Chapter XIX. The Real Murderer
 

For some seconds I sat there, leaning back in my chair and gazing close at that incredible, that accusing document. I knew it couldn't lie: I knew it must be the very handiwork of unerring Nature. Then slowly a recollection began to grow up in my mind. I knew of my own memory it was really true. I remembered it so, now, as in a glass, darkly. I remembered having stood, with the pistol in my hand, pointing it straight at the breast of the man with the long white beard whom they called my father. A new mental picture rose up before me like a vision. I remembered it all as something that once really occurred to me.

Yet I remembered it, as I had long remembered the next scene in the series, merely as so much isolated and unrelated fact, without connection of any sort to link it to the events that preceded or followed it. It was I who shot my father! I realised that now with a horrid gulp. But what on earth did I ever shoot him for?

And I had hunted down Jack for the crime I had committed myself! I had threatened to give him up for my own dreadful parricide!

After a minute, I rose, and staggered feebly to the door. I saw the path of duty clear as daylight before me.

"Where are you going?" Jack faltered out, watching me close with anxious eyes, lest I should stumble or faint.

And I answered aloud, in a hollow voice:

"To the police-station, of course,--to give myself into custody for the murder of my father."

When I thought it was Jack, though I loved him better than I loved my own life, I would have given him up to justice as a sacred duty. Now I knew it was myself, how could I possibly do otherwise? How could I love my own life better than I loved dear Jack's, who had given up everything to save me and protect me?

With a wild bound of horror, Jack sprang upon me at once. He seized me bodily in his arms. He carried me back into the room with irresistible strength. I fought against him in vain. He laid me on the sofa. He bent over me like a whirlwind and smothered me with hot kisses.

"My darling," he cried, "my darling, then this shock hasn't killed you! It hasn't stunned you like the last! You're still your own dear self! You've still strength to think and plan exactly what one would expect from you. Oh! Una, my Una, you must wait and hear all. When you've learned how it happened, you won't wish to act so rashly."

I struggled to free myself, though his arms were hard and close like a strong man's around me.

"Let me go, Jack!" I cried feebly, trying to tear myself from his grasp. "I love you better than I love my own life. If I would have given you up, how much more must I give up myself, now I know it was I who really did it!"

He held me down by main force. He pinned me to the sofa. I suppose it's because I'm a woman, and weak, and all that--but I liked even then to feel how strong and how big he was, and how feeble I was myself, like a child in his arms. And I resisted on purpose, just to feel him hold me. Somehow, I couldn't realize, after all, that I was indeed a murderess. It didn't seem possible. I couldn't believe it was in me.

"Jack," I said slowly, giving way at last, and letting him hold me down with his small strong hands and slender iron wrist, "tell me, if you will, how I came to do it. I'll sit here quite still, if only you'll tell me. Am I really a murderess?"

Jack recoiled like one shot.

"You a murderess, my spotless Una!" he exclaimed, all aghast. "If anyone else on earth but you had just asked such a thing in my presence, I'd have leapt at the fellow's throat, and held him down till I choked him!"

"But I did it!" I cried wildly. "I remember now, I did it. It all comes back to me at last. I fired at him, just so. I aimed the loaded pistol point-blank at his heart, I can hear the din in my ears. I can see the flash at the muzzle. And then I flung down the pistol--like this--at my feet: and darkness came on; and I forgot everything. Why, Dr. Marten knew that much! I remember now, he told me he'd formed a very strong impression, from the nature of the wound and the position of the various objects on the floor of the room, who it was that did it! He must have seen it was I who flung down the pistol."

Jack gazed at me in suspense.

"He's a very good friend of yours, then," he murmured, "that Dr. Marten. For he never said a word of all that at the inquest."

"But I must give myself up!" I cried, in a fever of penitence for what that other woman who once was me had done. "Oh, Jack, do let me! It's hateful to know I'm a murderess and to go unpunished. It's hateful to draw back from the fate I'd have imposed on another. I'd like to be hanged for it. I want to be hanged. It's the only possible way to appease one's conscience."

