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HOME > Classical Novels > A Traitor in London > CHAPTER VII. AUNT JUDY.
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For a while Brenda did not grasp the full significance of her father\'s admission. She stared at him blankly. Then the recollection of that morsel of crape in the dead man\'s hand, and all that it meant, came upon her with overwhelming force. She could not cry, but a choking sensation came at her throat. Her father was the man who had worn the crape scarf--then her father was the man who had murdered Gilbert Malet!

"What is it, Brenda? Why do you look at me like that?" he asked nervously.

He stood beyond the circle of light cast by the lamp on the table, and she could not see his face, but by the tremor of his voice she guessed that he was badly frightened. She pulled herself together--what the effort cost her no one but herself knew--and came at once to the gist of the thing.

"Father, did you shoot Mr. Malet?"

"I? No. Are you mad, girl, to say such a thing? How dare you--to me, your father?" Indignation apparently choked further speech on the part of Mr. Scarse.

"God help me! yes, you are my father," wailed Brenda. She threw herself face downwards on the sofa and sobbed bitterly. There was that in her father\'s nervous denial which impelled her to believe that her suspicions were correct. If he had not himself killed Malet, at least he knew who had. But at the present moment Brenda firmly believed that his own hand had fired the fatal shot.

"Brenda, listen to me; you speak foolishly; we must understand one another. What grounds have you for making such a terrible accusation against me?"

The old man\'s voice was now steady, and he spoke harshly. He poked the fire and expanded his thin, dry hands to the blaze. It was a haggard face which the spurting flames illumined; but the mouth was firmly set, and there was a hard, dogged expression in the eyes. As Brenda made no reply, and still continued to sob, he cast an impatient glance at her prostrate figure and went over to the sideboard. Thence he returned with a glass of wine.

"Drink this, Brenda, and don\'t be a fool. I did not murder the man."

The girl sat up and slowly drank the wine. Her father crossed over to the door and locked it, upon which the girl laughed contemptuously.

"Do you think I have the police in waiting?" she said.

"That is not the way to speak to your father," snarled he, sitting down.

But the wine had put new life into Brenda, and she was regaining courage with her returning color. Not by this man--the father who had been no father to her--was she to be daunted. With a quick movement she removed the lampshade, and the sudden spread of the light showed her Mr. Scarse biting his nails with anything but a reassuring expression on his face. At that moment Brenda felt she hated the author of her being.

"You are my father in name, nothing more," she said coldly. "In no way have you ever attempted to gain my affection. You kept me at school as long as you could, and only when it was forced upon you did you take charge of my life. I have no love for you, nor have you for me; but I always respected you until now."

Scarse winced, and his parchment-like skin grew pink. "And why don\'t you respect me now?"

"Because I am certain that, even if you did not kill him, you had something to do with the death of Mr. Malet!"

"That is untrue," replied he, composedly.

Brenda looked at him keenly. "The murderer wore a crape scarf. Of that I have direct evidence. I also know that you burnt that scarf."

"How do you know that?" he snapped.

"I found the ashes under the grate, and I picked up a scrap of the crape. Nevertheless, in spite of your admission, I am not certain now in my own mind that it was you who wore it. Father, you were not the man whom Harold met."

"I am--I was," insisted Scarse, doggedly. "I put on that old coat because I couldn\'t find the one I usually wear. As to the scarf, I wore it in token of my sorrow for the way in which this country is being ruined by its statesmen."

But Brenda declined to accept this explanation.

"You are not mad, father," she said quietly; "and only a madman would wear yards of crape round his neck in mourning for the delinquencies of his country\'s leaders; and only a madman would have killed Mr. Malet!" She paused, and, as he made no reply, continued: "The man Harold mistook for you was seen by other people, who also made the same mistake. What he came to Chippingholt for I know as well as you do. He came with the full intention of killing Mr. Malet."

"Go on, go on," jeered her father; "you are making out a fine case against me."

"Not against you, but against this relative of yours. Ah! you wince. I am right. He is a relative. No person who wasn\'t could bear so strong a resemblance to another. He is some relation of whom you are ashamed--a twin brother, for all I know. He was in your study that day when you said it was Van Zwieten who was with you."

"He was not!" retorted Scarse, angrily. "How dare you make me out a liar? Van Zwieten was with me. I locked the door of the study because we had quarrelled. He insisted on leaving the room, and, as I refused to open the door, he stepped out of the window, and went round and rang the front-door bell for admittance."

"That is an ingenious, but a far-fetched explanation, father."

"It is the true one. You can take or leave it."

"I leave it, then," said Brenda, calmly. "You had the stranger in your study, and you afterwards sent him off by the 10:30 train. He was seen at the station!"

