Chapter XXIV. A Confession

Jane was still being held by Sir Frank at the floor, and was still screaming, fully convinced that her captor was a burglar, in spite of having recognized him by his voice. Random was so exasperated by her stupidity that he shook her.

"What is the matter, you fool?" he demanded. "Don't you know that I am a friend?"

"Y-e-s, s-i-r," gasped Jane, fetching her breath again after the shaking; "but go for the police. My mistress is being murdered."

"Mr. Hope is looking after that, and the screams have ceased. Who was with your mistress?"

"I don't know, sir," sobbed the servant. "I didn't know anyone had called, and then I heard the screaming. I looked into the parlor to see what was the matter, but the lamp had been thrown over and had gone out, and there was a dreadful struggle going on in the darkness, so I screamed and ran out and then I - oh - oh" Jane showed symptoms of renewed hysteria, and clutched Random tightly, as a man came cautiously round the corner.

"Are you there, Random?" asked Hope's voice.

"It's so infernally dark and foggy that I have missed him."

"Missed who?"

"The man who was trying to murder Mrs. Jasher, He got her down when I entered and struck a match. Then he dashed through the window before I could catch him or even recognize him. He's vanished in the mist."

"It's no use looking for him anyhow," said Random, peering into the dense blackness, which was thick with damp. "We had better see after Mrs. Jasher."

"Whom have you got there?"

"Jane - who seems to have lost her head."

"It's a mercy I haven't lost my life, sir, with burglars and murderers all about the place," sobbed the girl, dropping on to the veranda.

Random promptly hauled her to her feet.

"Go and get a candle, and keep calm if you can," he said in an abrupt military voice. "This is no time to play the fool."

His sharpness had great effect on the girl, and she became much more her usual self. Hope lighted another match, and the trio proceeded through the passage towards the kitchen, where Jane had left a lamp burning. Seizing this from its bracket, Sir Frank retraced his way along the passage to the pink parlor, followed closely by Hope and timorously by Jane. A dreadful scene presented itself. The dainty little room was literally smashed to pieces, as though a gigantic bull had been wallowing therein. The lamp lay on the floor, surrounded by several extinguished candles. It was a mercy that all the lights had been put out when overturned, else the gim-crack cottage would have been long since in a blaze. Chairs and tables and screens were also overturned, and the one window had its rose-hued curtains torn down and its glass broken, showing only too clearly the way in which the murderer had escaped. And that the man who had attacked Mrs. Jasher was a murderer could be seen from the stream of blood that ran slowly from Mrs. Jasher's breast. Apparently she had been stabbed in the lungs, for the wound was on the right side. There she lay, poor woman, in her tawdry finery, crumpled up, battered and bruised, dead amongst the ruins of her home. Jane immediately began to scream again.

"Stop her, Hope," cried Random, who was kneeling by the body and feeling the heart. "Mrs. Jasher is not dead. Hold your noise, woman, and go for a doctor." This was to Jane, who, prevented from screaming, took to whimpering.

"I had better go," said Hope quickly; "and I'll go to the Fort and alarm the men. Perhaps they may catch the man."

"Can you describe him?"

"Of course not," said Archie indignantly. "I only caught a glimpse of him by the feeble light of a lucifer match. Then he leaped through the window and I after him. I made a grab at him, but lost him in the mist. I don't know in the least what he is like."

"Then how can anyone arrest him?" snapped Random, raising Mrs. Jasher's head. "Give what alarm you like, but race for Robinson up the village. We must save this poor woman's life, if only to learn who killed her."

"But she isn't dead yet - she isn't dead yet," wailed Jane, clapping her hands, while Hope, knowing the value of time, promptly ran out of the house to get further assistance.

"She soon will be," said Sir Frank, whose temper was not of the best at so critical a moment in dealing with a fool. "Go and bring me brandy at once, and afterwards linen and hot water. We must do our best to staunch this wound and revive her."

