The Ashiel mystery
Mrs. Charles Bryce

Part 5 out of 5

Juliet turned and made a dash for the door.

"I won't go! I won't! I won't!" she cried desperately, though in her
heart she knew she could not resist if he chose to use force. Perhaps if
she screamed, some one would hear. Oh, where was Gimblet? Why did he
leave her to the mercy of these people? "Help! Help!" She lifted up her
voice and shrieked as loud as she could.

With a vicious scowl Mark sprang upon her, and clapped a hand over her
mouth. Then, as she still continued to produce muffled sounds of
distress, he stuffed his handkerchief in between her teeth and, lifting
her bodily in his arms, thrust her before him into the clock, and
pushed her roughly down the hidden stair. Half-way down she lost her
footing, and fell to the bottom, where Julia was standing with her
little lamp in her hand.

Mark was following close behind, and between them they picked her up and
hurried her, limping and bruised, along the narrow passage. She was
allowed to take the handkerchief out of her mouth, for no cry could
penetrate the immense thickness of these blocks of stone. At the point
where there was a break to right and left in the walls of the passage,
Julia came to a standstill.

"Here it is," she said, turning her light on to the opening in the wall
on the left-hand side. "The door is gone, so you will have to fetch
something to block it up with."

It seemed to be a small, cell-like chamber, built into the side of the
tower. It may have contained a dozen cubic yards of space, and had
neither door nor window.

"There are some slabs of stone at the end of the passage," said Julia.
"They are heavy, but you are strong, you will be able to bring them. We
must leave a little space at the top of the door to admit some air, and
for me to pass food through to our prisoner." She laughed with a feverish
merriment. "It will be like feeding the animals at the Zoo," she said.

Mark signified his approval by a nod.

"And is this the way?" he asked, turning round and starting off in the
opposite direction.

"No, no!" Julie cried, laying a detaining hand upon his arm. "I don't
know what there is down there. I think it is a well. See, you are on the
very edge."

She cast the light on to a round dark opening in the ground some six feet
in front of and below them. From where they stood the floor began to
slant suddenly and steeply downward, so that if Mark had taken another
step, it looked as if nothing could have prevented his sliding down into
the gaping circle of blackness at the bottom.

Julia shuddered violently.

"Oh," she cried, "if you had gone over! Come away, do come away!"

"It's a funny sort of well," he said, "Looks to me like something else.
Did you ever hear of _oubliettes_, Julia?"

Juliet, as she heard him, grew white with terror.

"Julia, Julia," she cried, "you won't let him throw me down there?"

"No, no," said Julia. "He would not. There is no reason.... Mark," she
urged, "come away from here."

But he only laughed shortly.

"Don't be so hysterical," he said, and continued to bend his gaze upon
the hole at the bottom of the slope. It seemed to have a sort of
fascination for him. Finally he picked a piece of loose mortar from the
wall and threw it down into the gap. A second later there was a dull
sound which might have been a splash. "Perhaps it is a well after all.
Did you think it sounded as if it had fallen into water?"

"Yes," said Julia, "I am sure it did. Do come away. I hate being here."

And indeed she was shivering from head to foot, and not Juliet herself
seemed more anxious to leave the place.

"Just one more shot," said Mark. "Here, Julia, stoop down, and roll that
bit of stone slowly down the slope, while I hold on to our prisoner. We
shall hear better that way. Give me your lamp."

Anxious to satisfy him, Julia picked up the fragment he had knocked
from the rough wall, and stooping down stretched out her hand to set the
stone in motion. But, as she did so, Mark loosened his grip on Juliet,
and bending quickly behind this poor girl who loved him seized her by
the shoulders and threw her forward on to her face. The steep pitch of
the floor finished what the impetus given by his onslaught had begun.
Julia shot head first down the slope, and disappeared into the black
chasm of the well.

One long agonized scream came up to them out of the darkness, and rolled
its echoes through the lonely passages.

Then the distant sound of a splash; and silence.

Back against the wall, Juliet cowered, her whole body shaken by great
sobs. She was petrified with terror of this fiendish man, but her fears
for herself gave way before the horror of what she had seen.

"Oh, what have you done, what have you done?" she wept.

Mark tried to summon up a jeering smile. The lantern threw no light upon
his white and twitching face.

"You don't suppose I meant to let her go free, after the taste she gave
me of her temper?" he asked, in a voice he could not keep from shaking a
little. "Do you suppose I like having to do these things? You women have
never the slightest sense of common justice. The whole thing is perfectly
beastly to me. But how could I live with a girl who would be ready to
threaten me with the gallows every time she got out of bed wrong foot
first? It's not fair to blame me for other people's faults."

He spoke querulously, with the air of a much-injured man. Though Juliet
was beyond any coherent reply, he seemed afraid of meeting her eyes, and
looked resolutely away from her, his glance shifting and wavering from
the walls to the floor, from the floor to the stones of the low roof; up,
down, and sideways, but never resting on her. At last, as if drawn there
irresistibly and against his will, they fell once more on the dark circle
of the mouth of the pit, and he started back, shuddering violently.

"As if I hadn't enough to bear without being saddled with hideous
memories for the rest of my life!" he cried with bitter irritability. "If
you had an ounce of common fairness in your composition you would admit I
could do no less. Why, any day she might have got jealous, or something,
and flown into a passion again, and denounced me to the police. Besides,
I have no wish to be obliged to fly the country. Why should I? She was
the only person who knew the truth; except you. That is why you must
follow her."

"No, no!" cried Juliet despairingly, but without avail, for her feeble
strength could offer him no effective opposition, and he thrust her
easily on to the slope. She felt instinctively that at that angle the
merest push would make her lose her balance, and sank quickly to her
knees, catching him round the ankle with one hand, and clinging

He swore furiously, and bent down to unclasp her fingers from his leg.
Then he flung her hand away from him; and cut off from all assistance she
began instantly to slide backwards, slowly but irresistibly.


