Read CHAPTER XV of The Hound From The North , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

THE MAGGOT AT THE CORE

Hervey’s look of surprise quickly changed to one of displeasure. To him his sister’s attitude merely suggested incredulity, nothing more.

“Well?” he said at last, as her laugh died out suddenly.

Prudence turned upon him with a strange fierceness.

“Go on. You must tell me more than that to convince me. George Iredale smuggler, murderer! You must be mad!”

Hervey kept himself well in hand. He was playing for a great stake. He would lose nothing through any ill-advised bluster.

“I was never more sane in my life,” he answered coldly. “I am ready to prove my words.”

“Prove them.”

Prudence’s face and the tone of her voice were icy. Her mouth was set firmly, the declined corners testifying to the hard setting of her jaws. She looked straight into her brother’s face with an intentness which made him lower his eyes. He had no conception of the fires which he had stirred within her. One unconquerable desire swayed her. This man must tell her all he knew. Then she would refute every word, tell him what manner of man he was, and have him driven from the farm. She hated him at that moment as she might hate a rattlesnake. She was filled with a longing to strike him, her own brother, to the earth.

Hervey spoke in measured, even tones.

“You know the ranch and its surroundings well. You have been there. You have heard the so-called owl cries which greet the visitor upon entering the valley. Those are not owl cries at all, but the work of human sentries always on the watch, ready to give immediate alarm at the approach of danger. The secret of the ranch lies in the graveyard.” Prudence started. “That is where I made my first discovery, a discovery of which I should not have understood the significance but for your experiences when picnicking in that region two or three days before. At the time I speak of I had come upon the cemetery for the first time. I had Neche with me. I paused at the broken fence which surrounded it, and surveyed the overgrown graves. While I did so, Neche mouched about among them with canine inquisitiveness. Suddenly he became agitated, and showed signs of having hit upon a hot scent. I watched him curiously. He ran up a path and then paused at one of the stone-marked graves. Here he began to tear wildly at the edge of it. I followed him up and saw that he had dug a hole below the stone. I dragged him away, and found that beneath the stone the grave was hollow. Then I moved hastily away, and, taking the dog to the ruined dead-house, put him on the scent again. He dashed in, whining excitedly as he went. It was while I stood watching for his return that I discovered the most significant point. Directly under my feet, somewhere under the ground, I heard a sound of hammering. Then I knew that the graveyard was no longer the resting-place of the dead, but the abode of the living. Instantly I remembered all the details of your ghost story, and determined to witness for myself the scenes you had observed. Settle it for once and all in your mind. I was troubled with no superstitious fears upon the matter. I guessed the truth.” Hervey broke off, but resumed quickly. “That evening I returned to the graveyard surreptitiously, and took up a position in the black shelter of the surrounding woods. I saw all you saw. But the robed figures were not the ghosts which you thought them to be; they were Chinese, carrying their boxes and bundles of personal luggage, and, I have no doubt, a cargo of opium. Then I understood that the graveyard was honeycombed with cellars, and that this place formed the central depot of Iredale’s traffic and his distributing station. I can understand how these ‘yellow-devils’ are distributed by means of loaded hayracks and such things. The point I have not fathomed is the means by which the ‘goods’ are brought into the country. I suggest the only means I can think of as being almost without risk, and that is the lake.”

Hervey paused to watch the effect of his story. Prudence gave no sign. She no longer looked at her companion, but away across the harvested fields in the direction of Iredale’s ranch. As he waited for her comment her lips moved.

“Go on,” was all she said; and the man proceeded.

