Chapter XXI. A Story of the Past

Mrs. Jasher's influenza proved to be very mild indeed.

When Donna Inez de Gayangos and Lucy paid a visit to her on the afternoon of the day succeeding the explanations in the museum, she was certainly in bed, and explained that she had been there since the Professor's visit on the previous day. Lucy was surprised at this, as she had left Mrs. Jasher perfectly well, and Braddock had not mentioned any ailment of the widow. But influenza, as Mrs. Jasher observed, was very rapid in its action, and she was always susceptible to disease from the fact that in Jamaica she had suffered from malaria. Still, she was feeling better and intended to rise from her bed on that evening, if only to lie on the couch in the pink drawing-room. Having thus detailed her reasons for being ill, the widow asked for news.

As no prohibition had been placed upon Lucy with regard to Hervey's visit and as Mrs. Jasher would be one of the family when she married the Professor, Miss Kendal had no hesitation in reporting all that had taken place. The narrative excited Mrs. Jasher, and she frequently interrupted with expressions of wonder. Even Donna Inez grew eloquent, and told the widow how she had defended Sir Frank against the American skipper.

"What a dreadfully wicked man!" said Mrs. Jasher, when in possession of all the facts. "I really believe that he did kill poor Sidney."

"No," said Lucy decisively, "I don't think that. He would have murdered him on board had he intended the crime, as he could have done so with more safety. He is as innocent as Sir Frank."

"And no one dare say a word against him," cried Donna Inez with flashing eyes.

"He has a good defender, my dear," said the widow, patting the girl's hand.

"I love him," said Donna Inez, as if that explained everything, and perhaps it did, so far as she was concerned.

Mrs. Jasher smiled indulgently, then turned for further information to Lucy.

"Can it be possible," she said, "that Widow Anne is guilty?"

"Oh, I don't think so. She would not murder her own son, especially when she was so very fond of him. Archie told me, just before we came here, that he had called to see her. She still insists that Sidney borrowed the clothes, saying that Archie wanted them."

"What do you make of that, my dear?"

"Well," said Miss Kendal, pondering, "either Widow Anne herself was the woman who talked to Sidney through the Sailor's Rest window, and has invented this story to save herself, or Sidney did get the clothes and intended to use them as a disguise when he fled with the emeralds."

"In that case," said Mrs. Jasher, "the woman who talked through the window still remains a problem. Again, if Sidney Bolton intended to steal the emeralds, he could have done so in Malta, or on board the boat."

"No," said Lucy decisively. "The mummy Was taken directly from the seller's house to the boat, and perhaps Sidney did not find the manuscript until he looked at the mummy. Then Captain Hervey kept an eye on Sidney, so that he could not open the mummy to steal the emeralds."

"Still, according to your own showing, Sidney looked at the actual mummy - he opened the mummy case, that is, else he could not have got the manuscript."

Lucy nodded.

"I think so, but of course we cannot be sure. But the packing case in which the mummy was stowed was placed in the hold of the steamer, and if Sidney had wished to steal the emeralds, he could not have done so without exciting Captain Hervey's suspicions."

"Then let us say that Sidney robbed the mummy when in the Sailor's Rest, and took the clothes he borrowed from his mother in order to fly in disguise. But what of the woman?"

Lucy shook her head.

"I cannot tell. We may learn more later. Don Pedro has gone to Pierside to search, and my father says that he will send Cockatoo there also to search."

"Well," sighed Mrs. Jasher wearily, "I hope that all this trouble will come to an end. That green mummy has proved most unlucky. Leave me now, dear girls, as I feel somewhat tired."

"Good-bye," said Lucy, kissing her. "I hope that you will be better this evening. Don't get up unless you feel quite able."

"Oh, I shall take my ease in the drawing-room."

"I thought you always called it the parlor," laughed the girl.

"Ah," Mrs. Jasher smiled, "you see I am practicing against the time when I shall be mistress of the Pyramids, You can't call that large room there a parlor," and she laughed weakly.

Altogether, Mrs. Jasher impressed both Lucy and Donna Inez with the fact that she was very weak and scarcely able, as she put it, to draw one leg after the other. Both the girls would have been surprised to see what a hearty meal Mrs. Jasher made that evening, when she was up and dressed. Perhaps she felt that her strength needed keeping up, but she certainly partook largely of the delicate dinner provided by Jane, who was a most excellent cook.

