Chapter IX. Hateful Suspicions
 

The rest of that night I lay awake in my bed, the scene in the verandah by the big blue-gum-trees haunting me all the time, much as in earlier days the Picture of the murder had pursued and haunted me. Early in the morning I rose up, and went down to Jane in her little parlour. I longed for society in my awe. I needed human presence. I couldn't bear to be left alone by myself with all these pressing and encompassing mysteries.

"Jane," I said after a few minutes' careless talk--for I didn't like to tell her about my wonderful dream,--"where exactly did you find the picture of that house hanging over in the corner there?"

"Lor' bless your heart, miss," Jane answered, "there's a whole boxful of them at The Grange. Nobody ever cared for them. They're up in the top attic. They were locked till your papa died, and then they were opened by order of the executors. Some of 'em's faded even worse than that one, and none of 'em's very good; but I picked this one out because it was better worth framing for my room than most of 'em. The executors took no notice when they found what they was. They opened the box to see if it was dockyments."

"Well, Jane," I said, "I shall go up and bring them every one away with me. It's possible they may help me to recollect things a bit." I drew my hand across my forehead. "It all seems so hazy," I went on. "Yet when I see things again, I sometimes feel as if I almost recognised them."

So that very morning we went up together (I wouldn't go alone), and got the rest of the photographs--very faded positives from old-fashioned plates, most of them representing persons and places I had never seen; and a few of them apparently not taken in England.

I didn't look them all over at once just then. I thought it best not to do so. I would give my memory every possible chance. Take a few at a time, and see what effect they produced on me. Perhaps--though I shrank from the bare idea with horror--they might rouse in my sleep such another stray effort of spontaneous reconstruction. Yet the last one had cost me much nervous wear and tear--much mental agony.

A few days after, I went away from Woodbury. I had learned for the moment, I thought, all that Woodbury could teach me: and I longed to get free again for a while from this pervading atmosphere of mystery. At Aunt Emma's, at least, all was plain and aboveboard. I would go back to Barton-on-the-Sea, and rest there for a while, among the heathery hills, before proceeding any further on my voyage of discovery.

But I took back Jane with me. I was fond of Jane now. In those two short weeks I had learned to cling to her. Though I remembered her, strictly speaking, no more than at first, yet the affection I must have borne her in my First State seemed to revive in me very easily, like all other emotions. I was as much at home with Jane, indeed, as if I had known her for years. And this wasn't strange; for I had known her for years, in point of fact; and and though I'd forgotton most of those years, the sense of familiarity they had inspired still lived on with me unconsciously. I know now that memory resides chiefly in the brain, while the emotions are a wider endowment of the nervous system in general; so that while a great shock may obliterate whole tracts in the memory, no power on earth can ever alter altogether the sentiments and feelings.

As for Jane, she was only too glad to come with me. There were no lodgers at present, she said; and none expected. Her sister Elizabeth would take care of the rooms, and if any stranger came, why, Lizzie'd telegraph down at once for her. So I wrote to Aunt Emma to expect us both next day. Aunt Emma's, I knew, was a home where I or mine were always welcome.

Jane had never seen Aunt Emma. There had been feud between the families while my father lived, so she didn't visit The Grange after my mother's death. Aunt Emma had often explained to me in part how all that happened. It was the one point in our family history on which she'd ever been explicit: for she had a grievance there; and what woman on earth can ever suppress her grievances? It's our feminine way to air them before the world, as it's a man's to bury them deep in his own breast and brood over them.

