The Great Impersonation/Chapter 8

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"Your ancestral home," Mr. Mangan observed, as the car turned the first bend in the grass-grown avenue and Dominey Hall came into sight. "Damned fine house, too!"

His companion made no reply. A storm had come up during the last few minutes, and, as though he felt the cold, he had dragged his hat over his eyes and turned his coat collar up to his ears. The house, with its great double front, was now clearly visible—the time-worn, Elizabethan, red brick outline that faced the park southwards, and the stone-supported, grim and weather-stained back which confronted the marshes and the sea. Mr. Mangan continued to make amiable conversation.

"We have kept the old place weathertight, somehow or other," he said, "and I don't think you'll miss the timber much. We've taken it as far as possible from the outlying woods."

"Any from the Black Wood?" Dominey asked, without turning his head.

"Not a stump," he replied, "and for a very excellent reason. Not one of the woodmen would ever go near the place."

"The superstition remains then?"

"The villagers are absolutely rabid about it. There are at least a dozen who declare that they have seen the ghost of Roger Unthank, and a score or more who will swear by all that is holy that they have heard his call at night."

"Does he still select the park and the terrace outside the house for his midnight perambulations?" Dominey enquired.

The lawyer hesitated.

"The idea is, I believe," he said, "that the ghost makes his way out from the wood and sits on the terrace underneath Lady Dominey's window. All bunkum, of course, but I can assure you that every servant and caretaker we've had there has given notice within a month. That is the sole reason why I haven't ventured to recommend long ago that you should get rid of Mrs. Unthank."

"She is still in attendance upon Lady Dominey, then?"

"Simply because we couldn't get any one else to stay there," the lawyer explained, "and her ladyship positively declines to leave the Hall. Between ourselves, I think it's time a change was made. We'll have a chat after dinner, if you've no objection.— You see, we've left all the trees in the park," he went on, with an air of satisfaction. "Beautiful place, this, in the springtime. I was down last May for a night, and I never saw such buttercups in my life. The cows here were almost up to their knees in pasture, and the bluebells in the home woods were wonderful. The whole of the little painting colony down at Flankney turned themselves loose upon the place last spring."

"Some of the old wall is down, I see," Dominey remarked with a frown, as he gazed towards the enclosed kitchen garden.

Mr. Mangan was momentarily surprised.

"That wall has been down, to my knowledge, for twenty years," he reminded his companion.

Dominey nodded. "I had forgotten," he muttered.

"We wrote you, by the by," the lawyer continued, "suggesting the sale of one or two of the pictures, to form a fund for repairs, but thank goodness you didn't reply! We'll have some workpeople here as soon as you've decided what you'd like done. I'm afraid," he added, as they turned in through some iron gates and entered the last sweep in front of the house, "you won't find many familiar faces to welcome you. There's Loveybond, the gardener, whom you would scarcely remember, and Middleton, the head keeper, who has really been a godsend so far as the game is concerned. No one at all indoors, except—Mrs. Unthank."

The car drew up at that moment in front of the great porch. There was nothing in the shape of a reception. They had even to ring the bell before the door was opened by a manservant sent down a few days previously from town. In the background, wearing a brown velveteen coat, with breeches and leggings of corduroy, stood an elderly man with white side whiskers and skin as brown as a piece of parchment, leaning heavily upon a long ash stick. Half a dozen maidservants, new importations, were visible in the background, and a second man was taking possession of the luggage. Mr. Mangan took charge of the proceedings.

"Middleton," he said, resting his hand upon the old man's shoulder, "here's your master come back again. Sir Everard was very pleased to hear that you were still here; and you, Loveybond."

The old man grasped the hand which Dominey stretched out with both of his.

"I'm right glad you're back again, Squire," he said, looking at him with curious intentness, "and yet the words of welcome stick in my throat."

"Sorry you feel like that about it, Middleton," Dominey said pleasantly. "What is the trouble about my coming back?"

"That's no trouble, Squire," the old man replied. "That's a joy—leastways to us. It's what it may turn out to be for you which makes one hold back like."

Dominey drew himself more than ever erect—a commanding figure in the little group.

"You will feel better about it when we have had a day or two with the pheasants, Middleton," he said reassuringly. "You have not changed much, Loveybond," he added, turning to the man who had fallen a little into the background, very stiff and uncomfortable in his Sunday clothes.

"I thankee, Squire," the latter replied a little awkwardly, with a motion of his hand towards his forehead. "I can't say the same for you, sir. Them furrin parts has filled you out and hardened you. I'll take the liberty of saying that I should never have recognised you, sir, and that's sure."

"This is Parkins," Mr. Mangan went on, pushing his way once more into the foreground, "the butler whom I engaged in London. And—"

There was a queer and instantaneous silence. The little group of maidservants, who had been exchanging whispered confidences as to their new master's appearance, were suddenly dumb. All eyes were turned in one direction. A woman whose advent had been unperceived, but who had evidently issued from one of the recesses of the hall, stood suddenly before them all. She was as thin as a lath, dressed in severe black, with grey hair brushed back from her head and not even a white collar at her neck. Her face was long and narrow, her features curiously large, her eyes filled with anger. She spoke very slowly, but with some trace in her intonation of a north-country dialect.

"There's no place in this house for you, Everard Dominey," she said, standing in front of him as though to bar his progress. "I wrote last night to stop you, but you've shown indecent haste in coming. There's no place here for a murderer. Get back where you came from, back to your hiding."

"My good woman!" Mangan gasped. "This is really too much!"

"I've not come to bandy words with lawyers," the woman retorted. "I've come to speak to him. Can you face me, Everard Dominey, you who murdered my son and made a madwoman of your wife?"

The lawyer would have answered her, but Dominey waved him aside.