For the next quarter of an hour the man and the woman labored hard to save Mrs. Jasher's life. Random bound up the wound in a rough and ready fashion, and Jane fed the pale lips of her mistress with sips of brandy. Mrs. Jasher gradually became more alive, and a faint sigh escaped from her lips, as her wounded bosom rose and fell with recovered breath. When Sir Frank was in hopes that she would speak, she suddenly relapsed again into a comatose state. Luckily at that moment Archie returned with young Dr. Robinson at his heels, and also was followed by Painter, the village constable, who had luckily been picked up in the fog.

Robinson whistled as he looked at the insensible woman.

"She's had a narrow squeak," he muttered, lifting the body with the assistance of Random.

"Will she recover?" questioned Hope anxiously.

"I can't tell you yet," answered the doctor; and with Sir Frank he carried the heavy body of the widow into her bedroom. "How did it happen?"

"That is my business," said Painter, who had followed, and who was now filled with importance. "You look after the body, sir, and I'll question these gentlemen and the servant."

"Servant yourself! Such sauce!" muttered Jane, with an angry toss of her cap at the daring young policeman. "I know nothing. I left my mistress in the parlor writing letters, and never heard anyone come in. The bell didn't sound anyhow. The first thing I knew that anything was wrong was on hearing the screams. When I looked into the parlor the candles and the lamp were out, and there was a struggle going on in the dark. Then I cried out, very naturally, I'm sure, and ran straight into the arms of these gentlemen, as soon as I could get the front door open."

After delivering this address, Jane was called away to assist the doctor in the bedroom, and along with Archie and Random the constable repaired to the pink parlor to hear what they had to say. Of course they could tell him even less than Jane had told, and Archie protested that he was quite unable to describe the man who had dashed out of the window.

"Ah," said Painter sapiently, "he got out there; but how did he enter?"

"No doubt by the door," said Random sharply.

"We don't know that, sir. Jane says she did not hear the bell."

"Mrs. Jasher might have let the man in, whomsoever he was, secretly."

"Why should she, sir?"

"Ah! now you are asking more than I can tell you. Only Mrs. Jasher can explain, and it seems to me that she will die."

Meanwhile, in some mysterious way the news of the crime had spread through the village, and although it was growing late - for it was past ten o'clock - a dozen or so of villagers came along. Also there arrived a number of soldiers under a smart sergeant, and to him Sir Frank explained what had happened. In the fainthearted way - for the mist was now like cotton-wool - the military and the civilians hunted through the marshes round the cottage, hoping to come across the assassin hiding in a ditch. Needless to say, they found no one and nothing, for it was worse than looking for a needle in a bundle of hay. The man had come out of the mist, and, after executing the deed, had vanished into the mist, and there was not the very slightest chance of finding him. Gradually, as it drew towards midnight, the soldiers went back to the Fort, and the villagers to their homes. But, along with the doctor and the constable, Hope and his military friend stopped on. They were determined to get at the root of the mystery, and when Mrs. Jasher became sensible she would be able to reveal the truth.

"It's all of a piece with the sending of the emerald," said Random to the artist, "and that is connected, as we know, with the death of Bolton."

"Do you think that this man who has struck down Mrs. Jasher is the same one who strangled Sidney Bolton?"

"I should think so. Perhaps Mrs. Jasher sent the emerald after all, and this man killed her out of revenge."

"But how would he know that she had the emerald?"

"God knows! She may have been his accomplice."

Archie knit his brows.

"Who the devil can this mysterious person be?"

"I can only reply as you have done, my friend. God knows."

"Well, I am certain that God will not let him escape this time. This will bring Gartley once more into, notoriety," went on Hope. "By the way, I saw one of the servants from the Pyramids here. I hope the fool won't go home and frighten Lucy's life out of her."

"Go to the Pyramids and see her," suggested Sir Frank. "Mrs. Jasher is still unconscious, and will be for hours, the doctor tells me."

"It is too late to go to the Pyramids, Random."

"If they know of this new tragedy there, I'll bet they are not in bed."

Hope nodded.

"All the same, I'll remain here until Mrs. Jasher can speak," he said, and sat smoking with Random in the dining-room, as the most comfortable room in the house.