And yet, though I said it, I felt all the time it wasn't really I, but that other strange girl who once lived at The Grange and looked exactly like me. I remember it, to be sure; but it was in my Other State: and, so far as my moral responsibility was concerned, my Other State and I were two different people.

For I knew in my heart I couldn't commit a murder.

Jack rose without a word, and fetched me in some brandy.

"Drink this," he said calmly, in his authoritative medical tone; "drink this before you say another sentence."

And, obedient to his order, I took it up and drank it.

Then he sat down beside me, and took my hand in his, and with very gentle words began to reason and argue with me.

He was glad I'd struggled, he said, because that broke the first force of the terrible shock for me. Action was always good for one in any great crisis. It gave an outlet for the pent-up emotions, too suddenly let loose with explosive force, and kept them from turning inward and doing serious harm, as mine had done on that horrible night of the accident. He called it always the accident, I noticed, and never the murder. That gave me fresh hope. Could I really after all have fired unintentionally? But no; when I came to look inward,--to look backward on my past state,--I was conscious all the time of some strong and fierce resentment smouldering deep in my heart at the exact moment of firing. However it might have happened, I was angry with the man with the long white beard: I fired at him hastily, it is true, but with malice prepense and deliberate intent to wound and hurt him.

Jack went on, however, undeterred, in a low and quiet voice, soothing my hand with his as he spoke, and very kind and gentle. My spirit rebelled at the thought that I could ever for one moment have imagined him a murderer. I said so in one wild burst. Jack held my hand, and still reasoned with me. I like a man's reasoning; it's so calm and impartial. It seems to overcome one by its mere display of strength. If I'd changed my mind once, Jack said, I might change it again, when further evidence on the point was again forthcoming. I mustn't give myself up to the police till I understood much more. If I did, I would commit a very grave mistake. There were reasons that had led to the firing of the shot. Very grave reasons too. Couldn't I restore and reconstruct them, now I knew the last stage of the terrible history? If possible, he'd rather I should arrive at them by myself than that he should tell me.

I cast my mind back all in vain.

"No, Jack," I said trustfully. "I can't remember anything one bit like that. I can remember forward, sometimes, but never backwards. I can remember now how I flung down the pistol, and how the servants burst in. But not a word, not an item, of what went before. That's all a pure blank to me."

And then I went on to tell him in very brief outline how the first thing I could recollect in all my life was the Australian scene with the big blue-gum-trees; and how that had been recalled to me by the picture at Jane's; and how one scene in that way had gradually suggested another; and how I could often think ahead from a given fact but never go back behind it and discover what led up to it.

Jack drew his hand over his chin and reflected silently.

"That's odd," he said, after a pause. "Yet very comprehensible. I might almost have thought of that before: might have arrived at it on general principles. Psychologically and physiologically it's exactly what one would have expected from the nature of memory. And yet it never occurred to me. Set up the train of thought in the order in which it originally presented itself, and the links may readily restore themselves in successive series. Try to trace it backward in the inverse order, and the process is very much more difficult and involved.--Well, we'll try things just so with you, Una. We'll begin by reconstructing your first life as far as we can from the very outset, with the aid of these stray hints of yours; and then we'll see whether we can get you to remember all your past up to the day of the accident more easily."

I gazed up at him with gratitude.

"Oh, Jack," I said, trembling, "in spite of this shock, I believe I can do it now. I believe I can remember. The scales are falling from my eyes. I'm becoming myself again. What you've said and what you've shown me seems to have broken down a veil. I feel as if I could reconstruct all now, when once the key's suggested to me."

He smiled at me encouragingly. Oh, how could I ever have doubted him?

"That's right, darling," he answered. "I should have expected as much, indeed. For now for the very first time since the accident you've got really at the other side of the great blank in your memory."

I felt so happy, though I knew I was a murderess. I didn't mind now whether I was hanged or not. To love Jack and be loved by him was quite enough for me. When he called me "darling," I was in the seventh heavens. It sounded so familiar. I knew he must have called me so, often and often before, in the dim dead past that was just beginning to recur to me.