Juliet dug her nails into the cracks of the stone floor with all the
energy of despair, but in a moment her feet were over the edge of the pit
and she was falling. Her fingers gripped the edge with a fierce tenacity,
and for some minutes she hung there, minutes that seemed longer than all
the rest of her life put together.

And so she hung, her knees drawn up in a frantic effort to pull herself
out of the depths, till her muscles refused any longer to contract, and
she felt herself gradually straightening out and growing, it seemed,
heavier and heavier, till she knew that in one more second her fingers
would slip from their hold, and all would be over.

But as she dropped into a straight position, and wearily abandoned her
efforts to raise herself, one of her feet suddenly touched some firm
substance beneath it. Something narrow it was, for the other foot as
yet still hung in space, but some blessed solid thing on which it was
possible to stand. As, with a feeling of thankfulness and relief such
as she had never before experienced, she allowed her weight to rest on
it and found that it did not give, she felt a sharp blow on the
knuckles of her left hand, which made her withdraw it quickly and lean
against the wall to steady herself. Mark was throwing stones at her
fingers to make her leave go sooner. Another missed her narrowly, and
shot over her head.

She drew down her right hand, and still leaning against the wall felt
about with her other foot for a support.

She soon found it, a little farther back it seemed than the first
foothold; but more experimental investigation showed that it was really
part of the same object. There appeared, indeed, to be several of them
about, all near to the wall, so that it was plain that poor Julia, as she
shot over the brink, had fallen outside, and beyond them. What the bars
were that she seemed to be standing on, Juliet could not at first
imagine, and it was not till Mark, growing tired of waiting for a splash
that never came, reached the conclusion that his ears had deceived him,
and took himself and Julia's lantern off to other spheres of usefulness,
that she perceived that a faint light penetrated into the upper part of
the pit. When her eyes had become accustomed to it, she was able to make
out that she was perched upon a portion of the roots of a tree, which had
grown in through holes in the wall.

Three great roots there were, curling into and across the shaft of the
pit and disappearing down into the darkness below, where Juliet did not
dare to look.

She managed, with great caution, to stoop down and catch hold of the
highest of the roots, and so to settle herself in a fairly comfortable
position, sitting on the middle root of the three, with her feet on the
lowest, and her back against the top one.

"They might have been made on purpose," she told herself, her naturally
high spirits and brave young optimism coming nobly to her rescue again.

And she set herself to try and enlarge one of the holes in the wall; but
she could not make much perceptible difference there. What it had taken
centuries, and the growth of a great tree to effect, could not be much
improved on in an hour by one young girl, however strong the necessity
that urged her.

By the time she had exhausted her efforts and must needs lean back and
rest awhile, the biggest hole was just wide enough to put her hand
through, and she saw no prospect of enlarging it further.

Through it she could see a corner of the loch and the grey foot of Ben
Ghusy, but that was all. It showed, however, on which side of the tower
she was, and she remembered the great beech that clung to the precipice
below the place where the foundations of the castle sprang from the rock.
At least she had always imagined it was below the foundations, but now
she knew better.

She thrust her hand out and waved it, but did not dare leave it there.
The terror Mark had instilled in her was too recent and too real If she
put out her hand, he would see it, and perhaps shoot it off; or at least
know that he had failed to kill her as yet. Better he should think her
dead, like poor Julia. But was Julia really dead?

She leant over and called down into the darkness:

"Julia! Julia!"

But no answer came, although she waited, holding her breath, and called
again and again.

Then she had fallen into the water? She must be drowned even if the fall
did not kill her. Poor, misguided Julia. Better dead, after all, thought
Juliet, with eyes full of tears, than alive, and at the mercy of that
terrible man. What disillusionments must have come to her sooner or
later; final disillusionings that could not be explained away. How
horrible to find that the man you loved was like that. Nothing else in
the world could be so appalling. Yes, Julia was better dead. As Juliet
thought of the dreadful manner in which death had come to the unfortunate
girl, she forgot her faults, forgot her strange views upon the
justifiability of taking human life, forgot even that she had approved of
Lord Ashiel's assassination and contemplated bringing about his death
herself, and remembered only the frightful nature of her punishment.

And while she sat there, clinging precariously to the twisted roots of
the beech tree, Juliet's tears streamed down into the watery grave.

Hours passed, and darkness fell upon the world without. In the patch of
loch that was visible to her, she could see a star mirrored; it cheered
her somehow. What there was comforting about it she could not have said,
but in some way it seemed to be an emblem of her hopes. She wedged
herself tightly between the roots, laid her head down upon the uppermost
of them, and, such is the adaptability of youth and health, slept on her
dangerous perch like a bird upon a bough.

With the day she awoke, stiff and hungry. How long would it be before she
was found? She felt braver under this new stimulus of hunger and more
ready to risk detection by Mark. After all, he could hardly get at her
here, and someone else might see her if she signalled. She took off her
shoes and stockings and pushed them through the hole in the wall, then
her handkerchief, and finally the white blouse she wore was taken off and
thrust out between the stones. She kept her hold upon one of the sleeves,
and wedged it down between the wall and the beech root, so that the
blouse might hang out on the face of the rock like a flag and catch the
attention of some passer-by. From time to time, too, she squeezed her
hand through the gap and fluttered her fingers backward and forward. She
knew that the path by the burn ran below, and it was used constantly by
the ghillies and by the household. Only of course so early in the morning
there was not likely to be anyone about. And she remembered with a
sinking heart that people seldom look up as they walk.

Yet in the course of the day some one would surely see it. She sternly
refused to allow herself to expect an immediate rescue. She would not,
she told herself, begin to get really anxious about it till evening. It
would be long to wait, of course. She looked at the little watch which
Sir Arthur had given her on her last birthday. It was six o'clock. She
must be patient.

