell the news to our people. Matilda followed me slowly; I thought, reluctantly. Even in the dim twilight, as she stood at our gate in hesitation, I could see how white her face was.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked her, going out again to where she stood.
“I hardly know, Master Johnny. Jane Cross used to have fits. Perhaps she has been frightened into one now.”
“What should frighten her?”
The girl looked round in a scared manner before replying. Just then I found my jacket-sleeve wet. Her trembling hands had shaken a little of the ale upon it.
“If she—should have seen Mr. Edmund?” the girl brought out in a horrified whisper.
“Seen Mr. Edmund! Mr. Edmund who?—Mr. Edmund Peahern? Why, you don’t surely mean his ghost?”
Her face was growing whiter. I stared at her in surprise.
“We have always been afraid of seeing something, she and me, since last May; we haven’t liked the house at night-time. It has often been quite a scuffle which of us should fetch the beer, so as not to be the one left alone. Many a time I have stood right out at the back door while Jane Cross has gone for it.”
I began to think her an idiot. If Jane Cross was another, why, perhaps she had frightened herself into a fit. All the more reason that somebody should see after her.
“Come along, Matilda; don’t be foolish; we’ll both get over the wall.”
It was a calm, still summer evening, almost dark now. All the lot of us went out to the back garden, I whispering to them what the girl had said to me.
“Poor thing!” said Mrs. Todhetley, who had a sort of fellow-feeling for ghosts. “It has been very lonely for the young women; and if Jane Cross is subject to fits, she may be lying in one at this moment.”
The wall between the gardens was nothing like as high as the outer one. Susan brought out a chair, and Matilda could have got over easily. But when she reached the top, she stuck there.
“I can’t go on by myself; I dare not,” she said, turning her frightened face towards us. “If Mr. Edmund is there——”
“Don’t be a goose, girl!” interrupted the Squire, in doubt whether to laugh or scold. “Here, I’ll go with you. Get on down. Hold the chair tight for me, Johnny.”
We hoisted him over without damage. I leaped after him, and Susan, grinning with delight, came after me. She supposed that Jane Cross had slipped out somewhere during Matilda’s absence.
The door faced the garden, and the Squire and Susan were the first to enter. There seemed to be no light anywhere, and the Squire went gingerly picking his way. I turned round to look for Matilda, who had hung back, and found her with her hand on the trellis-work of the porch, and the beer splashing over in her fear.
“I say, look here, Matilda; you must be a regular goose, as the Squire says, to put yourself into this fright before you know whether there’s any cause for it. Susan says she has only stepped out somewhere.”
She put up her hand and touched my arm, her lips the colour of chalk.
“Only last night that ever was, Mr. Johnny, as we were going up the staircase to bed, we heard a sound in the room as we passed it. It was just like a groan. Ask Jane Cross, else, sir.”
“Mr. Edmund’s; where he did it. She has heard him to-night, or seen him, or something, and has fallen into a fit.”
The kitchen was on the right of the passage. Susan,knowing the ways of the house, soon lighted a candle. On a small round table was spread a white cloth, some bread and cheese, and two tumblers. A knife or two had seemingly been flung on it at random.
“Jane Cross! Jane Cross!” shouted the Squire, going forward towards the front hall, Susan following with the candle. It was a good-sized hall; I could see that, with a handsome well-staircase at this end of it.
“Halloa! What’s this? Johnny! Susan!—all of you come here! Here’s somebody lying here. It must be the poor girl. Goodness bless my heart! Johnny, help me to raise her!”
Still and white she was lying, underneath the opening of the staircase. Upon lifting her head, it fell back in a curious manner. We both backed a little. Susan held the candle nearer. As its light fell on the upturned face, the girl shrieked.
“She is in a fit,” cried Matilda.
“God help her!” whispered the Squire. “I fear this is something worse than a fit. We must have a doctor.”
Susan thrust the candlestick into my hand, and ran out at the back door, saying she’d fetch Mr. Lockett. Back she came in a moment: the garden gate was locked, and the key not in it.
“There’s the front door, girl,” stuttered the Squire, angry with her for returning, though it was no fault of hers. He was like one off his head, and his nose and cheeks had turned blue.
But there could be no more exit by the front door than by the back. It was locked, and the key gone. Who had done these things? what strange mystery was here? Locking the poor girl in the house to kill her!
