A MYSTERY

The housekeeper of Mr. Horran’s establishment was a small, withered-up
old woman, who looked like the bad fairy of a D’Aulnoy story. She had
nursed Clarice and Ferdy, and their father before them, so she was
deeply attached to the twins. Of course, Ferdy being the more selfish
of the two obtained all her affection, and although she was fond of
Clarice, she lavished the treasures of her love on Ferdy, who gave her
in return more kicks than half-pence. Mrs. Rebson was quite seventy
years of age, and her face resembled a winter apple, so rosy and
wrinkled it was. She must have had French blood in her old veins, for
her vivacity was wonderful, and her jet black eyes were undimmed by
age. Nothing ever seemed to put her out of temper, and her devotion to
the twins had in it something of a religion.

Being thus bright and cheerful, it was strange that Mrs. Rebson should
cherish a dreadful little book, which was called The Domestic Prophet,
full of dismal hints. Published at the beginning of each year, it
prophesied horrors for every month, from January to December, and was
as lachrymose as the Book of Lamentations. Not a single, cheerful
event enlivened the year from this modern prophet’s point of view, and
although the book (consisting of twenty-four pages) was bound in green
paper, the cover should certainly have been black, if only for the
sake of consistency. Over this lamentable production, Mrs. Rebson was
bending, when Clarice entered fresh from her encounter with Ferdy.

“What is the matter, lovey?” asked the old woman, pushing up her
spectacles on her lined forehead, “there’s nothing to worry about. I
have ordered the dinner, and seen to the Christmas provisions, and Mr.
Horran’s in a sweet sleep, and your good gentleman is coming this
afternoon to kiss your bonny face, bless it, and bless him.”

Clarice sat down with a disconsolate air. “It’s Ferdy.”

“Now, Miss,” Mrs. Rebson’s voice became sharper, and her manner quite
like that of the nurse who put the twins to bed years before, “how
often have I told you not to quarrel with your dear brother, as is
bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh and the sweetest tempered
baby I ever nursed?”

“Nanny!” Clarice called Mrs. Rebson by this childish name for the sake
of old times, and perhaps from custom. “You are quite crazy about
Ferdy, and he doesn’t deserve your love.”

“Indeed he does, Miss, and I wonder at your talking in that way. Oh,
fie, Miss, fie,” shaking a gnarled finger, “this is jealousy.”

“It’s common sense, Nanny,” retorted Clarice, and detailed what Dr.
Jerce had said about Ferdy, and what Ferdy had said to her. Mrs.
Rebson listened to all this, quite unmoved. “But, of course, you won’t
believe a word I say against your idol,” ended Clarice, bitterly.

“Because everyone’s against him,” cried Mrs. Rebson, wrathfully. “Oh,
that Jerce man–I’ll Jerce him if he dares to speak against Master
Ferdy, who is an angel.”

“There are two kinds of angels, Nanny, white and black.”

“Master Ferdy’s the kind of angel that plays a harp,” said the old
dame, with dignity, “and why shouldn’t the poor boy amuse himself?”

“He’ll get into trouble unless he’s more careful. Drinking and
gambling and sitting up all night with fast people.”

“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Mrs. Rebson, energetically.

“Dr. Jerce says–”

“He’s a liar, Miss, and don’t come to me with tales of that angel. Why
can’t you hold your tongue, and think of your future with Mr.
Ackworth, who is so fond of you and I hope you’ll deserve his
fondness.”

“I’m fond of Ferdy, too, Nanny, and I want him to grow up to be a good
man.”

“He _is_ a good man,” said the old nurse, obstinately, “and there’s no
more growing of that sort needed. Mr. Horran, drat him, keeps the poor
boy short of money.”

“Two hundred a year–”

“What’s that, when Master Ferdy will have two thousand?”

“He won’t become possessed of that for two years, Nanny. Meanwhile, he
has no right to gamble.”

“I don’t believe he does. Why, he spends all his money in buying books
about health and medicine. I gave him five pounds the other day to get
some.”

“Oh, Nanny, your savings again, when you promised me you wouldn’t.”

“I can do what I like with my own, Miss Clarice. Besides, I have made
Master Ferdy my heir, so why shouldn’t he have the money now, if he
likes, bless him.”

“Nanny,” said Clarice, seriously. “You are ruining Ferdy.”

“Me!” Mrs. Rebson gave an indignant screech. “Me ruin the boy I love
so dearly. Jealousy again, Miss Clarice. Go and read the Commandments,
Miss, and weep for your sins.”

“I don’t think I’ll find ‘Honour thy brother’ among the Commandments,
Nanny,” said Clarice, the humorous side of the business striking her;
“however, I see it’s useless to think you will blame Ferdy.”

Mrs. Rebson looked round the comfortable little room, and removed her
spectacles. “My dear,” she said, in a rather shaky voice, “if I must
speak plainly to you, I am rather put out about Master Ferdy. Not that
it’s his fault,” added the nurse, hurriedly, “but when one sees him
being led away by that hussy–”

“Who is that?” asked Clarice, anxiously.

“Mrs. Dumps’ daughter. Zara, she calls herself, when I know that she
was christened simple Sarah. Not that she is simple, my dear, for a
more cunning fox isn’t to be found, with her red hair–dyed–and her
cream complexion and red cheeks, which are nothing but pearl-powder
and rouge, drat her, and her mother also, for a fool!”

Clarice knew Mrs. Dumps, and also had frequently seen Sarah Dumps, but
had never for one moment thought that Ferdy would be attracted by such
a bold, chattering girl, who flirted indiscriminately with every man,
good-looking or plain. “I thought Sarah had gone to London.”

“So she has!” said Mrs. Rebson, fiercely, “she went over a year ago,
and with her good looks–all paint and dye–and brazen impudence–ah,
that’s genuine enough–she pushed her way on to the stage.”