“It was an unconscious expression which, in the first flush of discovery I made use of which ultimately gave me a clue to the rest. As realization of Iredale’s doings came to me I thought of the notorious ‘Traffic in Yellow.’ That night I pondered long over the whole thing. I had learned to like Iredale better than any man I have ever known. He had always seemed such an honest, straightforward man. And all of you folks were so fond of him. It was a painful awakening; but there was worse to come, for, as I lay awake thinking, there flashed through my brain the recollection of what you had told me of Grey’s death and his reference to the notice in the paper. Instantly the interpretation of that line came to me. It related to the yellow traffic. And I shuddered as I reviewed the possibilities which my discovery opened up. I couldn’t rest. A feverish desire to know the worst assailed me. I questioned you as you may remember, and, with every reply you gave me, my fears received confirmation. In the end I could no longer keep silence, and my anger drove me to a course which I have since almost regretted, for it has destroyed the last vestige of the regard I entertained for the man you have all so liked and respected. I went over to the ranch and challenged George Iredale ”

“On the night of the storm. The night he visited me. Go on.” Prudence’s face was ghastly in its pallor. She gave no other sign of emotion.

“Yes, on the night of the storm. I taxed him with smuggling. He admitted it. I taxed him with the authorship of that notice ”

“Well?” The girl leant forward in her eagerness.

“He did not contradict it. His attitude was a tacit admission. That is my evidence.”

Hervey ceased speaking, and a long pause followed. The man waited. He did not wish to hurry her. He was not blind to the fact that she regarded Iredale with something more than mere friendly feeling, and, with fiendish cunning, he had played upon the knowledge by his allusions to his own regard for the man and the trust which they all placed in him. This woman’s love for Iredale he knew would help him; for, gradually, as the damning evidence he had produced filtered through her armour of loyal affection, her hatred for the man would be doubled and trebled. In this Hervey displayed a knowledge of human nature which one would scarcely have credited him with.

At last Prudence turned. The pallor of her face was unchanged. Only the look in her eyes had altered. The horror which had shone there had become a world of piteous appeal. All her soul shone forth in those sweet, brown eyes. Surely it must have needed a heart of stone to resist her. Her body was leaning forward, her two brown hands were held out towards him.

“I don’t believe it! I can’t believe it! George is no murderer.”

Hervey’s great eyes lowered before that heartful look. His face was a study in hopelessness. From his expression of deep sorrow Iredale might have been his own brother who was accused of murder.

“I’m afraid there is no hope of what you say, Prue. Leslie was conscious; he knew what he was saying. Iredale had every reason for shooting him. The circumstantial evidence is damning. The most sceptical jury would be convinced.”

“O God! O God! And he has asked me to be his wife.” Prudence covered her face with her hands, and her body heaved with great, passionate sobs.

Hervey started at the words. His face lit up with a wicked joy. This was better than he had expected. George should pay dearly for his refusal to buy his silence.

“You say he dared to propose to you with that foul crime upon his soul? He is a worse villain than I had believed. By heavens, he shall swing for his crime! I had hoped that my news had come in time to save you this cruel wrong. The scum! The foul, black-hearted scum!”

Hervey’s rage was melodramatic. But the girl, even in the depths of her misery and distraught feelings, was impressed. Her heart cried out for her lover, and proclaimed his innocence in terms which would not be silenced. His image rose before her mind’s eye, and she looked upon that kindly, strong face, the vigorous bearing of that manly figure, and the story she had just listened to became dwarfed as her faith in him rose superior to the evidence of her senses. It could not be. Her quivering lips struggled to frame the words she longed to utter, but no sound came. Hervey’s words, his attitude, his appearance of deep, honest sorrow for his sister paralyzed her faculties and hope died down in her heart.

The man moved forward to her side, and touched her gently on the shoulders.

“Come, Prue, we had best go back to the house. I can do no work to-day. You, too, need quiet for reflection. The heartless villain!” And he harped upon the information his sister had provided him with.

Prudence allowed herself to be led. She did not care whither she went or what happened. She was incapable of reasoning. She was stunned by the cruel blow that had fallen. Later she would recover herself, for all such blows are but passing; in waking moments mind and reason cannot long remain inert and sanity obtain. For the present she was a mere automaton.

Hervey grew uncomfortable at the girl’s prolonged silence. He cared nothing for her feelings; he cared nothing for the heart he had broken. He cared only for the money he had not yet secured. He realized only too well that, whatever protest his sister might offer, he had convinced her of Iredale’s guilt; it was only a question of time before she admitted it openly. But some feeling of doubt prompted him to secure his wage without delay. Thus his greed rushed him on to a false trail.

