The Secret of the Garden, by Arthur Gask

Chapter 7

Towards the end of July everything still appeared to be running smoothly for me. The day of the Great Steeplechase was near at hand and we had got Moonlight Maid well up to racing pitch. With some good experience now of cross-country races, I thought that I had never had a more promising animal under my charge.

She was an almost perfect jumper, was game as a pebble, and had plenty of pace. She would stay every inch of the three miles easily; my only fear was that she had a very nervous temperament and was liable to get easily upset, especially in the early part of the journey. She disliked crowds immensely, and she invariably pricked her beautiful little ears whenever there were many strangers about.

We had given her one run in public and she had come through the trial with complete success. In a field of eight horses at the Port and carrying eleven stone two she had won easily. The public had been quick to recognise her as the good thing she undoubtedly was, and with me up she had paid less than two to one in the tote.

Her success had incurred a seven pound penalty for the Great Steeplechase, but that was really what we had arranged for. Her weight there was ten stone two, and with the penalty bringing it up to ten stone nine I should be able to ride with the declaration of only a few pounds overweight.

After her win at the Port the best price on offer against her for the big race was ten to one, but that did not matter in the least to us. Rainton had got forties about her as soon as the weights were out and was content with the good wager of two thousand to fifty for an outright win.

The public interest in me had by no means died down, and there were whisperings everywhere whenever I appeared, but the newspapers had stopped asking about my private life, and except referring to me occasionally as ‘Mystery Huggins’ they left me alone.

I often used to wonder what Rainton thought of me. He never said a word, however, and the only member of the family who referred to anything in any way was pretty Margaret Price.

She and I had got very friendly together, and when we were alone, which sometimes happened in the mornings when she was giving me a cup of tea after I had come back to the stable with Moonlight Maid, she would refer archly to the mystery that was supposed to be surrounding me.

She had a very pretty smile and was never chary of showing her beautiful teeth.

‘Good morning, Mr. Wells!’ she said one day. ‘No, there’s no letter for you!’ She laughed lightly. ‘Perhaps your wife doesn’t know your address yet.’

I laughed in return. ‘And she’s not likely to either, Miss Margaret,’ I said, ‘for, as I’ve told you a good many times already, I’m not married.’

She shrugged her shoulders prettily. ‘Of course you’d say that — you men always do.’

I looked at her very solemnly. ‘Look here, Miss Margaret,’ I said, ‘do you really think I’m telling you a story when I say I’m not married?’

She hesitated for a moment and became quite grave in her turn. ‘I don’t believe for a moment your real name is Arnold Wells, anyhow; you’re hiding something from everyone, I’m sure.’

‘Dear me, Miss Clever!’ I said sarcastically. ‘And how, pray, did you learn that?’

‘You told me yourself!’ she replied, pertly. ‘You’ve told it to me many times, too. I can tell it in your manner and the way you look about you. You feel safer now, but when you first came you watched everyone as if you were not certain they wouldn’t be giving you away. I’ve noticed it often in you.’

I looked at her steadily for quite a long time before attempting any reply. She was certainly being decidedly frank with me, but there was not a spice of resentment in her tone. She seemed rather amused, that was all.

In spite of myself I had to smile. ‘And I suppose, then, Miss Clever,’ I asked, rather reproachfully however, ‘you’ve been impressing these ideas of yours on your sister and Mr. Rainton?’

A quick sparkle of anger flashed to her eyes. ‘Thank you, Mr. Wells,’ she replied with a little bow. ‘I haven’t discussed you with anyone yet, I’d like you to know. I’m not quite that sort.’

She looked so pretty in her annoyance that I just longed to pick her up there and then and kiss her, but I shrugged my shoulders and said very quietly, ‘Well, it’s very sweet of you if you haven’t, that’s all I say.’ I reached out and laid my hand lightly on her arm. ‘Look here, Miss Margaret,’ I went on, ‘one day I’ll tell you everything; just now I’m obliged to keep silent. I’m not married, anyhow. I can tell you that straight away’ — I squeezed her arm ever so slightly — ‘and lately it’s begun to be a great joy to me that I’m not.’

Whether she understood my meaning or not I wasn’t sure; but I believe she did, for she gave me an arch smile as she walked back into the house.

I went home that evening woefully pondering how on earth I was going to fit pretty Margaret in with my intentions for flight.

I thought a good deal about Margaret in the days that followed, and to the exclusion of all else it was she who was now continually in my mind.

I was genuinely in love with her. Of that I was certain, and it was this certainty that made me so apprehensive about linking up her life with mine. After all, I was a fugitive from the law, and however little that fact troubled me, it might be a different matter as far as she was concerned.