“So Mrs. Dumps told me,” said Miss Baird. “Sarah is dancing and
singing at some West-end music-hall.”

“She is that, and fine dancing it is, I don’t doubt–the hussy. I’d
rather see a child of mine in her grave than capering as a butterfly
before gentry.”

“Butterflies don’t caper, Nanny.”

“This one does,” sniffed the old woman, viciously. “She calls herself
Butterfly on the stage.”

“The Butterfly?”

“No–just Butterfly, when she ought to be called Cat. Well, then, my
love, Mrs. Dumps, who is a cousin of mine (and I don’t think much of
her dressing and screeching like a peacock) called to see me the other
day, and told me that Master Ferdy had been seeing Sarah–I can’t
bring myself to call her Zara–such affectation. He’s been driving and
talking and walking, and giving her presents, and Mrs. Dumps, who is a
born fool, thinks that Master Ferdy means marriage.”

Clarice started to her feet. “Oh, Nanny!”

“What’s the use of saying, ‘Oh, Nanny,’ like that?” snapped Mrs.
Rebson. “You know what an angel Master Ferdy is, and how easily a
pretty face can beguile him–not that Sarah is pretty, the minx. It’s
her fault, and I’d tar and feather her and ride her on a rail if I
had my way. Why can’t she leave the boy alone? I know you are jealous
of Master Ferdy, Miss Clarice, but as you have a head on your
shoulders–I don’t deny that, lovey–it is only right that you should
know the truth. I can’t tell Mr. Horran, as there would be trouble.”

Clarice went to the window, and looked out into the white, cold world,
with her thoughts fixed anywhere but on the scenery. In fact, she was
wondering what was best to be done about Ferdinand, who evidently had
become entangled with Sarah Dumps. Dr. Jerce apparently knew of this
entanglement, hence Ferdy’s fear of him, and dread as to what he might
have said. It was useless to talk to Ferdy, who would only go his own
way, being obstinate, as all weak people are; while Mr. Horran was too
ill to be told of the business. There remained Anthony and Dr. Jerce
to help her. The second of these had made things unpleasant by wanting
to marry her, so it was difficult to appeal to him for aid. He might
demand his price. Finally, in two minutes, Clarice made up her mind to
enlist Captain Ackworth on her side. He was not coming this afternoon,
as Mrs. Rebson had said, but the next day, so she could speak to him
then. Meanwhile, it would be best to be agreeable to Ferdy and keep
him at home, lest he should go back to town and to this dreadful girl.
Not that Sarah Dumps really was very dreadful, for being shrewd, she
was quite respectable, and able to take excellent care of herself.
But, naturally, Clarice thought she was dreadful, when Ferdy was in
her toils–though what Sarah Dumps could see in poor, weak Ferdy,
passed Clarice’s comprehension.

“Well, deary?” asked Mrs. Rebson, impatiently.

“Say nothing to Mr. Horran, or to Ferdy,” said Clarice, turning from
the window. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Treat Master Ferdy tenderly,” warned Mrs. Rebson.

“Oh, yes,” replied Miss Baird, indifferently. “Things will come all
right, Nanny. Ferdy, after all, is in love with Prudence.”

“Another hussy,” snapped the nurse.

“A very clever one, then. She would make Ferdy a good wife, and rule
him with a rod of iron.”

“He doesn’t want that, Miss. You can lead him with a silken thread.”

“I am quite sure Sarah Dumps can,” said Clarice, emphatically. “Ferdy
can always be led in the way he wishes to go. No, no!” she waved her
hand impatiently, “don’t defend him any more, Nanny. I agree with you
that Ferdy is all sugar-candy and honey. I’ll try and put everything
right.”

“And it needs putting right,” said Mrs. Rebson, in her most
lively tone, “there’s going to be trouble–yes,
poverty–death–sorrow–disgrace–”

“Stop, stop!” cried Clarice, turning pale, “what do you mean?”

“The Domestic Prophet–”

“Oh, that creature. Pooh!” Clarice was much relieved. “I thought you
were in earnest.”

“The Domestic Prophet always is, deary.”

“He’s a fraud, Nanny. He never prophesies correctly.”

“Yes, he does,” cried Mrs. Rebson, obstinately, and adjusting her
spectacles, “listen to this,” and she read: “‘The month of December
will be dangerous to elderly men who are sick. They will probably die
if the weather is severe, and in winter we may expect snow. Some
elderly men will probably meet with a violent death, either by poison
or the knife, or a railway accident, or by drowning, if they frequent
seaside resorts. Beware the dead of night,’ says the Domestic Prophet,
‘to all men over fifty.'”

After reading this precious extract, Mrs. Rebson lifted her eyes, to
find Clarice choking with laughter, and assumed an offended air. “You
were always foolish, Miss,” she said, disdainfully, “but these things
will come true. Mr. Horran is doomed; he is over fifty.”

“And how do you think he will die, Nanny–not in a railway accident or
by drowning, as he can’t leave the house. The severe weather may kill
him, certainly, but I’ll see that he is well wrapped up. There remains
the knife and the poison. Which will he die of?”

Mrs. Rebson still continued, disdainful. “It’s all very well
sniggering, Miss, but the Domestic Prophet is right very often.” She
opened the dismal book again, and read: “‘When a black cat bites its
tail, take it for a sign of a sudden death.’ And,” added Mrs. Rebson,
closing the book solemnly, “I saw my black cat bite its tail only
yesterday. Also Mr. Horran is elderly, and should beware the dead of
night.”

“Well, then,” said Clarice, flippantly, “I suppose Buster,” this was
the black cat’s name, “hints, by biting his tail, that Mr. Horran is
about to meet with a violent death at midnight.”

