Chapter V. I Become a Woman
 

Aunt Emma burst into the room, all horror and astonishment. She looked at the Inspector for a few seconds in breathless indignation; then she broke out in a tone of fiery remonstrance which fairly surprised me:

"What do you mean by this intrusion, sir? How dare you force your way into my house in my absence? How dare you encourage my servants to disobey my orders? How dare you imperil this young lady's health by coming here to talk with her?"

She turned round to me anxiously. I suppose I was very flushed with excitement and surprise.

"My darling child," she cried, growing pale all at once, "Maria should never have allowed him to come inside the door! You should have stopped upstairs! You should have refused to see him! I shall have you ill again on my hands, as before, after this. He'll have undone all the good the last four years have done for you!"

But I was another woman now. I felt it in a moment.

"Auntie dearest," I answered, moving across to her, and laying my hand on her shoulder to soothe her poor ruffled nerves, "don't be the least alarmed. It's I who'm to blame, and not Maria. I told her to let this gentleman in. He's done me good, not harm. I'm so glad to have been allowed at last to speak freely about it!"

Aunt Emma shook all over, visibly to the naked eye.

"You'll have a relapse, my child!" she exclaimed, half crying, and clinging to me in her terror. "You'll forget all you've learned: you'll go back these four years again!--Leave my house at once, sir! You should never have entered it!"

I stood between them like a statue.

"No, stop here a little longer," I said, waving my hand towards him imperiously. "I haven't yet heard all it's right for me to hear.... Auntie, you mistake. I'm a woman at last. I see what everything means. I'm beginning to remember again. For four years that hateful Picture has haunted me night and day. I could never shut my eyes for a minute without seeing it. I've longed to know what it all meant; but whenever I've asked, I've been repressed like a baby. I'm a baby no longer: I feel myself a woman. What the Inspector here has told me already, half opens my eyes: I must have them opened altogether now. I can't stop at this point. I'm going back to Woodbury."

Aunt Emma clung to me still harder in a perfect agony of passionate terror.

"To Woodbury, my darling!" she cried. "Going back! Oh, Una, it'll kill you!"

"I think not," the Inspector answered, with a very quiet smile. "Miss Callingham has recovered, I venture to say, far more profoundly than you imagine. This repression, our medical adviser tells us, has been bad for her. If she's allowed to visit freely the places connected with her earlier life, it may all return again to her; and the ends of Justice may thus at last be served for us. I notice already one hopeful symptom: Miss Callingham speaks of going back to Woodbury."

Aunt Emma looked up at him, horrified. All her firmness was gone now.

"It's you who've put this into her head!" she exclaimed, in a ferment of horror. "She'd never thought of it herself. You've made her do it!"

"On the contrary, auntie," I answered, feeling my ground grow surer under me every moment as I spoke, "this gentleman has never even by the merest hint suggested such an idea to my mind. It occurred to me quite spontaneously. I must find out now who was my father's murderer! All the Inspector has told me seems to arouse in my brain some vague, forgotten chords. It brings back to me faint shadows. I feel sure if I went to Woodbury I should remember much more. And then, you must see for yourself, there's another reason, dear, that ought to make me go. Nobody but I ever saw the murderer's face. It's a duty imposed upon me from without, as it were, never to rest again in peace till I've recognised him."

Aunt Emma collapsed into an easy-chair. Her face was deadly pale. Her ringers trembled.

"If you go, Una," she cried, playing nervously with her gloves, "I must go with you too! I must take care of you: I must watch over you!"

I took her quivering hand in mine and stroked it gently. It was a soft and delicate white little hand, all marked inside with curious ragged scars that I'd known and observed ever since I first knew her. I held it in silence for a minute. Somehow I felt our positions were reversed to-day. This interview had suddenly brought out what I know now to be my own natural and inherent character--self-reliant, active, abounding in initiative. For four years I had been as a child in her hands, through mere force of circumstances. My true self came out now and asserted its supremacy.