But in spite of all her forced cheerfulness the time passed terribly
slowly. She found an old letter in her pocket, and a pencil, with which
she scrawled painstaking directions for her rescue. She would push it
through the hole, she thought, if she heard any sound of voices above the
clamour of the burn. After that there remained nothing more to do, and
the hours seemed to creep along more and more slowly, till each second
seemed like a minute and each minute an hour. She tried to divert herself
by repeating poetry, and doing imaginary sums; and it was about eleven
o'clock, when she was in the middle of the dates of the Kings of England,
that she heard Gimblet's voice hailing her in a shout from below.

It was not till after her rescue, not till after she was given safely
over to the affectionate ministrations of Lady Ruth, that Juliet gave
way under the strain to which she had been subjected, and broke down

Up till that moment, the urgency of her own danger had prevented her from
feeling as acutely as she would have in other circumstances the terrible
fate of the Russian girl; but, as soon as she herself was safe, the full
horror of it settled upon her mind till thought became an agony. She was
shaken by alternate fits of shuddering and weeping, until Lady Ruth, who
had a scathing contempt for doctors, was on the point of sending for one.

The arrival of Sir Arthur, an hour or so after her release, did much to
calm her. He had started post haste from Belgium as soon as he heard of
the tragedy, which was not till three days after it had occurred, and had
spent the long journey in incessant self-reproach that he had ever
allowed Juliet to go alone among these murderous strangers. The sight of
his familiar face was full of comfort to the distracted girl; and the
knowledge that Mark was arrested and powerless to harm her, with the
gladsome news that David was free again, combined to soothe her nerves
and restore her self-control.

The fear of one cousin began to give place insensibly to the dread lest
the other should find her red-eyed and woe-begone; and soon the
importance of looking her best when David should return occupied her mind
almost to the exclusion of the terrors she had experienced. Thus does the
emotion of love monopolize the attention of those it possesses, so that
individuals may fall thick around him and the surface of the earth be
convulsed with the strife of nations, and still your lover will walk
almost unconscious among such catastrophes, except in so much as they
affect himself or the object of his affections.

But not yet was Juliet to see David. His mother's health had broken
down under the distress and worry of the accusation brought against
him, and it was to her side that he hurried as soon as he was released
from prison.

While Lady Ruth carried Juliet off at once to the cottage, there to be
comforted, fed, made much of and put to bed, Gimblet and the men who had
assisted him in the work of rescue stayed behind in the walls of the
tower, to rig up, with ropes and buckets, an apparatus by which to
descend to that lowest depth of the _oubliette_ where poor Julia's body
must be lying.

They had little hope of finding her alive; nor did they do so. She was
floating, face downwards, in the water at the bottom of the pit.

In a grim, wrathful silence the men raised the poor lifeless body,
and with some difficulty brought it back to the light of day. When
the gruesome business was done, Gimblet returned to the cottage,
tired out with his night's work; for, like all the men on the place,
he had been scouring the moors since the previous evening, when
Mark's derisive words had first sent them, hot foot, to assure
themselves of Juliet's whereabouts. As he reached the cottage, the
daily post bag was being handed in, and among his letters was one
from the colonel of Mark's regiment:

"MY DEAR SIR," it ran, "I have sent you a wire in answer to your letter
received to-day, since in view of what you say I see that it is necessary
to disclose what I hoped, for the sake of the regiment, to continue to
keep secret. But if, as you tell me, the innocence and even the life of
Sir David Southern is involved, and you have such good reason to
consider McConachan the man guilty of his uncle's death, it becomes my
duty to put aside my private feelings and to confess to you that I am
unable to look upon Mark McConachan as entirely above suspicion. When he
was a subaltern in the regiment I have the honour to command, he was a
source of grave worry and trouble to me.

"From the day he joined I had misgivings, and, though his good looks,
lively spirits, and recklessness with money made him popular with others
of his age, I soon discovered that his moral sense was practically
nonexistent, and considered him a very undesirable addition to our ranks.
Still, I hoped he might improve, and for a year or two nothing occurred
to force me to take serious notice of his behaviour. Unknown to me,
however, he took to gambling very heavily, and must have lost a great
deal more than he could afford, for he appears to have got deep in the
clutches of moneylenders long before I heard anything about it. So
desperate did his financial affairs become, that shortly before he left
the regiment he was actually driven to forging the name of a brother
officer, a rich young man, with whom he was on very friendly terms. The
large amount for which the cheque was drawn drew the attention of the
bankers to it, and in spite of the extreme skill with which, I am told,
the signature had been counterfeited, the forgery was detected, and the
matter was brought before me.

"The victim of the fraud was as anxious as myself to avoid a public
scandal, and it was arranged that nothing should be done for a year, to
give time to McConachan to refund the money; if, however, he failed to do
so within that time, there would be nothing for it but to make the matter
public. These terms were agreed on and McConachan was told to send in his
papers at once.

"The year allowed is now drawing to a close, and the money has not been
forthcoming, so that there is no doubt that Mark McConachan's need of
obtaining a large amount is extremely pressing. My knowledge of his
character obliges me to add that I consider him one of the few men I ever
knew whom I could imagine going to almost any length to provide himself
with what he so urgently requires.

"Please consider this letter confidential unless you obtain actual proof
of his guilt.--I am, sir, yours faithfully,


"Colonel commanding 31st Lancers."

Gimblet put the letter away with the other items of evidence of Mark's
guilt: the telegram from the analyst in Edinburgh, the measurements of
the footprints on the rose-bed, and of those other marks near the hedge
by which he had at first been mystified. It was another thread in the
thin cord that, like the silken line Ariadne gave to Theseus, had led him
to come successfully out of the bewildering labyrinth into which the
investigation of the crime had beguiled him.


It was after dinner that night, as he sat in the little drawing-room of
the cottage with Lady Ruth and Sir Arthur, that his hostess asked him to
explain to them how he had contrived to detect the way in which the
murder had been committed.

"You promised to tell me all about it," Lady Ruth reminded him, "if I
would keep silent about your finding the papers in the statue."

"Tell us the whole thing from the beginning," Sir Arthur urged him.

