Getting At The Truth
Perhaps the only two people in St. Gaved--outside the Tregony family--who could have thrown any ray of light on the situation were Micah Martin and Timothy Polgarrow, and they, as far as the general public was concerned, were both of them discreet enough to keep their own counsel.
Micah's chief characteristic was loyalty to the Tregony family. He had been on the estate as man and boy over fifty years. He had no ambition to be anything other than a servant, and a word of praise from his master now and then would atone for any amount of abuse. Comparative serfdom, continued through several generations, had eliminated from his blood every single corpuscle of independence. He possessed the genuine serf spirit and temper. If his master told him to lie on the floor that he might wipe his boots on him, he would have obeyed with a smile and asked no questions. He had no will of his own, no views or opinions or convictions. His master's politics were his. His master's wish his law. The serf spirit made a machine of him. Even questions of right and wrong were tested by loyalty to the family. If a thing was in the interests of the Tregonys, it was right, if not it was wrong.
Yet Micah was not without a measure of shrewdness. He saw more than most people gave him credit for. In his own slow way he put two and two together. But he had the saving virtue of reticence--a most admirable quality in a servant.
Micah knew very well that the Captain lied over the Sterne affair; but that was his business. He had a reason for lying, and it was not his place to contradict him. He knew well enough that Rufus was not drunk, but it would be disloyal to his master to say so. If there was one individual about the place who could break down Micah's reticence and get him to talk it was Madeline. She had not been a month at the Hall before she had made herself a general favourite with all the retainers. Micah idolised her and would have given his scalp almost to please her.
Madeline discussed horticulture with him and floriculture--the mysteries of grafting and budding, the best aspect for peaches and the best soil for potatoes. Miss Grover was a wonder in Micah's eyes. She knew so much and yet was so teachable--was so beautiful and yet so humble withal.
They talked about the Sterne affair one afternoon. Madeline approached the subject with great caution, and carefully felt her way at every step. When Micah became diffident she flattered him a little, and when he obtruded his loyalty to the family she encouraged him.
She made him feel also that she was one of the family, and that he would be perfectly justified and perfectly safe in confiding anything to her. She talked to him about her early life, about the scenery and customs of America, and so hypnotised him with her confidence and her sweet graciousness that the old man talked more freely than he knew.
"Of course you will not repeat what I have told you, Micah?" she said, with her most winning smile.
"Of course not, Miss," Micah said, stoutly. "I wouldn't repeat it for the world."
"It's nice to have confidence in people, don't you think so?" she questioned, demurely.
"It is, Miss; it's a terrible comfort."
"Some people repeat everything they hear. But you and I can trust each other, eh, Micah?"
"I could trust you with uncounted gold, Miss," and Micah stuck his fork into the ground, with an energy that was meant to give emphasis to his assertion.
For awhile they talked about St. Gaved folks in general, but gradually Madeline led the conversation round to Rufus Sterne and the quarrel outside the Lodge gates.
"Mr. Sterne was not drunk, of course!" Madeline suggested, innocently.
"Well, no, I shouldn't say as how he was, though he might have been."
"Exactly. Now, between ourselves, Micah, how did the quarrel begin?"
"Well, Miss, just between you and me, it was this way," and Micah raised his head and looked cautiously around him.
"There's no one to hear what you are saying," Madeline said, encouragingly.
"One can never be too careful, Miss; but as I was saying, I went out to close the gate after the Captin, and he hadn't gone many yards, before I heard 'im shout out to somebody."
"Yes? What did he say?"
"Well. I don't remember his words exact. But there's no doubt he meant you, Miss."
Micah nodded and smiled. "I should have felt just the same, Miss."
"I'm sure you would, Micah."
"'You scoundrel,'" he said, "or words like 'em. 'You're loiterin' round here again to waylay her an' poison her mind.'"
"And what did the other say?"
"Oh! he up and says it was a lie right out to 'is face."
"Did he, really?"
"It's gospel truth, Miss; and of course the Captin, bein' insulted like that, let fly at 'im."
"Do you wonder, Micah?"
"I don't, Miss. But lor', that young Sterne is a terrible strong and 'andsome young fellow, and he gived the Captin beans in two seconds."
"What a shame!"
"Of course, Miss, it's natural that you and me should side with the Captin; but after all, it's human natur' to hit back again, ain't it?"
"Yes, I suppose it is. But what happened after that?"
"Oh! the Captin cried out, 'Martin, come and take away this drunken brute, or he'll murder me.'"
"Of course, the Captain was bound to believe he was drunk?"
