The House by the Lock/Chapter 30
I bent my ear over the tiny aperture. It made all the difference in the world. I could now hear every word that Wildred was saying.
"I have always, and with some reason, I think," was the first sentence that I caught, "considered myself a man of more than average mental ability. I am usually prepared for any traps which can possibly be sprung for me; but in this instance I find I have made my one mistake. I believed in a woman's devotion. Probably it serves me right to have been deceived. Since you have found it all out through her, I may as well admit to you that it is true. She did live here. Nobody suspected her presence, or even her existence. She was very useful to me in many ways. If she had proved troublesome I could have rid myself of her at any time, and she knew it. Instead of doing what I ought to have done, I believed that she was willing to go away without betraying me, and I let her go free with a present of a thousand pounds. She could even have asked for more when that was gone, and I would not have refused her. I was a fool ever to marry her, but she was the handsomest woman I had seen at that time, and as you know I was some years younger, some degrees more impulsive than I am now. I was still more of a fool not to have put her out of the way, knowing what she did–but as I remarked, that was the mistake of a lifetime. She has told you such of my secrets as she knew, she has shown you certain things in this house which have very naturally displeased and shocked you. She timed her return very well–jealous idiot!–but she will pay for what she has done."
"How will she pay?"
I could not see Karine, but I could hear her voice, vibrant with the fear and horror that she felt.
"Better not ask; the question doesn't concern you. She will simply become familiarised with the secrets of the House by the Lock in a manner upon which she didn't count, that's all."
"I had never pictured Satan himself so cruel, so horrible as you," cried Karine. "I thank heaven, now that I know through this wretched woman what you really are, that not I, but she is your wife!"
"Yet you must remain with me, as though you knew nothing but what I would have had you know, for your own sake and your brother's.
"Had it not been for that foolish creature, who has ruined herself in trying to ruin you and me, we might have been happy together, Karine. I admire you more than any woman on earth, for you are certainly the most beautiful, and your coldness to a man of my temperament has only added to your attractions as a girl. As a married woman it would have been different. I meant to make you love me; and even now, Karine, what has happened that need change anything between us? You are not a conventional little fool, as are some women I could name, and the love of a man like me must create some impression on your nature. The obstacle which you think stands between us shall be removed, the marriage ceremony can again be performed over us–secretly, if you choose. No one will be the wiser, and as in any event you must stay here in my house——"
"I will not. Somehow God will help me to escape, and then, when I am free from you, I shall let such friends as I may have left deal with you as you deserve."
"It's difficult to see how you will get away. It's true I did not dream that Marion would be here to greet us or I would not have brought you to this house. But now that you are in it you will stay. No one knows that we are here–no one in your world, at least–and I intend that we shall have a protracted honeymoon. You heard how some vagabond, some tramp who wished to get in, failed just now? Well, it is just as difficult for strangers to escape from the House by the Lock as it is for them to effect an entrance. For instance, you and I are now cut off by means of a sliding iron door from the old portion of the house. From this there is absolutely no way out, unless I allow it, save one, and that way two or three people have already found by going through a certain little door hidden behind the hangings. I'll show it to you, if you like, or perhaps the lady who told you so much has told you that as well?"
"She has. She told me all about poor Mr. Farnham, how you made him believe you a friend to be trusted, how you induced him to smoke opium–here in this very room–this awful room–till he was dazed and unconscious, and how he only roused from his stupor just as you were going to burn him alive in your horrible crematory. She told me how the furnace went wrong at the last moment and you had to kill him in a different way from what you had planned–less easy for you, more dangerous of discovery. Oh, the horror of listening to those details, for she spared me nothing–nothing! I heard from her how Mr. Stanton came in the midst of the dreadful happenings on Christmas Day, how she saw him through the door, and afterwards, when he had spoken to the police, how you bribed her with jewels and money to pretend that she was your cook, that she had screamed with the pain of burning her foot, and how she painted her ankle to look like a red scar when she had to show some proof of her story. She would have been true to you through everything, she said–poor misguided woman–if she had not been taken ill and stopped in London instead of going to France, as she had promised, and so seen in the papers about our coming marriage. What mockery to call it that; and yet, I thank heaven that it need only be mockery–that it is not real.