"I will willingly tell you anything that may interest you," Gimblet
consented readily. "Every one enjoys talking about their work to
sympathetic listeners such as yourselves. It is a bad thing to start on a
case with a preconceived idea, and I can't deny that when I first came
here I was very near having an _idée fixe_ as to the origin of the crime.
I tried to deceive myself into thinking that I kept an open mind on the
subject; but I don't think I ever really doubted for a minute that the
Nihilist society to which Lord Ashiel had formerly belonged was
responsible for the murder. Even after my conversation with the new peer,
which showed me that things looked blacker against Sir David Southern
than I had expected, I was far from convinced that he was guilty, though
I was obliged to admit that there was some ground for the conclusion come
to by the police.

"But what was the evidence against him? Sir David was known to have
quarrelled with his uncle; he had even been heard to say he had a good
mind to shoot him. But that was more than twenty-four hours previous to
the crime, and the words were uttered in a moment of anger, when he
probably said the first thing that came into his head. Was he likely to
have hugged his rage in silence for the hours that followed, and then to
have walked out into the garden and shot his uncle in cold blood and
without further warning? It did not appear to me probable, but then I did
not know the young man.

"He was not to be found when the deed was discovered, and a hunt
instituted for the murderer. Well, he had an answer to that which fitted
in with my own theory. He said he saw some one hanging about the grounds,
and went to look for him. But it was said that the night was so dark as
to make it improbable that anyone should have been seen, even if there
had been anyone to see. That cut both ways, to my mind. For it would
account for the intruder making his escape undiscovered.

"Then there was the matter of the rifle, which he had told Miss Byrne he
had cleaned that evening, in which case it had certainly been fired since
then. He owned that he had locked it up and that the key never left his
possession afterwards, but now denied that he had told the young lady
that he had cleaned it. I asked young Lord Ashiel if he could put any
possible interpretation on these facts except the one accepted by the
police, and he replied that he could not. That, for the first time, made
me wonder if he were really anxious to believe his cousin innocent. For I
could put quite different interpretations on them myself.

"In the first place, though it was possible that Sir David lied in
making his second statement to the effect that he had not said he had
cleaned his rifle, it was equally possible that the first statement that
he _had_ cleaned it was not strictly accurate. For some reason, which he
did not care to divulge, he might have told Miss Byrne he had been
cleaning his gun when he had been really doing something entirely
different. But had he told her he had cleaned it? His words, as repeated
by her to me, were, 'I went in there to clean my rifle,' but not, 'I have
been cleaning my rifle,' which would be another thing altogether, he
probably had not yet begun cleaning it when he heard Miss Byrne coming
and went out to speak to her; it is possible some feeling akin to shyness
might make him reluctant to confess this afterwards in public. Indeed I
now feel quite sure that this is the explanation of the matter. Later on,
when I questioned her again, she did not appear certain which of the two
forms of words he had used; but there was, at all events, a considerable
doubt. There were other possibilities also. Some one might possess a
duplicate key to the gun-cabinet. It seemed to me impossible that none of
these considerations should have occurred to young Ashiel, if he were
really reluctant to believe in Sir David's guilt. But at the same time I
remembered the almost incredible lack of reasoning powers shown by most
members of the public where a deed of violence has been committed, and
knowing that there is nothing so improbable that it will not find a host
of ready believers, I did not attach much importance to the circumstance
until later.

"Still on the whole, after talking to young Lord Ashiel, I felt more
disposed to believe that there might be some truth in the accusation
that had been made than I had previously thought likely. But on that
point I reserved my opinion till I should have had an opportunity of
examining the scene of the tragedy for myself. So I prevailed upon the
new owner of the castle to leave me alone--which he was the more ready to
do since he had urgent need to be first in examining some papers of his
uncle's which were in another room--and proceeded to make a cast round
the garden from which the shot had been fired, in the hope of lighting
upon some trifle which had escaped the notice of Macross.

"It was when I came upon the footprints in the rose-bed which had done so
much to prove the guilt of Sir David Southern in the eyes of his
accusers, that I began to be certain of his innocence; and a very little
examination convinced me absolutely that whoever had shot Lord Ashiel it
was not his youngest nephew. For the tracks on the flower-bed left no
room for doubt.

"It is true they corresponded exactly with the shooting-boots Sir David
had been wearing on the day the crime was committed. I had provided
myself with a pair that I was assured was exactly like those particular
boots which fitted the tracks and which the police had taken away with
them, and I found that there was indeed no difference, except for the
matter of an extra nail or two on the soles. There was no doubt that Sir
David's boots had made those impressions, but to my mind there was
equally no doubt that Sir David had not been in them when they made them.
For the track which was so plainly distinguishable on the soft mould of
the flower-bed had certain peculiarities which I could hardly overlook.

"There was first a row of footmarks leading from the lawn to the middle
of the bed; then more marks as if the wearer of the boots had moved from
one position to another hard by; and finally, a track leading back again
to the mossy lawn at the side. Now all this was well enough till it came
to the last row of footsteps, those which led off the bed, and which had
presumably been taken after the fatal shot was fired. But was it
conceivable that a man who had that moment committed a cold-blooded
murder should leave the scene of his crime with the same slow, deliberate
footsteps with which he had approached it? Surely not.

"And yet this is what the wearer of the boots had done. The imprints, as
they advanced towards the lawn, were deep and well defined from toe to
heel. Not only that, but they were, if anything, closer together than
those which preceded them. Now a man, running, leaves a deeper impression
of his toe than he does of his heel, and his steps are much farther apart
in proportion to his increase in speed. I, myself, ran from the middle of
the bed, to the lawn, alongside of the footmarks of the soi-disant
murderer, and though I am a short man, while Sir David's legs are
reported long, I left only two footprints to his five. To me it was as
certain as if I had seen it happen that the wearer of the boots trampled
his way off the rose-bed as slowly as he had trampled on. Those
footprints had been made by some one who was determined they should be
seen, not by some one whose only thought was to get away from the place;
not, in short, by a man who had that moment fired a murderous shot
through the darkness. The tracks had undoubtedly been made as a blind and
with the intention of diverting suspicion to the wrong man probably after
the deed itself was done.