"Well, he was bound to say so, Miss," Micah answered, with a twinkle in his eyes. "It 'ud never do to own he was beaten by a man as was sober in a stand up fight--and he a sodger."
"Of course not, though you must admit, Micah, that the Captain was at a disadvantage if the other was sober."
"That's what I've said to myself, Miss, fact is, Sterne was much too sober. He was just as cool as a cucumber, and then he's a younger man than the Captin."
"But the Captain got the best of it in the end," she said, with a tone of triumph in her voice.
"That he did, Miss. He got his revenge sharp, sudden an' complete."
"The right nearly always wins in the end, Micah. But mind you don't repeat a word of our conversation this afternoon."
"Me, Miss? You should see me gibbeted first."
Madeline walked out of the kitchen garden in a very sober mood. The suspicion that had been haunting her mind for weeks was crystallising rapidly into a certainty. The admissions of Micah threw a new and sinister light on the entire situation. The underlying motive had been laid bare as in a flash, and Gervase stood revealed in his true colours.
They were starting for the South of France in a week or so. She thought she saw now the reason of that particular move. She would not act precipitately, however. She would keep her eyes and ears open and her mouth shut. It might be possible, with a little diplomacy, to get the truth out of Tim Polgarrow as she had got it out of Micah Martin; but there was no time to be wasted if she was to accomplish her purpose.
She was more than usually gracious with Gervase that evening, and in the highest spirits. She rattled off waltzes on the piano, and sang any number of cheery and sentimental songs. Gervase found the songs for her, and stood behind and turned the leaves.
He felt that he was making headway rapidly. Now that Rufus Sterne was disgraced and out of the way, he had no rival; there was no one to distract her thoughts from him, and he flattered himself that something of the old feeling of hero-worship was coming back to her.
He had given up pressing her to marry him, given up playing the part of injured and broken-hearted lover, and entertained her instead with stories of his exploits in India. And, generally speaking, he told his stories well, making light of his own courage and powers of endurance, and treating heroism as though it were an ordinary, common-place quality of every soldier.
He had very little doubt that when he got her out of England she would consent to an engagement, and Sir Charles, who had watched carefully the progress of affairs, was of the same opinion.
On the day following her conversation with Micah, Madeline tried to get an interview with Tim Polgarrow. She had seen Tim two or three times, and had made up her mind as to the kind of man he was and the kind of tactics she would have to adopt.
Had she been a man she would have gone into the public-house and demanded an interview with him, but being a girl such a course was impossible. So she had to wait on the chapter of accidents, and fortune did not appear to favour her. She rode past the "Three Anchors" on several occasions, but Tim kept persistently out of sight. She began at last to fear that the opportunity would never come, and that the particular information she wanted would be denied her.
In her heart she had little doubt of the truth of the accusation Rufus had flung out on the day of the trial--that Tim had been bribed to swear a falsehood. But she wanted direct evidence. She was anxious to be just to Gervase, whatever happened.
On the day before leaving home she resolved on more direct measures. Getting her horse saddled, she rode straight away to the "Three Anchors" and knocked loudly on the front door with the handle of her riding-crop.
"HAD MADELINE FIRED A REVOLVER HE COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE STARTLED."
A young man with a thick crop of reddish-brown hair, and a blue apron tied round his waist, appeared at length from the recesses of the tavern.
"Can I have a drink of barley-water for my horse?" she inquired.
"Yes, miss; I'll fetch it in a minute."
She backed her horse a few paces and waited. No one appeared to be about. The inn stood at the junction of five roads, commonly known as Five Lane Ends, and there was not another house within half a mile.
In a few minutes the shock-headed young man appeared with a pail, which he held under the horse's nose.
Madeline felt her heart beating rapidly. She had resolved on a bold stroke. Nothing less than a frontal attack. No flank movement would do in the present case. She would have to stagger him with the first blow.
"You are Timothy Polgarrow?" she questioned, looking down from her exalted position.
"Yes, miss, that's my name, at your service," he answered, glibly and flippantly.
"I'm glad I've met you," she said, quietly.
"Yes?" And he looked up with a light of surprise in his eyes.
"I want to ask you a question."
"A dozen, if you like, miss. I'm always ready to oblige a lady."
"Then you will tell me how much money Captain Tregony paid you to swear that Rufus Sterne was drunk?"
Had Madeline fired a revolver at him he could not have been more startled. He dropped the bucket, which fell with a rattle on the cobbles, and his freckled face grew ashen.
Madeline quickly followed the first blow with a second.
"Now, be careful what you say," she went on. "If you lie, it will be the worse for you. You know that you committed perjury, and that you are liable to a long period of imprisonment; but if you tell the truth, I will be very merciful."