Matilda, who had lighted another candle, found the key of the back gate lying on the kitchen dresser. Susan caught it up, and flew away. It was a most uncomfortablemoment. There lay Jane Cross, pale and motionless, and it seemed that we were helpless to aid her.
“Ask that stupid thing to bring a pillow or a cushion, Johnny! Ghosts, indeed! The idiots that women are!”
“What else has done it? What else was there to hurt her?” remonstrated Matilda, bringing up the second candle. “She wouldn’t fall into a fit for nothing, sir.”
And now that more light was present, we began to see other features of the scene. Nearly close to Jane Cross lay a work-basket, overturned, a flat, open basket, a foot and a half square. Reels of cotton, scissors, tapes, small bundles of work tied up, and such-like things lay scattered around.
The Squire looked at these, and then at the opening above. “Can she have fallen down the well?” he asked, in a low tone. And Matilda, catching the words, gave a cry of dismay, and burst into tears.
“A pillow, girl! A pillow, or a cushion!”
She went into one of the sitting-rooms and brought out a sofa-cushion. The Squire, going down on his knees, for he was not good at stooping, told me to slip it under while he raised the head.
A sound of feet, a sudden flash of light from a bull’s-eye, and a policeman came upon the scene. The man was quietly passing on his beat when met by Susan. In her excitement she told him what had happened, and sent him in. We knew the man, whose beat lay at this end of Saltwater; a civil man, named Knapp. He knelt down where the Squire had just been kneeling, touching Jane Cross here and there.
“She’s dead, sir,” he said. “There can be no mistake about that.”
“She must have fallen down the well of the staircase, I fear,” observed the Squire.
“Well—yes; perhaps so,” assented the man in a doubtful tone. “But what of this?”
He flung the great light in front of poor Jane Cross’s dress. A small portion of the body, where the gown fastened in front, had been torn away, as well as one of the wristbands.
“It’s no fall,” said the man. “It’s foul play—as I think.”
“Goodness bless me!” gasped the Squire. “Some villains must have got in. This comes of that other one’s having left the front door on the latch.” But I am not sure that any of us, including himself, believed she could be really dead.
Susan returned with speed, and was followed by Mr. Lockett. He was a young man, thirty perhaps, pale and quiet, and much like what I remembered of his brother. Poor Jane Cross was certainly dead, he said—had been dead, he thought, an hour.
But this could scarcely have been, as we knew. It was not, at the very utmost, above twenty-five minutes since Matilda went out to fetch the beer, leaving her alive and well. Mr. Lockett looked again, but thought he was not mistaken. When a young doctor takes up a crotchet, he likes to hold to it.
A nameless sensation of awe fell upon us all. Dead! In that sudden manner! The Squire rubbed up his head like a helpless lunatic; Susan’s eyes were round with horror; Matilda had thrown her apron over her face to hide its grief and tears.
Leaving her for the present where she was, we turned to go upstairs. I stooped to pick up the overturned basket, but the policeman sharply told me to let all things remain as they were until he had time to look into them.
The first thing the man did, on reaching the landing above, was to open the room doors one by one, and throw his bull’s-eye light into them. They were all right, unoccupied, straight and tidy. On the landing of the upper floor lay one or two articles, which seemed to indicate thatsome kind of struggle had taken place there. A thimble here, a bodkin there, also the bit that had been torn out of the girl’s gown in front, and the wristband from the sleeve. The balustrades were very handsome, but very low; on this upper landing, dangerously low. These bedrooms were all in order; the one in which the two servants slept, alone showing signs of occupation.
Downstairs went Knapp again, carrying with him the torn-out pieces, to compare them with the gown. It was the print gown I had often seen Jane Cross wear, a black gown with white zigzag lines running down it. Matilda was wearing the fellow to it now. The pieces fitted in exactly.
“The struggle must have taken place upstairs: not here,” observed the doctor.
Matilda, questioned and cross-questioned by the policeman, gave as succinct an account of the evening as her distressed state allowed. We stood round the kitchen while she told it.
