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 Directly after breakfast was over the next morning the Rector came in. “I would not come in yesterday, Mark,” he said. “I knew that you would be best alone; and, indeed, I was myself so terribly upset by the news that I did not feel equal to it. I need not say how deeply I and my wife sympathize with you. Never did a kinder heart beat than your father's; never have I seen people so universally grieved as they are in the village. I doubt whether a man went to work yesterday, and as for the women, had it been a father they had lost they could not be more affected.”
“Yes, he will be greatly missed,” Mark said unsteadily; “and, between ourselves—but this must go no further—I have a suspicion, amounting almost to a certainty, that the hand that dealt this blow is the same that caused the vacancy that brought you here.”
“Do you mean Arthur Bastow?” Mr. Greg said in amazement. “Why, I thought that he was transported for fifteen years.”
Then Mark told the Rector the inner history of the past six months, and of the report they had had from the officer at Bow Street of the personal appearance of the wounded man.
“Other things are in favor of it,” he went on. “My father's watch and purse were untouched, and a stranger on a dark night would be hardly likely to have discovered the ladder, or to have had a file in his pocket with which to cut through a link, though this might have been part of the apparatus of any burglar. Then, again, an ordinary man would hardly have known which was my father's bedroom, except, indeed, that he saw the light there after those in the ladies' rooms were extinguished; but, at any rate, he could not have told which was my father's and which was mine. But all this is, as I said, Mr. Greg, quite between ourselves. I had a long talk yesterday with Sir Charles Harris, and, as he said, there is no legal proof whatever, strong as the suspicion is; so I am going to say nothing on the subject at the inquest. The scoundrel's poor father is dying, happily in ignorance of all this. Dr. Holloway was up with him all night, and told me this morning before he drove off that it is very unlikely that he will get through the day.”
“It is all very terrible, Mark; but I cannot deny that everything points to the man. Surely no one else could have cut short so useful a life, for certainly no ordinary degree of hatred would drive a man, however brutal his nature, to commit such a crime, and to run the risk of hanging for it. Let us take a brisk walk in the garden for an hour—that will be the best thing for you. I will stop with you until the inquest is over, and then you had better come over and have lunch with us.”
“Thank you; I cannot do so,” Mark said, “though I should like to. In the first place, Millicent will come downstairs this afternoon, and I should like to be in to meet her. Had it not been for that I might have come, as I can walk across the fields to the Rectory without passing through the village. There is another reason. I sent up yesterday by the coach a letter to be delivered at once by hand, and I expect a detective down here by one o'clock. I don't know that he will do any good; but at the same time it will give me something to do, and at present there is nothing I dread so much as sitting alone. Fortunately, yesterday evening Millicent went to bed at five o'clock, and Mrs. Cunningham sat with me all the evening, and her talk did me a great deal of good.”
The inquest occupied a very short time, the only point on which many questions were asked being as to the firing through the window. Mark stated that it was already so dark that although he was within fifty yards of the man when he mounted and rode off, he could not give any very distinct description of his figure. It struck him as being that of a man of medium height.
“You have made out that the bullet was intended for your father?”
“I cannot say that, sir, it went between his head and that of Mr. Bastow, but it might have been meant for either.”
“Was your father impressed with the idea that it was an attempt to murder him?”
“He naturally thought so. Mr. Bastow can assuredly have no enemies, while my father, as a magistrate, may have made some. He certainly thought it was an attempt to murder him, and was so impressed by the fact that when we went to the library later on he went into certain family matters with me that he had never communicated before, and which, had it not been for this, he would not have entered into for some years to come.”
“He had his opinion, then, as to who was his assailant?”
“He had, sir, but as it was but an opinion, although there were several facts that seemed to justify the conviction, there was no proof whatever, and therefore I do not think myself justified in saying what that opinion was.”
“Do you entertain the same opinion yourself?”
“I do,” Mark said emphatically; “but until I can obtain some evidence in support of what is really but a matter of opinion, and because, were I to give the name, it would lessen my chance of obtaining such evidence, I decline to mention the name.”
“You have no doubt that the author of the second attempt is the same as that of the first?”
“Personally, I have no doubt whatever; it stands to reason that it is barely possible that two men could have, unknown to each other, made up their minds to murder my father on the same evening.”
The constable's evidence added nothing to that given by Mark. He had been down to the lane where the man pursued had mounted. The reins of the horse had apparently been thrown over a gatepost, and he thought it had been standing there for some little time, for there were marks where it had scraped the ground repeatedly. He had followed the marks of its hoofs for some distance; it had gone at a gallop for about half a mile, and then the pace had slackened into a trot. It continued until the lane fell into the main road, but beyond this he had been unable to distinguish it from the marks of the traffic in general.
“You found no footprints whatever near the foot of the ladder, or anywhere else round the house?”
“None whatever, sir.”
“There were no signs of any other window or door save that of Mr. Thorndyke's room being attempted?”
“None at all, sir.”
There was but a short consultation between the jurors, who at once returned a verdict of “Willful murder by some person or persons unknown.”
Dr. Holloway had, after giving evidence, returned at once to Mr. Bastow's room. The only point of importance in his evidence was the statement that the wound must have been fatal at once, the heart itself having been penetrated. It had been inflicted by a dagger or a narrow bladed knife.
“Do you mean that it was an unusually small dagger, Dr. Holloway?”
“I should say it was a very fine dagger; not the sort of weapon that you would expect to find a highwayman carry, if he carried one at all, but rather a weapon of Spanish or Italian manufacture.”
“Not the sort of wound that a rapier would make?”
“Yes, the wound itself might have been very well made by a light rapier, but there was a slight bruise on the flesh on each side of the wound, such a mark as might be made by the handle or guard of a dagger, and sufficiently plain to leave no doubt in my mind that it was so made.”