"I was satisfied, then, that the shot had not been fired from this
particular part of the rose-bed, and I proceeded to search for other
footprints farther down the bed. I did not feel much hope of being
successful, since, if our man had had the forethought to leave so many
traces of some one else's presence, it was unlikely he would have
neglected to ensure that his own should be absent. And as I expected, I
found none.

"But at the end of the garden, where it is bounded by the holly hedge, I
came across something which puzzled me. There were two narrow depressions
on the flower-bed, about an inch wide by less than a foot long. They were
parallel to each other, and at right angles to the hedge, and separated
by a distance of six or seven feet. Near one, which was almost in the
middle of the bed, was another mark which I could not understand. It was
only a few inches long and, in shape, a narrow oval. I could not at first
imagine what any of them represented, and it was only quite suddenly, as
I was giving it up and going away, that the truth flashed across my mind.
I had been looking regretfully at the track I myself had left by the side
of the hedge on my way to and from the middle of the bed.

"'What I want,' I said to myself, 'is one of those planks raised off
the ground by two little supports, one at each end, that gardeners use
to avoid stepping on the beds when they are going through the process
of bedding out,' And even as I said it, I realized that the same idea
had occurred to some one else, and that the marks I had been examining
might have been made by just such a contrivance as the one I was
thinking of. A short search showed me the plank itself, kept in a
tool-house conveniently near the spot, and, with a rake taken from the
same place, I seized the opportunity of raking out my own footmarks
from the rose-bed.

"And now who could this be who had so carefully manufactured a false
scent, and so cleverly avoided being himself suspected? My previous
theory, that some envoy of the Nihilists had been lurking in the
neighbourhood, seemed not to meet the new conditions. For how could a
mere stranger have gained possession of the misleading boots, or how
returned them to their proper place? And how, for that matter, could a
stranger have obtained the use of Sir David's rifle, if his rifle had
indeed been used?

"That brought me to consider again whether after all there was any proof
that his rifle had been used by anyone. Supposing, as I saw no reason to
doubt, he spoke the truth when he said that Miss Byrne had misunderstood
him and that he had not cleaned the weapon since coming in from stalking,
was I driven back on the theory that some one possessed a duplicate key
to the case where the guns were kept? Not in the least. The shot might
have been fired from a rifle that had never, at any time, been within the
walls of the castle. Certainly, the bullet fitted Sir David's Mannlicher
rifle, but that, as young Lord Ashiel said himself, was equally true of
his own rifle, or probably of a dozen others in the neighbouring forests,
since a sporting Mannlicher is a weapon in common use in the Highlands.

"The shot, then, might well have been fired by my hypothetical Russian as
far as the rifle was concerned; but he would have found it difficult to
borrow Sir David's boots, and it seemed unlikely that any stranger would
not only have dared to do so, but afterwards have had the audacity to
return them. No, on the whole the footmarks seemed to clear the
character of the Russian nation from any reasonable suspicion of being
directly concerned in the crime.

"And yet, in spite of reason, I could not help feeling that the Society
of the Friends of Man must be at the bottom of the whole thing in some
way I had not yet fathomed. I made every inquiry as to whether any
foreigner had visited the castle or been seen in the neighbourhood, but
the only strangers among the visitors had been Miss Julia Romaninov and
Miss Juliet Byrne's French maid, both of whose alibis appeared so far
unimpeachable. I had it on Lady Ruth's authority that Miss Romaninov had
been in the drawing-room with the other ladies at the time of the murder,
and all the servants were at supper in the servants' hall. Otherwise I
should have been inclined to look on Julia Romaninov with a suspicious
eye, as being the only Russian I knew to be on the spot. The last word
the dying man had been able to pronounce, too, was, according to Miss
Byrne, 'steps' which might very well have been intended for steppes, and
have some connection with the enemies he dreaded.

"With these considerations running in my mind, I made my way to the
gun-room, not indeed with much expectation of its having anything to
tell me, but as part of the day's work of inspection, which must not be
shirked. I took down young Ashiel's rifle to examine. He had told me it
was of the same description as his cousin's, and I was not very
familiar with the make. It was owing to my wish to see for myself with
what kind of weapon the deed had been done that a very important clue
fell into my hands.

"As I put the rifle down on the bare deal table which forms the
principal piece of furniture in the gun-room, I saw a grain of something
dark, which looked like earth, fall off the butt end on to the boards
beneath. I picked up the rifle, and looked closely at the butt; it was
criss-crossed with small cuts, as they sometimes are, with the idea of
preventing them from slipping, and in the cuts some dust, or earth,
seemed, as I expected, to be adhering. I knocked the rifle upon the
table, and a little shower fell from it. Except for the first grain, it
might have been nothing but the ordinary dust of disuse, but I could not
help thinking it was of a darker hue than the accumulations of years
generally take upon themselves, and, further, I knew that the rifle had
lately been used for stalking. It was, moreover, specklessly clean in
every other part. I felt certain it had been leant upon the ground at no
distant date; and I remembered the mark I had not been able to account
for at the foot of the rose-bush, near the place where the plank had been
used and, as I was persuaded, the cowardly shot actually fired. If a gun
had been leant up against the large standard rose that grew there, it
would have left just such a mark upon the soft ground.

"All this, of course, was a mere surmise, and rather wild at that, but
the deer forests of Scotland are not muddy, whatever else they may be,
and I felt an unreasoning conviction that the rifle had not accumulated
dust while engaged upon its legitimate business on the mountain tops. The
peaty moorland soil on which the castle stood would hardly be the best
thing in the world for rose-trees, I imagined, and it seemed not too much
to hope that some other kind of earth might be artificially mingled with
it. I carefully collected the dust in a pill-box, and promised myself to
lose no time in obtaining the opinion of an expert analyst, as to
whether or no some trace of patent fertilizer, or other chemical, could
not be traced in it.