Neither she nor Jane Cross had gone out at all that day. Monday was rather a busy day with them, for they generally did a bit of washing. After tea, which they took between four and five o’clock, they went up to their bedroom, it being livelier there than in the kitchen, the window looking down the side road. Matilda sat down to write a letter to her brother, who lived at a distance; Jane Cross sat at the window doing a job of sewing. They sat there all the evening, writing, working, and sometimes talking. At dusk, Jane remarked that it was getting blind man’s holiday, and that she should go on downstairs and lay the supper. Upon that, Matilda finished her letter quickly, folded and directed it, and followed her down. Jane had not yet laid the cloth, but was then taking it out of the drawer. “You go and fetch the beer, Matilda,” she said: and Matilda was glad to do so. “You can’t go that way: I have locked the gate,”Jane called out, seeing Matilda turning towards the back; accordingly she went out at the front door, leaving it on the latch. Such was her account; and I have given it almost verbatim.
“On the latch,” repeated the policeman, taking up the words. “Does that mean that you left it open?”
“I drew it quite to, so that it looked as if it were shut; it was a heavy door, and would keep so,” was Matilda’s answer. “I did it, not to give Jane the trouble to open it to me. When I got back I found it shut and could not get in.”
The policeman mused. “You say it was Jane Cross who locked the back door in the wall?”
“Yes,” said Matilda. “She had locked it before I got downstairs. We liked to lock that door early, because it could be opened from the outside—while the front door could not be.”
“And she had not put these things on the table when you went out for the beer?”—pointing to the dishes.
“No: she was only then putting the cloth. As I turned round from taking the beer-jug from its hook, the fling she gave the cloth caused the air to whiffle in my face like a wind. She had not begun to reach out the dishes.”
“How long were you away?”
“I don’t know exactly,” she answered, with a moan. “Rather longer than usual, because I took my letter to the post before going to the Swan.”
“It was about ten minutes,” I interposed. “I was at the window next door, and saw Matilda go out and come back.”
“Ten minutes!” repeated the policeman. “Quite long enough for some ruffian to come in and fling her over the stairs.”
“But who would do it?” asked Matilda, looking up at him with her poor pale face.
“Ah, that’s the question; that’s what we must find out,”said Knapp. “Was the kitchen just as it was when you left it?”
“Yes—except that she had put the bread and cheese on the table. And the glasses, and knives,” added the girl, looking round at the said table, which remained as we had found it, “but not the plates.”
“Well now, to go to something else: Did she bring her work-basket downstairs with her from the bedroom when she remarked to you that she would go and put the supper on?”
“No, she did not.”
“You are sure of that?”
“Yes. She left the basket on the chair in front of her where it had been standing. She just got up and shook the threads from off her gown, and went on down. When I left the room the basket was there; I saw it. And I think,” added the girl, with a great sob, “I think that while laying the supper she must have gone upstairs again to fetch the basket, and must have fallen against the banisters with fright, and overbalanced herself.”
“Fright at what?” asked Knapp.
Matilda shivered. Susan whispered to him that they were afraid at night of seeing the ghost of Mr. Edmund Peahern.
The man glanced keenly at Matilda for a minute. “Did you ever see it?” he asked.
“No,” she shuddered. “But there are strange noises, and we think it is in the house.”
“Well,” said Knapp, coughing to hide a comical smile, “ghosts don’t tear pieces out of gowns—that ever I heard of. I should say it was something worse than a ghost that has been here to-night. Had this poor girl any sweetheart?”
“No,” said Matilda.
“Have you one?”
“Except Owen the milkman.”
A red streak flashed into Matilda’s cheeks. I knew Owen: he was Mrs. Blair’s milkman also.
“I think Owen must be your sweetheart or hers,” went on Knapp. “I’ve seen him, often enough, talking and laughing with you both when bringing the afternoon’s milk round. Ten minutes at a stretch he has stayed in this garden, when he need not have been as many moments.”
“There has been no harm: and it’s nothing to anybody,” said Matilda.
The key of the front door was searched for, high and low; but it could not be found. Whoever locked the door, must have made off with the key. But for that, and for the evidences of the scuffle above and the pieces torn out of the gown, we should have thought Matilda’s opinion was correct: that Jane Cross had gone upstairs for her basket, and through some wretched accident had pitched over the balustrades. Matilda could not relinquish the notion.
“It was only a week ago that ever was—a week ago this very day—that Jane Cross nearly fell over there. We were both running upstairs, trying in sport which should get first into our bedroom; and, in jostling one another on the landing, she all but overbalanced herself. I caught hold of her to save her. It’s true—if it were the last word I had to speak.”