"I wonder that the shock of finding that woman concealed in my room–waiting for me to come–did not drive me mad. But I am not mad, and such wit as I have I warn you I shall devote to thwarting you, Carson Wildred. Do you think I could go on living under the same roof with you, even if I were in reality your wife? No, you can kill me if you like; it is the only way in which you can keep me here."
He did not answer for an instant, then he said slowly, "Do you remember just putting your name on a paper I asked you to sign for me with my stylographic pen in the train this afternoon? Well, you thought it was merely an order for letters to be sent on to your new address, but it was something rather more important than that. You put your name to a document which leaves all the money of which you die possessed unreservedly to me. I have already had it witnessed by my servant and another. You understand to what this points, perhaps? If you show yourself amenable to reason I shall consider you a wife to be proud of, and there is no ambition which we need cherish in vain if we are to live our lives together. But, on the other hand, unless you will go heart and soul with me, ignoring the past, you have to-day been told too much for my safety or–your own. What if you should catch a serious cold here at the House by the Lock? Unfortunately, the place is rather damp, though so charming in many ways. You might have an attack of pneumonia. Only fancy how the world would sympathise with the husband of so beautiful and popular a girl as yourself if he were bereaved of you during the honeymoon?"
"Oh, you are horrible–horrible! It is like death even to listen to you!" cried Karine. "If only there was a soul on earth to help me–but there's none–none!"
His answer, if he had made one, was drowned in the crashing of glass. Better that she should be startled, even to the point of swooning, rather than endure for another second the torture that that fiend was inflicting upon her.
I broke in the skylight with the heavy stick which I had brought up to the roof between my teeth. Then, with hands cut and bleeding, despite the protection of my gloves, I swung myself down and dropped on to the floor.
There was a cry from Karine, and a sharp exclamation of dismayed astonishment from Wildred, for once outwitted. I had never been a match for him in diplomacy, but when it came to a physical encounter, I had every advantage over him, and I knew it.
He had no time to pull out the knife or revolver, for which his hand flew to his pocket, for I was on him, taking him by the throat and shaking him as a terrier shakes a rat.
I had not stopped even to look at Karine, and yet the vision of her pale face and hands clasped over her bosom had flashed, lightning-like, upon my consciousness. "Thank heaven! thank heaven!" I could hear her sob. I hoped that she did not look–that she had closed her eyes, or covered them with her hands, but Wildred did not give me time to make suggestions. He was more nimble, if he was less strong, than I.
I could feel, through all his writhings, that he was trying to force me along with him towards a certain corner of the room, and, realising it, resolved to thwart him, whatever his object might be. I had come to the knowledge exactly one second too late, however. He had managed to place his foot on a bell concealed under one of the rugs on the floor, and I heard its summons go pealing shrilly out through the house.
I remembered how I had looked for a bell in this room once before; it was scarcely to be wondered at, considering its position, that I had not found it.
In another moment the servant-accomplice would come to the assistance of his master. Had it not been for Karine's presence I felt that I should not have found it difficult in my present mood to have held them both in check, but as it was I should greatly have preferred only one antagonist.
The struggle in which I was engaged with Wildred had degenerated into a species of wrestling match. I had him down on one knee at last, and bending his arms behind him while he poured forth a volley of deadly oaths–his strange, light eyes flashing into mine–I attempted to tie his hands together with my silk handkerchief, wound into a slip-knot I had learned to make at sea.
He was slippery as a serpent in my grasp, and it was taking all I knew to manage him, when a cry from Karine gave me the first warning that I was attacked from behind.
