I went down to the garden for the flowers as usual next morning, as I did not wish to make any palpable change in my arrangements; but before leaving the room I impressed upon Susan Dodd the necessity of remaining with her mistress during every moment of my absence, though I knew I had little need to counsel carefulness. Nothing was more unlikely than that Susan would neglect her duty for a moment.
Peter came again, as he had come to me on the previous morning. Again he lingered about me, as if he had something more to say, and could not take courage to say it. This time the strangeness of his manner aroused my curiosity, and I asked him if he had anything particular to say to me.
‘You must be quick, Peter, whatever it is,’ I said; ‘for I am in a great hurry to get back to Miss Darrell.’
‘There is something I want to say, miss,’ he answered, twisting his ragged straw hat round and round in his bony hands, in a nervous way — ‘something I should like to say, but I’m naught but a poor fondy, and don’t know how to begin. Only you’ve been very good to Peter, you see, miss, sending wine and such things when I was ill, and I ain’t afeard o’ you, as I am o’ some folks.’
‘The wine was not mine, Peter. Be quick, please; tell me what you want to say.’
‘I can’t come to it very easy, miss. It’s something awful-like to tell on.’
The boy had looked round him with a cautious glance, and was now standing close to me, with his light blue eyes fixed upon my face in a very earnest way.
‘Speak out, Peter,’ I said; ‘you needn’t be afraid of me.’
‘It happened when I was ill, you see, miss, and I’ve sometimes thought as it might be no more than a dream. I had a many dreams while I were lying on that little bed in grandmother’s room, wicked dreams, and this might be one of them; and yet it’s real-like, and there isn’t the muddle in it that there is in the other dreams.’
‘What is it, Peter? O, pray, pray be quick!’
‘I’m a-coming to it, miss. Is it wicked for folks to kill theirselves?’
‘Is it wicked? Of course it is — desperately wicked; a sin that can never be repented of.’
‘Then I know one that’s going to do it.’
He gave a solemn nod, and stood staring at me with wide-open awe-stricken eyes.
‘How do you know that?’
‘It was one dark night, when it was raining hard — I could hear it drip, drip, drip upon the roof just over where I was lying. It was when I was very bad, and lay still all day and couldn’t speak. But I knew what grandmother said to me, and I knew everything that was going on, though I didn’t seem to — that was the curious part of it. I had been asleep for a bit, and I woke up all of a sudden, and heard some one talking to grandmother in the next room — the door wasn’t wide open, only ajar. I shouldn’t have known who it was, for I’m not quick at telling voices, like other folks; but I heard grandmother call her Mrs. Darrell; and I heard the lady say that when one was sick and tired of life, and had no one left to live for, it was best to die; and grandmother laughed, and says yes, there wasn’t much to live for, leastways not for such as her. And then they talked a little more; and then by and by Mrs. Darrell asked her for some stuff — I didn’t hear the name of it, for Mrs. Darrell only whispered it. Grandmother says no, and stuck to it for a good time; but Mrs. Darrell offered her money, and then more and more money. She says it couldn’t matter whether she got the stuff from her or from any one else. She could get it easily enough, she says, in any large town. And she didn’t know as she should use it, she says. It was more likely than not she never would; but she wanted to have it by her, so as to feel she was able to put an end to her life, if ever it grew burdensome to her. “You’ll never use it against any one else?” says grandmother; and Mrs. Darrell says who was there she could use it against, and what harm need she wish to anybody; she was rich enough, and had nothing to gain from anybody’s death. So at last, after a deal of talk, grandmother gave her the stuff; and I heard her counting out money — I think it was a hundred pounds — and then she went away in the rain.’
I remembered that night upon which Mrs. Darrell had stayed out so long in the rain — the night that followed her stormy interview with Angus Egerton.
I told Peter that he had done quite right in telling me this, and begged him not to mention it to any one else until I gave him permission to do so. I went back to Milly’s room directly afterwards, and waited there for Mr. Hale’s coming.