Matilda broke down, with a dreadful fit of sobbing. Altogether she struck me as being about as excitable a young woman as one could meet in a summer day’s journey.
Nothing more could be made out of it this evening. Jane Cross had met her death, and some evil or other must have led to it. The police took possession of the house for the night: and Matilda, out of compassion, was brought to ours. To describe the Mater’s shock and Mary Blair’s, when they heard the news, would be beyond me.
All sorts of conjectures arose in the neighbourhood. The most popular belief was that some person must haveperceived the front door open, and, whether with a good or a bad intention, entered the house; that he must have stolen upstairs, met Jane Cross on the top landing, and flung her down in a scuffle. That he must then have let himself out at the front door and locked it after him.
Against this theory there were obstacles. From the time of Matilda’s leaving the house till her return, certainly not more than ten minutes had elapsed, perhaps not quite as much, and this was a very short space of time for what had been done in it. Moreover the chances were that I, sitting at the next window, should have seen any one going in or out; though it was not of course certain. I had got up once to ring the bell, and stayed a minute or two away from the window, talking with Mary Blair and the Mater.
Some people thought the assassin (is it too much to call him so?) had been admitted by Jane Cross herself; or he might have been in hiding in the garden before she locked the door. In short, the various opinions would fill a volume.
But suspicion fell chiefly upon one person—and that was Thomas Owen the milkman. Though, perhaps, “suspicion” is too strong a word to give to it—I ought rather to say “doubt.” These Owens were originally from Wales, very respectable people. The milk business was their own; and, since the father’s death, which happened only a few months before, the son had carried it on in conjunction with his mother. He was a young man of three or four and twenty, with a fresh colour and open countenance, rather superior in manners and education. The carrying out the milk himself was a temporary arrangement, the boy employed for it being ill. That he had often lingered at No. 7, laughing with the two young women, was well known; he had also been seen to accost them in the street. Only the previous day, he and Matilda had stayed talking in the churchyard after morning service when everybody else had left it; andhe had walked up nearly as far as Seaboard Terrace with Jane Cross in the evening. A notion existed that he had entered the house on the Monday evening, for who else was it likely to have been, cried everybody. Which was, of course, logic. At last a rumour arose—arose on the Tuesday—that Owen had been seen to leave the house at dusk on the fatal evening; that this could be proved. If so, it looked rather black. I was startled, for I had liked the man.
The next day, Wednesday, the key was found. A gardener who did up the gardens of the other end house, No. 1, every Wednesday, was raking the ground underneath some dwarf pines that grew close against the front railings, and raked out a big door-key. About a dozen people came rushing off with it to No. 7.
It was the missing key. It fitted into the door at once, locked and unlocked it. When the villain had made his way from the house after doing the mischief, he must have flung the key over amidst the pines, thinking no doubt it would lie hidden there.
The coroner and jury assembled; but they could not make more of the matter than we had made. Jane Cross had died of the fall down the well-staircase, which had broken her neck; and it was pretty evident she had been flung down. Beyond the one chief and fatal injury, she was not harmed in any way; not by so much as a scratch. Matilda, whose surname turned out to be Valentine, having got over the first shock, gave her testimony with subdued composure. She was affected at parts of it, and said she would have saved Jane Cross’s life with her own: and no one could doubt that she spoke the truth. She persisted in asserting her opinion that there had been no scuffle, in spite of appearances; but that the girl had been terrified in some way and had accidentally fallen over.
When Matilda was done with, Thomas Owen took her place. He was all in black, having dressed himself to cometo the inquest and wearing mourning for his father; and I must say, looking at him now, you’d never have supposed he carried out milk-pails.
Yes, he had known the poor young woman in question, he readily said in answer to questions; had been fond of chaffing with the two girls a bit, but nothing more. Meant nothing by it, nothing serious. Respected both of them; regarded them as perfectly well-conducted young women.—Was either of them his sweetheart? Certainly not. Had not courted either of them. Never thought of either of them as his future wife: should not consider a servant eligible for that position—at least, his mother would not. Of the two, he had liked Jane Cross the best. Did not know anything whatever of the circumstances attending the death; thought it a most deplorable calamity, and was never more shocked in his life than when he heard of it.