I must tell her everything, of course, and, even if she cared for me, was her temperament, I asked myself, one that could be content and happy under the shadow always hanging over, however distant and remote it might be, of discovery and possible arrest.

It worried me, I can tell you, to think of it all; and another thing happened that week that went to pile up my worries and fill me at the same time with intense anger.

I saw my man Hooker at the races, and the devil of it was he saw me there, too. It was immediately after the hurdle race. I had come in second and was returning to the enclosure to weigh in. For half a minute we were held up until they opened the gates. There was the usual dense crowd by the railings, and I let my glance wander carelessly round on those standing there.

Suddenly I saw someone staring at me, staring at me incredulously with bulged and startled eyes. It was Hooker, I saw at once, and with his white face and widely opened mouth he was the very picture of stupefied amazement. He was close up by the rails, not five feet away from me, and for a good half minute at least he was taking me in. I made no attempt at all to turn my head away, and tried to act as if I had never seen him before. I looked at him idly and without recognition, just as I looked at any of the others there. Then I yawned behind my whip as if I were bored and looked among the crowd again; my glance went through Hooker as if he were no more to me than any of the others there.

I saw the man pucker up his face in doubt. He screwed his eyes together and squeezed half over the rails to get as near a view of me as possible. I could feel his eyes wander over every part of me. My face, my hands, my clothes, even my very boots interested him, and I wondered angrily if he were even calculating the latter’s size.

At last, however, the gate was opened, and with more relief than I would recognize even to myself, I rode in.

The incident certainly annoyed me intensely, and alone by myself that night I pondered exactly what harm might now accrue. Whichever way I regarded it, the business for the moment certainly looked ugly enough. Hooker was an inveterate gossip, I knew, and I’d had always to be very stern to keep him at his distance any time.

If he were really certain he had seen me, then he would ‘yap’ about it on the spot to everyone he knew, and it would be only a question of the gossip reaching the reporters before they would be up at the Tower House in a few minutes, to climb over the gates to get copy for their wretched papers.

But would he be certain that he had seen me? That was the thing. No, I told myself. Even if he were a hardened race-goer, and well in with all the news of the turf, it would surely seem too impossible for him to believe Dr. Carmichael, the one-time great surgeon (and I was certain Hooker would know all about me), now a steeplechase jockey on the turf! Why, the very idea would seem preposterous to him. Whatever he might have thought when he was actually watching me, as soon as I had passed out of his sight he would be thinking for sure he had been mistaken.

I finally reasoned myself into a more or less comfortable frame of mind; but still, the happenings of the day brought home forcibly to me the possibilities of peril that were always surrounding me.

Again, as I had done so many times, I took stock of my position, and I reckoned that in about a month from then all things would be clear for me to go away.

I had settled practically everything, except a few small unimportant items and the sale of the house. Touching the latter, I was already in negotiations with a likely party, and with any luck I thought the deal should be carried through in the course of the next three weeks.

It came to me with a great pang that my racing career was nearly over. The Great South Australian Steeplechase was now only a week away, and with it passed there would be only a few very minor races in which I should be engaged.

Ah, well! I sighed to myself, whatever happens now I have had a great time. Fortune has been a good mistress to me and I would be a churl to mistrust her now.

Hooker arrived as usual at seven o’clock next morning and, meeting me in the hall, gave me a most furtive and embarrassed look. I nodded to him in my usual way, however, and proceeded casually to furnish directions for what work he was to do.

He worked well that morning, but there was something quite different about him from other days. He was much quieter and, oddly for him, offered no conversation at all. Whenever I happened to be near him, and he thought I wasn’t looking, I noticed him taking me in, in a most careful and methodical way.

Just as on the racecourse, he was not satisfied with looking at my face. He took in everything about me, and my hands particularly seemed to interest him.

I could see he was very puzzled, and I quite enjoyed rubbing in the doubts he felt. If I were really the jockey Huggins, then, of course, he knew I must have noticed him by the rails, for I had looked straight at him as he had been standing there.

That being so, it was probably a torment to him to have to speculate if I could possibly be so casual, knowing that he held my secret in his hands.

Certainly, Mr. Hooker, strict Baptist and teetotaller, was a very puzzled man that morning; and he was undoubtedly thinking more of me than of his prayers.

But if Hooker had worried me, and his recognition of me on the racecourse had inclined me to believe that the curtain on Dr. Carmichael must soon be ringing down, the arrival of a letter two days later certainly strengthened my belief in that eventuality a thousandfold.