After dinner, Mrs. Jasher lay on a pink couch in the pink parlor by a splendid fire, for the night was cold and raw with a promise of rain. The widow had a small table at her elbow, on which stood a cup of coffee and a glass of liquor. The rose-colored curtains were drawn, the rose-shaded lamps were lighted, and the whole interior of the cottage looked very comfortable indeed. Mrs. Jasher, in a crocus-yellow tea-gown trimmed with rich black lace, reclined on her couch like Cleopatra in her barge. In the pink light she looked very well preserved, although her face wore an anxious expression. This was due to the fact that the mail had come in and the three letters brought by the postman had to do with creditors. Mrs. Jasher was always trying to make both ends meet, and had a hard struggle to keep her head above water. Certainly, since she had inherited the money of her brother, the Pekin merchant, she need not have looked so worried. But she did, and made no disguise of it, seeing that she was quite alone.

After a time she went to her desk and took out a bundle of bills and some other letters, also an account book and a bank book. Over these she pored for quite an hour. The clock struck nine before she looked up from this unpleasant task, and she found her financial position anything but satisfactory. With a weary sigh she rose and stared at herself in the mirror over the fireplace, frowning as she did so.

"Unless I can marry the Professor at once, I don't know what will happen to me," she mused gloomily. "I have managed very well so far, but things are coming to a crisis. These devils," she alluded to her creditors, "will not keep off much longer, and then the crash will come. I shall have to leave Gartley as poor as when I came, and there will be nothing left but the old nightmare life of despair and horror. I am getting older every day, and this is my last chance of getting married. I must force the Professor to have a speedy marriage. I must! I must!" and she began to pace the tiny room in a frenzy of terror and well-founded alarm.

As she was trying to calm herself and succeeding very badly, Jane entered the room with a card. It proved to he that of Sir Frank Random.

"It is rather a late hour for a visit," said Mrs. Jasher to the servant. "However, I feel so bored, that perhaps he will cheer me up. Ask him to come in."

When Jane left, she stood still for a moment or so, trying to think why the young man had called at so untoward an hour. But when his footsteps were heard approaching the door, she swept the books and the bills and the letters into the desk and locked it quickly. When Random appeared at the door, she was just leaving the desk to greet him, and no one would have taken the smiling, plump, well-preserved woman for the creature who lately had looked so haggard and careworn.

"I am glad to see you, Sir Frank," said Mrs. Jasher, nodding in a familiar manner. "Sit down in this very comfortable chair, and Jane shall bring you some coffee and kummel."

"No, thank you," said Random in his usual stiff way, but very politely. "I have just left the mess, where I had a good dinner."

Mrs. Jasher nodded, and sank again on the couch, which was opposite the chair which she had selected for her visitor.

"I see you are in mess kit," she said gayly; "quite a glorified creature to appear in my poor little parlor. Why are you not with Donna Inez? I have heard all about your engagement from Lucy. She was here today with Senorita De Gayangos."

"So I believe," said Random, still stiffly; "but you see I was anxious to come and see you."

"Ah!" said Mrs. Jasher equably, "you heard that I was ill. Yes; I have been in bed ever since yesterday afternoon, until a couple of hours ago. But I am now better. My dinner has done me good. Pass me that fan, please. The fire is so hot."

Sir Frank did as he was told, and she held the feather fan between her face and the fire, while he stared at her, wondering what to say.

"Don't you find this atmosphere very stuffy?" he remarked at length. "It would be a good thing to have the windows open."

Mrs. Jasher shrieked.

"My dear boy, are you mad? I have a touch of the influenza, and an open window would bring about my death. Why, this room is delightfully comfortable."

"There is such a strong perfume about it," sniffed Random pointedly.

"I should think you knew that scent by this time, Sir Frank. I use no other and never have done. Smell!" and she passed a flimsy handkerchief of lace.

Random took the handkerchief and placed it to his nostrils. As he did so a strange expression of triumph crept into his eyes.

I think you told me once that it was a Chinese perfume," he said, returning the handkerchief.

Mrs. Jasher nodded, well pleased.

"I get it from a friend of my late husband who is in the British Embassy at Pekin. No one uses it but me."

"But surely some other person uses it?"

"Not in England; and I do not know why you should say so. It is a specialty of mine. Why," she added playfully, "if you met me in the dark you should know me, by this scent."

