Valentine Jernam’s younger brother, George, had journeyed to and fro on the high seas five years since the murder of the brave and generous~hearted sea-captain.
Things had gone well with Captain George Jernam, and in the whole of the trading navy there were few richer men than the owner of the ‘Pizarro’, ‘Stormy Petrel’, and ‘Albatross’.
With these three vessels constantly afloat. George Jernam was on the high road to fortune.
His life had not been by any means uneventful since the death of his brother, though that mysterious calamity had taken away the zest from his success for many a day, and though he no longer cherished the same visions of a happy home in England, when his circumstances should have become so prosperous as to enable him to “settle down.” This same process of settling down was one by no means congenial to George Jernam’s disposition at any time; and he was far less likely to take to it kindly now, than when “dear old Val”— as he began to call his brother in his thoughts once more, when the horror of the murder had begun to wear off, and the lost friend seemed again familiar — had been the prospective sharer of the retirement which was to be so tranquil, so comfortable, and so well-earned. It had no attraction for George at all; for many a long day after Joyce Harker’s letter had reached him he never dwelt upon it; he set his face hard against his grief, and worked on, as men must work, fortunately for them, under all chances and changes of this mortal life, until the last change of all. At first, the thirst for revenge upon his brother’s murderers had been hot and strong upon George Jernam — almost as hot and strong as it had been, and continued to be, upon Joyce Harker; but the natures of the men differed materially. George Jernam had neither the dogged persistency nor the latent fierceness of his dead brother’s friend and protégé; and the long, slow, untiring watching to which Harker devoted himself would have been a task so uncongenial as to be indeed impossible to the more open, more congenial temperament of the merchant-captain.
He had responded warmly to Harker’s letters; he had more than sanctioned the outlay which he had made, in money paid and money promised, to the skilled detective to whom Harker had entrusted the investigation of the murder of Valentine Jernam. He had awaited every communication with anxious interest and suspense, and he had never landed after a voyage, and received the letters which awaited his arrival, without a keen revival of the first sharp pang that had smote him with the tidings of his brother’s fate.
Happily George Jernam was a busy man, and his life was full of variety, adventure, and incident. In time he began, not to forget, indeed, but to remember less frequently and less painfully, the manner of his brother’s death, and to regard the fixed purpose of Joyce Harker’s life as more or less of a harmless delusion. A practical man in his own way, George Jernam had very vague ideas concerning the lives of the criminal classes, and the faculties and facilities of the science of detection; and the hope of finding out the secret of his brother’s fate had long ago deserted him.
Only once had he and Joyce Harker met since the murder of Valentine Jernam. George had landed a cargo at Hamburg, and had given his brother’s friend rendezvous there. Then the two men had talked of all that had been done so vainly, and all that remained to be done, Harker hoped, so effectively. Joyce had never been able to bring his suspicions concerning Black Milsom to the test of proof. Unwearied search had been made for the old man who had played the part of grandfather to the beautiful ballad-singer; but it had been wholly ineffectual. All that could be ascertained concerning him was, that he had died in a hospital, in a country town on the great northern road, and that the girl had wandered away from there, and never more been heard of. Of Black Milsom, Joyce Harker had never lost sight, until his career received a temporary check by the sentence of transportation, which had sent the ruffian out of the country. But all efforts of the faithful watcher had failed to discover the missing link in the evidence which connected Black Milsom with Valentine Jernam’s death. All his watching and questioning — all his silent noting of the idle talk around him — all his eager endeavour to take Dennis Wayman unawares, failed to enable him to obtain evidence of that one fact of which he was convinced — the fact that Valentine Jernam had been at the public-house in Ratcliff Highway on the day of his death.
When the inutility of his endeavours became clear to Joyce Harker, he gave up his lodging in Wayman’s house, and located himself in modest apartments at Poplar, where he transacted a great deal of business for George Jernam, and maintained a constant, though unprofitable, communication with the detective officer to whom he had confided the task of investigation, and who was no other than Mr. Andrew Larkspur.
In one of the earliest of the numerous letters which George Jernam addressed to Harker, after the death of Valentine, the merchant-captain had given his zealous friend and assistant certain instructions concerning the old aunt to whom the two desolate boys had owed so much in their ill-treated childhood, and whom they had so well and constantly requited in their prosperous manhood. These instructions included a request that Joyce Harker would visit Susan Jernam in person, and furnish George with details relative to that venerable lady’s requirements, looks, health, and general circumstances.
“I should have seen the good old soul, you know,” wrote George, “when I was to have seen poor Val; but it didn’t please God that the one thing should come off any more than the other, and it can’t be helped. But I should like you to run down to Allanbay and look her up, and let her know that she is neither neglected nor forgotten by her vagabond nephew.”