"No, dear," I said, soothing her cheek; "I shall go alone. I shall try what I can discover and remember myself without any suggestion or explanation from others. I want to find out how things really stand. I shall set to work on my own account to unravel this mystery."

"But how can you manage things by yourself?" Aunt Emma exclaimed, wringing her hands despondently. "A girl of your age! without even a maid! and all alone in the world! I shall be afraid to let you go. Dr. Wade won't allow it."

I drew myself up very straight, and realised the position.

"Aunt Emma," I said plainly, in a decided voice, "I'm a full-grown woman, over twenty-one years of age, mistress of my own acts, and no longer a ward of yours. I can do as I like, and neither Dr. Wade nor anybody else can prevent me. He may advice me not to go: he has no power to order me. I'm my father's heiress, and a person of independent means. I've been a cipher too long. From to-day I take my affairs wholly into my own hands. I 'll go round at once and see your lawyer, your banker, your agent, your tradesmen, and tell them that henceforth I draw my own rents, I receive my own dividends, I pay my own bills, I keep my own banking account. And to-morrow or the next day I set out for Woodbury."

The Inspector turned to Aunt Emma with a demonstrative smile.

"There, you see for. yourself," he said, well pleased, "what this interview has done for her!"

But Aunt Emma only drew back, wrung her hands again in impotent despair, and stared at him blankly like a wounded creature.

The Inspector took up his hat to leave. I followed him out to the door, and shook hands with him cordially. The burden felt lighter on my shoulders already. For four long years that mystery had haunted me day and night, as a thing impenetrable, incomprehensible, not even to be inquired about. The mere sense that I might now begin to ask what it meant seemed to make it immediately less awful and less burdensome to me.

When I returned to the drawing-room, Aunt Emma sat there on the sofa, crying silently, the very picture of misery.

"Una," she said, without even raising her eyes to mine, "the man may have done as he says: he may have restored you your mind again; but what's that to me? He's lost me my child, my darling, my daughter!"

I stooped down and kissed her. Dear, tender-hearted auntie! she had always been very good to me. But I knew I was right, for all that, in becoming a woman,--in asserting my years, my independence, my freedom, my duty. To have shirked it any longer would have been sheer cowardice. So I just kissed her silently, and went up to my own room--to put on my brown hat, and go out to the banker's.

From that moment forth, one fierce desire in life alone possessed me. The brooding mystery that enveloped my life ceased to be passive, and became an active goad, as it were, to push me forward incessantly on my search for the runaway I was the creature of a fixed idea. A fiery energy spurred me on all my time. I was determined now to find out my father's murderer. I was determined to shake off the atmosphere of doubt and forgetfulness. I was determined to recall those first scenes of my life that so eluded my memory.

Yet, strange to say, it was rather a burning curiosity and a deep sense of duty that urged me on, than anything I could properly call affection--still less, revenge or malice. I didn't remember my father as alive at all: the one thing I could recollect about him was the ghastly look of that dead body, stretched at full length on the library floor, with its white beard all dabbled in the red blood that clotted it. It was abstract zeal for the discovery of the truth that alone pushed me on. This search became to me henceforth an end and aim in itself. It stood out, as it were, visibly in the imperative mood: "go here;" "go there;" "do this;" "try that;" "leave no stone unturned anywhere till you've tracked down the murderer!" Those were the voices that now incessantly though inaudibly pursued me.

Next day I spent in preparations for my departure. I would hunt up Woodbury now, though fifty Aunt Emma's held their gentle old faces up in solemn warning against me. The day after that again, I set out on my task. The pull was hard. I had taken my own affairs entirely into my own hands by that time, and had provided myself with money for a long stay at Woodbury. But it was the very first railway journey I could ever remember to have made alone; and I confess, when I found myself seated all by myself in a first-class carriage, with no friend beside me, my resolution for a moment almost broke down again. It was so terrible to feel oneself boxed up there for an hour or two alone, with that awful Picture staring one in the face all the time from every fence and field and wall and hoarding. It obliterated Fry's Cocoa; it fixed itself on the yellow face of Colman's Mustard.

