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HOME > Classical Novels > A Traitor in London > CHAPTER III. THE NAME OF THE VICTIM.
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The cook at Mr. Scarse\'s cottage was in a great state of alarm. She did not mind an ordinary tempest of respectable English character coming at its due and proper season. But this gale, at the close of a quiet summer day, arriving with so little warning and raging with such fury, had frightened her beyond measure. As a precautionary measure against the frequent lightning, she concealed the knives, covered up all the mirrors and reflective surfaces generally, and threw the fire-irons into the garden. Having thus safeguarded the cottage against the bolts of heaven, Mrs. Daw--so she was called--insisted that the housemaid, a whimpering orphan of meagre intelligence, should go round the house with her to see if any one or anything had been struck. They found dining-room, drawing-room and bedrooms deserted, and the door of their master\'s study locked.

"Lor\'!" said Mrs. Daw, her fat face ashen pale, "an\' \'e may be lyin\' a corp in there, poor dear!"

"Oh, no, he ain\'t," responded the shaking housemaid; "I \'ear voices. Jus\' put your eye to the key-hole, cook."

But the cook\'s valor did not extend thus far. She also heard the murmur of voices, and, thinking her master and his friend the Dutchman were within, knocked at the door to bring them out for company. "We may as well go to \'eaven in a \'eap," said Mrs. Daw, knocking steadily like a woodpecker.

The door opened so suddenly that the two women recoiled with shrieks against the wall of the passage. Scarse, looking pale and upset, stepped out and closed the door after him. Judging him by themselves, they attributed his scared appearance to fright at the storm, and were ready to receive any amount of sympathy. But it soon appeared that their master had none to give them.

"What\'s all this? Why are you here?" he demanded, angry and suspicious.

"It\'s the storm, sir," whimpered Mrs. Daw, holding on to the housemaid. "I\'m that feared as never was. Miss Brenda\'s hout, sir, and Mr. van Zwieten\'s with you, and me an\' Tilda\'s a-shakin\' like jelly."

"Miss Brenda out!" repeated Scarse, starting. "Oh, yes, I recollect she said something about going to the Rectory." This was untrue, but he seemed to think it necessary to make some excuse even to the servants. "I dare say Miss Brenda has been storm-bound there, and, as you say, Mr. van Zwieten is with me. There is nothing to be afraid of. Go back to the kitchen."

"The \'ouse may be struck, sir!

"The house won\'t be struck," said Scarse, impatiently. "Don\'t be a fool. It is almost ten o\'clock--go to bed," and stepping back into the study, he closed and locked the door. Cook and housemaid tottered back to the kitchen.

"I\'ll give notice to-morrer," wailed the former. "It ain\'t right for two lone women to be without a manly arm. If \'e only kep\' a footman or a coachman it \'ud be a \'elp. \'And me the Church Service, Tilda, an\' we\'ll pray as we may not be took."

"Ow, ain\'t it orful!" yelped Tilda, as a fiercer blast than usual shook the cottage. "Turn up the Berryial Service, cook."

This request the cook hurriedly obeyed, and the two were soon cheerfully employed in drawing what comfort they could from this somewhat depressing selection. The clock struck ten, and so unstrung were their nerves that they simultaneously jumped and shrieked.

Tilda declared that the candle burned blue; that a coal in the form of a coffin had jumped out of the kitchen range; and meanwhile the storm raved and howled without, shaking the house, tearing at doors and windows as though twenty thousand demons were trying to force an entrance. In their terrified frame of mind Mrs. Daw and her factotum actually believed that such might be the case.

But they soon had further cause for alarm. The kitchen door was tried, but Mrs. Daw had locked it. Immediately there came a furious knocking, insistent and incessant. Tilda shrieked, and scrambled under the table. Mrs. Daw dropped the Church Service, and grasped the poker with a trembling hand. There was a crash of thunder which went grinding over the roof--then the battering at the door again.

"Quick! Quick! Let me in!" wailed a voice, thin, high-pitched and terrified.

"Don\'t, don\'t!" shrieked Tilda, grovelling under the table. "Oh, lor\', wot a bad girl I \'ave been."