"Mrs. Unthank," he said sternly, "return to your duties at once, and understand that this house is mine, to enter or leave when I choose."

She was speechless for a moment, amazed at the firmness of his words.

"The house may be yours, Sir Everard Dominey," she said threateningly, "but there's one part of it at least in which you won't dare to show yourself."

"You forget yourself, woman," he replied coldly. "Be so good as to return to your mistress at once, announce my coming, and say that I wait only for her permission before presenting myself in her apartments."

The woman laughed, unpleasantly, horribly. Her eyes were fixed upon Dominey curiously.

"Those are brave words," she said. "You've come back a harder man. Let me look at you."

She moved a foot or two to where the light was better. Very slowly a frown developed upon her forehead. The longer she looked, the less assured she became.

"There are things in your face I miss," she muttered.

Mr. Mangan was glad of an opportunity of asserting himself. "The fact is scarcely important, Mrs. Unthank," he said angrily. "If you will allow me to give you a word of advice, you will treat your master with the respect to which his position here entitles him."

Once more the woman blazed up.

"Respect! What respect have I for the murderer of my son? Respect! Well, if he stays here against my bidding, perhaps her ladyship will show him what respect means."

She turned around and disappeared. Every one began bustling about the luggage and talking at once. Mr. Mangan took his patron's arm and led him across the hall.

"My dear Sir Everard," he said anxiously, "I am most distressed that this should have occurred. I thought that the woman would probably be sullen, but I had no idea that she would dare to attempt such an outrageous proceeding."

"She is still, I presume, the only companion whom Lady Dominey will tolerate?" Dominey enquired with a sigh.

"I fear so," the lawyer admitted. "Nevertheless we must see Doctor Harrison in the morning. It must be understood distinctly that if she is suffered to remain, she adopts an entirely different attitude. I never heard anything so preposterous in all my life. I shall pay her a visit myself after dinner.— You will feel quite at home here in the library, Sir Everard," Mr. Mangan went on, throwing open the door of a very fine apartment on the seaward side of the house. "Grand view from these windows, especially since we've had a few of the trees cut down. I see that Parkins has set out the sherry. Cocktails, I'm afraid, are an institution you will have to inaugurate down here. You'll be grateful to me when I tell you one thing, Sir Everard. We've been hard pressed more than once, but we haven't sold a single bottle of wine out of the cellars."

Dominey accepted the glass of sherry which the lawyer had poured out but made no movement towards drinking it. He seemed during the last few minutes to have been wrapped in a brown study.

"Mangan," he asked a little abruptly, "is it the popular belief down here that I killed Roger Unthank?"

The lawyer set down the decanter and coughed.

"A plain answer," Dominey insisted.

Mr. Mangan adapted himself to the situation. He was beginning to understand his client.

"I am perfectly certain, Sir Everard," he confessed, "that there isn't a soul in these parts who isn't convinced of it. They believe that there was a fight and that you had the best of it."

"Forgive me," Dominey continued, "if I seem to ask unnecessary questions. Remember that I spent the first portion of my exile in Africa in a very determined effort to blot out the memory of everything that had happened to me earlier in life. So that is the popular belief?"

"The popular belief seems to match fairly well with the facts," Mr. Mangan declared, wielding the decanter again in view of his client's more reasonable manner. "At the time of your unfortunate visit to the Hall Miss Felbrigg was living practically alone at the Vicarage after her uncle's sudden death there, with Mrs. Unthank as housekeeper. Roger Unthank's infatuation for her was patent to the whole neighbourhood and a source of great annoyance in Miss Felbrigg. I am convinced that at no time did Lady Dominey give the young man the slightest encouragement."

"Has any one ever believed the contrary?" Dominey demanded.

"Not a soul," was the emphatic reply. "Nevertheless, when you came down, fell in love with Miss Felbrigg and carried her off, every one felt that there would be trouble."

"Roger Unthank was a lunatic," Dominey pronounced deliberately. "His behaviour from the first was the behaviour of a madman."

"The Eugene Aram type of village schoolmaster gradually drifting into positive insanity," Mangan acquiesced. "So far, every one is agreed. The mystery began when he came back from his holidays and heard the news."

"The sequel was perfectly simple," Dominey observed. "We met at the north end of the Black Wood one evening, and he attacked me like a madman. I suppose I had to some extent the best of it, but when I got back to the Hall my arm was broken, I was covered with blood, and half unconscious. By some cruel stroke of fortune, almost the first person I saw was Lady Dominey. The shock was too much for her—she fainted—and—"

"And has never been quite herself since," the lawyer concluded. "Most tragic!"

"The cruel part of it was," Dominey went on, standing before the window, his hands clasped behind his back, "that my wife from that moment developed a homicidal mania against me—I, who had fought in the most absolute self-defence. That was what drove me out of the country, Mangan—not the fear of being arrested for having caused the death of Roger Unthank. I'd have stood my trial for that at any moment. It was the other thing that broke me up."

"Quite so," Mangan murmured sympathetically. "As a matter of fact, you were perfectly safe from arrest, as it happened. The body of Roger Unthank has never been found from that day to this."

"If it had—"

"You must have been charged with either murder or manslaughter."

Dominey abandoned his post at the window and raised his glass of sherry to his lips. The tragical side of these reminiscences seemed, so far as he was concerned, to have passed.

"I suppose," he remarked, "it was the disappearance of the body which has given rise to all this talk as to his spirit still inhabiting the Black Wood."

"Without a doubt," the lawyer acquiesced. "The place had a bad name already, as you know. As it is, I don't suppose there's a villager here would cross the park in that direction after dark."

Dominey glanced at his watch and led the way from the room.

"After dinner," he promised, "I'll tell you a few West African superstitions which will make our local one seem anæmic."