“I don’t say Mr. Horran, Miss. But Dr. Jerce is over fifty, and so is
the Rev. Nehemiah Clarke.”

“You also, Nanny–”

“The Domestic Prophet is talking of men, deary. You scoff, Miss, but
mark my words, before the end of the month, we’ll hear of something.”

Miss Baird, still laughing, kissed the withered cheek. “I dare say,”
was her reply, “your prophet is very general in his applications.
Well, I shall see Uncle Henry–”

“Don’t tell him what I say.”

“Oh, but I will, Nanny. It’s too funny to keep to myself,” and Clarice
left the room laughing, while Mrs. Rebson, with a sigh for such
levity, began to read The Domestic Prophet with renewed zeal.

Meanwhile, Miss Clarice proceeded to Mr. Horran’s bedroom. This was on
the other side of the house, and was similar in many respects to the
drawing-room. Here also were two French windows opening on to a
terrace, and the apartment was large and lofty and spacious, and was
furnished half as a bedroom and half as a sitting-room. This was
because Mr. Horran lived, for the most part of his life, beneath its
roof. Formerly, he had occupied a room on the first floor, where the
other bedrooms were, but being unable, by reason of his mysterious
disease, to mount the stairs, he had, within the last five years,
transferred this room, which was formerly a library, into his sleeping
chamber. It was handsomely furnished, and very comfortable, and had a
large open fireplace, in which, summer and winter, blazed a grand
fire. The walls were of a deep orange colour, as Mr. Horran thought
such a hue was most restful to the eye, and on them hung many fine
pictures, and also several spears and swords and Zulu shields and
Matabele assegais, which various friends had brought as presents. In
front of one window stood a rosewood escritoire, covered with papers,
but the way to the other window was left open, as it acted also as a
door, whence Mr. Horran could emerge, on fine days, to take the sun on
the miniature terrace. For an invalid, everything was perfectly
arranged, and Mr. Horran was lodged luxuriously.

The old man himself was thin and wrinkled, but very straight and
somewhat military in his looks, the resemblance being increased by a
long, iron-grey moustache and closely clipped grey hair. He had left
his bed and was sitting, clothed in a camel’s hair dressing-gown, in a
deep-seated leather armchair before the fire. When Clarice entered he
was weeping, and she hastened towards him in alarm.

“Dear Uncle Henry,” she said, putting her arms round his neck, “why
did you get up? It is most imprudent. Dr. Jerce and Dr. Wentworth both
say you should remain in bed. I wonder Chalks,” this was Horran’s
valet and faithful attendant, “allowed you.”

“I’m all right, my dear,” said Mr. Horran, trying to recover his
self-command, and patting Clarice’s hand. “I’m only upset a little.”

“And no wonder, after that fit.”

“It is not the fit. That is all right now. I have been sleeping for
about ten hours, and woke some time ago, feeling much better. Indeed,
I felt so well, that I decided to rise, and take a stroll on the
terrace, in the winter sunshine. Then I received a shock.”

“What kind of a shock?”

“We won’t say anything about it just now,” said Horran, in a weak
voice. “It would not interest you, and besides, I don’t wish to talk
of it. I have told no one, not even Chalks.”

“Told him what?”

“Nothing, nothing,” maundered on the old man, staring into the fire.
“I feel ever so much better, my dear, only I can’t help crying–some
sort of emotion from the shock.”

Clarice slipped down beside him, and held his cold hands. “Dear Uncle
Henry, tell me what is the matter,” she implored, “it isn’t Ferdy?”

“No, no! Ferdy is all right. He’s a good boy and very kind. It is very
strange, Clarry, but I am now beginning to feel drowsy, and a few
minutes ago, I was so wide-awake. Oh, dear me,” he sighed, “I do wish
Daniel, or Dr. Wentworth would find out what is the matter with me.”

“They will find out soon, dear,” said Clarice, soothingly.

“No. Clever as Daniel is, my disease seems to baffle him. He says that
I may live for years, but I don’t think that is likely, Clarry, dear.
However, should I die suddenly, everything is straight. You and Ferdy
will get your money within a week of my death.”

“Dear, don’t talk of your death.”

“I must. It is just as well, Clarry, that you should know how matters
stand. I have arranged that you will control Ferdy’s money, as I have
the power to do by your father’s will. I was appointed sole guardian,
and the will enables me to appoint another guardian should I die. But
I shall not do that. I shall arrange, and have arranged, as my lawyer
will tell you, to give you the whole four thousand pounds a year. You
will be, so to speak, your own guardian, and Ferdy’s also.”

“You don’t trust Ferdy, then, Uncle Henry?” she asked, in a low voice.

“No, dear,” he patted her hand. “You are the clever one. Ferdy is
unstable. I have seen that for many years, and so I placed him with
Daniel, who will keep the boy straight. Ferdy is like your poor
father, charming and weak; you more resemble your dear mother, who was
my first and my last love. I never married because of your mother.”

“I know, dear.” Clarice kissed the cold hand tenderly, as she knew of
this romance. She was the sole person to whom Horran ever spoke of the
matter. He maundered on dreamily. “I told Daniel of my will, and he
was not pleased. He said that a woman should not possess such power,
as she was incapable of exercising it.”

“Oh, indeed,” said Clarice, flushing angrily. “I think Dr. Jerce will
find me perfectly capable. I am glad that you have made me Ferdy’s
guardian, Uncle Henry, as he certainly needs a guiding hand. Have you
told him about the will, dear?”

“No, I only told Daniel, who was displeased. But then he says that I
may live for years. He spoke kindly, too, though he is wrong in
believing I shall recover. Daniel and I have always been friends. We
only quarrelled once, and that was over your mother. But she married
Baird, and left us both in the cold. But for you, dear Clarry, I
should have had a lonely life, my dear.”