But Mrs. Daw, somewhat recovered from her terror, thought she recognized the voice, in spite of its accent of pain. "Yer\'s a fool, Tilda. It\'s Miss Brenda!" and she unlocked the door, still grasping the poker in case she should be mistaken. As the door flew open a wild blast tore into the kitchen, and Tilda shrieked again. Mrs. Daw, too, uttered an exclamation, for Brenda fell forward, flung into her arms. The girl was soaking wet, wild-eyed and white-faced with terror. She could hardly speak, and clung, choking and shaking, to the terrified cook. The door banged to with a crash.

"Murder! Help!" gasped Brenda, hoarsely. "Oh, my God! he is dead!"

"Dead! Murder!" shrieked Mrs. Daw, dropping the poker, and Tilda wailed in sympathetic chorus. "Lor\', miss! Who\'s \'e?"

"I don\'t know--he is dead--shot--in the orchards," said Brenda, and fell down in a dead faint for the second time that night. Usually she was not given to such feminine weakness, but the terrors of the night had proved altogether too much for her.

Having something human to deal with, Mrs. Daw recovered her presence of mind and unloosened Brenda\'s cloak. "Poor dear! she\'s frightened out of her wits, an\' no wonder. Tilda, tell \'er pa there\'s murders and faintings. Look sharp!"

Tilda crawled from under the table and across the floor. She raised herself with a sudden effort of will, and was soon hammering at the study door.

"Master--sir! \'Elp--murder--perlice! Oh, sir," as Scarse came out hurriedly, "Miss Brenda\'s in the kitchen, an\' there\'s murder!"

He seized her wrists with an ejaculation of alarm. "Who is murdered? Speak, girl!"

"I don\'t know. Miss Brenda sez as there\'s murder. Oh, lor\', what will become of us!"

Scarse shook her so that her teeth chattered. "Go back to the kitchen," he said sternly. "I\'ll follow directly," and Tilda found herself hurled against the wall, with the study door closed and locked. Her surprise at such treatment overcame even her terror.

"Well, \'e is a father!" she gasped, and her wits being somewhat more agile now that she was less afraid, she flew to the dining-room and snatched the spirit-stand from the sideboard. With this she arrived in the kitchen and found Brenda regaining her senses.

"Ain\'t \'e comin\'?" asked Mrs. Daw, slapping Brenda\'s hands violently as a restorative measure.

"In a minute. \'Ere, give \'er some brandy. Where\'s a glarss? Oh, a cup\'ll do. Oh, ain\'t it all dreadful; just \'ear the wind!"

"Hold your tongue and lock the door," said Mrs. Daw, snatching the cup from Tilda. "Come, miss, try and drink this."

She forced the strong spirit down Brenda\'s throat. The girl gasped and coughed, then the color slowly mounted to her cheeks, and she raised her head feebly.

"What is it?" she asked faintly. Then she shuddered and covered her face. "Ah! the murder! Shot!--shot--oh, God, how terrible!"

"Don\'t you be afraid, miss; the doors are all locked, an\' nothin\' or no one can git in." Then a shriek from Mrs. Daw followed a sudden clanging of the bell. "Whatever\'s that?"

"Front door," replied Tilda, casting a glance at the row of bells. "I\'ll answer; give \'er more brandy, cook."

As the housemaid left, Brenda moaned and struggled to her feet. "Oh, the terrible darkness--the body--his body--in the wet grass! Father! Where is my father?"

"\'E\'s a comin\', dearie," said Mrs. Daw, giving her more brandy. "Take another sup, dearie. Who is it as is murdered, miss?" she asked in a scared whisper.

"I don\'t know. I could not see--the darkness--I fell over the body. I saw nothing. Oh!" She started up with a shriek. "Oh, if it really should be Harold!" Then she was overcome with anguish, and Tilda darted back to the kitchen.

"Would you believe," cried she to Mrs. Daw, "it\'s the furriner! An\' master said as \'e was in \'is study talkin\' to \'im!"

"Lor\', so \'e did!" said Mrs. Daw, awestruck at having detected her master in a lie. "And \'e was out all the time! What does Mr. van Zwieten say, Tilda?"

"Van Zwieten!" shrieked Brenda, who was clinging to the table. "Has he been out? Ah! he hated Harold--the dead man--oh!" her voice leaped an octave, "he has killed my Harold!"

"What!" shrieked the other woman in turn, and Mrs. Daw, throwing her apron over her head, began to scream with the full force of her lungs. Tilda joined in, losing all remnant of control, and Brenda sank in a chair white-faced and silent. The conviction that Harold had been murdered stunned her.