"Can you swear that no one else has ever used this perfume?" asked Random.

Mrs. Jasher lifted her penciled eyebrows.

"I do not know why you should ask me to swear," she said quietly, "but I assure you that I keep this perfume which comes from China to myself. Not even Lucy Kendal has it, although she greatly desired some. We women are selfish in some things, my dear man. It's a most delicious perfume."

"Yes," said Sir Frank, staring at her, "and very strong."

"What do you mean by that?"'

"Nothing. Only I should think that such a perfume would be good for the cold you contracted by going to London last night."

Mrs. Jasher turned suddenly pale under her rouge, and her hand clenched the fan so tightly as to break the handle.

"I have not been to London for quite a month," she faltered. "What a strange remark!"

"A true one," said the baronet, fumbling in the pocket of his jacket. "You went to London last night by the seven o'clock train to post this," and he held out the anonymous letter.

The widow, now quite pale, and looking years older, sat up on the couch with' a painful effort, which suggested fold age.

"I don't understand," she said, trying to speak calmly. "I was not in London, and I did not post any letter. If you came here to insult me - "

"There can be no insult in asking a few questions," said Random, throwing aside his stiffness and speaking decisively. "I received this letter, which bears a London postmark, by the mid-day post. The handwriting is disguised, and there is neither address nor signature nor date. You manufactured your communication very cleverly, Mrs. Jasher, but you forgot that the Chinese perfume might betray you."

"The perfume! the perfume!" Mrs. Jasher gasped and saw in a moment how the late conversation had led her to fall into a trap.

"The letter retains traces of the perfume you use," went on the baronet relentlessly. "I have a remarkably keen sense of smell, and, as scent is a most powerful aid to memory, I speedily recollected that you used this especial perfume. You told me a few moments ago that no one else used it, and so you have proved the truth of my, statement that this letter" - he tapped it - "is written by you."

"It's a lie - a mistake," stuttered Mrs. Jasher, now at bay and looking dangerous. Her society veneer was stripped off, and the adventuress pure and simple came to the surface.

Indignant at the way in which she had deceived everyone, and having much at stake, Random did not spare her.

"It is not a mistake," he insisted; "neither is it a lie. When I became aware that you must have written the letter, I drove at once to Jessum to see if you had gone to London, as you had posted it there. I learned from the station master and from a porter that you went to town by the seven o'clock train and returned by the midnight."

Mrs. Jasher leaped to her feet.

"They could not recognize me. I wore - " Then she stopped, confused at having so plainly betrayed herself.

"You wore a veil. All the same, Mrs. Jasher, you are too well known hereabouts for anyone to fail to recognize you. Besides, your remark just now proves that I am right. You wrote this blackmailing letter, and I demand an explanation."

"I have none to give," muttered the woman fiercely, and fighting every inch.

"If you refuse to explain to me you shall to the police," said Sir Frank, rising and making for the door.

Mrs. Jasher flung herself forward and clung to him.

"For God's sake, don't!"

"Then you will explain? You will tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"Who murdered Sidney Bolton."

"I do not know. I swear I do not know," she cried feverishly.

"That is ridiculous," said Random coldly. "You say in this letter that you can hang me or save me. As you know that I am innocent, you must be aware who is guilty."

"It's all bluff. I know nothing," said Mrs. Jasher, releasing his arm and throwing herself on the couch. "I only wished to get money."

"Five thousand pounds - eh? Rather a large order," sneered Random, replacing the letter in his pocket. "You would not ask that sum for nothing: you must be aware of the truth. I suspected many people, Mrs. Jasher, but never you."

The woman rose and flung out her arms.

"No," she said in a deep voice, and fighting like a rat in a corner. "I tricked you all down here. Sir Frank, I will tell you the truth."

"About the murder?"

"I know nothing of that. About myself."

Random shrugged his shoulders.

"I'll hear about yourself first," he said. "I can learn details concerning the murder later. Go on."

"I know nothing of the murder or of the theft of the emeralds - "

"Yet you hid the mummy in this house, and afterwards placed it in your arbor to be found by the Professor, for some reason."

"I know nothing about that either," muttered Mrs. Jasher doggedly, and with very white lips. "That letter you have traced to me is all bluff."

"Then you admit having written it?"

