Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
EDITH HOLT’S TRIBULATION
HARRY WARREN followed the advice of the poacher so faithfully that when he left the "Fisherman's Rest" late that night he had ceased to speculate as to whether Aingier was alive or dead. In fact, he told himself in maudlin self-confidence that he did not care much one way or the other. It was in this spirit of bravado that he lurched into Lester's room at the inn, and hiccoughed himself out again.
The old solicitor was not dead, but his condition was extremely critical. He was found by Simpson about an hour after he was struck down, still insensible, but breathing stertorously like a man with apoplexy. This new evidence of an assassin's hand caused something akin to a panic at the Hall. One mounted messenger clattered in hot haste for Dr. Smalley, and another was despatched in search of Lester by Edith, who had small faith in the pompous village doctor.
Perhaps the only two people who remained outwardly calm were Mrs. Warren and Inspector Hobson, both of whom had returned to the house together some little time before the discovery of the crime. Mrs. Warren had no doubt as to the would-be murderer's identity. She was in an agony of anxiety to question her son and learn the exact circumstances of the crime from his lips. She dreaded lest Aingier might have recognized his assailant. Had there been a quarrel, open threats? If the solicitor regained consciousness, he might make disclosures that would bring disaster upon Harry, whose absence served to intensify her anxiety.
Had he fled, or was he skulking in the Park in the fancied security of Aingier's death? If so, it was utter madness not to make sure of his work. The most timid of animals will become a vengeful fury in maternal defense, and Mrs. Warren was no exception to the law which governs nature.
Lester arrived shortly after Dr. Smalley, but this was an instance in which the village doctor was glad to welcome his distinguished colleague, realizing that the case was somewhat beyond his own powers, and, what was more important, that rivalry was no longer to be feared. In any event, Lester would not have permitted considerations of etiquette to interfere with his determination to take charge of the patient. If much junior to Dr. Smalley in years, he was as greatly his senior in qualifications, and he let the local practitioner understand plainly that he was to act as helper and obey orders. An immediate operation offered the only hope of saving Mr. Aingier's life, and that operation Lester performed, with only Dr. Smalley and Simpson, the valet, in the bedroom to which the elderly solicitor was carried at the first alarm.
Detective Hobson was in no way surprised that a fresh crime should follow on the heels of Lord Arncliffe's murder. The suspicion he had entertained against Edith was strengthened rather than weakened by the attack on her trustee. Of course, this was no woman's work, but the all-important question of motive was, to his thinking, as clear in the one case as in the other. He saw, however, that matters had scarcely yet reached the point where open measures were justifiable, nor was he entirely anxious to make an arrest at this stage, since a caged criminal is effectually prevented from adding to the evidence against himself, or herself — unless, indeed, he, or she, is obliging enough to confess.
But now that Aingier's authority was no longer available, the detective asserted himself more than ever. Unobtrusively, yet none the less effectively, he took over the superintendence of affairs at the Hall. One of his first acts was to exercise a strict personal censorship on everybody and everything that entered Mr. Aingier's room. It seemed that a search for the murderer of Lord Arncliffe and for the elderly lawyer's assailant would involve only a single quest, and Hobson was resolved that no combination of beef-tea and misapplied science should interfere with the latter's chance of recovery. With the exception of Mrs. Aingier and the medical attendants, no one, in fact, was admitted to the sickroom, pending the arrival of trained nurses.
The stricken man recovered consciousness as soon as the portion of bone pressing on the brain was raised. Though he remained in a weak state, his mind was perfectly clear, and he had not the slightest idea as to how or by whom he had been attacked.
This was a sore disappointment to the detective, who, however, hinted strongly to inquirers that Mr. Aingier had given an important clue bearing on the identity of his assailant. Hobson's theory was, of course, that he would be able to judge by demeanor if any of the household were concerned in the crime. This notion was shrewd enough under certain conditions; its weak spot was that he did not allow for the possibility of a master mind being opposed to his own.