While I was taking my breakfast, Mrs. Darrell came to make her usual inquiries. I ran into the dressing-room to meet her. While she was questioning me about the invalid, I saw her look at the table where the medicine had always been until that morning, and I knew that she missed the bottle.
After she had made her inquiries, she stood for a few moments hesitating, and then said abruptly,
‘I should like to see Mr. Hale when he comes this morning. I want to hear what he says about his patient. He will be here almost immediately, I suppose; so I will stay in Milly’s room till he comes.’
She went into the bedroom, bent over the invalid for a few minutes, talking in a gentle sympathetic voice, and then took her place by the bedside. It was evident to me that she had suspected something from the removal of the medicine, and that she intended to prevent my seeing Mr. Hale alone.
‘You took your medicine regularly last night, I suppose, Milly?’ she inquired presently, when I had seated myself at a little table by the window and was sipping my tea.
‘I don’t think you gave me quite so many doses last night, did you, Mary?’ said the invalid, in her feeble voice. ‘I fancy you were more merciful than usual.’
‘It was very wrong of Miss Crofton to neglect your medicine. Mr. Hale will be extremely angry when he hears of it.’
‘I do not think Milly will be much worse for the omission,’ I answered quietly.
After this we sat silently waiting for the doctor’s appearance. He came in about a quarter of an hour, and pronounced himself better pleased with his patient than he had been the night before. There had been a modification of the more troublesome symptoms of the fever towards morning.
I told him of my omission to give the medicine.
‘That was very wrong,’ he said.
‘Yet you see she had a better night, Mr. Hale. I suppose that medicine was intended to modify those attacks of sickness from which she has suffered so much?’
‘To prevent them altogether, if possible.’
‘That is very strange. It really appears to me that the medicine always increases the tendency to sickness.’
Mr. Hale shook his head impatiently.
‘You don’t know what you are talking about, Miss Crofton,’ he said.
‘May I say a few words to you alone, if you please?’
Mrs. Darrell rose, with a hurried anxious look.
‘What can you have to say to Mr. Hale alone, Miss Crofton?’ she asked.
‘It is about herself, perhaps,’ said the doctor kindly. ‘I have told her all along that she would be knocked up by this nursing; and now I daresay she begins to find I am right.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it is about myself I want to speak.’
Mrs. Darrell went to one of the windows, and stood with her face turned away from us, looking out. I followed Mr. Hale into the dressing-room.
I unlocked the wardrobe, took out the medicine-bottle, and told the doctor my suspicions of the previous night. He listened to me with grave attention, but with an utterly incredulous look.
‘A nervous fancy of yours, no doubt, Miss Crofton,’ he said; ‘however, I’ll take the medicine back to my surgery and analyse it.’
‘I have something more to tell you, Mr. Hale.’
I repeated, word for word, what Peter had told me about Mrs. Darrell’s visit to his grandmother.
‘It is a very extraordinary business,’ he said; ‘but I cannot imagine that Mrs. Darrell would be capable of such a hideous crime. What motive could she have for such an act?’
‘I do not feel justified in speaking quite plainly upon that subject, Mr. Hale; but I have reason to know that Mrs. Darrell has a very bitter feeling about her stepdaughter.’
‘I cannot think the thing you suspect possible. However, the medicine shall be analysed; and we will take all precautions for the future. I will send you another bottle immediately, in a sealed packet. You will take notice that the seal is unbroken before you use the medicine.’
He showed me his crest on a seal at the end of his pencil-case, and then departed. The medicine came a quarter of an hour later in a sealed packet. This time I brought the bottle into the sick-room, and placed it on the mantelpiece, where it was impossible for any one to touch it.
When Mr. Hale came for his second visit, there was a grave and anxious look in his face. He was very well satisfied with the appearance of the patient, however, and pronounced that there was a change for the better — slight, of course, but quite as much as could be expected in so short a time. He beckoned me out of the room, and I went down-stairs with him, leaving Susan Dodd with Milly.
