The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 30.

Nemesis.

Men, according to the old Greek, “are the sport of the gods,” who, enthroned on high Olympus, put evil desires into the hearts of mortals; and when evil actions were the outcome of evil thoughts, amused themselves by watching the ineffectual efforts made by their victims to escape a relentless deity called Nemesis, who exacted a penalty for their evil deeds. It was no doubt very amusing — to the gods — but it is questionable if the men found it so. They had their revenge, however, for weary of plaguing puny mortals, who whimpered and cried when they saw they could not escape, the inevitable Nemesis turned her attention from actors to spectators, and made a clean sweep of the whole Olympian hierarchy. She smashed their altars, pulled down their statues, and after she had completed her malicious work, found that she had, vulgarly speaking, been cutting off her nose to spite her face, for she, too, became an object of derision and of disbelief, and was forced to retire to the same obscurity to which she had relegated the other deities. But men found out that she had not been altogether useless as a scapegoat upon which to lay the blame of their own shortcomings, so they created a new deity called Fate, and laid any misfortune which happened to them to her charge. Her worship is still very popular, especially among lazy and unlucky people, who never bestir themselves: on the ground that whether they do so or not their lives are already settled by Fate. After all, the true religion of Fate has been preached by George Eliot, when she says that our lives are the outcome of our actions. Set up any idol you please upon which to lay the blame of unhappy lives and baffled ambitions, but the true cause is to be found in men themselves. Every action, good or bad, which we do has its corresponding reward, and Mark Frettlby found it so, for the sins of his youth were now being punished in his old age. No doubt he had sinned gaily enough in that far-off time when life’s cup was still brimming with wine, and no asp hid among the roses; but Nemesis had been an unseen spectator of all his thoughtless actions, and now she came to demand her just dues. He felt somewhat as Faust must have felt when Mephistopheles suggested a visit to Hades, in repayment of those years of magic youth and magic power. So long ago it seemed since he had married Rosanna Moore, that he almost persuaded himself that it had been only a dream — a pleasant dream, with a disagreeable awakening. When she had left him he had tried to forget her, recognising how unworthy she was of a good man’s love. He heard that she had died in a London hospital, and with a passionate sigh for a perished love, he had dismissed her from his thoughts for ever. His second marriage had turned out a happy one, and he regretted the death of his wife deeply. Afterwards, all his love centred in his daughter, and he thought he would be able to spend his declining years in peace. This, however, was not to be, and he was thunderstruck when Whyte arrived from England with the information that his first wife still lived, and that the daughter of his second was illegitimate. Sooner than risk exposure, Frettlby agreed to anything; but Whyte’s demands became too exorbitant, and he refused to comply with them. On Whyte’s death he again breathed freely, when suddenly a second possessor of his fatal secret started up in the person of Roger Moreland. As the murder of Duncan had to be followed by that of Banquo, in order to render Macbeth safe, so he foresaw that while Roger Moreland lived his life would be one long misery. He knew that the friend of the murdered man would be his master, and would never leave him during his life, while after his death he would probably publish the whole ghastly story, and defame the memory of the widely-respected Mark Frettlby. What is it that Shakespeare says? —

“Good name in man or woman Is the immediate jewel of their souls.”

And after all these years of spotless living and generous use of his wealth, was he to be dragged down to the depths of infamy and degradation by a man like Moreland? Already, in fancy, he heard the jeering cries of his fellow-men, and saw the finger of scorn point at him — he, the great Mark Frettlby, famous throughout Australia for his honesty, integrity, and generosity. No, it could not be, and yet this would surely happen unless he took means to prevent it.