I went by Liverpool Street, and drove across to Paddington. I had never, to my knowledge, been in London before: and it was all so new to me. But Liverpool Street was even newer to me than Paddington, I noticed. A faint sense of familiarity seemed to hang about the Great Western line. And that was not surprising, I thought, as I turned it over; for, of course, in the old days, when we lived at Woodbury, I must often have come down from town that way with my father. Yet I remembered nothing of it all definitely; the most I could say was that I seemed dimly to recollect having been there before--though when or where or how, I hadn't the faintest notion.

I was early at Paddington. The refreshment room somehow failed to attract me. I walked up and down the platform, waiting for my train. As I did so, a boy pasted a poster on a board: it was the contents-sheet of one of the baser little Society papers. Something strange in it caught my eye. I looked again in amazement. Oh, great heavens! what was this in big flaring letters?

"MISS UNA CALLINGHAM AND THE WOODBURY MYSTERY! Is SHE SCREENING THE MURDERER? A POSSIBLE EXPLANATION!"

The words took my breath away. They were too horrible to realise. I positively couldn't speak. I went up to the bookstall, laid down my penny without moving my lips, and took the paper in my hand in tremulous silence.

I dared not open it there and then, I confess. I waited till I was in the train, and on my way to Woodbury.

When I did so, it was worse, even worse than my fears. The article was short, but it was very hateful. It said nothing straight out--the writer had evidently the fear of the law of libel before his eyes as he wrote,--but it hinted and insinuated in a detestable undertone the most vile innuendoes. A Treasury Doctor and a Police Inspector, it said, had lately examined Miss Callingham again, and found her intellect in every respect perfectly normal, except that she couldn't remember the face of her father's murderer. Now, this was odd, because, you see, Miss Callingham was in the room at the moment the shot was fired; and, alone in the world, Miss Callingham had seen the face of the man who fired it. Who was that man? and why was he there, unknown to the servants, in a room with nobody but Mr. Callingham and his daughter? A correspondent (who preferred to guard his incognito) had suggested in this matter some very searching questions: Could the young man--for it was allowed he was young--have been there with Miss Callingham when Mr. Callingham entered? Could he have been on terms of close intimacy with the heroine of The Grange Mystery, who was a young lady--as all the world knew from her photographs--of great personal attractiveness, and who was also the heiress to a considerable property? Could he have been there, then, by appointment, without the father's knowledge? Was this the common case of a clandestine assignation? Could the father have returned to the house unexpectedly, at an inopportune moment, and found his daughter there, closeted with a stranger--perhaps with a man who had already, for sufficient grounds, been forbidden the premises? Such things might be, in this world that we live in: he would be a bold man who would deny them categorically. Could an altercation have arisen on the father's return, and the fatal shot have been fired in the ensuing scuffle? And could the young lady then have feigned this curious relapse into that Second State we had all heard so much about, for no other reason than to avoid giving evidence at a trial for murder against her guilty lover?

These were suggestions that deserved the closest consideration of the Authorities charged with the repression of crime. Was it not high time that the inquest on Mr. Callingham's body should be formally reopened, and that the young lady, now restored (as we gathered) to her own seven senses, should be closely interrogated by trained legal cross-examiners?

I laid down the paper with a burning face. I learned now, for the first time, how closely my case had been watched, how eagerly my every act and word had been canvassed. It was hateful to think of my photograph having been exposed in every London shop-window, and of anonymous slanderers being permitted to indite such scandal as this about an innocent woman. But, at any rate, it had the effect of sealing my fate. If I meant even before to probe this mystery to the bottom, I felt now no other course was possibly open to me. For the sake of my own credit, for the sake of my own good fame, I must find out and punish my father's murderer.