Harry Warren, or, indeed, any ordinary assassin, would probably have made tacit confession by an immediate flight in the direction of the nearest seaport. But Mrs. Warren was on guard over her son, and she paid the detective the compliment of supposing that he was not such a novice in his profession as to take all and sundry into his confidence if he had, indeed, discovered anything.
Happily for himself, Warren arrived home in a condition that exempted him from any questioning on the night of the crime. If, next day, he was pale and a little nervous about things, it was excusable in a man who was pursuing a course of study likely to lead him to remarkable discoveries in natural history, studies which, if continued, involved acquaintance with heliotrope boa-constrictors and yellow rats bearing pink stripes.
To his mother Warren confessed that it was he who had attacked Aingier, but it was characteristic of him that he said nothing of his encounter with the poacher. Presently, when Leigh began to press too hardly upon him, he would confess that difficulty also, but he was cursed with a spirit of distrust which led him to lie until the last moment. Thus, his mother, the one person who would help him at all hazards, was likely to learn of his new danger only when it would be too late to save him.
Probably no one suffered more than Edith Holt at this period. She was not blind to the fact that popular suspicion coupled her name with the murder of Lord Arncliffe. But she had been cheered by her trustee's fatherly benevolence and the motherly kindness of his wife. Mr. Aingier, as a man learned in the law, knew perfectly well that although malicious minds might prompt slander and innuendo, there was no shred of evidence to support a charge of murder against her, and, though he deplored her reticence over certain matters, he had little doubt that an income of forty thousand a year would carry her triumphantly through all minor disabilities.
Now, however, she was not merely deprived of his support and advice, but a marked change took place in Mrs. Aingier's attitude toward her. On one pretext or another, the lawyer's wife left Edith to take her meals alone. When they met, by accident, the older woman treated the younger with a pointed coldness which could not be misunderstood.
Edith was not, indeed, wholly without friends. George Lester did not abate one jot of his devoted service, nor was Lord Arncliffe's American nephew less attentive a cavalier. It is generally held that a woman with a pretty face can befool a man to the top of his bent; but it may also be urged that man, with his blunter knowledge of life — by very reason of his passion-blinded judgment, it may be — weighs character in the opposite sex by crude instinct rather than by delicate analysis. And crude instinct is often right.
Edith at first accepted Mrs. Aingier's attitude in proud silence. She could make many excuses for a sorrowing wife during a time of such suspense. She even endeavored to fall in with Mrs. Aingier's evident wish to avoid her, leaving all explanations until such time as the invalid was no longer in danger. But when, with the passing of the crisis, Mrs. Aingier's avoidance became even more marked, and her manner almost offensive to her hostess, Edith decided that there must be some clearing of this minor mystery.
For herself, she cared nothing, but she would, at least, be treated with ordinary courtesy before her servants. Up to this time Edith had in no way asserted her position as mistress of Arncliffe. It was natural that a young girl of good breeding should leave matters in the hands of her chaperon; and Mrs. Aingier had practically come to Arncliffe to act in that capacity. Nevertheless, the existing state of affairs was intolerable. What between Mrs. Aingier's hauteur, the detective's prying eyes, Mrs. Warren's too marked civility and the agent's covert ill-will, Edith's life was a misery.
It is a melancholy fact that the majority of professional men tell their wives a great deal more of their business than is compatible with the dictates of strict prudence. Of those who do not, some preserve a silence which entails severe suffering on either their wives or themselves, while a more diplomatic few rely upon imagination, and so render all parties happy without risk. Mr. Aingier, unfortunately, belonged to the more numerous category, and it was owing to his indiscretion in repeating to his wife Inspector Hobson's suggestions against Edith that the unpleasantness of the last few days had arisen.
Having made up her mind, Edith did not delay. She sent a servant to request the presence of Mrs. Aingier, who made her appearance looking almost as though she had borrowed some of Mrs. Warren's austerity.
"You wish to see me, Miss Holt?" she said stiffly.