The day after he had seen Moreland, and knew that his secret was no longer safe, since it was in the power of a man who might reveal it at any moment in a drunken fit, or out of sheer maliciousness, he sat at his desk writing. After a time he laid down his pen, and taking up a portrait of hic dead wife which stood just in front of him, he stared at it long and earnestly As he did so, his mind went back to the time when he had first met and loved her. Even as Faust had entered into the purity and serenity of Gretchen’s chamber, out of the coarseness and profligacy of Auerbach’s cellar, so he, leaving behind him the wild life of his youth, had entered into the peace and quiet of a domestic home. The old feverish life with Rosanna Moore, seemed to be as unsubstantial and chimerical, as, no doubt, his union with Lillith after he met Eve, seemed to Adam in the old Rabbinical legend. There seemed to be only one way open to him, by which he could escape the relentless fate which dogged his steps. He would write a confession of everything from the time he had first met Rosanna, and then — death. He would cut the Gordian knot of all his difficulties, and then his secret would be safe; safe? no, it could not be while Moreland lived. When he was dead Moreland would see Madge and embitter her life with the story of her father’s sins — yes — he must live to protect her, and drag his weary chain of bitter remembrance through life, always with that terrible sword of Damocles hanging over him. But still, he would write out his confession, and after his death, whenever it may happen, it might help if not altogether to exculpate, at least to secure some pity for a man who had been hardly dealt with by Fate. His resolution taken, he put it into force at once, and sat all day at his desk filling page after page with the history of his past life, which was so bitter to him. He started at first languidly, and as in the performance of an unpleasant but necessary duty. Soon, however, he became interested in it, and took a peculiar pleasure in putting down every minute circumstance which made the case stronger against, himself. He dealt with it, not as a criminal, but as a prosecutor, and painted his conduct as much blacker than it really had been. Towards the end of the day, however, after reading over the earlier sheets, he experienced a revulsion of feeling, seeing how severe he had been on himself, so he wrote a defence of his conduct, showing that fate had been too strong for him. It was a weak argument to bring forward, but still he felt it was the only one that he could make. It was quite dark when he had finished, and while sitting in the twilight, looking dreamily at the sheets scattered all over his desk, he heard a knock at the door, and his daughter’s voice asking if he was coming to dinner. All day long he had closed his door against everyone, but now his task being ended, he collected all the closely-written sheets together, placed them in a drawer of his escritoire, which he locked, and then opened the door.

“Dear papa,” cried Madge, as she entered rapidly, and threw her arms around his neck, “what have you been doing here all day by yourself?”

“Writing,” returned her father laconically, as he gently removed her arms.

“Why, I thought you were ill,” she answered, looking at him apprehensively.

“No, dear,” he replied, quietly. “Not ill, but worried.”

“I knew that dreadful man who came last night had told you something to worry you. Who is he?”

“Oh! a friend of mine,” answered Frettlby, with hesitation.

“What — Roger Moreland?”

Her father started.

“How do you know it was Roger Moreland?”

“Oh! Brian recognised him as he went out.”

Mark Frettlby hesitated for a few moments, and then busied himself with the papers on his desk, as he replied in a low voice —

“You are right — it was Roger Moreland — he is very hard up, and as he was a friend of poor Whyte’s, he asked me to assist him, which I did.”

He hated to hear himself telling such a deliberate falsehood, but there was no help for it — Madge must never know the truth so long as he could conceal it.

“Just like you,” said Madge, kissing him lightly with filial pride. “The best and kindest of men.”

He shivered slightly as he felt her caress, and thought how she would recoil from him did she know all. “After all,” says some cynical writer, “the illusions of youth are mostly due to the want of experience.” Madge, ignorant in a great measure of the world, cherished her pleasant illusions, though many of them had been destroyed by the trials of the past year, and her father longed to keep her in this frame of mind.

“Now go down to dinner, my dear,” he said, leading her to the door. “I will follow soon.”

“Don’t be long,” replied his daughter, “or I shall come up again,” and she ran down the stairs, her heart feeling strangely light.

Her father looked after her until she vanished, then heaving a regretful sigh returned to his study, and taking out the scattered papers fastened them together, and endorsed them,

“My Confession.” He then placed them in an envelope, sealed it, and put it back in the desk. “If all that is in that packet were known,” he said aloud, as he left the room, “what would the world say?”

That night he was singularly brilliant at the dinner table. Generally a very reticent and grave man, on this night he laughed and talked so gaily that the very servants noticed the change. The fact was he felt a sense of relief at having unburdened his mind, and felt as though by writing out that confession he had laid the spectre which had haunted him for so long. His daughter was delighted at the change in his spirits, but the old Scotch nurse, who had been in the house since Madge was a baby, shook her head —

“He’s fey,” she said gravely. “He’s no lang for the warld.”

Of course she was laughed at — people who believe in presentiments generally are — but, nevertheless, she held firmly to her opinion.