‘I am going to speak to Mrs. Darrell, and you had better come with me,’ he said.
She was in the library. Mr. Hale went in, and I followed him. She was sitting at the table, with writing materials scattered before her; but she was not writing. She had a strange preoccupied air; but at the sight of Mr. Hale she rose suddenly, and looked at him with a deadly white face.
‘Is she worse?’ she asked.
‘No, Mrs. Darrell; she is better,’ he answered sternly. ‘I find that we have been the dupes of some secret enemy of this dear child’s. There has been an attempt at murder going on under our very eyes. Poison has been mixed with the medicine sent by me — a slow poison. Happily for us the poisoner has been a little too cautious for the success of the crime. The doses administered have been small enough to leave the chance of recovery. An accident awakened Miss Crofton’s suspicions last night, and she very wisely discontinued the medicine. I have analysed it since she gave it me, and find that a certain portion of irritant poison has been mixed with it.’
For some moments after he had finished speaking Mrs. Darrell remained silent, looking at him fixedly with that awful death-like face.
‘Who can have done such a thing?’ she asked at last, in a half-mechanical way.
‘You must be a better judge of that question than I,’ answered Mr. Hale. ‘Is there any one in this house inimical to your stepdaughter?’
‘No one, that I know of.’
‘We have two duties before us, Mrs. Darrell: the first, to protect our patient from the possibility of any farther attempt of this kind; the second, to trace the hand that has done this work. I shall telegraph to Leeds immediately for a professional nurse, to relieve Miss Crofton in the care of the sick-room; and I shall communicate at once with the police, in order that this house may be placed under surveillance.’
Mrs. Darrell said not a word, either in objection or assent, to this. She seated herself by the table again, and began trifling idly with the writing materials before her.
‘You will do what is best, of course, Mr. Hale,’ she said, after a long pause; ‘you are quite at liberty to act in this matter according to your own discretion.’
‘Thanks; it is a matter in which my responsibility entitles me to a certain amount of power. I shall telegraph to Dr. Lomond, asking him to come down to-morrow. Whatever doubt you may entertain of my judgment will be dispelled when I am supported by his opinion.’
‘Of course; but I have not expressed any doubt of your judgment.’
We left her immediately after this — left her sitting before the table, with her restless hands turning over the papers.
The servant who went in search of her at seven o’clock that evening, when dinner was served, found her sitting there still, with a sealed letter lying on the table before her; but her head had fallen across the cushioned arm of the chair — she had been dead some hours.
There was a post-mortem examination and an inquest. Mrs. Darrell had taken poison. The jury brought in a verdict of suicide while in a state of unsound mind. The act seemed too causeless for sanity. Her strange absent ways had attracted the attention of the servants for some time past, and the evidence of her own maid respecting her restlessness and irritability for the last few months influenced the minds of coroner and jury.
The letter found lying on the table before her was addressed to Angus Egerton. He declined to communicate its contents when questioned about it at the inquest. Milly progressed towards recovery slowly but surely from the hour in which I stopped the suspected medicine. The time came when we were obliged to tell her of her stepmother’s awful death; but she never knew the attempt that had been made on her own life, or the atmosphere of hatred in which she had lived.
We left Thornleigh for Scarborough as soon as she was well enough to be moved, and only returned in the early spring, in time for my darling’s wedding.
She has now been married nearly seven years, during which time her life has been very bright and happy — a life of almost uncheckered sunshine. She has carried out her idea of our friendship to the very letter; and we have never been separated, except during her honeymoon and my own visits home. Happily for my sense of independence, there are now plenty of duties for me to perform at Cumber Priory, where I am governess to a brood of pretty children, who call me auntie, and hold me scarcely second to their mother in their warm young hearts. Angus Egerton is a model country squire and master of the hounds; and he and his wife enjoy an unbroken popularity among rich and poor. Peter is under-gardener at the Priory, and no longer lives with his grandmother, who left her cottage soon after Mrs. Darrell’s suicide, and is supposed to have gone to London.
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05