Clarice rose and moved towards the bell. “Let me call Chalks to put
you to bed again, Uncle Henry. You are quite drowsy.”

“No! no!” The invalid grew testy, sudden changes of mood being a
characteristic of his unknown disease. “I’m comfortable here. And I
want to see Daniel. Where is Daniel?”

“He returned to town last night, dear. I don’t think he will come
again until after Christmas.”

“That is not for a few days,” groaned Horran, in a piteous tone. “Oh,
send for him, Clarry. I must see him about the letter.”

“What letter, dear?” she asked, much puzzled. Horran raised his heavy
lids with an effort. “The letter which I found on the terrace, near
the window. It gave me a shock.”

“Show it to me, Uncle Henry.”

“No! You would not understand. Daniel might; he’s so clever.”

“Who wrote this letter?” coaxed Clarice, trying to get information.
“There is no writing,” he answered, drowsily. “It is not a letter.”

“You said that it was.”

“Picture writing, then, like the ancient Egyptians.” She thought,
naturally, that his mind was wandering, when he talked in so
contradictory a manner. After a moment or so, his head fell back on
the chair, and his eyes closed. He began to breathe deeply, and
apparently was falling asleep. Clarice put her ear to his lips, as
she saw them move, and caught three words, which conveyed nothing:
“The–Purple–Fern!”

This was unintelligible, until she noticed an envelope at his feet,
which had fallen out of his pocket. Picking this up, she took out the
slip of paper it contained, and found thereon, no writing, but the
representation of a tiny fern, stamped in purple ink.

There seemed to Clarice to be a familiar look about this
representation of a fern. The double sheet of writing paper was thick
and glossy, with untrimmed edges, and on this the curved fern, with
its fronds wonderfully delicate and distinct, had evidently been
impressed with an india-rubber stamp, moistened with purple ink. The
square-sized envelope bore no address, no stamp, and no seal. What
could one make of such a missive? It appeared meaningless, yet to
Clarice the fern itself recalled some faint memory. Probably that
memory, whatever it might be, was clearer to Horran, and so had given
him the shock of which he had complained.

After some consideration, Clarice slipped the envelope and sheet of
paper into her pocket, thinking it advisable to remove them from
Horran’s sight. He had fallen into a deep sleep, and was breathing
almost imperceptibly, his face looking singularly calm and unwrinkled.
Whatever his disease might be, he certainly was not suffering pain;
but it was strange that after a ten hours’ sleep, he should again
relapse into slumber. Still, from his looks there was no cause for
alarm, so Clarice touched the bell, and when Chalks entered, she
pointed silently to his unconscious master.

The valet was a round, rosy, stout little man, with twinkling black
eyes, and a meek manner. He beamed with good nature and overflowed
with the milk of human kindness. An attendant with so cheerful a
disposition and smiling a countenance was quite the kind of nurse
needed by an invalid, as his spirits were infectious, and frequently
served to arouse the somewhat melancholy Mr. Horran from dismal
musings. Chalks displayed no surprise at the sight of his patient
asleep again, but lifted him in his arms and placed him gently on the
bed. Clarice deliberated as to whether she should tell Chalks (who was
intelligent and devoted to Mr. Horran) about the missive of the purple
fern; but finally decided to say nothing concerning it to anyone until
she had seen Anthony. The elusive memory, which would not come back to
her in its entirety, suggested that Ackworth could account for the
fern in some way.

“What do you think of him, Chalks?” she asked, indicating the
unconscious man on the bed.

“I think’s he’s asleep, Miss,” said Chalks, innocently.

“But why should he sleep again after ten hours’ slumber?”

“Why should he be ill at all, Miss?” was the retort of the cheerful
little man, “seeing that them doctors says as his organs is healthy,
and that there ain’t nothing whatever the matter with him?”

Miss Baird drew her white brows together in a perplexed way. “There
must be some reason for his disease, Chalks.”

“The doctors say there’s no disease, Miss.”

“But this sleep is unnatural.”

“Master’s health has been unnatural for the last ten years, Miss.”

“What is your theory, Chalks?”

“I have none, Miss. Master gets headaches and giddy fits, and weeps
and gets into rages, which ain’t his real nature, and he’s had two
fits, and now sleeps like a top for hours. This ain’t what you’d call
health, Miss, and yet Dr. Jerce and Dr. Wentworth have both examined
him heaps of times, only to find he’s all right, both inside and
outside. It’s a riddle, Miss, that’s what it is.”

“What’s to be done, then?”

Chalks advanced briskly to the bed. “Leave Master to me, Miss, and
I’ll put him between the sheets. Then we must wait until Dr. Wentworth
comes again, Miss.”

Clarice walked to the door, but cast a glance round the room, before
going out. She saw that one of the French windows was open, and moved
to close it. Chalks stopped her. “No, Miss, Master must have all the
air he can get–Dr. Wentworth says so.”

“And Dr. Jerce?” Chalks beamed like a cherub. “Bless your heart, Miss,
he insists on Master getting as little air as possible. When Dr. Jerce
comes down, Miss, he says the window must be closed; when Dr.
Wentworth turns up, he opens it straight off. They don’t agree, Miss,
which is hard on me, Miss.”

“It is perplexing,” assented Clarice, laughing, “what do you do?”

“Well, Miss, I let them do what they like. If Dr. Jerce closes the
window, I leave it so; when Dr. Wentworth opens it, I let it be.
Sometimes that window is open all night and closed all day. At other
times, Miss, it’s open all day and closed all night. It depends on
them dratted doctors.”

Clarice laughed at this explanation, and seeing that her guardian, to
all appearance, was in a healthy sleep, went away. “Tell me when he
wakes up, Chalks,” said she, at the door.