Constable Painter camped, so to speak, in the drawing-room, keeping guard over the scene of the crime, and had placed the Chinese screen against the broken window to keep out the cold. In the bedroom Jane and Dr. Robinson looked after the dying woman. And dying she was, according to the young physician, for he did not think she would live much longer. Round the lonely cottage the sea-mist drifted white and thick, and the darkness deepened, until - as the saying goes - it could have been cut with a knife. Never was there so eerie and weary and sinister a vigil.

Towards four o'clock Hope fell into a doze, while resting in an arm-chair; but he was suddenly aroused from this by an exclamation from Sir Frank, who had remained wide awake, smoking cigar after cigar. In a moment the artist was on his feet, alert and quick-brained.

"What is it?"

Random made for the dining-room door rapidly.

"I thought I heard Painter call out," he declared, and hastily sought the parlor, followed by Hope.

The room was empty, but the screen before the broken window had been thrown down, and they could see Painter's bulky form immediately outside.

"What the deuce is the matter?" demanded Random, entering. "Did you call out, Painter. I fancied I heard something."

The constable came in again.

"I did call out, sir," he confessed. "I was half asleep in that chair, when I suddenly became wide awake, and believed I saw a face looking at me round the corner of the screen. I jumped up, calling for you, sir, and upset the screen."

"Well? well?" demanded Sir Frank impatiently, and seeing that the man hesitated.

"I saw no one, sir. All the same, I had an idea, and I have still, that a man came through the window and peered at me from behind the screen."

"The man who attacked Mrs. Jasher?"

"I can't say, sir. But there was someone. At any rate he's gone again, if he really did come, and there is no chance of finding him. It's like pea-soup outside."

Hope and Random simultaneously stepped through the window, but could not see an inch before them, so thick was the sea-fog and so dense was the darkness. Returning, they replaced the screen, and, telling Painter to be more on the alert, went back shivering to the fire in the dining-room. When they were seated again, Archie put a question.

"Do you think that policeman was dreaming?" he asked meditatively.

"No," replied Random sharply. "I believe that the man who assaulted Mrs. Jasher is hanging about, and ventured back into the room, relying on the fog as a means of escape, should he be spotted."

"But the man wouldn't be such a fool as to return into danger."

"Not unless he wanted something very badly," said Random significantly.

Hope let the cigarette he was lighting fall.

"What do you mean?"

"I may be wrong, of course. But it is my impression that there is something in the parlor which this man wants, and for which he tried to murder Mrs. Jasher. We interrupted him, and he was forced to flee. Hidden in the fog, he is lurking about to see if he can't obtain what he has risked his neck to secure."

"What can it be?" murmured Archie, struck by the feasibility of this theory.

"Perhaps the second emerald," remarked Sir Frank grimly.

"What! You don't think that - "

"I don't think anything. I am too tired to think at all. However, Painter will keep his eyes open, and in the morning we can search the room. The man has been in the house twice to get what he wanted. He won't risk another attempt, now that he is aware we are on the alert. I'm going to try and get forty winks. You keep watch, as you have had your sleep."

Hope was quite agreeable, but just as Random composed himself to uneasy slumber, Jane, haggard and red-eyed, came hastily into the dining-room.

"If you please, gentlemen, the doctor wants you to come and see mistress. She is sensible, and - "

The two waited to hear no more, but went hastily but softly into the room wherein lay the dying woman. Robinson sat by the bedside, holding his patient's hand and feeling her pulse. He placed his finger on his lips as the men entered gently, and at the same moment Mrs. Jasher's voice, weak from exhaustion, sounded through the room, which was dimly illuminated by one candle. The newcomers halted in obedience to Robinson's signal.

"Who is there?" asked Mrs. Jasher weakly, for, in spite of the care exercised, she had evidently heard the footsteps.

"Mr. Hope and Sir Frank Random," whispered the doctor, speaking into the dying woman's ear. "They came in time to save you."

"In time to see me die," she murmured; "and I can't die, unless I tell the truth. I am glad Random is there; he is a kindhearted boy, and treated me better than he need have done. I - oh - some brandy - brandy."