My mother, she told me, had been a widow when my father married her--a rich young widow. She had gone away, a mere girl, to Australia with her first husband, a clergyman, who was lost at sea two or three years after, on the voyage home to England without her. She had one little girl by her first husband, but the child died quite young: and then she married my father, who met her first in Australia while she waited for news of the clergyman's safety. Her family always disapproved of the second marriage. My father had no money, it seemed; and mamma was well off, having means of her own to start with, like Aunt Emma, and having inherited also her first husband's property, which was very considerable. He had left it to his little girl, and after her to his wife; so that first my father, and then I myself, came in, in the end, to both the little estates, though my mother's had been settled on the children of the first marriage. Aunt Emma always thought my father had married for money: and she said he had been hard and unkind to mamma: not indeed cruel; he wasn't a cruel man; but severe and wilful. He made her do exactly as he wished about everything, in a masterful sort of way, that no woman could stand against. He crushed her spirit entirely, Aunt Emma told me; she had no will of her own, poor thing: his individuality was so strong, that it overrode my mother's weak nature rough-shod.

Not that he was rough. He never scolded her; he never illtreated her; but he said to her plainly, "You are to do so and so;" and she obeyed like a child. She never dared to question him.

So Aunt Emma had always said my mother was badly used, especially in money matters--the money being all, when one came to think of it, her own or her first husband's;--and as a consequence, auntie was never invited to The Grange during my father's lifetime.

When we reached Barton-on-the-Sea, Jane and I, on our way from Woodbury, Aunt Emma was waiting at the station to meet us. To my great disappointment, I could see at first sight she didn't care for Jane: and I could also see at first sight Jane didn't care for her. This was a serious blow to me, for I leaned upon those two more than I leaned upon anyone; and I had far too few friends in the world of my own, to afford to do without any one of them.

In the evening, however, when I went up to my own room to bed, Jane came up to help me as she always did at Woodbury. I began at once to tax her with not liking Aunt Emma. With a little hesitation, Jane admitted that at first sight she hadn't felt by any means disposed to care for her. I pressed her hard as to why. Jane held off and prevaricated. That roused my curiosity:--you see, I'm a woman. I insisted upon knowing.

"Oh, miss, I can't tell you!" Jane cried, growing red in the face, "I can't bear to say it out. You oughtn't to ask. It'll hurt you to know I even thought such a thing of her!"

"You must tell me, Jane," I exclaimed, with a cold shudder of terror, half guessing what she meant. "Don't keep me in suspense. Let me know what it is. I'm accustomed to shocks now. I know I can stand them."

Jane answered nothing directly. She only held out her coarse red hand and asked me, with a face growing pale as she spoke:

"Where's that picture of the murder?"

I produced it from my box, trembling inwardly all over.

Jane darted one finger demonstratively at a point in the photograph.

"Whose hand is that?" she asked with a strange earnestness, putting her nail on the murderer's.

The words escaped me in a cry of horror almost before I was aware of them:

"Aunt Emma's!" I said, gasping. "I never noticed it before."

Then I drew back and stared at it in speechless awe and consternation.

It was quite, quite true. No use in denying it. The figure that escaped through the window was dressed in man's clothes, to be sure, and as far as one could judge from the foreshortening and the peculiar stoop, had a man's form and stature. But the hand was a woman's--soft, and white, and delicate: nay more, the hand, as I said in my haste, was line for line Aunt Emma's.

In a moment a terrible sinking came over me from head to foot. I trembled like an aspen-leaf. Could this, then, be the meaning of Dr. Marten's warning, that I should let sleeping dogs lie, lest I should be compelled to punish someone whom I loved most dearly? Had Fate been so cruel to me, that I had learned to cling most in my Second State to the very criminal whose act had blotted out my First? Had I grown to treat like a mother my father's murderer?

Aunt Emma's hand! Aunt Emma's hand! That was Aunt Emma's hand, every touch and every line of it. But no! where were the marks, those well-known marks on the palm? I took up the big magnifying-glass with which I had often scanned that photograph close before. Not a sign or a trace of them. I shut my eyes, and called up again the mental Picture of the murder. I looked hard at the phantom-hand in it, that floated like a vision, all distinct before my mind's eye. It was flat and smooth and white. Not a scar--not a sign on it. I turned round to Jane, that too natural detective.

"No, no!" I cried hastily, with a quick tone of triumph. "Aunt Emma's hand is marked on the palm with great gashes and cuts. This one's smooth as smooth can be. And so's the one I can see in the Picture within me!"

