Chapter XXII. My Memory Returns

At last my chance came," Jack went on. "I'd found out almost everything; not, of course, exactly by way of legal proof, but to my own entire satisfaction: and I determined to lay the matter definitely at once before Mr. Callingham. So I took a holiday for a fortnight, to go bicycling in the Midlands I told my patients; and I fixed my head-quarters at Wrode, which, as you probably remember, is twenty miles off from Woodbury.

"It was important for my scheme I should catch Mr. Callingham alone. I had no idea of entrapping him. I wanted to work upon his conscience and induce him to confess. My object was rather to move him to remorse and restitution than to terrify or surprise him.

"So on the day of the accident--call it murder, if you will--I rode over on my machine, unannounced, to The Grange to see him. You knew where I was staying, you recollect--"

At the words, a burst of memory came suddenly over me.

"Oh yes!" I cried. "I remember. It was at the Wilsons', at Wrode. I wrote over there to tell you we were going to dine alone at six that evening, as papa had got his electric apparatus home from his instrument-maker, and was anxious to try his experiments early. You'd written to me privately--a boy brought the note--that you wanted to have an hour's talk alone with papa. I thought it was about me, and I was, oh, ever so nervous!"

For it all came back to me now, as clear as yesterday.

Jack looked at me hard.

"I'm glad you remember that, dear," he said. "Now, Una, do try to remember all you can as I go along with my story... Well, I rode over alone, never telling anybody at Wrode where I was going, nor giving your step-father any reason of any sort to expect me. I trusted entirely to finding him busy with his new invention. When I reached The Grange, I came up the drive unperceived, and looking in at the library window, saw your father alone there. He was pottering over his chemicals. That gave me the clue. I left my bicycle under the window, tilted up against the wall, and walked in without ringing, going straight to the library. Nobody saw me come: nobody saw me return, except one old lady on the road, who seemed to have forgotten all about it by the time of the inquest."

(I nodded and gave a start. I knew that must have been Aunt Emma.)

"Except yourself, Una, no human soul on earth ever seemed to suspect me. And that wasn't odd; for you and your father, and perhaps Minnie Moore, were the only people in the world who ever knew I was in love with you or cared for you in any way."

"Go on," I said, breathless. "And you went into the library."

"I went into the library," Jack continued, "where I found your father, just returned from enjoying his cigar on the lawn. He was alone in the room--"

"No, no!" I cried eagerly, putting in my share now; for I had a part in the history. "He wasn't alone, Jack, though you thought him so at the time. I remember all, at last. It comes back to me like a flash. Oh, heavens, how it comes back to me! Jack, Jack, I remember to-day every word, every syllable of it!"

He gazed at me in surprise.

"Then tell me yourself, Una!" he exclaimed. "How did you come to be there? For I knew you were there at last; but till you fired the pistol, I hadn't the faintest idea you had heard or seen anything. Tell me all about it, quick! There comes in my mystery."

In one wild rush of thought the whole picture rose up like a vision before me.

"Why, Jack," I cried, "there was a screen, a little screen in the alcove! You remember the alcove at the west end of the room. It was so small a screen, you'd hardly have thought it could hide me; but it did--it did--and all, too, by accident. I'd gone in there after dinner, not much thinking where I went, and was seated on the floor by the little alcove window, reading a book by the twilight. It was a book papa told me I wasn't to read, and I took it trembling from the shelves, and was afraid he'd scold me--for you know how stern he was. And I never was allowed to go alone into the library. But I got interested in my book, and went on reading. So when he came in, I went on sitting there very still, with the book hidden under my skirt, for fear he should scold me. I thought perhaps before long papa'd go out for a second, to get some plates for his photography or something, and then I could slip away and never be noticed. The big window towards the garden was open, you remember, and I meant to jump out of it--as you did afterwards. It wasn't very high; and though the book was only The Vicar of Wakefield, he'd forbidden me to read it, and I was dreadfully afraid of him."

"Then you were there all the time?" Jack cried interrogatively. "And you heard our conversation--our whole conversation?"

"I was there all the time, Jack," I cried, in a fever of exaltation: "and I heard every word of it! It comes back to me now with a vividness like yesterday. I see the room before my eyes. I remember every syllable: I could repeat every sentence of it."

Jack drew a deep sigh of intense relief.

"Thank God for that!" he exclaimed, with profound gratitude. "Then I'm saved, and you're saved. We can both understand one another in that case. We know how it all happened!"

"Perfectly," I answered. "I know all now. As I sat there and cowered, I heard a knock at the door, and before papa could answer, you entered hastily. Papa looked round, I could hear, and saw who it was in a second.

"'Oh, it's you!' he said, coldly. 'It's you, Dr. Ivor. And pray, sir, what do you want here this evening?'"

"Go on!" Jack cried, intensely relieved, I could feel. "Let me see how much more you can remember, Una."

"So you shut the door softly and said:

"'Yes, it's I, Mr. Callingham,'" I continued all aglow, and looking into his eyes for confirmation. "'And I've come to tell you a fact that may surprise you. Prepare for strange news. Richard Wharton has returned to England!'