Halfway to the house he broke the silence.

“Well, Prue, you cannot refute my evidence. Iredale is the man you have all been seeking. I have served you well. You yourself have escaped a course which would have brought you lifelong regret. Think of it! What would it have meant to you had you married the man? Terrible! Terrible!”

The girl looked up. There was a wild, hunted look in her eyes. Her brother’s words had in some way driven her at bay. He had struck a chord which had set her every nerve on edge, and in doing so had upset all his best-laid schemes. A flood of passionate protest surged to her lips and flowed forth in a seething torrent. She remembered what his story had been told for; she had forgotten for the moment, so well had he acted his part, and had thought only that what he had said was the outcome of his regard for her. Now she turned upon him like a tigress.

“Judas!” she cried, a flush of rage sweeping up into her face as the words hissed from between her teeth. “You have come to sell this man. Your thoughts have nothing to do with the meting out of human justice. You want a price for your filthy work. I loathe you! What curse is on our family that you should have been born into it? You shall have your money; do you hear? You shall have it, and with it goes my curse. But not yet. My conditions are not fulfilled. I do not believe you; your story has not convinced me; I can see no reason in it. Ha, ha!” and she laughed hysterically. “You cannot make me believe it because I will not. You shall have your money, I will not go back on my word; but you must fulfil the conditions. You must convince me of the reason in your story. You will earn your pay as you have never earned anything in your life. Shall I tell you how you will earn it? You will prove your story before judge and jury. When you have convinced them you will have convinced me. Then I will pay you. My God, what taint has brought such blood into the veins of our flesh? If Iredale is the murderer he shall pay the extreme penalty, and you whether you like it or not shall be instrumental in that punishment. You shall be his accuser; you shall see him to the scaffold. And after it is over, after you have received the sum of your blood-money, I will tell the world of your doings. That you my brother demanded a price for your work. They the world shall know you; shall loathe you as I loathe you. You shall be an outcast wherever you go, stamped with the brand of Judas the most despised of all men. Better for you if you stood in George Iredale’s place on the scaffold than face the world so branded. Oh, you wretched man, you have destroyed my life my all! Go, and bring the police. Go to those whose duty it is to listen to such stories as yours. Now I will drive you to it; you shall go, whether you like it or not. Refuse, and I will lay the information and force you to become a witness. You thought you were dealing with a soft, silly woman; you thought to cajole the price out of me, and then, having obtained what you desired, to leave me to do the work. Fool! You will face George Iredale, the accuser and the accused. You shall earn your money. I know the ways of such men as you. Do you know what you are doing? Do you know the name that such work as yours goes by? It is blackmail!”

The girl paused for breath. Then she went on with a bitterness that was almost worse than the contempt in all she had said before.

“But rest content. Every penny you have asked for shall be yours when Iredale’s crimes are expiated. Nor shall I give to the world the story of my brother’s perfidy until such time as you have gone out of our world for ever. Go, go from me now; I will not walk beside you.”

Hervey’s face was a study in villainous expression as he listened to his sister’s hysterical denunciation. He knew the reason of her tirade. He knew that she loved Iredale. He had convinced her of this lover’s crimes; he knew this. And now, woman-like, she turned upon him for his hand, his words had destroyed her happiness. But her words smote hard. The lowest natures care not what others think of them, but those others’ spoken thoughts have a different effect. So it was with Hervey. It mattered nothing to him what the girl thought of him what the world thought of him. But words abuse had still power to move him.

She struck the right note when she said the money down was what he wanted. Now he saw that he had over-reached himself, and he cursed himself for having trusted to a woman’s promise. There was but one thing left for him to do. He controlled himself well when he replied.

“Very well, sister,” he said. “In spite of what you say, you are going back on your word. You should have thought to fling dirt before you entered into a compact with me. However, I care nothing for all your threats. As you have said, I want money. Nothing else matters to me. So I will go to Winnipeg and see this thing through.”