So Joyce Harker went down to the Devonshire village, and introduced himself to George Jernam’s aunt. The old lady was much altered since she had last welcomed a visitor to her pretty, cheerful cottage, and had listened with simple surprise and pleasure to her nephew Valentine’s tales of the sea, and they had talked together over the troublous days of his unhappy childhood. The untimely and tragic death of the merchant-captain had afflicted her deeply, and had filled her mind with sentiments which, though they differed in degree, closely resembled in their nature those of Joyce Harker. The determination to be revenged upon the murderers of “her boy” which Harker expressed, found a ready echo in the breast of his hearer, and she thanked him warmly for his devotion to the master he had lost. Strong mutual liking grew up between these two, and when her visitor left her — after having carried out all George’s wishes in respect to her, on the scale of liberality which the grateful nephew had dictated — Susan Jernam gave him a cordial invitation to pass any leisure time he might have at the cottage, though, as she remarked —
“I am not very lively company, Mr. Harker, for you or anybody, for I can’t talk of anything but George and poor Valentine.”
“And I don’t care to talk of much else either, Mrs. Jernam,” said Harker, in reply; “so, you see, we couldn’t possibly be better company for each other.”
Thus it happened that a second tie between George Jernam and Joyce Harker arose, in the person of the sole surviving relative of the former, and that Joyce had made three visits to the pretty sea-side village in which the childhood of his dead friend and his living patron had been passed, before he and George Jernam met again on English ground.
When at length that long-deferred meeting took place, Valentine Jernam’s murder was a mystery rather more than five years old, and Mr. Andrew Larkspur had made no progress towards its solution. He had been obliged to acknowledge to Joyce Harker that he had not struck the right trail, and to confess that he had begun to despond. The disappearance of Black Milsom from among the congenial society of thieves and ruffians which he frequented was, of course, easily accounted for by Mr. Larkspur, and the absence of any, even the slightest, additional clue to the fate of Jernam, confirmed that astute person in the conviction, which he had reached early in the course of his confabulations with Harker, that the convict was the guilty man. There was, on this hypothesis, nothing for it but to wait until the worthy exile should have worked out his time and once more returned to grace his mother-country, and then to resume the close watch which, though hitherto ineffectual, might in time bring some of his former deeds to light.
Such was the state of affairs when Captain Duncombe bought the deserted house which had had such undesirable tenants, first in the person of old Screwton, the miser, and, secondly, of Black Milsom. Joyce Harker was aware of the transaction, and had watched with some interest the transformation of the dreary, dismal, doomed place, into the cheery, comfortable, middle-class residence it had now become. If he had known that the last hours of Valentine Jernam’s life had been passed on that spot, that there his beloved master had met with a violent and cruel death, with what different feelings he would have watched the work! But though, as the former dwelling of Black Milsom, the cottage had a dreary attraction for him, he was far from imagining that within its walls lay hidden one infallible clue to the secret for which he had sought so long and so vainly.
The new occupant of River View Cottage was acquainted with Joyce Harker, and held the solitary old man in some esteem. Captain Joe Duncombe and the protégé of the Jernams had nothing whatever in common in character, disposition, or manners, and the distance in the social scale which divided the prosperous merchant-captain from the poor, though clever, dependent, was considerable, even according to the not very strict standard of manners observed by persons of their respective classes. But Joe Duncombe knew and heartily liked George Jernam. He had been in England at the time of Valentine’s murder, and he had then learned the faithful and active part played by Harker. He had lost sight of the man for some time, but when he had bought the cottage, and during the progress of the changes and improvements he had made in that unprepossessing dwelling, accident had thrown Harker in his way, and they had found much to discuss in George Jernam’s prosperity, in his generous treatment of Harker, in the general condition of the merchant service, which the two men declared to be going to the dogs, after the manner of all professions, trades, and institutions of every age and every clime, when contemplated from a conversational point of view; and in the honest captain’s plans, hopes, and prospects concerning his daughter.
Joyce Harker had seen Rosamond Duncombe occasionally, but had not taken much notice of her. Nor had Miss Duncombe been much impressed by that gentleman. Joyce was not a lady’s man, and Rosamond, who entertained a rather disrespectful notion of her father’s acquaintances in general, classing them collectively as “old fogies,” contented herself with distinguishing Mr. Harker as the ugliest and grimmest of the lot. Joyce came and went, not very often indeed, but very freely to River View Cottage, and there was much confidence and good-fellowship between the bluff old seaman and the more acute, but not less honest, adventurer.
There was, however, one circumstance which Captain Duncombe never mentioned to Harker. That circumstance was the apparition of old Screwton’s ghost. Joe Duncombe was, to tell the truth, a little ashamed of his credulity on that occasion. He entertained no doubt that he had been victimized by a clever practical joke, and while he chuckled over the recollection that it had been an expensive jest to the perpetrator, who had lost a valuable gold coin by the transaction, he had no fancy for exposing himself to any further ridicule on the occasion. So the bluff, imperious, soft-hearted captain issued an ukase commanding silence on the subject; and silence was observed, not in the least because Rosamond Duncombe or Susan Trott were afraid of him, but because Rosamond loved her father, and Susan Trott respected her master too much to disobey his lightest wish.
There was also one circumstance which Joyce Harker never mentioned to Captain Duncombe. This circumstance was the identity of the former occupant of the cottage with the man whom he believed to be the murderer of Valentine Jernam.
“It is bad enough to live in a place that’s said to be haunted,” said Harker to himself, when he visited the cottage for the first time; “without my telling him that he comes after a man who is certainly a convict, and probably a murderer.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50