The confidential man had stolen in as noiselessly as I had crept upon the roof and to the skylight.
"Take that, then!" I heard him snarl savagely, and a low exclamation from my darling told me that in some way he had revenged himself upon her. For an instant I lost my presence of mind and my hold upon Wildred. Involuntarily I turned to go to Karine's rescue, and the movement was a fatal one. Wildred was up like a rod of steel that has been forcibly bent backward. The two threw themselves upon me together. I felt a sharp, hot pain run fiercely through my side, and knew that I had been stabbed. My one thought was for the girl. If they worked their will upon me, and killed me before her eyes, what was to become of her?
"Run, Karine–escape!" I panted. I could not see her, but I was assured that she had not obeyed by the loud screams for help which she was desperately uttering.
Again I got Wildred down, but the other man was on top of me, and for the second time I felt the burning pain, this time in my shoulder. I fought like a mad creature now, with the intent to kill, which I had not had before; but the conviction grew within me that, battle as I might, the effort would be all in vain.
Sparks danced before my eyes, and then everything grew dim. Out of chaos came a shriek from Karine. Could it be a cry of joy? What reason was there for rejoicing?
But there followed a renewed crashing of glass, the muffled thud of feet descending from a height upon the soft surface of rugs, and the sound of men's voices.
It seemed to me that Cunningham's was among them, but a strange, cold pall of darkness enveloped me, and I knew no more.
Afterwards I learned how it was that Cunningham, with two detectives from Scotland Yard, had arrived in the very "nick of time."
His statements to the police authorities had been necessarily so elaborate, and had been deemed so extraordinary, that it had taken some time to create the desired impression at headquarters.
He had been still at "The Yard" when my wire had arrived. When at last he had induced the "powers that be" to grant a warrant for Wildred's arrest on suspicion of having murdered Harvey Farnham, and to send a couple of men to the House by the Lock, where my telegram had announced that he was probably to be found, it was too late to catch anything save the ten o'clock train.
Having reached the door of the grim old mansion, Karine's cries for help, ringing out upon the night through the broken skylight, had told them in which direction to proceed, and they had used the same method of surmounting the obstacles which I had adopted and left for them.
The servant was secured, but Wildred, seeing with his usual quickness that all hope of escape was over, had shot himself through the heart before the officers could reach him. So died a man who had accomplished the death of many another, and through his humble accomplice (who now breaks stones at Portland), and the wretched wife found prisoned in a room upstairs, the secrets of his numerous crimes and the dark House by the Lock were revealed.
It was not for many a day after that night's terrible experience that I heard all the truth. What with the two wounds I had received, and the strain of the past few weeks, which had begun to tell upon me at last, for a time I lay in rather a precarious condition. But one morning I woke to consciousness, and found that the beautiful face which had been near me in my dreams was present in reality. Karine and her brother had nursed me through more than a fortnight's illness.
Had I been quite myself I would have felt that then was not the time to speak of love to the girl who had endured so much. But the words were uttered before my judgment would let me restrain them, as it so often had done in the first sweet, sad days of our acquaintance.
"Forgive me," I said weakly. "I'm a brute. You've been such an angel to me–and I oughtn't to have told you now."
"Oughtn't you?" she answered softly. "Do you remember my saying one evening at the Savoy Hotel that there was only one thing in the world which might even then keep me from making a marriage that was horrible to me?"
"I remember well," I returned. "I remember everything you ever said to me. Will you tell me what that one thing was?"
"I meant if you had loved me. Sometimes I–thought you did, but you would never say so. You only asked to be 'my friend.'"
"Oh, if I had but known–if I had but dared!" I exclaimed. "I was perishing of love for you from the first night I ever saw your face. Is it too late now? I don't ask to be your friend, I ask to be everything–your lover, and your husband."
"And I give you everything," she said.
So it came about that the sunshine of happiness drove forth the black shadows which would fain have lingered to haunt us like ghosts from the House by the Lock.