“Yes, Miss, if Master don’t sleep for one hundred years, like the
Sleeping Beauty,” and Chalks chuckled at his own simple wit. Clarice
passed the morning in attending to her domestic duties, and had a
consultation with Mrs. Rebson about the Christmas festivities. That
cheerful housekeeper remarked that it would be as well to make the
house as bright as possible, since The Domestic Prophet declared that
something terrible would happen before Christmas. What the event might
be, Mrs. Rebson could not tell, as the prophet, after the manner of
his kind, was obscure in the wording of his oracles. Nevertheless,
Clarice became infected with the vague dread which Mrs. Rebson
insisted she felt herself, and the memory of that oddly delivered
envelope, containing the stamped picture of the purple fern, did not
tend to dissipate her uneasiness. When she left Mrs. Rebson, still
prophesying coming woes, like an elderly Cassandra, the girl felt that
a walk would do her good, and, putting on her furs, she sallied forth,
eager to breathe a less portentous atmosphere.

The day was bright and clear, the snow was hard and clean. In the
lucid air lurked the sting of frost. Sitting over a fire, one was apt
to shiver; but smart walking brought a colour to the most wan cheeks,
and communicated a glow to the whole body. Clarice looked extremely
pretty as the exercise tinted her oval face, and sent the warm blood
spinning through her youthful veins. She walked in a determined,
swinging way, with steadfast eyes and a firmly closed mouth, like a
woman who knows her own mind, and who means to have her own way. It
needed a very strong man to master this young lady of the new school,
and Clarice believed that Ackworth was just the man to exercise
authority. Certainly, Dr. Jerce might have mastered her also, as he
was stern and strong. But then she did not love Dr. Jerce, and only
from the tyrant she loved was Miss Baird ready to take orders.

Finding herself near the vicarage, Clarice determined to enter and see
if Ferdy was there. As he had not come back to luncheon, it was
probable that he had gone to Prudence Clarke for consolation, a thing
Miss Baird quite approved of, as she respected Prudence, and would
have been glad to see Ferdy engaged to so sensible a girl. The quarrel
at the breakfast table had no doubt left Ferdy fretful and
complaining, so it was pretty certain that he would visit Prudence and
pour his woes into her sympathetic ears. Ferdy never could keep his
troubles to himself, but invariably climbed to the highest house-top
to shout out his puny griefs. Clarice wished him to marry Prudence,
yet sometimes she doubted if so sensible a girl would tolerate such a
baby man as a husband.

The servant who answered the door said that Miss Clarke had gone out
skating with Mr. Baird, but that the vicar was in his study. Clarice
would have turned away in pursuit of the young people, but that the
parson heard her voice and came into the hall. He was an undersized,
miserable man, with a head too large for his body, and an awkward,
diffident manner, which seemed to continually apologise for the
existence of Mr. Nehemiah Clarke. His voice was querulous, and his
complaints were incessant. In his rusty black clothes, with his bent
frame and untidy hair, he looked a most dismal object, and Clarice, in
her then somewhat dejected state of mind, scarcely relished an
interview with so cheerless a person. However, she could not help
herself, and entered the study with the best grace she could muster.

“There,” whimpered Mr. Clarke, waving his hands towards an array of
bills, which strewed his desk like autumn leaves, “what do you think
of that for Christmas, Clarice? How is a man to preach goodwill
towards men, when men won’t show any goodwill towards him?”

“But we all get bills at Christmas time,” said Miss Baird,
consolingly. “I get more than anyone else,” moaned the vicar, sinking
into the chair before his desk; “why they should come to me, I don’t
know.”

“You should pay as you go, Mr. Clarke.”

“I haven’t any ready money, Clarice. It’s all very well for you, in
the lap of luxury; but I have only three hundred a year, and even that
small sum comes to me slowly, since people will not pay their tithes
without legal threats, and those cost money. I don’t eat much, I dress
plainly, I never enjoy myself, and keep only one cheap servant, yet
the bills will come in. Prudence is responsible for many; she ought to
emulate her name, but she won’t. Imprudence would suit her better. Oh,
dear me, how I can sympathise with Lear.”

“I don’t think Prudence is extravagant, Mr. Clarke,” said Clarice, who
resented this placing of burdens on other people’s shoulders, “she
always seems to me to be a sensible girl.”

“In some ways–in some ways,” muttered the vicar, discontentedly.

Clarice reflected for a few minutes. From hints dropped by Prudence,
she had a shrewd idea of where the vicar’s money went. “How is Frank,
Mr. Clarke?” she asked, significantly.

“My son. He is still in London, trying to get work. Poor lad, he is
very unfortunate. With his education and manners and brains, he ought
to be one of the foremost men of the time; but the want of money is a
bar to his advancement.”

“What is Frank doing?”

“Nothing. He has tried the army, the medical profession, the legal
profession, the lecture hall, and even the stage. But, as yet, he has
not hit upon the field in which he can display his undoubted abilities
to their utmost.”

“You support him, I suppose?”

“I can’t let the boy starve,” said Mr. Clarke, defiantly.

“Well, then, it seems to me that Frank is more to blame than Prudence
for your difficulties. He ought to support himself.”

“He will some day, when he acquires the position to which his talents
will lead him. Then he will bring glory to the Clarkes.”

“He only brings misfortune and debts just now,” said Clarice, dryly.

“Who says so?” asked the vicar, furiously.

“Prudence tells me that her brother will not do anything, but passes
his time in idleness, and constantly comes to you for money. As he is
over thirty years of age, he certainly should support himself.”

“Poor Frank cannot help his misfortunes.”