Robinson gave her some in a spoon.

"Now lie quietly and do not attempt to speak," he commanded. "You need all your strength."

"I do - to tell that which I wish to tell," gasped Mrs. Jasher, trying to raise herself. "Sir Frank! Sir Frank!" Her voice sounded hoarse and weak.

"Yes, Mrs. Jasher," said the young man, coming softly to the bedside.

She thrust out a weak hand and clutched him.

"You must be my father-confessor, and hear all. You got the emerald?"

"What!" Random recoiled in astonishment, "Did you - "

"Yes, I sent it to you as a wedding present. I was sorry and I was afraid; and I - I - " She paused again, gasping.

The doctor intervened and gave her more brandy.

"You must not talk," he insisted severely, "or I shall turn Sir Frank and Mr. Hope out of the room."

"No! no! Give me more brandy - more - more." and when the doctor placed a tumbler to her lips, she drank so greedily that he had to take the glass away lest she should do herself harm. But the ardent spirit put new life into her, and with a superhuman effort she suddenly reared herself in the bed.

"Come here, Hope - come here, Random," she said in a much stronger voice. "I have much to tell you. Yes, I took the emerald after dark and threw it into the sentry box when the man wasn't looking. I escaped your spy, Random, and I escaped the notice of the sentry. I walked like a cat, and like a cat I can see in the dark. I am glad you have got the emerald."

"Where did you get it?" asked Random quietly.

"That's a long story. I don't know that I have the strength to tell it. I have written it out."

"You have written it out?" said Hope quickly, and drawing near.

"Yes. Jane thought that I was writing letters, but I was writing out the whole story of the murder. You were good to me, Random, you dear boy, and on the impulse of the moment I took the emerald to you. I was sorry when I got back, but it was too late then to repent, as I did not dare to go near the Fort again. Your spy who watched might have discovered me the second time. I then thought that I would write out the story of the murder, so as to exonerate myself."

"Then you are not guilty of Bolton's death?" asked Sir Frank, puzzled, for her confession was somewhat incoherent.

"No. I did not strangle him. But I know who did. I have written it all down. I was just finishing when I heard the tapping at the window. I let him in and he tried to get the confession, for I told him what I had done."

"Who did you tell?" asked Hope, much excited.

Mrs, Jasher took no notice.

"The confession is lying on my desk - all the sheets of paper are loose. I had no time to bind them together, for he came in. He wanted the emerald, and the confession. I told him that I had given the emerald to you, Random, and that I had confessed all in writing. Then he went mad and flew at me with a dreadful knife. He knocked over the candles and the lamp. Everything went out and all was darkness, and I lay crying for help, with that devil stabbing - stabbing - ah - "

"Who, in heaven's name, is the man?" demanded Random, standing up in his eagerness. But Mrs. Jasher had fallen back in a faint, and Robinson was again supplying her with brandy.

"You had better leave the room, you two," he said, "or I can't be answerable for her life."

"I must stay and learn the truth," said Random determinedly, "and you, Hope, go into the parlor and find that confession. It is on the desk, as she said, all loose sheets. No doubt it was the confession which the man she refers to tried to secure when he came back the second time. He may make another attempt, or Painter may go to sleep. Hurry! hurry!"

Archie needed no second telling, as he realized what hung on the securing of the confession. He stole swiftly out of the room, closing the door after him. Faint as was the sound, Mrs. Jasher heard it and opened her eyes.

"Do not go, Random," she said faintly. "I have yet much to say, although the confession will tell you all. I am half sorry I wrote it out - at least I was - and perhaps should have burnt it had I not met with this accident."

"Accident!" echoed Sir Frank scornfully. "Murder you mean."

The sinister word galvanized the dying woman in sudden strong life, and she reared herself again on the bed.

"Murder! Yes, it is murder," she cried loudly. "He killed Sidney Bolton to get the emeralds, and he killed me to make me close my mouth."

"Who stabbed you? Speak! speak!" cried Random anxiously.

"Cockatoo. He is guilty of my death and Bolton's," and she fell back, dead.