“You certainly will have to do so. Andy shall drive you into town to-night, and I could find it in my heart to wish that I might never see your face again.”

“Very well.” Hervey laughed harshly. “As you wish. I accept your commands. See you as readily fulfil your part of the contract when the time comes. You do not hoodwink me again with impunity.”

And so brother and sister parted. The girl walked on to the house, her feet dragging wearily over the dusty trail. Hervey paused irresolutely. His burning eyes, filled with a look of bitter hatred, gazed after the slight figure of his sister, whose life he had so wantonly helped to wreck. Then he laughed cruelly and turned abruptly back on his tracks and returned once more to the harvesters.

Prudence gained the house and went straight to her room. She wanted to be alone. She wanted to straighten out the chaos of her thoughts. She heard the cheery voices of her mother and Alice talking in the kitchen. She heard the clatter of plates and dishes, and she knew that these two were washing up. But beyond that she noticed nothing; she did not even see the plump figure of Sarah Gurridge approaching the house from the direction of Leonville.

Once in her own little room she flung herself into an arm-chair and sat staring straight in front of her. Her paramount feeling was one of awful horror. The mystery was solved, and George Iredale was the murderer. The metal alarm clock ticked away upon the wooden top of her bureau, and the sound pervaded the room with its steady throb. Her feelings, her thoughts, seemed to pulsate in concert with its rhythm. The words which expressed her dominant emotions hammered themselves into her brain with the steady precision of the ticking

“George Iredale, the murderer of Leslie Grey!”

The moments passed, but time brought the girl no relief. All thought of the man who had told her of this thing had passed from her. Only the fact remained. Slowly, as she sat with nerves tingling and whirling brain, a flush of blood mounted to her head, her brain became hot, and she seemed to be looking out on a red world. The ticking of the clock grew fainter and more distant. The room seemed to diminish in size, while the objects about her drew nearer and nearer. A sense of compression was hers, although she seemed to be gazing out over some great distance with everything around her in due perspective.

Mechanically she rose and opened the window; then she returned to her chair with something of the action of an automaton.

And as she sat the blood seemed to recede from her brain and an icy dew broke out upon her forehead. She was numbed with a sort of paralysis now, and the measured beat of the clock no longer pounded out the words of her thought. Only her heart beat painfully, and she was conscious of a horrible void. Something was wrong with her, but she was incapable of realizing what it was.

She moved, the chair creaked under her, and again thought flowed through her brain. It came with a rush; the deadly numbness had gone as quickly as it had come, and once more her faculties worked feverishly. Now she realized pain, horror, despair, hopelessness in a sudden, overwhelming flood. She shrank back deeper into the chair as though to avoid physical blows which were being rained upon her by some unseen hand.

Presently she started up with a faint cry. She walked across the room and back again. She paused at the bureau, muttering

“It can’t be! It can’t be!” she said to herself, in an agony of terror. “George is too good, too honest. Ah!”

Her love cried out for the man, but reason checked her while her heart tried to rush her into extravagant hopefulness. Iredale had admitted the smuggling. She had seen with her own eyes the doings at the graveyard. And therein lay the key to everything. Leslie had said so with his dying breath. But as this thought came to her it was chased away by her love in a fresh burst of fervour. She could not believe it. There must be some awful, some horrible mistake.

Slowly her mind steadied itself; the long years of calmness which she had spent amidst the profound peace of the prairie helped her. She gripped herself lest the dreadful thought of what she had heard should drive her to madness. She went over what she had been told with a keen examination. She listened to her own arguments for and against the man she loved. She went back to the time when Leslie had told her of his “coup.” She remembered everything so well. She paused as she recollected her dead lover’s anger at George’s coming to the party. And, for a moment, her heart almost stood still. She asked herself, had she misinterpreted his meaning? Had there been something underlying his expressed displeasure at George’s coming which related to what he knew of his, George Iredale’s, doings at the ranch? Every word he had said came back to her. She remembered that he had finished up his protest with a broken sentence.