A new actor was about to appear upon the scene. On the Wednesday afternoon a letter for Dr. Carmichael arrived from Sydney. I noticed the postmark at once, and my heart jumped almost into my mouth. It was so obviously not a business letter, and on the back there was the inscription of the Sydney Central Hotel.

With trembling hands I tore the envelope open and at once all my worst fears were confirmed. Dated two days previous, it was signed ‘Angas Forbes’. It was quite short, and very quickly I had taken it in.

‘Dear Robert,’ it ran, ‘I only got back yesterday and hoped to have been with you this weekend. But now I find I must go up to Brisbane first. Anyhow, expect me in about three weeks’ time. Hoping you are fit and well and not too much in the blues, Your old friend, Angas Forbes.’

‘Three weeks,’ I exclaimed. ‘Only three weeks and I must be hundreds of miles away. I must vanish before any suspicion touches me, and long before there will be any hue and cry.’

‘Now let me see,’ I went on to myself. ‘If I get away before this Angas Forbes arrives, there may be never any suspicion attached to me at all. No one may ever learn I was not the real Dr. Carmichael and my sudden flitting may be considered quite in accord with the eccentric temperament of the recluse. But I must go quickly. In a week at most I must leave Adelaide. All of the estate that I have not realised I must give up. I shall have to tell something to the Raintons and what about Margaret now?’

All day I thought and thought about the matter and was so worried and preoccupied that even Rainton himself noticed something was up.

‘Not feeling well, Mr. Wells?’ he asked sympathetically. Then he smiled quietly, ‘I do hope, though, you’ll be all right for Saturday.’

I put him off with an excuse that I had a headache, but to Margaret, whom I was only able to get alone for half a minute, I was different.

‘Look here, Margaret,’ I said quickly, using her Christian name for the first time, ‘I must see you alone this week for something very important. Will you meet me somewhere on Sunday? The others mustn’t know. You understand?’

Dear pretty Margaret! She understood. The sweet face blushed a little, but the sunny smile faded ghost-like from her eyes.

She looked down for a moment. ‘I’ll think about it,’ she whispered, ‘and I’ll tell you between now and then.’

With my heart beating fast I moved nearer to take her hand, but at that moment Mr. Rainton appeared in the garden, and, with a quick, sweet glance at me, Margaret moved back into the house.

That week I made all preparations for leaving Adelaide on the following Wednesday. The matter of Margaret was still unsettled, but all else was clear in my mind.

I was not going to be greedy and everything I could not take with me I would now cheerfully let go. After all, I was leaving, comparatively speaking, very little, but I thought with regret of my two bungalows by the sea, my car in the hills, my bathing hut on the sands and my boat at the Port. They would all be wasted now.

At first I thought of a quick sale of them, but then I remembered I wasn’t quite safe even yet, and I sensibly told myself that with their disposal went all chances of escape if I should have to take a sudden flight in these last hours.

So I left them alone just as they were, and under the name of Thomas Hardy booked a sleeper for the Wednesday night in the Melbourne express.

On the morning of the following Saturday, the day of the great race at Morphettville, strangely enough, I overslept. It was a very unusual thing for me to do. I was always such an early riser. Whether it was because I had sat up late the previous night or that I had been a longer time than usual in going to sleep I do not know, but I was pretty startled at suddenly waking up in the morning and finding by my watch that it was actually half-past nine.

At first I couldn’t believe it. I hopped briskly out of bed and went to look at the clock in the hall. Yes, it was nine-thirty right enough, but where the devil was Hooker?

Even if I hadn’t waked by myself, Hooker was due sharp at seven o’clock, and he couldn’t get in the house until I had let him.

I opened the front door and went round the garden in my pyjamas, but there was no sign anywhere of the man, and the drive gates I saw were still unlocked.

I was puzzled and annoyed. What had happened? I asked myself, and was the fraudulent Hooker ill? He had been right enough the previous evening when I had paid him his wages. He had come in for his money with the usual oily and respectful smirk and had seemed then just as he always was.

It was true I had noticed he had been rather strange in his manner all the week, but I had put that down to his uncertainty about whether he had recognised me at the races the previous Saturday. He had been uneasy and nervous I had thought, but apparently most anxious to keep in my good books. Several times he had tried to interest me unusually in the affairs of the garden. Once, for instance, he had asked me to come out quickly to look at a snake he was positive he had seen near the wall by the drive gates, but, of course, as I had expected, there was no snake to be found there. He had been most apologetic afterwards for making me come.

All these things I remembered suddenly, but they afforded no clue to his non-appearance now.