"It was now for the first time that suspicion of young Lord Ashiel began
to oust my theory of the Nihilist society's responsibility for the
murder. He had, as I remembered, struck me as taking his cousin's guilt
for granted with somewhat unnecessary alacrity. His rifle, I already
believed, perhaps in my turn with needless alacrity, had fired the fatal
bullet, and it seemed perfectly possible that it was his finger that
pressed upon the trigger. He was, I knew, in the billiard-room, and
alone, both before and after the murder was committed. It would have been
quite easy for him to fetch his rifle, place the gardener's plank in
position, fire his shot and return to the house, provided Miss Byrne did
not rush immediately from the room. He knew her to be a brave girl and
not likely to fly without making some attempt at offering assistance.
But, if she had rushed from the spot and met the murderer outside the
library door, it would be simple enough to convey the impression that he
had heard the shot, and that he was either dashing to their help, or
making for the garden in the attempt to catch the villain red handed. The
rifle was the only thing likely to provoke an awkward question, but he
could have dropped it in the dark and returned for it afterwards without
much fear of detection. As it happened, he thought it safer to risk
carrying it indoors, and hid it under the billiard-room sofa till he had
a chance to clean it and take it to the gun-room, as we now know.

"You can imagine the scene: Lord Ashiel falling forward upon the
writing-table under the light of the lamp; the scoundrel leaping from
his post upon the plank, but not so quickly that he did not see the
girl throw herself on her knees at the side of the fallen man. I can
fancy the frenzied haste with which McConachan thrust the plank into the
hedge and ran like a deer towards the door, which he had no doubt left
open. I imagine him, then, tiptoeing to the door of the library and
bending to listen, every nerve astretch. What he heard, no doubt
reassured him; it may have been the voice of the girl calling upon her
father, or it may have been the thud of her body falling upon the floor
when she fainted. Perhaps, even, he may have stayed outside long enough
to see her sink to the ground. Then he would steal back, shut the door
as gently as he had opened it, and not breathe again till he found
himself in the empty billiard-room, his tell-tale rifle still in his
hand. No doubt he wished he had left it in the hedge at that moment, for
he must have opened the billiard-room door with most lively
apprehensions. Supposing the shot had been heard, and the household was
rushing to the scene of the disaster? Supposing he opened the door to
find the room full of people demanding an explanation of himself and his
weapon? What explanation had he ready, I wonder? It must have taken all
his nerve to turn the handle of the door....

"But no one can deny the man his full share of courage and decision.

"I felt more and more sure that in some such manner the crime had been
gone about; and yet there were many complications, and more than once it
seemed as if my convictions had been too hastily formed. Later that same
afternoon I found, upon the sand of a little bay below the castle, marks
that told me as plainly as they told one of the keepers who joined me
there that a strange man had landed from a boat on the night of the
murder, and even, if our calculations were right, not far off the very
hour in which the deed was done. From the tracks left by his boots, which
were large and without nails and extraordinarily pointed for those of a
man, I felt sure that here one had landed who was no native of these
parts, and the theory of the unknown Russian seemed to take on new life
and vigour. The tracks, as we now know, were no doubt those of the member
of the Society of the Friends of Man who was living at Crianan, and who
hoped to have word with Julia Romaninov. It was no doubt he whom Sir
David saw lurking in the grounds, and it is natural to suppose that when
he perceived himself to be observed he retreated to his boat and made
off, abandoning his proposed meeting for that night.

"I was to be further bewildered before my first day of investigation
came to an end. Young Lord Ashiel had spent the day in searching for the
will; and, if my inward certainty that he himself would prove to be the
guilty man should turn out to be right, I could very well understand
that he was anxious to find it. For, from what his uncle had said to
Miss Byrne, it seemed possible that he had so worded his last will and
testament, that whoever succeeded to the great fortune he had to
bequeath, it might not be Mark McConachan. But the will was not to be
found, and there was no doubt to whose interest it was that it should
never be found; so that I felt pretty sure that, if the successor to the
title were once able to lay his hands on it, no one else would ever do
so. However, he hadn't found it yet, or the search would not be
continued with such unmistakable ardour.

"Now I had a fancy myself to have a look for the will. I took the last
words of the dead man to be an effort to indicate how I was to do so, and
I had no idea of prosecuting my search under the eye of his nephew. Young
Ashiel was to dine at the cottage here, with Lady Ruth; so I excused
myself under pretence of a headache from appearing at dinner, and hurried
back to the castle as soon as I could do so unobserved. I got in by a
window which I had purposely left open, and made my way to the library.
The words that Lord Ashiel, as he lay dying, had managed to stammer out
to his daughter, were only five. 'Gimblet--the clock--eleven--steps.' I
had decided to take the clock in the library as the starting-point of
investigation. He might, of course, have referred to any other clock, but
only one could be dealt with at a time, and a beginning must be made
somewhere. Moreover, I had noticed a curious feature about that
particular timepiece. It was clamped to the wall, which struck me as very
suggestive; and I thought it quite likely I should be able to discover
some kind of secret drawer concealed within, or behind, the tall black
lacquered case, where the will and other papers of which Lord Ashiel had
told me might be hidden. But in spite of my best efforts I came across
nothing of the kind.

"I then examined the floor of the room at spots on its surface which were
at a distance of about eleven steps from the clock, in the hope of
finding some opening between the oak boards; but all to no purpose. I
began to think that by some specially contrived mechanism the
hiding-place might only be discernible at eleven o'clock, and though the
idea seemed farfetched, I don't like to leave any possibility untested,
so I sat down to wait till the hour should strike.