"Has he been blabbing?" he gasped, trembling in every limb.
"Don't trouble to ask questions," she said. "Your business is to answer them."
Then he began to pluck up courage. "Nobody can prove nothing," he said, insolently.
"There you are making a mistake," she answered. "It may be difficult to prove that you received money, but there will be no difficulty in proving that you committed perjury."
"You mean that I'll get all the blame and he'll go scot free."
"Exactly. The case against you is as clear as daylight."
"Who said so?"
"I say so."
"What have you found out?"
"That you swore falsely, and I cannot imagine that you would do it for nothing."
"Look here," he said, still trembling, "you don't know nothing at all. You're trying to gammon me, but I don't take on. Do you understand? I know how to keep my mouth shut as well as other people."
"Very good. I came to you as a friend. If you like to risk the consequences of a trial for perjury, that's your look-out."
"If I do, I don't go into the dock alone, mind you that."
"No, I guess when you get into the dock, you'll have to make a clean breast of it. Why not do it now and avoid going into the dock?"
"You mean, if I tell the truth about--about--somebody, you won't proceed?"
"I mean, I want to get hold of a certain fact. The fact of your committing perjury is already settled. What I want to know is, how much did the gentleman I have named pay you for doing it?"
"Look here," he said, "if I tell you all I know about that blooming trial, will you promise not to split on me?"
"Only on one condition."
"And what is that?"
"That you will tell the whole truth, and that you put it in writing and sign it."
"Look here, miss," he said, insolently, "do you take me for a blooming fool?"
"If you had been wise," she answered, "you would not have put yourself within reach of the law. However, you can take your own course." And she reined up her horse, as though the interview was at an end.
"Don't go yet," he said, seizing the bridle-rein. "You don't give a fellow time to think. How do I know that you're not pretending?"
"If I didn't know, how could I tell you?" she answered, severely. "What I don't know I have confessed to."
"And if I tell you that, you won't blab about the rest?"
"If you put it in writing and sign it, it shall be kept absolutely secret for a year."
He laughed scornfully. "I can assure you, miss," he said, "I'm not so green as I look."
"Very good," she answered, with a laugh. "You ought to know best," and she again pulled at the rein. But Tim was evidently afraid to let her go.
"I'll put nothing in writing," he said; "not a blooming word. But if you'll promise me on your word of honour as a lady that you'll not blab, and that you'll not put the police on me, I'll tell you all I know. Mind you, I've confessed nothing yet. Not a word."
"I don't want any confession as to your part. That's proved enough already. What I want to know is how much you were paid for swearing falsely?"
"Will you promise me never to say a word? Mind you, I'll go to gaol sooner than put anything in writing."
"I don't want to be too hard on you," she said, after a pause.
"And the secret will be between our two selves?"
"And if I don't tell you, you'll set the police on me?"
"This very day."
"And if I do tell, fair and square, you'll deal fair and square with me?"
"Well, yes. You deserve to be sent to prison for robbing an honest man of his character, but for the information I want I will pay the price of silence."
"You take your oath on it?"
Madeline hesitated for a moment. She would like to clear Rufus Sterne's character if possible. But he had just as much proof of perjury as she had unless this man confessed, and he refused to confess unless she promised secrecy.
"I take my oath on it," she answered.
"Then he paid me twenty pounds."
"Only twenty pounds?"
"He offered me five at first, then ten, then fifteen; but when he rose to twenty it was too much to resist. He said 'twouldn't harm Sterne. That every gentleman got drunk now and then, and that as he was drunk it might be as well to prove he got drunk here as anywhere else."
"And you didn't serve him with any drink?"
"I never served him with a drink in my life. He passed the "Three Anchors" that night, but he didn't call."
"Thank you; that is all I wish to know."
"And you'll not set the police on me?"
She rode home by another way, and rode slowly. She was not an expert horsewoman yet, though she was rapidly becoming one.
She entered the house without anyone seeing her, and went at once to her own room. She wanted time to think, to shape her plans for the future. Her life's programme had been torn into shreds. She would have to begin over again. But how, or when, or where?
After lunch she took a stroll on the Downs and along the cliffs. "I shall never come back here again," she said to herself. "This must be my farewell."
She walked slowly, and with many pauses. She half hoped she would see Rufus Sterne. She wanted to say good-bye to him, and in saying it tell him that she believed in him.
But Rufus was busy elsewhere that afternoon, and they did not meet. She looked in all directions as she strolled back across the Downs to the Hall, and with a little sigh she passed through the lodge gates.
Another chapter had been completed in the story of her life. To-morrow a fresh page would be turned.