Grumbling to myself I went indoors to prepare my breakfast, a breakfast that was, however, never destined to be eaten. I had just sat down when I remembered the morning newspaper that was always thrown over the wall on to the lawn. I got up irritably to get it.

Walking back slowly to the house I unfolded it as I came along and then the bottom seemed to drop out of my world.

What did I see, and could I indeed believe the evidence of my eyes?

A dreadful shiver ran down my back. My tongue clove to the roof of my mouth, and I could feel my heart pump as if it would burst through my chest.

There were two large-sized photographs side by side at the top of the middle page, and they were both photographs of me.

The first was headed ‘The Jockey Huggins’ and the second ‘Dr. Robert Carmichael, the eccentric recluse’.

The paper dropped from my nerveless hands, a horrible sick feeling came over me, and for the moment I was stifled and couldn’t breathe.

What did it mean? I asked myself. Oh, it couldn’t be that I was found out?

Feverishly I seized on the paper again, and the bold big headlines struck at me like a cruel blow.

‘Romance of the Turf’, they ran. ‘The crack jockey Huggins and the famous Sydney surgeon, Carmichael, prove to be one and the same man. The hermit forsakes his cave for the racecourse and commands astonishing success’.

It was many minutes before I could coherently take it all in. The shock was too great for me, and my brain was numbed with the sheer amazement of it all. I had grown so confident with the passing of the months and had fancied myself so secure. It had seemed impossible I could be found out and not even Hooker’s recognition the previous Saturday had flurried me over-much.

Ah, Hooker! A sudden thought surged through me. It was Hooker who had given me away. I saw it all instantly. That was why he had been so nervous all the week, and why he was now staying away.

Another thought flashed to my mind. I grabbed the paper again and looked at the photograph headed ‘Dr. Carmichael’. Where had it been taken? It was a dreadful effort for me to hold back my rage for everything was plain as day as I looked at it again.

The photograph of Dr. Carmichael had been taken in the garden of Dr. Carmichael. I had been snapped from the bushes when Hooker had called me to look at the snake.

I had to laugh then if only because I realised how softly I had been done. The dull-witted snail-brained Hooker versus the sharp intriguing John Archibald Cups, I thought, and the victory all along the line with the former.

But my laugh, however bitter, did me good, and I turned now quite calmly to consider the whole article in detail.

It was certainly well put together, and on the face of it they had carefully verified all facts before committing them to print. There were two other photographs lower down on the page that I now noticed for the first time.

One was a snap of ‘Dr. Carmichael leaving the All Australian Bank in his smoked glasses’, and the other was quite a large photo of the garden taking in the front and part of the side of the house.

The article itself was most sensational, and the files of some old Sydney newspapers had evidently been drawn upon for details of Dr. Carmichael’s early life.

It told what a great surgeon he had been once and it mentioned briefly the happenings that had led to his retirement now over five years ago. Then, it said, he had come to the City of Adelaide and for four years and more had lived like a hermit in its northern suburb. Sick of the world, he had made his home in a lonely house surrounded by a dark and high-walled garden, and there night and day he had been kept from interference by the prowling of great huge beasts of the Livonian wolf-hound strain.

Then, less than six months ago, it went on, he had altered his whole mode of life. He had come out among his fellow men again, and of all strange occupations for a highly cultured professional man he had taken up that of riding as a steeplechase jockey in public.

Then it reminded its readers how successful I had been, and how, as Huggins the jockey, I had time after time ridden the most unlikely and unpromising horses to victory.

It described how all along I had resolutely refused to give any account of myself, and how everyone had been completely baffled in their attempts to find out who I was. For a time the secret of my dual life had been a secret all my own, and no one for one moment had imagined that Dr. Carmichael and Jockey Huggins were one and the same man.

Then the writer of the article himself became mysterious and denied to his readers exactly how my secret had been found out. But it was quite clear to me that he had come in contact with Hooker, for details of my home-life were disclosed with as great an accuracy as if I had written them myself.

Then, too, only with Hooker’s connivance could anyone have been placed in the garden to take those photographs, and the one headed ‘Dr. Carmichael’, as I say, actually showed me standing exactly where Hooker had posed me to get a good look at his imaginary snake.

I finished reading the article and was just on the point of putting the paper down when the photograph of the house and garden again caught my eye. With an uneasy feeling I saw that it took in the big fig tree and the ground underneath. Was it fancy, I asked myself with my heart beating a good bit faster than I cared, or could it really be that in one corner the photo showed up a patch of earth of darker colour than the rest? An oblong patch shaped like a grave, and just under the big fig tree itself?

Again my blood ran cold.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:14