The Great Impersonation/Chapter 9

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"I certainly offer you my heartiest congratulations upon your cellars, Sir Everard," his guest said, as he sipped his third glass of port that evening. "This is the finest glass of seventy I've drunk for a long time, and this new fellow I've sent you down—Parkins—tells me there's any quantity of it."

"It has had a pretty long rest," Dominey observed.

"I was looking through the cellar-book before dinner," the lawyer went on, "and I see that you still have forty-seven and forty-eight, and a small quantity of two older vintages. Something ought to be done about those."

"We will try one of them to-morrow night," Dominey suggested. "We might spend half an hour or so in the cellars, if we have any time to spare."

"And another half an hour," Mr. Mangan said gravely, "I should like to spend in interviewing Mrs. Unthank. Apart from any other question, I do not for one moment believe that she is the proper person to be entrusted with the care of Lady Dominey. I made up my mind to speak to you on this subject, Sir Everard, as soon as we had arrived here."

"Mrs. Unthank was old Mr. Felbrigg's housekeeper and my wife's nurse when she was a child," Dominey reminded his companion. "Whatever her faults may be, I believe she is devoted to Lady Dominey."

"She may be devoted to your wife," the lawyer admitted, "but I am convinced that she is your enemy. The situation doesn't seem to me to be consistent. Mrs. Unthank is firmly convinced that, whether in fair fight or not, you killed her son. Lady Dominey believes that, too, and it was the sight of you after the fight that sent her insane. I cannot but believe that it would be far better for Lady Dominey to have some one with her unconnected with this unfortunate chapter of your past."

"We will consult Doctor Harrison to-morrow," Dominey said. "I am very glad you came down with me, Mangan," he went on, after a minute's hesitation. "I find it very difficult to get back into the atmosphere of those days. I even find it hard sometimes," he added, with a curious little glance across the table, "to believe that I am the same man."

"Not so hard as I have done more than once," Mr. Mangan confessed.

"Tell me exactly in what respects you consider me changed?" Dominey insisted.

"You seem to have lost a certain pliability, or perhaps I ought to call it looseness of disposition," he admitted. "There are many things connected with the past which I find it almost impossible to associate with you. For a trifling instance," he went on, with a slight smile, inclining his head towards his host's untasted glass. "You don't drink port like any Dominey I ever knew."

"I'm afraid that I never acquired the taste for port," Dominey observed.

The lawyer gazed at him with raised eyebrows.

"Not acquired the taste for port," he repeated blankly.

"I should have said reacquired," Dominey hastened to explain. "You see, in the bush we drank a simply frightful amount of spirits, and that vitiates the taste for all wine."

The lawyer glanced enviously at his host's fine bronzed complexion and clear eyes.

"You haven't the appearance of ever having drunk anything, Sir Everard," he observed frankly. "One finds it hard to believe the stories that were going about ten or fifteen years ago."

"The Dominey constitution, I suppose!"

The new butler entered the room noiselessly and came to his master's chair.

"I have served coffee in the library, sir," he announced. "Mr. Middleton, the gamekeeper, has just called, and asks if he could have a word with you before he goes to bed to-night, sir. He seems in a very nervous and uneasy state."

"He can come to the library at once," Dominey directed; "that is, if you are ready for your coffee, Mangan."

"Indeed I am," the lawyer assented, rising. "A great treat, that wine. One thing the London restaurants can't give us. Port should never be drunk away from the place where it was laid down."

The two men made their way across the very fine hall, the walls of which had suffered a little through lack of heating, into the library, and seated themselves in easy-chairs before the blazing log fire. Parkins silently served them with coffee and brandy. He had scarcely left the room before there was a timid knock and Middleton made his somewhat hesitating entrance.

"Come in and close the door," Dominey directed. "What is it, Middleton? Parkins says you wish to speak to me."

The man came hesitatingly forward. He was obviously distressed and uneasy, and found speech difficult. His face glistened with the rain which had found its way, too, in long streaks down his velveteen coat. His white hair was wind-tossed and disarranged.

"Bad night," Dominey remarked.

"It's to save its being a worse one that I'm here, Squire," the old man replied hoarsely. "I've come to ask you a favour and to beg you to grant it for your own sake. You'll not sleep in the oak room to-night?"

"And why not?" Dominey asked.

"It's next her ladyship's."

"Well?"

The old man was obviously perturbed, but his master, as though of a purpose, refused to help him. He glanced at Mangan and mumbled to himself.

"Say exactly what you wish to, Middleton," Dominey invited. "Mr. Mangan and his father and grandfather have been solicitors to the estate for a great many years. They know all our family history."

"I can't get rightly into touch with you, Squire, and that's a fact," Middleton went on despairingly. "The shape of you seems larger and your voice harder. I don't seem to be so near to you as I'd wished, to say what's in my heart."

"I have had a rough time Middleton," Dominey reminded him. "No wonder I have changed! Never mind, speak to me just as man to man."

