Chapter XXIII. The Fatal Shot
 

"Thank God, Una," Jack cried, "you remember it now even better than I do!"

"Remember it!" I answered, holding my brow with my hands to keep the flood of thought from bursting it to fragments. "Remember it! Why, it comes back to me like waves of fire and burns me. I remember every word, every act, every gesture. I lifted my head slowly, Jack, and looked over the screen at him. In the twilight, I saw him there--the man I called my father--holding the bottle to your face, that wicked bottle of chloroform, with his revolver in one hand, and a calm smile like a fiend's playing hatefully and cruelly round that grave-looking mouth of his. I never saw any man look so ghastly in my life. I was rooted to the spot with awe and terror. I dared hardly cry out or move. Yet I knew this was murder. He would kill you! He would kill you! He was trying to poison you before my very eyes. Oh, heaven, how I hated him! He was no father of mine. He had never been my father. And he was murdering the man I loved best in the world. For I loved you better than life, Jack! Oh, the strain of it was terrible! I see it all now. I live it all over again. With one wild bound I leapt forward, and, hardly knowing what I did, I pressed the button, turned off the current from the battery, and rushed wildly upon him. I suppose the knob I pressed not only released you, but set the photographic machine at work automatically. But I didn't know it then. At any rate, I remember now, in the seconds that followed, flash came fast after flash. There was a sudden illumination. The room was lighter than day. It grew alternately bright as noon and then dark as pitch again by contrast. And by the light of the flashes, I saw you, half-dazed with the chloroform, standing helpless there.

"I rushed up and caught the man's arm. He was never my father! He dropped the bottle and struggled hard for possession of the pistol. First he pointed it at you, then at me, then at you again. He meant to shoot you. I was afraid it would go off. With a terrible effort I twisted his wrist awry, in the mad force of passion, and wrenched the revolver away from him. He jumped at my throat, still silent, but fierce like a tiger at bay. I eluded him, and sprang back. Then I remember no more, except that I stood with the pistol pointed at him. Next, came a flash, a loud roar. And then, in a moment, the Picture. He lay dead on the floor in his blood. And my Second State began. And from that day, for months, I was like a little child again."

Jack looked at me as I paused.

"And then?" he went on in a very low voice, half prompting me.

"And then all I can remember," I said, "is how you got out of the window. But I didn't know when I saw you, it was you or anyone else. That was my Second State then. The shot seemed to end all. What comes next is quite different. It belongs to the new world. There, my life stopped dead short and began all over again."

There was a moments silence. Jack was the first to break it.

"And now will you give yourself up to the police, Una?" he asked me quietly.

The question brought me back to the present again with a bound.

"Oh! what ought I to do?" I cried, wringing my hands. "I don't quite know all yet. Jack, why did you run away that last moment and leave me?"

Jack took my hand very seriously.

"Una, my child," he said, fixing his eyes on mine, "I hardly know whether I can ever make you understand all that. I must ask you at first at least just simply to believe me. I must ask you to trust me and to accept my account. When you rushed upon me as I stood there, all entangled in that hateful apparatus, and unable to move, I didn't know where you had been; I didn't know how you'd come there. But I felt sure you must have heard at least your false father's last words--that he'd stifle me with the chloroform and burn my body up afterwards to ashes with his chemicals. You seized the pistol before I could quite recover from the effects of the fumes. He lay dead at my feet before I realised what was happening.

"Then, in a moment, as I looked at you, I took it all in, like a flash of lightning. I saw how impossible it would be ever to convince anybody else of the truth of our story. I saw if we both told the truth, no one would ever believe us. There was no time then to reflect, no time to hesitate. I had to make up my mind at once to a plan of action, and to carry it out without a second's delay. In one burst of inspiration, I saw that to stop would be to seal both our fates. I didn't mind so much for myself; that was nothing, nothing: but for your sake I felt I must dare and risk everything. Then I turned round and looked at you. I saw at one glance the horror of the moment had rendered you speechless and almost senseless. The right plan came to me at once as if by magic. 'Una,' I cried, 'stand back! Wait till the servants come!' For I knew the report of the revolver would soon bring them up to the library. Then I waited myself. As they reached the door, and forced it open, I jumped up to the window. Just outside, my bicycle stood propped against the wall. I let them purposely catch just a glimpse of my back--an unfamiliar figure. They saw the pistol on the floor,--Mr. Callingham dead--you, startled and horrified--a man unknown, escaping in hot haste from the window. I risked my own life, so as to save your name and honour. I let them see me escape, so as to exonerate you from suspicion. If they hanged me, what matter? Then I leapt down in a hurry, jumped lightly on my machine, and rode off like the wind down the avenue to the high-road. For a second or two they waited to look at you and your father. That second or two saved us. By the time they'd come out to look, I was away down the grounds, past the turn of the avenue, and well on for the high-road. They'd seen a glimpse of the murderer, escaping by the window. They would never suspect you. You were saved, and I was happy."