“Is there any truth in the report that you were at the house on Monday evening?” asked the coroner.
“There is no truth in it.”
“I see him come out o’ No. 7: I see him come out o’ the side door in the garden wall,” burst forth a boy’s earnest voice from the back of the room.
“You saw me not come out of it,” quietly replied Thomas Owen, turning round to see who it was that had spoken. “Oh, it is you, is it, Bob Jackson! Yes, you came running round the corner just as I turned from the door.”
“You were there, then?” cried the coroner.
“No, sir. At the door, yes; that’s true enough; but I was not inside it. What happened was this: on Monday I had some business at a farmhouse near Munpler, and set out to walk over there early in the evening. In passing down the side road by No. 7, I saw the two maids at the top window. One of them—I think it was Jane Cross—called out to ask me in a joking kind of way whether I was about to pay them a visit; I answered, not then, but I would as I came back ifthey liked. Accordingly, in returning, I rang the bell. It was not answered, and I rang again with a like result. Upon that, I went straight home to my milk books, and did not stir out again, as my mother can prove. That is the truth, sir, on my oath; and the whole truth.”
“What time was this?”
“I am not quite sure. It was getting dusk.”
“Did you see anything of the young women this second time?”
“Or hear anything?—Any noise?”
“None whatever. I supposed that they would not come to the door to me because it was late: I thought nothing else. I declare, sir, that this is all I know of the matter.”
There was a pause when he concluded. Knapp, the policeman, and another one standing by his side, peered at Owen from under their eyebrows, as if they did not put implicit faith in his words: and the coroner recalled Matilda Valentine.
She readily confirmed the statement of his having passed along the side road, and Jane Cross’s joking question to him. But she denied having heard him ring on his return, and said the door-bell had not rung at all that night. Which would seem to prove that Owen must have rung during the time she had gone out for the beer.
So, you perceive, the inquest brought forth no more available light, and had to confess itself baffled.
“A fine termination this is to our pleasure,” cried the Squire, gloomily. “I don’t like mysteries, Johnny. And of all the mysteries I have come across in my life, the greatest mystery is this at No. 7.”
II.—OWEN, THE MILKMAN
It was a grand sea to-day: one of the grandest that we had seen at Saltwater. The waves were dancing and sparkling like silver; the blue of the sky was deeper than a painter’s ultramarine. But to us, looking on it from Mrs. Blair’s house in Seaboard Terrace, its brightness and beauty were dimmed.
“For you see, Johnny,” observed the Squire to me, his face and tone alike gloomy—outward things take their impress from the mind—“with that dreadful affair at the next door jaundicing one’s thoughts, the sea might as well be grey as blue, and the sky lowering with thunder-clouds. I repeat that I don’t like mysteries: they act on me like a fit of indigestion.”
The affair just was a mystery; to us, as to all Saltwater. More than a week had elapsed since the Monday evening when it took place, and poor Jane Cross now lay buried in the windy graveyard. On this said Monday evening, the two servant maids, Jane Cross and Matilda Valentine (left in the house, No. 7, Seaboard Terrace, during the absence of the family abroad), had been pursuing their ordinary occupations. While Jane Cross was laying the cloth for supper in the kitchen, Matilda went out to fetch the usual pint of ale. On her return she could not get in. When admittance was obtained, Jane Cross lay dead in the hall, havingfallen down the well of the staircase. Evidences of a scuffle on the upper landing could be traced, making it apparent that the fall was not accidental; that she had been flung down. Some doubt attached to Owen, the milkman, partly from his previous intimacy with the girls, chiefly because he had been seen leaving the back door of the house somewhere about the time it must have occurred. What Owen said was, that he had rung twice at the door, but his ring was not answered.
Matilda was to be pitied. The two young women had cared a good deal for one another, and the shock to Matilda was serious. The girl, now staying in our house, had worn a half-dazed look ever since, and avoided No. 7 as though it had the plague. Superstition in regard to the house had already been rife in both the servants’ minds, in consequence of the unhappy death in it of their master’s son, Edmund Peahern, some weeks back: and if Matilda had been afraid of seeing one ghost before (as she had been) she would now undoubtedly expect to see two of them.