"I knew Richard Wharton was mamma's first husband, who was dead before I was born, as I'd always been told: and I sat there aghast at the news: it was so sudden, so crushing. I'd heard he'd been wrecked, and I thought he'd come to life again; but as yet I didn't suspect what was all the real meaning of it.

"But papa drew back, I could hear, in a perfect frenzy of rage, astonishment, and terror.

"'Richard Wharton!' he hissed out between his teeth, springing away like one stung. 'Richard Wharton come back! You liar! You sneak! He's dead this twenty years! You're trying to frighten me.'

"I never meant to overhear your conversation. But at that, it was so strange, I drew back and cowered even closer. I was afraid of papa's voice. I was afraid of his rage. He spoke just like a man who was ready to murder you.

"Then you began to talk with papa about strange things that astonished me--strange things that I only half understood just then, but that by the light of what you've told me to-day I quite understand now--the history of my real father.

"'I'm no liar,' you answered. 'Richard Wharton has come back. And by the aid of what he's disclosed, I know the whole truth. The girl you call your daughter, and whose money you've stolen, is not yours at all. She's Richard Wharton's daughter Mary!'

"Papa staggered back a pace or two, and came quite close to the screen. I cowered behind it in alarm. I could see he was terrified. For a minute or two you talked with him, and urged him to confess. Bit by bit, as you went on, he recovered his nerve, and began to bluster. He didn't deny what you said: he saw it was no use: he just sneered and prevaricated.

"As I listened to his words, I saw he admitted it all. A great horror came over me. Then my life was one long lie! He was never my father. He had concocted a vile plot. He had held me in this slavery so many years to suit his own purposes. He had crushed my mother to death, and robbed me of my birthright. Even before that night, I never loved him. I thought it very wicked of me, but I never could love him. As he spoke to you and grew cynical, I began to loathe and despise him. I can't tell you how great a comfort it was to me to know--to hear from his own lips I was not that man's daughter.

"At last, after many recriminations, he looked across at you, and said, half laughing, for he was quite himself again by that time:

"'This is all very fine, Courtenay Ivor--all very fine in its way; but how are you going to prove it? that's the real question. Do you think any jury in England will believe, on your unsupported oath, such a cock-and-bull story? Do you think, even if Richard Wharton's come back, and you've got him on your side, I can't cross-examine all the life out of his body?'

"At that you said gravely--wanting to touch his conscience, I suppose:--

"'Richard Wharton's come back, but you can't cross-examine him. For Richard Wharton died some six or eight weeks since at my cottage at Babbicombe, after revealing to me all this vile plot against himself and his daughter.'

"Then papa drew back with a loud laugh--a hateful laugh like a demon's. I can't help calling him papa still, though it pains me even to think of him. That loud laugh rings still in my ears to this day. It was horrible, diabolical, like a wild beast's in triumph.

"'You fool!' he said, with a sneer. 'And you come here to tell me that! You infernal idiot! You come here to put yourself in my power like this! Courtenay Ivor, I always knew you were an ass, but I didn't ever know you were quite such a born idiot of a fellow as that. Hold back there, you image!' With a rapid dart, before you could see what he was doing, he passed a wire round your body and thrust two knobs into your hands. 'You're in my power now!' he exclaimed. 'You can't move or stir!'

"I saw at once what he'd done. He'd pinned you to the spot with the handles of his powerful electric apparatus. It was so strong that it would hold one riveted to the spot in pain. You couldn't let go. You could hardly even speak or cry aloud for help. He had pinned you down irresistibly. I thought he meant to murder you.

"Yet I was too terrified, even so, to scream aloud for the servants. I only crouched there, rooted, and wondered what next would happen.

"He went across to the door and turned the key in it. Then he opened the cabinet and took out some things there. It was growing quite dusk, and I could hardly see them. He returned with them where you stood, struggling in vain to set yourself free. His voice was as hard as adamant now. He spoke slowly and distinctly, in a voice like a fiend's. Oh, Jack, no wonder that scene took away my reason!"

"And you can remember what he said next, Una?" Jack asked, following me eagerly.

"Yes, I can remember what he said next," I went on. "He stood over you threateningly. I could see then the thing he held in his right hand was a loaded revolver. In his left was a bottle, a small medical phial.

"'If you stir, I'll shoot you,' he said; 'I'll shoot you like a dog! You fool, you've sealed your own fate! What an idiot to let me know Richard Wharton's dead! Now, hear your fate! Nobody saw you come into this house to-night. Nobody shall see you leave. Look here, sir, at this bottle. It's chloroform: do you understand? Chloroform--chloroform--chloroform! I shall hold it to your nose--so. I shall stifle you quietly--no blood, no fuss, no nasty mess of any sort. And when I'm done,--do you see these flasks?--I can reduce your damned carcase to a pound of ashes with chemicals in half-an-hour! You've found out too much. But you've mistaken your man! Courtenay Ivor, say your prayers and commend your soul to the devil! You've driven me to bay, and I give you no quarter!'"