"And for the same reason even now," I said, "you wouldn't tell the police?"

"Let sleeping dogs lie," Jack answered, in the same words as Dr. Marten. "Why rake up this whole matter? It's finished for ever now, and nobody but yourself is ever likely to reopen it. If we both told our tale, we might run a great risk of being seriously misinterpreted. You know it's true; so do I: but who else would believe us? No man's bound to criminate himself. You shot him to save my life, at the very moment when you first learned all his cruelty and his vileness. The rest of the world could never be made to understand all that. They'd say to the end, as it looks on the surface, 'She shot her father to save her lover.'"

"You're right," I said slowly. "I shall let this thing rest. But the photographs, Jack--the apparatus--the affair of the inquest?"

"That was all very simple," Jack answered. "For a day or two, of course, I was in a frantic state of mind for fear you should be suspected, or the revolver should betray you. But though I saw the electric sparks, of course, I knew nothing about the photographs. I wasn't even aware that the apparatus took negatives automatically. And I was so full of the terrible reports in the newspapers about your sudden loss of health, that I could think of nothing else--least of all my own safety. As good luck would have it, however, the clergyman at Wrode, who knew the Wilsons, happened to speak to me of the murder--all England called it the murder and talked of nothing else for at least a fortnight,--and in the course of conversation he mentioned this apparatus of Mr. Callingham's construction. 'What a pity,' he said, 'there didn't happen to be one of them in the library at the time! If it was focussed towards the persons, and had been set on by the victim, it would have photographed the whole scene the murder, the murderer.'

"That hint revealed much to me. As he spoke, I remembered suddenly about those mysterious flashes when you burst all at once on my sight from behind the screen. Till that moment, I thought of them only as some result of your too suddenly turning off the electric current. But then, it came home to me in a second that Mr. Callingham must have set out his apparatus all ready for experimenting--that the electric apparatus was there to put it in working order. The button you turned must not only have stopped the current that nailed me writhing to the spot: it must also have set working the automatic photographic camera!

"That thought, as you may imagine, filled me with speechless alarm: for I remembered then that one of the flashes broke upon us at the exact moment when you fired the pistol. Such a possibility was horrible to contemplate. The photographs by themselves could give no clue to our conversation or to the events that compelled you, almost against your own will, to fire that fatal shot. If they were found by the police, all would be up with both of us. They might hang me if they liked: except for Elsie's sake, I didn't mind much about that: but for your safety, come what might, I felt I must manage to get hold of them or to destroy them.

"Were the negatives already in the hands of the police? That was now the great question. I read the reports diligently, with all their descriptions of the room, and noticed that while the table, the alcove, the screen, the box, the electrical apparatus, were all carefully mentioned, not a word was said anywhere about the possession of the negatives. Reasoning further upon the description of the supposed murderer as given by the servants, and placarded broadcast in every town in England, I came to the conclusion that the police couldn't yet have discovered the existence of these negatives: for some of them must surely have photographed my face, however little in focus; while the printed descriptions mentioned only the man's back, as the servants saw him escaping from the window. The papers said the room was being kept closed till the inquest, for inspection in due time by the coroner's jury. I made up my mind at once. When the room was opened for the jurors to view it, I must get in there and carry them off, if they caught me in the attempt.

