Chapter XXIII. The Inevitable
 

"I very much regret having to trouble you, Miss Merlin, at such a time," said Inspector Gatton, "but as the paper lodged with you by the late Sir Eric Coverly may throw some light upon a very dark matter, perhaps you will read it to us."

I watched the play of expression upon Isobel's face with a depth of sympathy which I cannot attempt to describe. The successive trials which had been imposed upon her in so short a time had robbed her cheeks of their sweet color and there were dark shadows under her eyes. The tumult of my own feelings was such that I was scarcely capable of consistent thought nor had I the moral courage to examine those emotions which stirred so wildly within me.

Late on the previous night I had performed the unhappy duty of breaking to her the news of Coverly's dreadful death. I shall never forget that black hour. Her courage, however, under all these trials had been admirable, and although I well knew what it must have cost her, she replied now with perfect composure:

"Look--I took it out of my bureau when I heard that you were here, Inspector."

She took up from the table a foolscap envelope sealed and having her name written upon it in large and somewhat unsteady characters.

"I would suggest," said Gatton, with a delicacy which earned my gratitude, "that you read it yourself first, Miss Merlin. If there is anything helpful in it you can then communicate it to me."

I saw Isobel biting her lip hard, but she resolutely tore open the envelope; and leaving her to read the contents, I joined Gatton at the window. We both stood staring out for what seemed a very long time, then:

"It is rather long," said Isobel in a low voice.

Gatton and I turned together, and saw her, looking even more pale than before, seated by the table holding a sheet of notepaper in her hand. Without glancing at either of us, she began to read as follows, in an even and monotonous voice which I knew she had adopted to hide her emotion:

"This account of my movements on the night of August 6th will only be read in the event of my being falsely adjudged guilty of the murder of my cousin, Marcus Coverly, or in the event of my death.

"On the afternoon of that date I was informed over the telephone that my fiancee, Isobel Merlin, was meeting Sir Marcus the same night at a place called the Red House. The address was given me and I was asked, in case I doubted the word of the speaker, to watch Miss Merlin's movements that evening.

"I had already quarreled with my cousin respecting his unwelcome attentions and although the result did not confirm the promise of the informant, in part at least the information was accurate. I have no idea of the speaker's identity except that the voice was the voice of a woman.

"Not desiring to trust any one in such a matter I, myself, obtained in a remote district the dilapidated garments which are now in the possession of the police and respecting which they have subjected me to close examination. Attired in these and having my face and hands artificially dirtied as a further disguise, I left my chambers by a back entrance about nine o'clock, and not having sufficient confidence in my make-up to enter a public vehicle, walked the whole of the way to College Road.

"I had little difficulty in finding the Red House, but on discovering that it was vacant, I immediately suspected a hoax. However, I determined to wait in the neighborhood until the time at which the voice had warned me the meeting was to take place. There were very few people about and a tremendous downfall of rain drenched me to the skin, for the only shelter afforded was that of the trees bordering the road unless I had been content to abandon my watch.

"Just before the downpour ceased but after it had abated its first fury, I came out from my inadequate shelter and began to walk in the direction of the High Street. I had not gone more than twenty paces when I saw a cab approaching, and the man, seeing my bedraggled figure, slowed up, and to my astonishment asked me the way to the Red House.

"I immediately peered into the cab--to find that the passenger was none other than Marcus Coverly. I had begun to doubt, but at this I doubted no longer. I gave the cabman the necessary directions and, slowly following on foot, I saw from the shelter of the trees on the opposite side of the road, Sir Marcus dismiss the cab and walk up the drive of the empty house.

"He was alone, and since I knew that Miss Merlin had not preceded him, I could only conclude that she would be following later. Accordingly I walked slowly away from the Red House again in the direction of the High Street, and some five minutes later I passed a constable accompanied by a man wearing a light Burberry and a soft hat, whom I knew later (although I failed to recognize him at the time) to have been Mr. Jack Addison.

"I stood at the corner by the High Street until long after midnight. Twice I returned to the Red House and once even penetrated as far as the porch; but although I thought I could detect a light shining out through the shutters of the room on the right of the door, I could not be sure of it and there was no sound of movement within.

"These were my only discoveries, and very wretched and dissatisfied I tramped back to my chambers wondering what the visit of Marcus Coverly to this apparently empty house could mean and why he had remained there, but particularly wondering why the voice had told me this part-truth which had turned me into a spy unavailingly.