On this same morning, as I stood with the Squire looking at the sea from the drawing-room window of No. 6, Matilda came in. Her large dark eyes had lost their former sparkle, her clear olive skin its freshness. She asked leave to speak to Mrs. Todhetley: and the Mater—who sat at the table adding up some bills, for our sojourn at Saltwater was drawing towards its close—told her, in a kindly tone, to speak on.
“I am making bold to ask you, ma’am, whether you could help me to find a place in London,” began Matilda, standing between the door and the table in her black dress. “I know, ma’am, you don’t live in London, but a long way off it; Mrs. Blair has told me so, Master Johnny Ludlow also: but I thought perhaps you knew people there, and might be able to hear of something.”
The Mater looked at Matilda without answering, and then round at us. Rather strange it was, a coincidence in a smallway, that we had had a letter from London from Miss Deveen that morning, which had concluded with these lines of postscript: “Do you chance to know of any nice, capable young woman in want of a situation? One of my housemaids is going to leave.”
Naturally this occurred to the Mater’s mind when Matilda spoke. “What kind of situation do you wish for?” she asked.
“As housemaid, ma’am, or parlour-maid. I can do my duty well in either.”
“But now, my girl,” spoke up the Squire, turning from the window, “why need you leave Saltwater? You’d never like London after it. This is a clear, fresh, health-giving place, with beautiful sands and music on them all day long; London is nothing but smoke and fogs.”
Matilda shook her head. “I could not stay here, sir.”
“Nonsense, girl. Of course what has happened has happened, and it’s very distressing; and you, of all people, must feel it so: but you will forget it in time. If you don’t care to go back to No. 7 before Mr. and Mrs. Peahern come home——”
“I can never go back to No. 7, sir,” she interrupted, a vehemence that seemed born of terror in her subdued voice. “Never in this world. I would rather die.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said the Squire, impatiently. “There’s nothing the matter with No. 7. What has happened in it won’t happen again.”
“It is an unlucky house, sir; a haunted house,” she contended with suppressed emotion. “And it’s true that I would rather die outright than go back to live in it; for the terror of being there would slowly kill me. And so, ma’am,” she added quickly to Mrs. Todhetley, evidently wishing to escape the subject, “I should like to go away altogether from Saltwater; and if you can help me to hear of a place in London, I shall be very grateful.”
“I will consider of it, Matilda,” was the answer. And when the girl had left the room the Mater asked us what we thought about recommending her to Miss Deveen. We saw no reason against it—not but that the Squire put the girl down as an idiot on the subject of haunted houses—and Miss Deveen was written to.
The upshot was, that on the next Saturday Matilda bade farewell to Saltwater and departed for Miss Deveen’s, the Squire sarcastically assuring her thatthathouse had no ghosts in it. We should be leaving, ourselves, the following Tuesday.
But, before that day came, it chanced that I saw Owen, the milkman. It was on the Sunday afternoon. I had taken little Joe Blair for a walk across the fields as far as Munpler (their Montpellier-by-Sea, you know), and in returning met Thomas Owen. He wore his black Sunday clothes, and looked a downright fine fellow, as usual. There was something about the man I could not help liking, in spite of the doubt attaching to him.
“So Matilda Valentine is gone, sir,” he observed, after we had exchanged a few sentences.
“Yes, she went yesterday,” I answered, putting my back against the field fence, while young Joe went careering about in chase of a yellow butterfly. “And for my part, I don’t wonder at the girl’s not liking to stay at Saltwater. At least, in Seaboard Terrace.”
“I was told this morning that Mr. and Mrs. Peahern were on their way home,” he continued.
“Most likely they are. They’d naturally want to look into the affair for themselves.”
“And I hope with all my heart they will be able to get some light out of it,” returned Owen, warmly. “I mean to domybest to bring out the mystery, sir; and I sha’n’t rest till it’s done.”
His words were fair, his tone was genuine. If it wasindeed himself who had been the chief actor in the tragedy, he carried it off well. I hardly knew what to think. It is true I had taken a bit of a fancy to the man, according to my usual propensity to take a fancy, or the contrary; but I did not know much about him, and not anything of his antecedents. As he spoke to me now, his tone was marked, rather peculiar. It gave me a notion that he wanted to say more.
“Have you any idea that you will be able to trace it out?”
“For my own sake I should like to get the matter cleared up,” he added, not directly answering my question. “People are beginning to turn the cold shoulder my way: one woman asked me to my face yesterday whether I did it. No, I told her, I did not do it, but I’d try and find out who did.”