Mr. Frettlby went to bed early that night, the excitement of the last few days and the feverish gaiety in which he had lately indulged proving too strong for him. No sooner had he laid his head on his pillow than he dropped off to sleep at once, and forgot in placid slumber the troubles and worries of his waking hours.

It was only nine o’clock, so Madge stayed by herself in the great drawing-room, and read a new novel, which was then creating a sensation, called “Sweet Violet Eyes.” It belied its reputation, however, for it was very soon thrown on the table with a look of disgust, and rising from her seat Madge walked up and down the room, and wished some good fairy would hint to Brian that he was wanted. If man is a gregarious animal, how much more, then, is a woman? This is not a conundrum, but a simple truth. “A female Robinson Crusoe,” says a writer who prided himself upon being a keen observer of human nature — “a female Robinson Crusoe would have gone mad for want of something to talk to.” This remark, though severe, nevertheless contains several grains of truth, for women, as a rule, talk more than men. They are more sociable, and a Miss Misanthrope, in spite of Justin McCarthy’s, is unknown — at least in civilised communities. Miss Frettlby, being neither misanthropic nor dumb, began to long for some one to talk to, and, ringing the bell, ordered Sal to be sent in. The two girls had become great friends, and Madge, though by two years the younger, assumed the role of mentor, and under her guidance Sal was rapidly improving. It was a strange irony of fate which brought together these two children of the same father, each with such different histories — the one reared in luxury and affluence, never having known want; the other dragged up in the gutter, all unsexed and besmirched by the life she had led. “The whirligig of time brings in its revenges,” and it was the last thing in the world Mark Frettlby would have thought of seeing: Rosanna Moore’s child, whom he fancied dead, under the same roof as his daughter Madge.

On receiving Madge’s message Sal came to the drawing room, and the two were soon chatting amicably together. The room was almost in darkness, only one lamp being lighted, Mr. Frettlby very sensibly detested gas, with its glaring light, and had nothing but lamps in his drawing-room. At the end of the apartment, where Sal and Madge were seated, there was a small table. On it stood a large lamp, with an opaque globe, which, having a shade over it, threw a soft and subdued circle of light round the table, leaving the rest of the room in a kind of semi-darkness. Near this sat Madge and Sal, talking gaily, and away on the left-hand side they could see the door open, and a warm flood of light pouring in from the hall.

They had been talking together for some time, when Sal’s quick ear caught a footfall on the soft carpet, and, turning rapidly, she saw a tall figure advancing down the room. Madge saw it too, and started up in surprise on recognising her father. He was clothed in his dressing-gown, and carried some papers in his hand.

“Why, papa,” said Madge, in surprise. “I— ”

“Hush!” whispered Sal, grasping her arms. “He’s asleep.”

And so he was. In accordance with the dictates of the excited brain, the weary body had risen from the bed and wandered about the house. The two girls, drawing back into the shadow, watched him with bated breath as he came slowly down the room. In a few moments he was within the circle of light, and, moving noiselessly along, he laid the papers he carried on the table. They were in a large blue envelope much worn, with writing in red ink on it. Sal recognised it, at once as the one she had seen in the possession of the dead woman, and with an instinctive feeling that there was something wrong, she tried to draw Madge back, as she watched her father’s action with an intensity of feeling which held her spell-bound. Frettlby opened the envelope, and took therefrom a yellow, frayed piece of paper, which he spread out on the table. Madge bent forward to see it, but Sal, with a sudden terror drew her back.

“For God’s sake no,” she cried.

But it was too late; Madge had caught sight of the names on the paper — “Marriage — Rosanna Moore — Mark Frettlby” — and the whole awful truth flashed upon her. These were the papers Rosanna Moore had handed to Whyte. Whyte had been murdered by the man to whom the papers were of value —

“Oh! My father!”

She staggered blindly forward, and then, with one piercing shriek, fell to the ground. In doing so, she struck against her father, who was still standing beside the table. Awakened suddenly, with that wild cry in his ears, he opened his eyes wide, put out feeble hands, as if to keep something back, and with a strangled cry fell dead on the floor beside his daughter. Sal, horror-struck, did not lose her presence of mind, but, snatching the papers off the table, she thrust them into her pocket, and then called aloud for the servants. But they, already attracted by Madge’s wild cry, came hurrying in, to find Mark Frettlby, the millionaire, lying dead, and his daughter in a faint beside her father’s corpse.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42