"The discovery made at the docks on the following day placed a new and dreadful construction upon the motives of the speaker, and I awakened to the fact that although entirely innocent of any complicity I had laid myself open to a charge of having been concerned in the murder of my cousin.

"My ill-advised attempt to conceal the garments which I had used as a disguise, and of which I had not known how to dispose, was dictated by panic. I knew the police were watching me and I was fool enough to think that I could escape their vigilance.

"This is all I have to say. It explains nothing and it does not exonerate me, I am aware, but I swear that it is the truth,"

"(Signed) ERIC COVERLY, Bart."

Although she retained so brave a composure I recognized the strain which this new and cruel ordeal had imposed upon Isobel; and Gatton incurred a further debt of gratitude by his tactful behavior, for:

"Miss Merlin," he said earnestly--"you are a very brave woman. Thank you. I only wish I could have spared you this."

Shaking me warmly by the hand, he bowed and departed, leaving-me alone with Isobel.

As the sound of his footsteps died away Isobel returned again to the seat from which she had risen; and a silence fell between us. My own feelings I cannot attempt to depict, but I will confess that I was afraid of my humanity at that moment. Never had Isobel seemed more desirable; never had I longed as I longed now to take her in my arms.

The tension of that silence becoming insupportable:

"You will not stay here alone?" I asked in an unnatural voice.

Isobel, without looking up, shook her head.

"I am going to Mrs. Wentworth--my Aunt Alison," she replied.

"Good," I said. "I am glad to know that you will be in her cheery company."

Mrs. Wentworth was, indeed, a charming old lady, and so far as I knew, Isobel's only relation in London, if not in England. She occupied a house which, like herself, was small, scrupulously neat and old-worldly. One of those tiny residences which, once counted as being "in the country," had later become enmeshed in the ever-spreading tentacles of greater London.

It was situated on the northern outskirts of the county-city, and although rows of modern "villas" had grown up around it, within the walls of that quaint little homestead one found oneself far enough removed from suburbia.

"When are you going, Isobel?" I asked.

"I think," she replied, "in the morning."

"Will you let me drive you in the Rover?--or are you taking too much baggage?"

"Oh, no," she said, smiling sadly--"I am going to live the simple life for a week. Going out shopping with Aunt Alison--and perhaps sometimes to the pictures!"

"Then I can drive you over?"

"Yes--if you would like to," she answered simply.

I took my leave shortly afterwards and proceeded to the Planet office. I had work to do, but I must admit that I little relished the idea of returning to my cottage. Diverted, now, from the notorious Red House, public interest had centered upon my residence, and the seclusion which I had gone so far to seek was disturbed almost hourly by impertinent callers who seemed to think that the scene of a sensational crime was public property.

Coates had effectually disillusioned several of them on this point, but, nevertheless, the cottage had become distasteful to me. I realized that I must seek a new residence without delay. Shall I add that the primary cause of my reclusion no longer operated so powerfully? Of my dreams at this time I will speak later; but here I may say that I knew, and accepted the knowledge with a fearful joy, that if my new house of hope was doomed to be shattered, no spot in broad England could offer me rest again.

It was not then, until late that night, that I returned to my once peaceful abode. Coates was waiting up for me, but he had nothing of importance to report, apparently, until, when I had dismissed him, he turned in the doorway, and:

"Excuse me, sir," he said--and cleared his throat.

"Yes, Coates?"

"About half an hour ago, sir, the dogs all around started howling, sir. I thought I'd better mention it, as Inspector Gatton asked me this morning if I had ever heard the dogs howling."

I looked at him straightly.

"Inspector Gatton asked you thus?"

"He did, sir. So I have reported the occurrence. Good night, sir."

"Good night, Coates," I replied.

But for long enough after his departure I sat there in the armchair in my study, thinking over this seemingly trivial occurrence. From where I sat I could see the light shining upon the gilt-lettered title of Maspero's "Egyptian Art"--and my thoughts promised to be ill bedfellows.

Contrary to custom, I slept that night with closed windows! And although I awakened twice, once at two o'clock and again at four, thinking that I had heard the mournful signal of the dogs, nothing but my own uneasy imagination disturbed my slumbers.

Breakfast despatched, and my correspondence dealt with, I sent Coates to the garage for my little car, and since I should have another companion, left him behind, and myself drove to Isobel's flat. Woman-like, she was not nearly ready, and there was much bustling on the part of the repentant Marie--who had been retained in spite of her share in the tragedy of Sir Marcus's death--before we finally set out for Mrs. Wentworth's.