“I rather think that a man’s misfortunes are, as a rule, of his own
making, Mr. Clarke. Your own, for instance. You have three hundred a
year and a free house. That ought to keep you out of debt; but if you
will give all your money to Frank, what can you expect?”

“My dear–my dear,” said Mr. Clarke, testily, “a girl like you can’t
understand these things.”

“Oh, yes, I can. Since Uncle Henry has been ill all these years, I
have had a great deal to do with business.”

The vicar started. “I thought Mr. Barras was your guardian’s lawyer.”

“So he is. He attends to everything, but Uncle Henry rarely sees Mr.
Barras himself, so I have to attend to necessary matters.”

“Why doesn’t Ferdinand–?”

“Ferdinand!” Clarice made a gesture of contempt.

“He is the same as your son, and spends money rather than earns it.”

“My dear, you shouldn’t say these things, unbecoming in a young girl’s
mouth. It is not modest in a woman.”

Clarice stood up, very tall and dignified, and rather irritated. “What
is the use of talking like that to me, Mr. Clarke. All that idea of
the superiority of man is a thing of the past. I am only a woman, and
a girl, as you say, but I have five times the sense of Ferdinand, and
Uncle Henry trusts me rather than him. Prudence also is clever and
sensible. I don’t believe that she is extravagant, Mr. Clarke. Frank
is the one who spends your money. If you would allow Frank to earn his
own living, and let Prudence arrange your affairs, you would soon be
out of difficulties.”

“Prudence knows nothing of business, Clarice.”

“And Frank knows less,” retorted the girl, thoroughly angry. “Women
have more intuition than men. But there is another way out of your
difficulties, Mr. Clarke.”

“What is that?” asked the little man, somewhat cowed by the determined
demeanour of Miss Baird.

“Ferdy is in love with Prudence. Let them marry, and then I can
arrange that your debts will be paid when Ferdy comes in for his money
two years hence.”

“But in the meantime?” moaned the vicar.

“We can arrange something–that is, if you will stop sending money to
Frank. Let him sink or swim, Mr. Clarke. Self-reliance is the sole
thing which will make a man of Frank.”

“I’ll see, I’ll see,” said Mr. Clarke, evasively, “but if I allow
Prudence to marry Ferdinand–and I note that they love one another–do
you think he will help me?”

“I shall help you.”

“But how can you–?”

“Mr. Clarke, I spoke to Uncle Henry this morning, and he told me that
as our guardian, he has the authority to appoint another one at his
death. He doesn’t trust Ferdy, so he has constituted me the head of
our affairs. Ferdy gets two thousand a year, as I do, in two years,
but I shall have the casting vote as to how his money is disposed
of–at least, up to the age of twenty-five, when he takes it over. If
Ferdy marries Prudence next year, I’ll allow him a good income, on
condition that he pays your debts. He will do it, if I advise, as I
shall have the legal power when Uncle Henry dies.”

“But if Mr. Horran does not die?”

“Then I’ll see what Mr. Barras can do. He is the lawyer, and believes
in me. He tells me everything.”

Clarke rose, and began to pace the room. “Has Barras told you that
Horran lent me one thousand pounds five years ago at ten per cent.”

“No,” said Clarice, somewhat startled, “is that so?”

“Yes. I am in great trouble over the loan. I borrowed it to help my
son Frank, and I have had to pay interest at the rate of ten per cent.
every year–that is, one hundred pounds. I have not paid up for three
years, so I am indebted to Mr. Horran for three hundred pounds, and he
threatens to sell me up–that means ruin.”

“I don’t believe it,” cried Clarice, energetically. “Uncle Henry is a
kind man, and would never do such a thing. Who says so?”

“Mr. Barras.”

“Then I’ll go up to London and see Mr. Barras after Christmas. He
ought to have told me about this, but he did not. Why do you not see
Uncle Henry yourself, Mr. Clarke?”

“I tried to, but Dr. Jerce would not let me. He said that I would
upset Mr. Horran if I talked business to him. I therefore have kept
away from the house.”

“I noticed that you had not been near us for months,” said Clarice,
thoughtfully. “But how does Dr. Jerce come to know of the matter?”

“Mr. Barras told him.”

Miss Baird flushed in an angry way. “It seems to me that Mr. Barras
takes a great deal upon himself,” she said, haughtily. “Since Uncle
Henry is ill, and trusts me, I am the one to be spoken to, about these
matters, and not Dr. Jerce. I’ll question Uncle Henry about the loan,
and see that everything is put right.”

“Then I won’t have to pay the three hundred,” said the vicar, eagerly.
“I can’t say that,” rejoined Clarice, bluntly. “I’ll see what I can
do. Of course, if Ferdy would only become engaged to Prudence, I might
be able to do much, but as matters stand, Dr. Jerce and Mr. Barras may
prove too strong for me.”

“But Mr. Horran trusts you–so you say, Clarice?”

“He does. But he-Uncle Henry, I mean–has a great opinion of Dr.
Jerce, and in his weak state may be influenced by him. I’ll speak to
the doctor and to Mr. Barras–more than this I can’t promise.”

The vicar looked more miserable than ever and twice opened his mouth
to speak. Each time he closed it, while Clarice wondered at his
hesitation. “Do you think that everything is right with Mr. Horran?”
asked Mr. Clarke, at length.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked, startled.

“Mr. Horran has no money, you know, save what he receives from your
estate by acting as your guardian.”

Clarice stared. “I never knew that,” she said, at length. “I
understood, of course, that Uncle Henry received a sum for acting as
guardian, since that is but right. But he has his own money and the
house–”

“The house you live in belonged to your father, and now belongs to
you,” said Clarke, rapidly, leaning forward with eagerness to
emphasise his words. “I know, because I buried both your parents, and
was present at the reading of the will. Mr. Horran loved your mother
and was trusted by your father; but he never had any money. When your
father died he left everything to your mother, in trust for you and
Ferdinand. When she went the way of all flesh, she constituted Mr.
Horran, who then managed her business, your guardian, as she trusted
him, and he was hard up. Did not Mr. Barras tell you all these things,
Clarice?”