"While I was waiting, I suddenly heard footsteps which appeared to come
from inside the wall of the room, or from below the floor. I concluded
instantly that there was a secret passage within the walls although I had
failed to find the entrance, so I left the library quickly and quietly,
and made my way to the garden, from which I was able to look back into
the room through the window. By the time I took up my post of observation
the person I had heard approaching had entered. To my surprise it was a
young lady about whom I seemed to recognize something vaguely familiar,
but whom I was not aware of ever having seen before. She was occupied in
examining the papers in Lord Ashiel's writing bureau, and after watching
her for some time, I concluded that she must be Julia Romaninov; partly
from certain foreign ways and gestures which she displayed, and partly
from her present employment, as I knew of no one else who was interested
in the papers of the dead man. I imagined that she knew of the possible
relationship which Lord Ashiel supposed might exist between himself and
her, and that she was searching for evidence of her birth. Whether she
was staying at the castle, which I was told all visitors had left, or
whether, like myself, she had made her way into it from outside, was a
question I could not then determine, though the next day I discovered
that she was stopping with Mrs. Clutsam at the fishing lodge, near by.

"The fact of her being still in the neighbourhood, the business I found
her engaged upon--an unusual one, to put it mildly, for a young girl--and
the hour, at which she had chosen to go about it, all gave me much food
for thought, and I felt sure she could tell me news of the stranger who
had landed in the bay and who wore such uncommonly pointed boots. When I
recognized in her, on the following day, a young person who had, a few
weeks previously, made me the victim of a barefaced and audacious
robbery, I could no longer doubt that she and the unknown boatman were in
league together; and, since no Englishman would be likely to wear boots
so excessively pointed at the toes, I did not hesitate to conclude that
they were both members of the Society of the Friends of Man, a conclusion
which became a certainty when I subsequently saw them together. This
discovery rather shook my belief in the guilt of young Ashiel, although I
had an inward conviction that in spite of everything he would turn out to
be the murderer. Still, I was after the Nihilist brotherhood as well, and
I determined if possible to put a spoke in the wheel of that association
when I had finished with the first and most important business.

"In the meantime, as I stood in the dark garden, watching the girl
ransack the private papers of her dead host, I felt no fear of her
finding what she was looking for. Lord Ashiel had convinced me that he
would hide his secret affairs more carefully than that; and, as I
expected, the time came when she gave up the search and departed the way
she had come. And that way, to my astonishment, was through the
grandfather's clock I had spent so much time in examining. No sooner had
she gone than I returned to the library, where I soon discovered that the
hidden entrance lay through the one part of the clock I had not
investigated. A trap in the floor could be opened by turning a small
knob, and I found beneath it the top of that flight of stairs which we
now know leads out to the door under the battlements. There were fifteen
steps in the flight, and my first idea was to examine the eleventh one of
them. I was rewarded by the discovery of a concealed drawer, which in its
turn disclosed a single sheet of paper.

"On it were written some words that I could not at first understand, but
of which finally, by good luck, and with your help, Lady Ruth, I was able
to decipher the meaning. They referred, in an obscure and veiled fashion,
to the great statue erected by Lord Ashiel in that glen of which his wife
had been so fond; where the beginning of the track used by the cattle
drivers and robbers of old, which is known as the Green Way, leads up
over the hills to the south. Guided by Lady Ruth, I found on the pedestal
of the statue a spring, which has only to be pressed when a door in one
end of the erection swings open, and discloses the hollow chamber in the
middle of the pedestal. At the far end of the cavity was the tin box, of
which the key lay temptingly on the top. I lost no time in springing
towards it, for here I felt sure was all I wanted to find, but as I
inserted the key in the lock the door slammed to behind me and I found
myself shut in the dark interior of the pedestal. Luckily Lady Ruth was
with me, and quickly let me out. I found that the door was controlled by
an elaborate piece of clockwork, which is set in motion by the pressure
upon the floor of the feet of any intruder, causing the door to shut
almost immediately behind him. But for you, Lady Ruth, I should be there
now. But the incident gave me an idea.

"I returned to the cottage with the papers, and found two telegrams. One
was from the analyst in Edinburgh to whom I had sent the grains of dust
collected in the gun-room, saying that among other ingredients lime was
very predominant. Now there is no lime in a peaty soil such as this, and
the gardener, to whom I talked of soils and manures, with an air of
wisdom which I hope deceived him, told me that the rose-bed outside the
library had received a strong dressing of it. There was also, said the
report, traces of steel and phosphates, of which there is a combination
known as basic slag, which the gardener had mentioned as being
occasionally used. I considered that it was tolerably certain, therefore,
that young Ashiel's rifle had been the weapon the imprint of whose butt
was still discernible on the bed when I went over it.

"The second telegram contained an answer from the colonel of his
regiment, to whom I had written asking if there was anything in the
record of Mark McConachan which would make it appear conceivable that he
was badly in need of money, and likely to go to extreme lengths to obtain
it. I had told the colonel as much about the case as I then knew, and
pointed out that the life or death of a man whom I had strong reason to
think innocent might depend upon his withholding nothing he might know
which could possibly bear upon the matter. The telegram I received in
reply was short but emphatic. 'Record very bad,' it said, 'am writing,'
This was enough for me. I went over to Crianan, saw the police, and
imparted my conclusions to the local inspector. I then proposed that a
little trap should be laid, into which, if he were not guilty and had no
intention of destroying his uncle's will, there was no reason to imagine
young Lord Ashiel would step. The inspector consented, and I returned,
with himself and two of his men, to Inverashiel. You know how successful
was the ruse I indulged in. I simply went to the young man, and told him
I had discovered the place where his uncle had put his will and other
valuable papers. I explained to him where it was and how the pedestal
could be opened, but I said nothing about its shutting again. Neither, I
am afraid, did I confess that I had already visited the statue and taken
away the documents. I said, on the contrary, that I preferred not to
touch the contents except in the presence of a magistrate, and suggested
he should send a note to General Tenby at Glenkliquart to ask him to come
over and be present when we removed the papers. This he did, and I then
left him after he had promised to join us at the cottage in a couple of
hours. I knew very well where we should find him at the end of those
hours; and, as I expected, he was caught by the clockwork machinery of
the pedestal door."


Sir Arthur Byrne took his adopted daughter back to Belgium on the
following day, since, although she would have to return to England to
give evidence against Mark in due course, some time must elapse before
his trial came on, and he judged it best to remove her as far as possible
from a place whose associations must always be painful.