Isobel was very silent on the way, but once I intercepted a sidelong glance and felt my heart leaping madly when she blushed.

Mrs. Wentworth made me very welcome as had ever been her way. She was an eccentric, but embarrassingly straightforward old lady; and if I had heeded her simple motherly counsel in the past all might have been different.

She bore Isobel off to her room, leaving me to my own devices, for she had never observed any ceremony towards me in all the years that I had known her, but had taught me to make myself at home beneath her hospitable roof. I knew, too, because she had never troubled to disguise the fact, that she regarded Isobel and me as made for one another. Isobel's engagement to poor Eric Coverly, Mrs. Wentworth had all along regarded as a ghastly farce, and I can never forget her reception of me on the occasion of my first visit after returning from Mesopotamia.

Half an hour or so elapsed, then, before Isobel returned; and, although she came into the room confidently enough, the old tension reasserted itself immediately. I felt that commonplaces would choke me. And although to this day I cannot condone my behavior, for the good of my soul I must confess the truth.

I took her in my arms, held her fast and kissed her.

An overwhelming consciousness of guilt came to me even as her lips met mine, and, releasing her, I turned aside, groaning.

"Isobel!" I said hoarsely--"Isobel, forgive me! I was a cad, a villain ... to him. But--it was inevitable. Try to forget that I was so weak. But, Isobel--"

I felt her hand trembling on my arm.

"We must both try to forget, Jack," she whispered.

I grasped her hands and looked eagerly--indeed I think wildly--into her eyes.

"Because my life is over if I lose you," I said, "I suppose I was mad for a moment. Tell me that one day--when it is fit and proper that you should do so--you will give me a hearing, and I will perform any penance you choose. I acted like a blackguard."

"Stop!" she commanded softly.

She raised her eyes, and her grave, sweet glance cooled the fever which consumed me and brought a great and abiding peace to my heart.

"You were no more to blame than I!" she said. "And because--I understand, it is not hard to forgive. I don't try to excuse myself, but even if--he--had lived, I could never have gone on with it, after his ... suspicions. Oh, Jack! why did you leave me to make that awful mistake?"

"My dearest," I replied, "God knows I have suffered for it."

"Please," she said, and her voice faltered, "help me to be fair to ... him. Never--never--speak to me again--like that ... until--"

But the sentence was never completed; for at this moment in bustled Aunt Alison--in appearance a white-haired, rosy-faced little matron, very brisk in her movements and very shrewd-eyed. A dear old lady, dearer than ever to me in that she had tried so hard to bring Isobel and my laggard self together. She had, as usual, more to say than could be said in the time at her disposal. As we proceeded to the dining-room:

"Now then, you boys and girls, I'm starving, if you're not. What a time I've had with cook, not knowing when you might be here. Cook's leaving to be married: I'm afraid she's neglected this sea-kale. Dear, dear! what love will do for people's minds, to be sure. Put your hair straight, Isobel, dear, or Mary will think Jack has been kissing you! I saw her kiss the postman yesterday. Mary, I mean! You're eating like a pigeon, Jack! Gracious me! Where's the pepper? Mary! Ring the bell, Isobel. I must speak to that postman; he's made Mary forget to put any pepper in the cruet, and any one might have seen them. It isn't respectable!"

"Dear Aunt Alison!" I said, as the active old lady ran out (Mary not being promptly enough in attendance). "She loves to keep running in and out like a waiter! What a friend she has been to me, Isobel! You could not be in better company at such a time."

"She's a darling!" agreed Isobel, and when I met her glance across the table she blushed entrancingly.

Then, in a moment, tears were in her eyes; and knowing of whom she was thinking, I sat abashed--guilty and repentant. I had transgressed against the murdered man; and there and then I made a solemn, silent vow that no word of love again should pass my lips until the fit and proper time of mourning was over. Because I faithfully kept this vow, I dare to hope that my sin is forgiven me.

Luncheon at that homely house, with Isobel, was an unalloyed delight; and I regretted every passing minute which brought me nearer to the time when I must depart. But when at last I said good-by it was a new world upon which I looked--a new life upon which I entered. I have said that to-day I venture to hope my poor human transgression is forgiven me. Yet it did not go unpunished. Little did I dream, in my strange new happiness, how soon I was to return to that house--how soon I was to know the deadliest terror of my life.