“ And besides ”

There was a significance in those words now which she could not help dwelling upon. Then she put the thought from her as her faith in her lover re-asserted itself. But the effort was a feeble one; her love was being overwhelmed by the damning evidence.

She moved restlessly from the bureau to the window. The curtained aperture looked out upon the far-reaching cornfields, which were now only a mass of brown stubble. In the distance, beyond the dyke, she could see the white steam of the traction-engine and the figures of many men working. The carts and racks were moving in the picture, but for all else the view was one of peaceful, unbroken calm.

Her mind passed on to the time when the party had broken up. She remembered how in searching for Iredale she had found the two men quarrelling, or something in that nature. Again Leslie had been on the verge of telling her something, but the moment had gone by and he had kept silence. She tried to deny the significance of these things, but reason checked her, and her heart sank to zero. And she no longer tried to defend her lover.

Then came the recollection of that picnic. The screech-owls; the boats laden with their human freight moving suspiciously over the waters of the great lake. She thought of the graveyard and the ghostly procession. And all the time her look was hardening and the protests of her heart slowly died out. If she had doubted Hervey’s words, all these things of which she now thought were facts evident to her own senses. The hard light in her eyes changed to the bright flash of anger. This man had come to her with his love, she reminded herself, and she had yielded to him all that she had power to bestow. The brown eyes grew darker until their glowing depths partially resembled those of her brother.

As the anger in her heart rose her pain increased, and she recoiled in horror at the thought that this man had dared to offer her his love while his hands were stained with black crime. At best he was a law-breaker; at the worst he was

She paced her room with agitated steps. The blood rose to her head again, and she felt dizzy and dazed. What could she do? What must she do? She longed for some one to whom she could tell all that was in her heart, but she could not speak of it she dared not. She felt that she must be going mad. Through all her agony of mind she knew that she loved this man who was a murderer.

She told herself that she hated him, and she knew that she lied to deceive herself. No, no, he was not guilty. He had not been proved guilty, and no man is guilty until he is proved so. Thoughts crowded thick and fast on her sorely-taxed brain, and again and again her hands went up to her head with the action of one who is mentally distracted. But in spite of the conflict that raged within her the angry light in her eyes grew, and a look which was out of all keeping with the sweet face was slowly settling itself upon her features. Again she cried in her heart, “What shall I do?”

Suddenly a light broke through her darkness and revealed to her a definite course. This man must not be judged, at least by her, without a hearing. Why should she not go to him? Why not challenge him with the story? If he were the murderer, perhaps he would strike her to the earth, and add her to the list of his victims. She laughed bitterly. It would be good to die by his hand, she thought. Under any circumstances life was not worth living. The thought fascinated her. Yes, she would do it. Then her spirit of justice rose and rebelled. No. He would then go unpunished. Leslie’s death would remain unavenged. The murderer would have triumphed.

She thought long; she moved wildly about the room. And as the hours passed a demon seemed to come to her and take hold of her. It was the demon which looked out of her brother’s eyes, and which now looked out of hers. He whispered to her, and her willing ears listened to all he said. Her heart, torn by conflicting passions, drank in the cruel promptings.

“Why not kill him? Why not kill him?” suggested the demon. “If he is guilty, kill him, and your life will not have been lived in vain. If he be a murderer it were but justice. You will have fulfilled your promise of vengeance. After that you could turn your hand against yourself.”

And her heart echoed the question, “Why not?”

For nearly an hour she continued to pace her room. Yes, yes! Hers was the right, she told herself. If he were the murderer she did not care to live. They should die together; they should journey beyond together. She thought over all the details, and all the time the demon looked out of her eyes and jogged her with fresh arguments when her heart failed. She knew where her brother kept his pistols. She would wait until he had set out for Winnipeg. Then, on the morrow, she would ride over to Lonely Ranch.

She nursed her anger; she encouraged it at every turn. And she longed for the morrow. But outwardly she grew calm. Only her eyes betrayed her. And they were not the eyes of perfect sanity. They glowed with a lurid fire, the fire which shone in the fierce, dark eyes of her brother.