Then ensued a series of weary long weeks for Juliet, in which she had no
trouble in convincing herself that David had forgotten her. She heard
nothing from him directly, though indirectly news of him filtered through
in letters they received from Lady Ruth and Gimblet. He had not, it
appeared, taken his cousin's guilt as proved so readily as Mark had
affected to do in his own case, refusing absolutely to hear a word of the
evidence against him, and maintaining that the whole thing was a mistake
as colossal as it was ghastly.

Only when he was persuaded unwillingly, but finally, that it was Juliet's
word which he must doubt if he were to continue to believe in Mark's
innocence, did he give in, and sorrowfully acknowledged himself

All this Lady Ruth wrote to the girl, together with the fact that Sir
David was still in attendance on his mother, now happily recovering from
the nervous shock she had sustained.

From Gimblet, and from Messrs. Findlay & Ince, they heard that by the
will which the detective had found all Lord Ashiel's money and estate
were left to the adopted daughter of Sir Arthur Byrne, known hitherto as
Juliet Byrne, with a suggestion that she should provide for his nephews
to the extent she should think fit.

The will, though not technically worded, was perfectly good and legal,
and Juliet could have all the money she was likely to want for the
present by accepting the offer of an advance which the lawyers begged to
be allowed to make.

Gimblet wrote, further, that the list of names of members of the Nihilist
society entitled the "Friends of Man" which he had discovered at the same
time as the will and, contrary to Lord Ashiel's wishes, sent off by
registered post to Scotland Yard, had been communicated to the heads of
the police in Russia and the other European countries in which many of
those designated were now scattered, with the result that a large number
of arrests had been quietly made, and the society practically wiped out.
The foreign guest of the Crianan Hotel was still at large. The name of
Count Pretovsky was not on the list and nothing could be proved against
him. He had moved on to another hotel farther west, where he was lying
very low and continuing to practise the gentle art of the fisherman. A
member of the Russian secret police was on his way to Scotland, however,
and it was likely that Count Pretovsky would be recognized as one of the
persons on Lord Ashiel's list who were as yet unaccounted for.

Gimblet told them, besides, that he had succeeded in finding the widow of
the respectable plumber named Harsden, whom Julia had mentioned as being
her father. Mrs. Harsden corroborated the story, and said that it was
certainly the Countess Romaninov to whom Mrs. Meredith had consigned the
little girl they had given her.

Widely distributed advertisements also brought to light the nurses of the
two children; both the nurse who had taken Julia out to Russia and the
woman who had been with Mrs. Meredith when she took over the charge of
the McConachan baby, quickly claiming the reward that was offered for
their discovery. There was no longer any room for doubt that Juliet Byrne
was the same person as Juliana McConachan, or that Julia Romaninov had
begun life as little Judy Harsden.

All this scarcely sufficed to rouse Juliet from the apathy into which she
had fallen. To her it seemed incredible to think with what excitement and
delight such news would have filled her a few months earlier.

Now, since David plainly no longer cared for her, nothing mattered any
longer. Her depression was put down to the shock she had suffered, and
efforts were made to feed her up and coddle her, which she
ungratefully resented.

She had nothing in life to look forward to now, so she told herself,
except the horrible ordeal of the trial which she would be obliged
to attend.

It was in the dejection now becoming habitual to her, that she sat idly
one fine October morning in her little sitting-room at the consulate. She
had refused to play tennis with her stepsisters, not because she had
anything else to do, but because nothing was worth doing any more, and
because it was less trouble to sit and gaze mournfully through the open
window at the yellow leaves of the poplar in the garden, as from time to
time one of them fluttered down through the still air.

How unspeakably sad it was, she thought to herself, this slow falling of
the leaves, like the gradual but persistent loss of our hopes and
illusions, which eventually make each human dweller in this world of
change feel as bare and forlorn as the leafless winter trees.

On a branch a few feet away, a robin perched, and after looking at her
critically for a few moments lifted up its voice in cheerful song.

But she took no heed of it, and continued to brood over her sorrows.

All men were faithless. With them, it was out of sight, out of mind, and
she would assuredly never, never believe in one again. The best thing
she could do, she decided, was to put away all thought of such things,
and forget the man whom she had once been so vain as to imagine really
cared for her.

And just as she told herself for the hundredth time that she had given up
all hope and had resigned herself to the rôle of broken-hearted maiden,
the door opened, and David was shown in.

By good luck, she was alone. Lady Byrne was not yet down, and her
stepsisters were out; so there was no one to see her blushes and add to
her embarrassment.

In the surprise of seeing him, all her presence of mind vanished, leaving
her speechless and trembling with agitation.

For his part, David approached her with a confusion as obvious as her

"Juliet," he stammered as soon as they were left alone together, "I know
I oughtn't to have come, but I simply couldn't keep away."

"Why oughtn't you to have come?" was all she could ask foolishly.

"Because I know you can't want to see me," said the absurd young man,
"though I do think you liked me pretty well before, didn't you? when
Maisie Tarver tied my tongue; or ought to have, I'm afraid I should say.
But she had enough sense to drop me when I was arrested. She couldn't
stand a man arrested for murder any more than you or anyone else could?"

He said the last words with an air of shamefaced interrogation.

"Why," said Juliet, who was being carried off her feet on the top of a
rapturous flood, "what nonsense! You were as innocent as I was. What
would it matter if you were arrested twenty times!"

"Well, I shouldn't care to be, myself," said David, without apparently
deriving much satisfaction from such a suggestion. "Once is enough for
me. And anyway," he added inconsequently, "you can't very well marry a
fellow who is first cousin to a man who's as good as hanged already!"

"Oh, David, David," cried Juliet; "as if that mattered! But who do
you suppose I am--don't you know that he's my first cousin just as he
is yours?"

"By Jingo," said David, "I never thought of that, somehow. Then
we're both in the same boat!" And he stepped forward and caught her
by the hands.

"Yes, David," she said, as he drew her to him tenderly, "both in the same
boat. And what can be nicer than that?"



Back to Full Books