“No,” she said, absently, and began to see that the lawyer had not
trusted her so entirely as she had thought–neither had Horran, if the
vicar was to be believed. “I shall speak to Uncle Henry,” she said,
after a pause, “and from him I shall learn the true position of
affairs. Meantime, please say nothing, Mr. Clarke.”

“No. I’ll be silent. But this three hundred interest–?”

“I’ll see about that also. I am sure that Uncle Henry does not mean to
be hard on you. Of course, business may upset him, since he is so ill,
and Dr. Jerce may be right in keeping you away. All the same, it seems
to me that Dr. Jerce knows a good deal about our private affairs.”

“I am sure that Mr. Horran tells him everything,” said Clarke, with a
gloomy air, “and Dr. Jerce is not friendly towards me. I don’t know
why, since we were at college together, but he is not friendly.”

Clarice felt puzzled. This conversation with Mr. Clarke opened her
eyes to the fact that business was not so easy a matter as she had
imagined. If she was to be tricked by Mr. Barras keeping back details
of finance, and if Dr. Jerce was influencing Horran secretly, it
appeared that she would have some difficulty in straightening out
things at the death. Nevertheless, Horran had assured her that when he
passed away, she would find everything in good order. Before she could
pursue the subject further in her thoughts, the door opened, and
Prudence appeared, with Ferdy behind her. Prudence was a brunette, as
dark as Ferdy was fair, but tall and handsome and full of life and
spirits. From the downward curve of her mouth, it would seem that she
had a temper. But just now, she appeared to be filled with joy, and
rushed to kiss Clarice. “Dear! dear!” she said, quickly, “Ferdy
has–Ferdy has–”

“I am glad,” cried Clarice, guessing what had happened with the swift
intuition of a woman; “it is exactly what I wanted Ferdy to do.”

“Well, then,” said Ferdy, who was radiant as a lover, and who
evidently had forgiven his sister for the quarrel at breakfast, “I’ve
done it.”

“Done what?” asked the vicar, staring open-mouthed. “I have asked
Prudence to become my wife.”

“Thank God!” said Clarke, devout and egotistic, “my debts will be
paid.”

On that same night the weather changed with unexampled rapidity from
cold to warm. A thick mist descended on Crumel, and the snow began to
melt, as though under the influence of a summer sun. The long hours of
darkness were filled with the dripping of water, the melting of snow,
and the whole country was turned into a vast expanse of slush. The
expectations of a White Christmas, entertained by old-fashioned
people, vanished, and next day it seemed, from the warm humidity of
the foggy air, as though the season of Yule had given place to early
autumn.

Clarice looked out of her bedroom-window on to damp green lawns, from
which patches of snow were quickly disappearing, and experienced a
sense of discomfort, which she set down to the queer weather. Perhaps
the earthquakes in the earlier part of the year had disarranged the
English climate and altered the seasons, but assuredly the atmosphere
was decidedly unhealthy. Yet the vague fears of the girl may have been
less due to the sudden change of temperature than to the feeling of
apprehension she entertained, since her conversation with Mr. Clarke,
that money matters were not so satisfactory as she had thought them to
be.

Hitherto Clarice had implicitly trusted Mr. Barras in her innocence of
worldly ways. He had always been frank with her, so far as she could
see, and having been delegated by Horran to tell her of all things
connected with the estate, Clarice had believed that she knew
everything. Now, if the vicar were to be believed, it appeared that
Horran had lent him money, and was pressing for the payment of the
interest. Also, Dr. Jerce seemed to know of the private business of
the Baird orphans, and to be influencing Horran against the wretched
Mr. Clarke. Certainly, the vicar was not a very estimable character,
and his infatuation for his spendthrift son merited contempt rather
than approbation. Nevertheless, Horran had known Clarke all his life
and had been to college with him and with Jerce. He therefore,
assuredly, should not be hard on the parson, whose sole fault was
affection for an unworthy son. Also, if Jerce was influencing Horran,
as Clarke suggested, he might advise leniency instead of bearing hard
on the man, especially at Christmas time. Barras also appeared to be
anxious to force the vicar into discharging the interest at a time
when he could ill afford to pay three pounds, much less three hundred;
and, more than this, Barras wilfully concealed from Clarice the facts
of the case. If the lawyer withheld this item, he certainly withheld
others, and Clarice, staring out of her window at the thaw, began to
find herself doubting the honesty of Mr. Barras.

Added to these troubles were the facts of Horran’s mysterious illness,
and the mystery of the purple fern. More than ever, Clarice was
determined not to speak to Jerce about the missive, which had sent
Horran into his second deep sleep. Putting aside the fact that Jerce
was in league with Barras–as it would appear–to bankrupt the vicar,
the doctor, being in love with her, assuredly was not a person to whom
she could talk freely. Then again, Ferdy’s manner alarmed the girl.
After his first outburst of joy on becoming engaged to Prudence, he
had relapsed into moody silence, and seemed to be much worried over
something, which he refused to explain to his sister.

In vain, on the previous night, had Clarice implored him to be
entirely frank. Ferdy, declaring that there was nothing wrong, had
maintained his moody manner, and had drunk much more wine than was
good for a man with a weak brain. On the whole, Clarice, after
reflection, concluded that her uneasiness was due less to the
unexampled weather than to the domestic mysteries, by which she seemed
to be surrounded.