At this moment there was heard the sound of foot-steps coming rapidly nearer. Scarse, with an angry and terrified expression, appeared on the scene. Close behind him came Van Zwieten, who seemed, as ever, quite undisturbed and master of himself. Brenda caught sight of him, and darting forward, seized the man by the lapels of his coat. "Harold!" she cried, "you have killed my Harold!"

"Harold--Burton!" replied Scarse, aghast. "Is he dead?"

"Dead--murdered! Oh, I am certain of it. And you killed him. You! You!"

Van Zwieten said not a word, but remained perfectly calm. He saw that the girl was beside herself with terror and grief, that she knew not what she was saying or doing. Without a word he picked her up in his strong arms and carried her moaning and weeping into the drawing-room. Scarse rated Mrs. Daw and Tilda sharply for so losing their heads, and followed the Dutchman. But before leaving the kitchen he was careful to take with him the key of the back door. "No one leaves this house to-night," he said sharply "I must inquire into this. Give me that spirit-stand. Now go to bed, you fools."

"Bed!" wailed Mrs. Daw, as her master left the room. "Lor\', I\'ll never sleep again--not for weeks any\'ow. I daren\'t lie alone. Oh, what an \'orful night. I\'ll give notice to-morrow, that for sure!"

"So\'ll I," squeaked Tilda. With this the two went shivering to a common couch, full of prayers and terror, and prepared to die--if die they must--in company.

In the drawing-room Brenda was huddled up in a chair, terrified out of her wits. Van Zwieten, calm and masterful, stood before the fireplace with his big hands clasped loosely before him. His trousers were turned up, his boots were soaking, and there were raindrops in his curly hair. For the rest he was dry, and the storm had not made the slightest impress on his strong nerves. When Scarse entered he threw a steely and inquisitive glance at the old man, who winced and shrank back with an expression of fear on his face. Van Zwieten, ever on the alert for the signs of a guilty conscience, noted this with secret satisfaction.

"Now then, Brenda," said her father, recovering at last some of his presence of mind, "what is all this about? You say that Burton is dead--that Mr. van Zwieten killed him."

"Ah!" interposed the Dutchman, stroking his beard, "I should like to know how I managed that."

"You hated him!" cried Brenda, sitting up straight with a sudden access of vigor. "You told me so to-night at dinner!"

"Pardon me; I said I did not like Captain Burton. But as to hating him--" Van Zwieten shrugged his shoulders; "that is an extreme word to use. But even if I did hate him you can hardly deduce from that that I should kill him!"

"He was shot, shot in the orchards, not far from the Manor gates. You were out----"

"That is scant evidence to justify a charge of murder," interposed Scarce, angrily. "You are unstrung and hysterical, Brenda. How did you come to be out yourself in such a storm?"

"I went to see Lady Jenny at the Manor, about--about Harold\'s money. She was not in, so I came back by the short cut through the orchards. A flash of lightning showed him to me there, standing under a tree. Then there was a shot and a cry, and I ran forward, and fell over his body."

"Whose body?"

"I don\'t know--at least, I think it was Harold\'s body. Mr. van Zwieten hated him."

"It may not be Harold at all," said her father, impatiently; "you are jumping to conclusions--the wildest conclusions, Brenda. Did you see his face?"

"No; how could I? It was dark."

"Then how on earth do you know it was Captain Burton?"

"I am not sure, of course; but I think so. Oh, father, do you think---- Oh, perhaps, after all, it may not have been Harold."

Scarse shook off her clinging hands. "I think you\'re a fool," he said sharply, "and this wild talk of Burton\'s being dead is pure imagination on your part."

"I hope so--oh, how I hope so!" and Brenda shivered.

Van Zwieten, who had been listening with a cynical smile on his face, burst into a laugh, at which Brenda looked angrily at him. "Excuse me, Miss Scarse," he said politely, "but it is my opinion no one is dead at all. The shot and cry were no doubt the outcome of a thundercrash. You were upset by the storm, and it seemed to you like--what you say."

"But a man is dead," protested Brenda, rising. "In my anxiety for Harold I may have been mistaken in thinking it was he. Still, some one was shot--I fell over the body and fainted."

"The man may have fainted also," suggested her father.

"If I may make a suggestion," said Van Zwieten, with strong common sense, "we are all talking without any reasonable sort of basis. Before we assume that a crime has been committed, I would suggest that we go to the orchards and see if we can find the body."