Jane drew back with a startled air, and opened her mouth, all agog, to let in a deep breath.

"The wall!" she said slowly. "The bottle-glass, don't you know! The blood on the top! Whoever did it, climbed over and tore his hands. Or her hands, if it was a woman! That would account for the gashes."

This was more than I could endure. The coincidence was too crushing. I bent down my head on my arms and cried silently, bitterly. I hated Jane in my heart for even suggesting it. Yet I couldn't deny to myself for a moment the strength and suggestiveness of her half-spoken argument.

Not that for a second I believed it true. I could never believe it. Aunt Emma, so gentle, so kindly, so sweet: incapable of hurting any living thing: the tenderest old lady that breathed upon earth: and my own mother's sister, whom I loved as I never before loved anyone! Aunt Emma the murderess! The bare idea was preposterous! I couldn't entertain it. My whole nature revolted from it.

And indeed, how very slight, after all, was the mere scrap of evidence on which Jane ventured to suggest so terrible a charge! A man--in man's clothes--fairly tall and slim, and apparently dark- haired, but stooping so much that he looked almost hump-backed: how different from Aunt Emma, with her womanly figure, and her upright gait, and her sweet old white head! Why, it was clearly ridiculous.

And yet, the fact remained that as Jane pointed to the Picture and asked, "Whose hand is that?" the answer came up all spontaneously to my lips, without hesitation, "Aunt Emma's!"

I sat there long in my misery, thinking it over to myself. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't go and confide to Aunt Emma's ear this new and horrible doubt,--which was no doubt after all, for I knew it was impossible. I hated Jane for suggesting it; I hated her for telling me. Yet I couldn't be left alone. I was far too terrified.

"Oh, Jane;" I cried, looking up to her, and yet despising myself for saying it, "you must stop here to-night and sleep with me. If I'm left by myself in the room alone, I know I shall go mad--I can feel it--I'm sure of it!"

Jane stopped with me and soothed me. She was certainly very kind. Yet I felt in a dim underhand sort of way it was treason to Aunt Emma to receive her caresses at all after what she had said to me. Though to be sure, it was I, not she, who spoke those hateful words. It was I myself who had said the hand was Aunt Emma's.

As I lay awake and thought, the idea flashed across me suddenly, could Jane have any grudge of her own against Aunt Emma? Was this a deliberate plot? What did she mean by her warnings that I should keep my mind open? Why had she said from the very first it was a woman's hand? Did she want to set me against my aunt? And was Dr. Marten in league with her? In my tortured frame of mind, I felt all alone in the world. I covered my head and sobbed in my misery. I didn't know who were my friends and who were against me.

At last, after long watching, I dozed off into an uneasy sleep. Jane had already been snoring long beside me. I woke up again with a start. I was cold and shuddering. I had dreamed once more the same Australian dream. My mamma as before stood gentle beside me. She stooped down and smoothed my hair: I could see her face and her form distinctly. And I noticed now she was like her sister, Aunt Emma, only younger and prettier, and ever so much slighter. And her hand, too, was soft and white like auntie's--very gentle and delicate.

It was just there that I woke up--with the hand before my eyes. Oh, how vividly I noted it! Aunt Emma's hand, only younger, and unscarred on the palm. The family hand, no doubt: the hand of the Moores. I remembered, now, that Aunt Emma had spoken more than once of that family peculiarity. It ran through the house, she said. But my hand was quite different: not the Moore type at all: I supposed I must have taken it, as was natural, from the Callinghams.

And then, in my utter horror and loneliness, a still more awful and ghastly thought presented itself to me. This was my mother's hand I saw in the picture. Was it my mother, indeed, who wrought the murder? Was she living or dead? Had my father put upon her some grievous wrong? Had he pretended to get her out of the way? Had he buried her alive, so to speak, in some prison or madhouse? Had she returned in disguise from the asylum or the living grave to avenge herself and murder him? In my present frame of mind, no idea was too wild or too strange for me to entertain. If this strain continued much longer, I should go mad myself with suspense and horror!