"Yes," she said sullenly. "You know too much, and it is useless for me to deny the truth in the face of the evidence you bring against me. I would fight though," she added, raising her head like a snake its crest, "if I was not sick and tired of fighting."


"Yes, against trouble and worry and money difficulties and creditors. Oh," she struck her breast, "what do you know of life, you rich, easy-going man? I have been in the depths, and not through my own fault. I had a bad mother, a bad husband. I was dragged in the mire by those who should have helped me to rise. I have starved for days; I have wept for year's; in all God's earth there is no more miserable a creature than I am."

"Kindly talk without so much melodrama," said Random cruelly.

"Ah," Mrs. Jasher sat down and locked her hands together, "you don't believe me. I daresay you don't understand, for life, real life, is a sealed book to you. It is useless for me to appeal to your sympathy, for you are so very ignorant. Let us stick to facts. What do you wish to know?"

"Who killed Sidney Bolton: who has the emeralds."

"I can't tell you. Listen! With my past life you have nothing to do. I will commence from the time I came dawn here. I had just lost my husband, and I managed to scrape together a few hundred pounds - oh, quite in a respectable way, I assure you," she added scoffingly, on seeing her listener wince. "I came here to try and live quietly, and, if possible, to secure a rich husband. I knew that the Fort was here and thought that I might marry an officer. However, the Professor's position attracted me, and I decided to marry him. I am engaged, and but for your cleverness in tracing that letter I should be Mrs. Braddock within a very short time. I have exhausted all my money. I am deeply, in debt. I cannot hold out longer."

"But the money you inherited - "

"That is all bluff also. I never had a brother. I inherit no money. I know nothing of Pekin, save that a friend of mine sends that scent to me as a yearly Christmas present. I am an adventuress, but perhaps not so bad as you think me. Lucy and Donna Inez have heard no wickedness from my lips. I have always been a good woman in one sense - a moral woman, that is - and I did wish to marry the Professor and live a happy life. Seeing that I was at the end of my resources, and that Professor Braddock expected a legacy with me before marriage, I looked round to, see how I could get the money. I heard that you were accused by Captain Hervey, and so last night I wrote that letter and posted it in London, thinking that you would yield to save yourself from arrest."

Random laughed cynically.

"You must have thought me weak," die muttered.

"I did," said Mrs. Jasher frankly. "To tell you the truth, I thought that you were a fool. But by tracing that letter and withstanding my demand, you have proved yourself to be more clever than I took you to be. Well, that is all. I know nothing of the murder. My letter is sheer bluff to extort from you five thousand pounds. Had you paid I should have passed it off to the Professor as the money left to me by my brother. But now - "

"Now," said Random, rising to go, "I shall tell what you have told me to the Professor, and - "

"And hand me over to the police," said Mrs. Jasher, shrugging her plump shoulders, "Well, I expected that. Yet I fancied for old times' sake that you might have been more lenient."

"We were never anything but acquaintances, Mrs. Jasher," said Random coldly, "so I fail to see why you should expect mercy after the way in which you have behaved. You expect to blackmail me, and yet go free. I must punish you somehow, so I shall tell Professor Braddock, as you certainly cannot marry him. But I shall not hand you over to the police."

"You won't?" Mrs. Jasher stared, scarcely able to believe her ears.

"No. Give me a day to think over matters, and I shall arrange what to do with you. I think there is some good in you, Mrs. Jasher, and so I shall see if I can't assist you. In the meantime I shall have your cottage watched, so that you may not run away."

"In that case, you may as well hand me over to the police," she said bitterly.

"Not at all," rejoined Random coolly. "I can trust my servant, Who is stupid but honest and is devoted to me. I'll see that everything is kept quiet. But if you attempt to run away I shall have you arrested for blackmail. You understand?"

"Yes. You are treating me very well," she gasped. "When shall I see you?"

"To-morrow evening. I must talk the matter over with Braddock. To-morrow I shall arrange what to do, and probably I shall give you a chance of leading a new life in some other part of the world. What do you say?"

"I accept. Indeed, there is nothing else left for me to do."

"That is an ungrateful speech," said Random severely.

"I daresay. However, we can talk of gratitude tomorrow. Meanwhile, please leave me."

Sir Frank went to the door and there paused.

"Remember," he said distinctly, "that your cottage is being watched. Try to escape and I shall have you arrested."

Mrs. Jasher groaned and buried her face in the sofa cushion.