“You are sure you heard and saw nothing suspicious that night when you rang the bell and could not get in, Owen?”
“Not then, sir; no. I saw no light in the house and heard no noise.”
“You have not any clue to go by, then?”
“Not much, sir, yet. But I can’t help thinking somebody else has.”
“Who is that?”
“Matilda!” I repeated, in amazement. “Surely you can’t suspect that she—that she was a party to any deed so cruel and wicked!”
“No, no, sir, I don’t mean that; the young women were too good friends to harm one another: and whatever took place, took place while Matilda was out of the house. But I can’t help fancying that she knows, or suspects, more of the matter than she will say. In short, that she is screening some one.”
To me it seemed most unlikely. “Why do you judge so, Owen?”
“By her manner, sir. Not by much else. But I’ll tell you something that I saw. On the previous Wednesday when I left the afternoon milk at that tall house just beyond Seaboard Terrace, the family lodging there told me to call in the evening for the account, as they were leaving the next day. Accordingly I went; and was kept waiting so long before they paid me that it was all but dark when I came out. Just as I was passing the back door at No. 7, it was suddenly drawn open from the inside, and a man stood in the opening, whispering with one of the girls. She was crying, for I heard her sobs, and he kissed her and came out, and the door was hastily shut. He was an ill-looking man; so far at least as his clothes went; very shabby. His face I did not see, for he pulled his slouching round hat well over his brows as he walked away rapidly, and the black beard he wore covered his mouth and chin.”
“Which of the maids was it?”
“I don’t know, sir. The next day I chaffed them a bit about it, but they both declared that nobody had been there but the watchmaker, Mr. Renninson, who goes every Wednesday to wind up the clocks, and that it must have been him I saw, for he was late that evening. I said no more; it was no business of mine; but the man I saw go out was just about as much like Renninson as he was like me.”
“And do you fancy——”
“Please wait a minute, sir,” he interrupted, “I haven’t finished. Last Sunday evening, upon getting home after service, I found I had left my prayer-book in church. Not wishing to lose it, for it was the one my father always used, I went back for it. However, the church was shut up, so I could not get in. It was a fine evening, and I took a stroll round the churchyard. In the corner of it, near to Mr. Edmund Peahern’s tomb, they had buried poor Jane Cross but two days before—you know the spot, sir. Well,on the flat square of earth that covers her grave, stood Matilda Valentine, the greatest picture of distress you can imagine, tears streaming down her cheeks. She dried her eyes when she saw me, and we came away together. Naturally I fell to talking of Jane Cross and the death. ‘I shall do as much as lies in my power to bring it to light,’ I said to Matilda; ‘or people may go on doubting me to the end. And I think the first step must be to find out who the man was that called in upon you the previous Wednesday night.’ Well, sir, with that, instead of making any answering remark as a Christian would, or a rational being, let us say, Matilda gives a smothered shriek and darts away out of the churchyard. I couldn’t make her out; and all in a minute a conviction flashed over me, though I hardly know why, that she knew who was the author of the calamity, and was screening him; or at any rate that she had her suspicions, if she did not actually know. And I think so still, sir.”
I shook my head, not seeing grounds to agree with Owen. He resumed:
“The next morning, between nine and ten, I was in the shop, putting a pint of cream which had been ordered into a can, when to my surprise Matilda walked in, cool and calm. She said she had come to tell me that the man I had seen leave the house was her brother. He had fallen into trouble through having become security for a fellow workman, had had all his things sold up, including his tools, and had walked every step of the way—thirty miles—to ask her if she could help him. She did help him as far as she could, giving him what little money she had by her, and Jane Cross had added ten shillings to it. He had got in only at dusk, she said, had taken some supper with them, and left again afterwards, and that she was letting him out at the gate when I must have been passing it. She did not see me, for her eyes were dim with crying: her heart felt fit to break in saying farewell. That was the truth,she declared, and that her brother had had no more to do with Jane’s death than she or I had; he was away again out of Saltwater the same night he came into it.”
“Well? Did you not believe her?”
“No, sir,” answered Owen, boldly. “I did not. If this was true, why should she have gone off into that smothered shriek in the churchyard when I mentioned him, and rush away in a fright?”
I could not tell. Owen’s words set me thinking.
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