Scarse started. "By whom?" he asked hurriedly.

"By Van Zwieten and the station-master!"

"Van Zwieten?" repeated Scarse, irritably. "He saw--who told you all this rubbish?"

"Wilfred. The station-master told him. Besides, it is not rubbish. Oh, father, why won\'t you be frank with me? We have not much feeling for one another, but still I am your daughter, and I want to help you; so does Harold----"

"What has he to do with it?" asked Scarse, sharply.

"It was Harold who searched the corpse before it was taken to the Manor," replied Brenda, speaking slowly. "In the clenched right hand a morsel of black crape was found. Father, it was torn off that scarf!"

"You cannot be certain of that."

"How otherwise could so strange a material as crape come to be in the dead man\'s hand? He cried out before he was shot; I heard him. He must have clutched at his assailant and torn a piece from his scarf."

"Did you see me shoot Mr. Malet?"

"I saw no one shoot him; but I am certain it was that man."

Scarse rose and paced up and down the room. "I was the man, I tell you, who wore the scarf," he said for the third time, "and I never even saw Malet on that night. I have no brother, no relatives of any kind, save your aunt, Mrs. St. Leger."

"You won\'t trust me?" said Brenda, sadly.

"There is nothing more to say," replied her father, his features set hard as a flint. "It is useless my giving you the facts if you won\'t believe them. I have no idea who the man was who was seen at the station. Van Zwieten said nothing to me about it. I am the man Harold took for a stranger, and I cut Captain Burton because I dislike him very much. I did not see Mr. Malet--certainly I did not kill him--and--and I have no more to say."

"How do you account for that piece of crape in the hand of----"

"Brenda!" interrupted he, turning on her, "I could give you an explanation of that which would amaze you; but I will rest content with saying that the scrap you refer to was not torn off the scarf I wore. I burnt the scarf after I had had it on once, because I thought--well, because I thought it was foolish of me."

"Father, I am certain you are not speaking openly."

"No, I am not. If I did, you would at once see that you were wrong in suspecting me of this crime. I am not guilty of it."

"No, I don\'t think you are," said Brenda; "but you are shielding some one."

"Perhaps I am," replied he, smiling sourly; "but not the stranger you have invented--he does not exist." He paused, and then asked abruptly, "Has Burton mentioned this matter to any one?"

"Only to me. For your sake he keeps silent."

"Oh!" Scarse smiled sourly again. "I suppose he thinks he\'ll force me into consenting to your engagement that way. But he won\'t. You shall marry Van Zwieten."

Brenda rose and drew her cloak around her. "I have told you I will marry no one but Harold," she said coldly. "There is no need to discuss the matter further. My cab is waiting, so I\'ll drive on to Aunt Judy\'s."

"With your mind somewhat more at rest, I trust," said he, as she unfastened the door.

"Yes, so far as you personally are concerned. But you know who murdered that man, and you are shielding him."

"I deny that!" Then, as she went out of the door, he ran after her, and said in a loud whisper, "Think if there is no one else who wears crape at Chippingholt?"

Before she could make reply to this he closed the door. She did not pay much attention to it, because she had made up her mind about the stranger, whom she felt convinced her father was shielding. She went down the stairs and got into her cab. In a few moments she was again in Piccadilly on her way west. There at Aunt Judy\'s she felt sure at least of a warm welcome.

A stout, good-natured woman was Mrs. St. Leger. She conceived it to be her one duty in life to keep her husband in a good temper. And experience had proved to her that the only means of performing this was by a strict attention to his diet--no easy task, seeing that he was a peppery old Indian colonel with a liver and a temper. He had long since retired from the army after a career of frontier skirmishing in Northern India, and now passed his time between his home in Kensington and his military club. In both places he was greatly feared for his hectoring manner and flow of language, which was well-nigh irresistible. Mrs. St. Leger was always thankful when the meals passed off without direct conflict, and she spent most of her day reading cookery books for the unearthing of delicacies, and having unearthed them, in consulting the cook how to prepare them for the fastidious palate of her lord and master.

The old couple were fond of Brenda--Aunt Judy because the girl was a comfort to her in some vague sort of way which she could not define, and Uncle Bill because Brenda was not in the least in awe of his temper, and gave him every bit as good as she received.

To each other Colonel and Mrs. St. Leger were always Julia and William; but Brenda from her earliest childhood had known them as Aunt Judy and Uncle Bill, and to those fond appellations she still clung. Had any one else dared to address the colonel so, he would assuredly have taken an apoplectic fit on the spot, being so predisposed and of "full habit"; but Brenda he graciously permitted to be thus familiar. To sum up the worthy colonel\'s character, it may be stated that he hated Mr. Scarse as bitterly as he hated cold meat; and to any one who knew him the comparison would have been all sufficient.