"No, no," cried Scarse, shrinking back. "Impossible at this hour, and on such a night."

"The storm is dying away," said the Dutchman, derisively. "However, if you don\'t care to come, I can go myself."

"I will go with you," cried Brenda, springing to her feet.

"For you, Miss Scarse, I think it is hardly wise. You are very much upset. Had you not better go to bed?"

"I couldn\'t sleep with this on my mind. I must know if it is Harold or not. If it is, I am certain you shot him, and until I know the truth I don\'t let you out of my sight."

"Very good." Van Zwieten bowed and smiled. "Come, then, and guide me."

"Brenda, you can\'t go out now. I forbid you--it is not fit or proper."

"What do I care for propriety in such a case as this?" cried Brenda, in a passion. "Come with me then, father."

"No, I can\'t--I am too ill."

Van Zwieten cast an amused look at Scarse, and the old man winced again. He turned away and poured himself out a glass of brandy. Without taking any further notice of him, Brenda put on her wet cloak and left the room, followed almost immediately by the Dutchman. Van Zwieten had many questions to ask his host, for he knew a good deal, and guessed more; but this was not the time for cross-examination. It was imperative that the identity of the deceased should be ascertained, and Van Zwieten wished to be on the spot when the discovery was made. As he left the room he heard the glass in Scarse\'s trembling hand clink against the decanter, and the sound made him smile. He guessed the cause of such perturbation.

The rain had ceased for the moment, but the wind was still high, and dense black clouds hurtled across the sky. A pale moon showed herself every now and then from behind the flying wrack, and fitfully lighted the midnight darkness.

As she was with Van Zwieten, Brenda took a wide circle through the village street. There were many people about in spite of the bad weather--some with lanterns--but Brenda could not gather from the scraps of conversation she heard whether the report of the dead man lying in the orchards had got abroad.

In silence Van Zwieten strode along beside her, apparently indifferent to anything. His attitude irritated the girl, and when the wind lulled for a moment she demanded sharply where he had been on that night.

"You will be surprised to hear, Miss Scarse, that I went to see Captain Burton."

"And why?" asked Brenda, taken aback by this answer--the last she had expected to hear.

"To warn him," replied Van Zwieten, coolly. "Warn him--about what--against whom?"

"About my engagement to you--against myself."

"I am not engaged to you, but to him," said Brenda, almost with a cry of despair.

It seemed impossible to make this man understand how she hated him.

"I think you are engaged to me," said the Dutchman, deliberately. "You say no, but that is girl\'s talk. I am not to be beaten by a girl. I always get what I want, and I want you."

The wind rose again, and further conversation was impossible. Brenda walked on, praying for strength to escape this terrible man. She could not rid herself of the idea that the dead man was her own true lover. Van Zwieten might have seen him, as he said, might have quarreled with him and shot him. The fear chilled her heart, and when next the wind fell she again taxed Van Zwieten. "You killed him?" she cried.

"You will insist on that, but you are wrong. I never saw Captain Burton. He was not at the inn when I called."

"He had gone to town," said Brenda, breathless with joy.

"No, he had gone to the Rectory."

Brenda stopped short. Lady Jenny had gone to the Rectory also. Perhaps Harold had seen her, and had asked for her aid. While she was wondering if this might be so, there was a great shouting, and in the distance she saw the blaze of torches borne by many people. The wind made them flare furiously.

"Ach!" said Van Zwieten under his breath, "they know now."

In the high wind Brenda did not hear him. Guessing that the concourse meant the discovery of the body, she flew along the road like a lapwing. The procession was coming toward the Manor gates from the direction of the orchards. Some men were shouting, some women screaming, but the solid group surrounded by the red, smoking lights remained silent. Van Zwieten followed noiselessly, and reached the group almost as soon as Brenda.

"You see," he breathed in the girl\'s ear, "he is alive!"

Brenda gave a cry of joy and flung herself into the arms of the foremost man.

"Harold! Harold! Thank God you are safe!"

"Brenda! What are you doing here? Go back! go back!"

"No, no. Tell me who--who is dead. Who has been murdered?"

Seeing she knew so much, Harold signed to the men carrying the body to stop. They set down the gate on which it rested.

"Malet!" cried Brenda, as she recognized the features of the corpse. "It is Mr. Malet!"

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