"Yes," returned Edith, quietly. "Now that Mr. Aingier is practically convalescent I think the time has come for an explanation of the extraordinary attitude you have thought fit to adopt toward me since he was attacked."
"I think my husband's condition should be a sufficient answer to you," rejoined Mrs. Aingier, with as much scorn as she could throw into voice and manner.
"I am trying to make every allowance for your terrible anxiety. But we really need not fence with each other, Mrs. Aingier. I suggest that you have deliberately behaved in a most unfriendly manner toward me, and under the circumstances, I think I am entitled to know your grievance."
"I have already given you an adequate reason."
"What am I to suppose from such an answer?" cried Edith, losing all patience. "You cannot suggest that it was I who struck your husband? Even if you think me capable of committing so wicked a crime or inflicting so terrible an injury, you must surely remember that I was actually in your company at the time of the assault upon Mr. Aingier?"
The older woman pursed her lips into something approaching a sneer. She had all the mulish obstinacy of the exemplary matron.
"It is possible to be morally guilty of a crime, without having actually committed it," she retorted. "You must not think all people are fools, Miss Holt. Young girls who have everything provided for them, even their dress accounts paid, and who never leave their homes, do not require three hundred pounds for nothing. And, in view of the suppressed letters, your fainting fit, when the arrival of Lord Arncliffe's nephew was announced, did not appear to be very creditable toward you."
"So that is what my one-time friends think of me," cried Edith, bitterly. "I am beginning now to discover that an open enemy is less to be feared."
Mrs. Aingier was an honest, motherly soul at heart. Secretly she felt somewhat ashamed of herself.
"Oh, well," she answered, the more harshly because of an uneasy consciousness that her behavior was not altogether generous, "after all, you have only yourself to blame. People see nothing strange in Lord Arncliffe's giving three hundred pounds to his intended heiress; but, in view of your professed ignorance of the contents of his will, they do think it strange that you should ask for such a sum. I tell you frankly there are very strong hints that you did not obtain that money from Lord Arncliffe's bankers legitimately."
"So, Mrs. Aingier, I am already suspected of forgery: I presume I shall be charged with murder next?"
"There are more unlikely things!" snapped Mrs. Aingier. The mention of murder brought to mind the attack on her husband, and with it all her bitter suspicions. "I know well enough that you did not strike the actual blow at my husband; but it simply comes to this, Miss Holt, that since you could not reasonably want three hundred pounds for yourself, you must have wanted it for somebody else. And," she concluded grimly, "I have not been a solicitor's wife for nearly forty years without being aware that the 'somebody else' is always a man where a woman is concerned."
"Well," answered Edith, with a coolness which might have warned her adversary, "let us assume that it was a man."
"Then," came the retort, in a voice shrill with anger and rendered strident by what was deemed the invincible logic of the situation, "it was that man who nearly murdered my poor husband!"
Edith, one of the gentlest creatures breathing, could not brook the insult conveyed by that unjust taunt. She would cower and flinch like any timid maid in the minor straits of life, but in her veins flowed the bluest blood of France, and this blow from the hand of a friend was not to be endured.
Had Mrs. Angier been gifted with greater acumen than that due to the semi-legal training she boasted of, she could not have failed to see and wonder at the calm courage which sparkled in this girl's eyes and gave unwonted firmness to her lips.
"You have told me what I wanted to know. Now you may go!"
The young marquise pointed imperiously to the door. The woman of a lower order found naught else to say. Indeed, she was fit to choke with rage, and her passion was fanned by the knowledge that she had met her mistress. She went out, quivering with passion, yet abashed.
Edith did not weep nor wring her hands impotently. She walked slowly to the window and looked out across the smiling park, all radiant in sunshine. "What is this horror that has come into my life?" she asked herself. "Who did kill Lord Arncliffe, and who was the person to gain by the maiming of my poor old friend, that mistaken woman's husband?"
These two questions were occupying others in Arncliffe Hall, and the common belief was that to answer one would be to answer both. Was it so? That was the puzzle.