"It was no use trying before the jury had seen the room. But as soon as that was all over, I judged the strictness of the watch upon the premises would be relaxed, and the windows would probably be opened a little to air the place. So on the morning of the inquest, I told the Wilsons casually I'd met you at Torquay and had therefore a sort of interest in learning the result of the coroner's deliberation. Then I took my bicycle, and rode across to Woodbury. Leaning up my machine against the garden wall, I walked carelessly in at the gate, and up the walk to the library window, as if the place belonged to me. Oh, how my heart beat as I looked in and wondered! The folding halves were open, and the box stood on the table, still connected with the wires that conducted the electrical current. I stood and hesitated in alarm. Were the negatives still there, or had the police discovered them? If they were gone, all was up with you. The game was lost. No jury on earth, I felt sure, would believe my story.

"I vaulted up to the sill. Thank heaven, I was athletic. Not a soul was about: but I heard a noise of muffled voices in the other rooms behind. Treading cat-like across the floor, I turned the key in the lock. A chalk mark still showed the position of the pistol on the ground exactly as you flung it. The box was on the table, and I saw at a glance, the wires which connected it with the battery had never been disconnected. I was afraid of receiving a shock if I touched them with my hands, and I had no time to waste in discovering electrical attachments. So I pulled out my knife, and you can fancy with what trembling hands I cut that wire on either side and released the box from its dangerous connections. I knew only too well the force of that current. Then I took the thing under my arm, leaped from the window once more, and ran across the shrubbery towards the spot where I'd left my bicycle.

"On the way, the thought struck me that if I carried along the camera, all would be up with me should I happen to be challenged. It was the only one of the sort in existence at the time, and the wires at the side would at once suffice to identify it and to arouse the suspicion even of an English policeman. I paused for a moment behind a thick clump of lilacs and tried to pull out the incriminating negatives. Oh, Una, I did it for your sake; but there, terrified and trembling, in hiding behind the bushes, and in danger of my life, with that still more unspeakable danger for yours haunting me always like a nightmare, can you wonder that for the moment I almost felt myself a murderer? The very breezes in the trees made my heart give a jump, and then stand still within me. I got out the first two or three plates with some trifling difficulty, for I didn't understand the automatic apparatus then as I understand it now: but the fourth stuck hard for a minute; the fifth broke in two; and the sixth--well, the sixth plate baffled me entirely by getting jammed in the clockwork, and refusing to move, either backward or forward.

"At that moment, I either heard or fancied I heard a loud noise of pursuit, a hue and cry behind me. Zeal for your safety had made me preternaturally nervous. I looked about me hurriedly, thrust the negatives I'd recovered into my breast-pocket as fast as ever I could, flung the apparatus away from me with the sixth plate jammed hard in the groove, and made off at the top of my speed for the wall behind me. For there, at that critical point, it occurred to me suddenly that the sixth and last flash of the machine had come and gone just as I stood poising myself on the ledge of the window-sill; and I thought to myself--rightly as it turned out--this additional evidence would only strengthen the belief in the public mind that Mr. Callingham had been murdered by the man whom the servants saw escaping from the window.

"The rest, my child, you know pretty well already. In a panic on your account, I scrambled over the wall, tearing my hands as I went with that nasty-bottle glass, reached my bicycle outside, and made off, not for the country, but for the inn where they were holding the coroner's inquest. My left hand I had to hold, tied up in my handkerchief to stop the bleeding, in the pocket of my jacket: but I thought this the best way, all the same, to escape detection. And, indeed, instead of being, as I feared, the only man there in bicycling dress and knickerbockers, I found the occasion had positively attracted all the cyclists of the neighbourhood. Each man went there to show his own innocence of fear or suspicion. A good dozen or two of bicyclists stood gathered already in the body of the room in the same incriminating costume. So I found safety in numbers. Even the servants who had seen me disappear through the window, though their eyes lighted upon me more than once, never for a moment seemed to suspect me. And I know very well why. When I stand up, I'm the straightest and most perpendicular man that ever walked erect. But when I poise to jump, I bend my spine so much that I produce the impression of being almost hump-backed. It was that attitude you recognised in me when I jumped from the window just now."

"Why, Jack," I cried clinging to him in a perfect whirlwind of wonder, "one can hardly believe it--that was only an hour ago!"

"That was only an hour ago," Jack answered, smiling. "But as for you, I suppose you've lived half a lifetime again in it. And now you know the whole secret of the Woodbury Mystery. And you won't want to give yourself up to the police any longer."