“Had the wound a downward course, or was it a straight thrust?”
“A straight thrust,” the doctor replied. “My idea is that the two men were grappling together, and that as Mr. Thorndyke was a very powerful man, his assailant, who probably was approaching the bed with the dagger in his hand, plunged it into him; had he struck at him I should certainly have expected the course of the wound to be downward, as I fancy a man very seldom thrusts straight with a dagger, as he would do with a rapier.”
When the inquest was over, Mark, going out into the hall, found the doctor waiting there for him.
“Mr. Bastow breathed his last some ten minutes ago. I saw when I went up to him just before I gave my evidence that it was likely that he would die before I returned to the room.”
“I am very sorry,” Mark said, “although I expected nothing else from what you told me: He was a very kind hearted man; no one could have had a kinder or more patient tutor than he was to me, while my father regarded him as a very dear and valued friend. I am expecting the undertaker here in a few minutes, and they can both be buried at the same time.”
It was late in the afternoon before Millicent came down with Mrs. Cunningham. The news of Mr. Bastow's death had set her tears flowing afresh; she had been very fond of him, and that he and the Squire should have been taken at once seemed almost beyond belief. She had, however, nerved herself to some degree of composure before she went down to meet Mark; but although she returned the pressure of his hand, she was unable for some time to speak. Mrs. Cunningham thought it best to speak first on the minor grief.
“So Mr. Bastow has gone, Mark?”
“Yes, Dr. Holloway thought very badly of him yesterday, and said that he had but very faint hope of his rallying. I cannot help thinking that it was best so. Of course, he was not a very old man, but he has for some years been a very feeble one, and now that Millicent and I have both given up our studies with him, I think that he would have felt that his work was done, and would have gone downhill very fast.”
“I think so, too,” Mrs. Cunningham agreed. “I am sure that even had the Squire's death come quietly, in the course of nature, it would have been a terrible blow to him. He was fond of you and Millicent, but his affection for your father was a passion; his face always lit up when he spoke to him. I used to think sometimes that it was like an old dog with his master. It was quite touching to see them together. I think, Mark, with you, that it is best that it should be as it is.”
Gradually the conversation turned to other matters. Millicent was, however, unable to take any part in it, and half an hour later she held out her hand silently to Mark and left the room hurriedly. The next day she was better, and was able to walk for a time with Mark in the garden and talk more calmly about their mutual loss, for to her, no less than to Mark, the Squire had been a father.
“'Tis strange to think that you are the Squire now, Mark,” she said as they sat together in the dining room on the evening before the funeral.
“You will think it stranger still, Millicent,” he said, “when I tell you that I am not the Squire, and never shall be.”
She looked up in his face with wonder.
“What do you mean, Mark?”
“Well, dear, you will know tomorrow, as Mr. Prendergast, one of the family solicitors, is coming down; but I think it is as well to tell you beforehand. It has been a curious position all along. I never knew it myself till my father told me when we went into the library after the shot was fired. The news did not affect me one way or the other, although it surprised me a great deal. Like yourself, I have always supposed that you were my father's ward, the daughter of an old comrade of his brother's. Well, it is a curious story, Millicent. But there is no occasion for you to look frightened. The fact is you are my uncle's daughter and my cousin.”
“Oh, that is not very dreadful!” she exclaimed in a tone of relief.
“Not dreadful at all,” Mark said. “But you see it involves the fact that you are mistress of this estate, and not I.”
Millicent stood up suddenly with a little cry. “No, no, Mark, it cannot be! It would be dreadful, and I won't have it. Nothing could make me have it. What, to take the estate away from you when you have all along supposed it to be yours! How could I?”
“But you see it never has been mine, my dear. Father might have lived another five-and-twenty years, and God knows I have never looked forward to succeeding him. Sit down and let me tell you the story. It was not my father's fault that he reigned here so long as master, it was the result of a whim of your father's. And although my father fought against it, he could not resist the dying prayer of my uncle.”
He then related the whole circumstances under which the girl had been brought up as Millicent Conyers, instead of Millicent Conyers Thorndyke, and how the estate had been left by Colonel Thorndyke's will to his brother until such time as Millicent should come of age, or marry, and how he had ordered that when that event took place the rest of his property in money and jewels was to be divided equally between Mark and herself.
“It must not be, Mark,” she said firmly. “You must take the estate, and we can divide the rest between us. What is the rest?”
“To begin with,” Mark said cheerfully, “there are 25,000 pounds, the accumulations of the rents of the estate after the death of my grandfather up to the time when the Colonel returned from India; and there are, besides, a few thousands, though I don't exactly know how many, that my father paid over to the solicitors as the surplus of the rents of the estates after paying all expenses of keeping up this house. He very properly considered that although he had accepted the situation at your father's earnest wish, he ought not to make money by doing so. If we put it down at 30,000 pounds altogether, you see there is 15,000 pounds for each of us. A very nice sum for a young man to start life with, especially as I shall have my father's estate near Hastings, which brings in 500 pounds a year; and as the rents of this have been accumulating for the last ten years, my share will be raised from 15,000 pounds to 20,000 pounds. Besides this, there is the main bulk of the Colonel's fortune made in India. That seems to be worth about 100,000 pounds but I must own that the chance of getting it seems very small.”
“How is that, Mark?”
Mark told her the whole story.
“I mean to make it my business to follow the matter up,” he said. “I think that the chance of ever finding it is very small. Still, it will give me an object to begin life with.”
“Oh, I hope that you will never find it!” she exclaimed. “From what you say it will be a terrible danger if you do get it.”
Mark smiled.
“I hardly think so, Millicent. I cannot believe that people would be following up this thing for over fifteen ye............
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