"It was I who first met you, Squire," the old man went on, "when you tottered home that night across the park, with your arm hanging helplessly by your side, and the blood streaming down your face and clothes, and the red light in your eyes—murderous fire, they called it. I heard her ladyship go into hysterics. I saw her laugh and sob like a maniac, and, God help us! that's what she's been ever since."

The two men were silent. Middleton had raised his voice, speaking with fierce excitement. It was obvious that he had only paused for breath. He had more to say.

"I was by your side, Squire," he went on, "when her ladyship caught up the knife and ran at you, and, as you well know, it was I, seizing her from behind, that saved a double tragedy that night, and it was I who went for the doctor the next morning, when she'd stolen into your room in the night and missed your throat by a bare inch. I heard her call to you, heard her threat. It was a madwoman's threat, Squire, but her ladyship is a madwoman at this moment, and with a knife in her hand you'll never be safe in this house."

"We must see," Dominey said quietly, "that she is not allowed to get possession of any weapon."

"Aye! Make sure of that," Middleton scoffed, "with Mother Unthank by her side! Her ladyship's mad because of the horror of that night, but Mother Unthank is mad with hate, and there isn't a week passes," the old man went on, his voice dropping lower and his eyes burning, "that Roger Unthank's spirit don't come and howl for your blood beneath their window. If you stay here this night, Squire, come over and sleep in the little room they've got ready for you on the other side of the house."

Mr. Mangan had lost his smooth, after-dinner appearance. His face was rumpled, and his coffee was growing cold. This was a very different thing from the vague letters and rumours which had reached him from time to time and which he had put out of his mind with all the contempt of the materialist.

"It is very good of you to warn me, Middleton," Dominey said, "but I can lock my door, can I not?"

"Lock the door of the oak room!" was the scornful reply. "And what good would that do? You know well enough that the wall's double on three sides, and there are more secret entrances than even I know of. The oak room's not for you this night, Squire. It's hoping to get you there that's keeping them quiet."

"Tell us what you mean, Middleton," the lawyer asked, with ill-assumed indifference, "when you spoke of the howling of Roger Unthank's spirit?"

The old man turned patiently around.

"Just that, sir," he replied. "It's round the house most weeks. Except for me odd nights, and Mrs. Unthank, there's been scarcely a servant would sleep in the Hall for years. Some of the maids they do come up from the village, but back they go before nightfall, and until morning there isn't a living soul would cross the path—no, not for a hundred pounds."

"A howl, you call it?" Mr. Mangan observed.

"That's mostly like a dog that's hurt itself," Middleton explained equably, "like a dog, that is, with a touch of human in its throat, as we've all heard in our time, sir. You'll hear it yourself, sir, maybe to-night or to-morrow night."

"You've heard it then, Middleton?" his master asked.

"Why, surely, sir," the old man replied in surprise. "Most weeks for the last ten years."

"Haven't you ever got up and gone out to see what it was?"

The old man shook his head.

"But I knew right well what that was, sir," he said, "and I'm not one for looking on spirits. Spirits there are that walk this world, as we well know, and the spirit of Roger Unthank walks from between the Black Wood and those windows, come every week of the year. But I'm not for looking at him. There's evil comes of that. I turn over in my bed, and I stop my ears, but I've never yet raised a blind."

"Tell me, Middleton," Dominey asked, "is Lady Dominey terrified at these—er—visitations?"

"That I can't rightly say, sir. Her ladyship's always sweet and gentle, with kind words on her lips for every one, but there's the terror there in her eyes that was lit that night when you staggered into the hall, Squire, and I've never seen it properly quenched yet, so to speak. She carries fear with her, but whether it's the fear of seeing you again, or the fear of Roger Unthank's spirit, I could not tell."

Dominey seemed suddenly to become possessed of a strange desire to thrust the whole subject away. He dismissed the old man kindly but a little abruptly, accompanying him to the corridor which led to the servants' quarters and talking all the time about the pheasants. When he returned, he found that his guest had emptied his second glass of brandy and was surreptitiously mopping his forehead.

"That," the latter remarked, "is the class of old retainer who lives too long. If I were a Dominey of the Middle Ages, I think a stone around his neck and the deepest well would be the sensible way of dealing with him. He made me feel positively uncomfortable."

"I noticed it," Dominey remarked, with a faint smile. "I'm not going to pretend that it was a pleasant conversation myself."

"I've heard some ghost stories," Mangan went on, "but a spook that comes and howls once a week for ten years takes some beating."

Dominey poured himself out a glass of brandy with a steady hand.

"You've been neglecting things here, Mangan," he complained. "You ought to have come down and exorcised that ghost. We shall have those smart maidservants of yours off to-morrow, I suppose, unless you and I can get a little ghost-laying in first."

Mr. Mangan began to feel more comfortable. The brandy and the warmth of the burning logs were creeping into his system.

"By the by, Sir Everard," he enquired, a little later on, "where are you going to sleep to-night?"

Dominey stretched himself out composedly.

"There is obviously only one place for me," he replied. "I can't disappoint any one. I shall sleep in the oak room."