"Dear, dear child," cooed Mrs. St. Leger as Brenda sipped her cup of tea in the drawing-room, "how good it is to see you again. William----"

"Very glad, very glad," rasped the colonel, who was glowering on the hearthrug. "I want to hear all about this iniquitous murder. Poor Malet! Clever chap, but always contradicting--good fellow all the same. Wrote and talked well against these damned Little Englanders. Gad! I\'d forgive Judas Iscariot if he did that!"

"Have they caught the murderer, dear?" asked Aunt Judy, with a beaming smile on her fat face.

"No," replied Brenda. "Nor do I believe they ever will catch him."

"Him!" roared Uncle Bill, chuckling. "Egad! and how d\'you know it\'s a \'him\'? Might be a \'her.\' Eh, what? I suppose in these days a woman can fire a revolver as well as a man, eh?"

"A woman!--why a woman?"

"Eh, why? I don\'t know. Why should the poor devil have been killed at all?"

"Yes, why should he have been killed at all, that\'s what William and I want to know," bleated Aunt Judy. "How does Lady Jenny take it, Brenda, dear?"

"Oh, very quietly. She is much less grieved than I had expected her to be."

"H\'m!" rasped the colonel, in a parade voice. "I dare say she is pleased for that matter. Most of \'em are when they bury their husbands. I can fancy Julia smiling when I toddle."

"Oh, William, how can you? By the way, has Lady Jenny been left well off, Brenda?"

"No, I am afraid not. She says Mr. Malet was terribly extravagant."

"He was a gambler," shouted the colonel, "well known round the clubs. When he wasn\'t dropping it at Monte Carlo, he was running amuck on \'Change. Always had bad luck that chap," added he, rubbing his nose; "lost thousands. The wonder is he didn\'t go under long ago. Shouldn\'t be surprised to hear Lady Jenny had been left without a sixpence."

"Oh, no, uncle; she has ten thousand pounds at least; her husband\'s life was insured for that, and she says his creditors can\'t touch that."

"Perhaps not, but hers can. I knew old Lord Scilly--no end of a spendthrift, and his daughter\'s like him, or I\'m mistaken. Women are all spendthrifts----"

"Well, I\'m sure, William----"

"Oh! you\'re all right, Julia. There are worse than you. Nice little woman Lady Jenny, though, all the same--good sporting sort, shoots jolly straight, and all that."

"A thing I highly disapprove of," said Mrs. St. Leger, shaking her head mildly. "I\'m glad, dear child," turning to Brenda, "that you don\'t do that sort of thing. It is so unladylike, I think."

"Perhaps it\'s a pity I don\'t, aunt. If I go to the front with Harold I might be all the better for knowing how to pull the trigger of a gun or a revolver."

"Harold!--what, young Burton!" growled the colonel. "Are you going to marry him? Is it settled? It is! Well, he\'s not a bad young fellow; but as a soldier! pooh! there are no soldiers nowadays. The army\'s going to the dogs."

"But, Brenda, dear child, what would you be doing at the front?" asked the old lady. "There is no war."

"Not yet; but every one says there is going to be war in South Africa."

"Of course there will be," snapped the colonel. "Do you think we\'re goin\' to be defied by a couple of punny little Republics? Damnable insolence, I call it. They ought to be whipped, and they will be. Your father supports the beggars, Brenda, and he\'s a----"

"William! Her father--my brother!"

"Beg pardon, Julia; but he is, and you know he is. Going against his own country. Ha! here are the evening papers. We\'ll see what further rubbish these pro-Boer idiots have been talking. Julia, please see that dinner is punctual. And, Brenda, don\'t you be late. I hate waiting for my meals!"

Thus saying, the colonel plunged out of the room, and Mrs. St. Leger took Brenda upstairs. The old lady was delighted at the news of her engagement to Harold, and congratulated and embraced the girl with much effusion, and insisted upon her asking Captain Burton to dine; all of which Brenda received with the best of good grace, notwithstanding that she was in no mood for conversation and longed to be alone. At last Mrs. St. Leger left her.

Then she fell to thinking of the subject which was all the time uppermost in her mind. That last remark of her father\'s forced itself upon her. Who else was there in Chippingholt who wore crape? Then suddenly it flashed across her mind that Lady Jenny did. Of course, she was in mourning for her father. Then came the colonel\'s words--She was a good shot!

Trembling all over, she sat down and wrestled with these two facts. They were all significant.

"Could it--could it really be Lady Jenny?" she asked herself.

But to that question she could find no answer.


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