On leaving her room, she found that Ferdy had already breakfasted, and
had gone out. Presuming that he was haunting Prudence with the
impatience of a young lover, Clarice thought no more about his
absence, but breakfasted alone. Then she repaired to Mr. Horran’s room
to speak to him of the many matters which were on her mind. It was
just as well, she thought, to go to the fountain head at once, and to
learn if Horran really desired to sell up the vicar.

“Is Uncle Henry awake?” she asked, when Chalks presented himself. “No,
Miss,” was the prompt reply, “he is sound asleep, as usual.”

“Dear me. And how long will he sleep?”

“Dr. Wentworth can’t say, Miss. We tried to wake him, and can’t, so
Dr. Wentworth said it would be better to let him sleep until he had a
consultation with Dr. Jerce.”

Clarice cast a look at the French window, and saw that it was open
wide, in spite of the fog. “I see that Dr. Wentworth has been here,
Chalks,” she said, remembering the whimsical explanation of the man
about the disagreement between the two physicians. “Yes, Miss,” said
Chalks, casting a look at the window, “but when Dr. Jerce comes this
afternoon, he will have that closed.”

“Oh is Dr. Jerce coming this afternoon?”

“Yes, Miss. Dr. Wentworth doesn’t like this constant sleeping of the
master, and has sent for Dr. Jerce to consult.”

“It is just as well,” said Clarice, crossing to the bed and looking at
the pale, calm face of the still sleeping man. “I want to talk to Dr.
Jerce about some business.”

This was hardly the term. She wished to ask Jerce why the grey man had
searched his pockets, and why he was influencing Barras and Horran to
be hard on the vicar. The matter of the purple fern, she intended to
relate to no one but Anthony. A memory of his name made her glance at
her watch, and she noted that he would soon make his appearance.
Horran seemed to be sleeping as placidly as an infant, so she felt
that there was no cause for alarm. Bending to kiss the placid face,
she turned slowly towards the door.

“By the way, Chalks, have you seen Mr. Ferdinand this morning?” she
asked, thinking that her brother might have paid a visit to the
invalid.

“Yes, Miss,” said the valet, promptly. “I saw him out of this,” he
waved his hand towards the open French window, “going to the Savoy
Hotel.”

“Oh,” ejaculated Clarice, and hastily left the room. It seemed strange
to her that Ferdy should seek out the mother of Sarah Dumps, just when
he became engaged. Surely he did not love the dancer, when he had only
lately proposed to Prudence. Remembering Dr. Jerce’s remarks, and
recalling the conversation of Mrs. Rebson, the girl felt uneasy on
account of her brother. Ferdy seemed to have two strings to his bow.
Sarah Dumps was not at home, certainly, yet,–here Clarice stopped
and thought. A sudden idea struck her. She returned quickly to the
sick-room. “Chalks, you go sometimes to the Savoy Hotel,” she
remarked, “were you there last night?”

“For half an hour, Miss,” replied the valet, apologetically, “Mrs.
Rebson watched master while I was away. I hope I didn’t do wrong, but
master seemed to be sleeping so quietly that I thought I might get a
breath of fresh air.”

“No! no! that’s all right, Chalks. But do you know if Mrs. Dumps’
daughter has returned for Christmas.”

“Yes, Miss. She came back last night, and a very pretty girl she is,
Miss, quite a–”

“Yes, yes! I have seen her,” interrupted Clarice, hurriedly, and went
away feeling more upset than ever. This, then, was the reason of
Ferdy’s visit to the Savoy Hotel. Sarah Dumps was in the field, and
Ferdy was in her nets. Yet weak as the boy was, it seemed incredible
that he should propose to one woman and immediately seek the company
of another. Here, then, was another trouble for Clarice, and she did
not know very well what to do. It was impossible to speak to Ferdy, as
she had no proof that he loved Sarah Dumps, save from what Mrs. Rebson
had said. A simple denial on the part of Ferdy would take the wind out
of her sails, so to speak, and she would be helpless to do anything.
On the other hand, Clarice felt certain that in some way Ferdy was
playing a double game. She knew his weak character too well to give
him the benefit of the doubt. For all she knew he might be engaged to
both Sarah Dumps and Prudence at the same time. “Oh, dear me,” cried
her heart, “I wish Anthony would marry me and take me away from all
these troubles;” but even as she thought, the wish seemed cowardly.
She would have to remain and fight Ferdy’s battles and those of the
vicar. Also, if the purple fern meant any harm to Mr. Horran, she
would be forced to help him also. The sole thing she could do was to
seek Anthony’s advice and aid.

Towards noon that young man arrived, having driven over from
Gattlinsands in his dog-cart. Usually he came over on a motor bicycle,
but as he explained to Clarice between kisses, the sudden thaw had
made the roads death-traps in the way of slipping. “I’m jolly well
splashed,” said Ackworth, laughing, “but if Leander swam the
Hellespont to see Hero, why shouldn’t I wade through acres of slush to
see you?”

“Of course,” smiled Clarice, who felt much lighter-hearted, now that
this strong young lover was present, “only you were driving instead of
wading, my dear Anthony.”

“Well, I dare say Leander would have taken a penny steamer had there
been one,” said Anthony, throwing back his handsome head, “so that
makes my parallel the more perfect.”

Clarice laughed again, and drew him silently to a sofa, whereon they
sat hand in hand, after the delightfully foolish manner of lovers.
Ackworth was certainly a Swain of whom any girl might have been proud.
He was not the desperately good-looking god of the Family Herald, but
was comely enough in his youth and strength to pass in a crowd. His
closely clipped hair was fair, as was his moustache. He had a bronzed
face and a pair of merry blue eyes, and was as well set up as military
training and constant out-of-door exercise could make him. Finally, he
had a well-groomed, clean look, and anyone could see that he was a
thoroughly wholesome, honourable gentleman. Clarice, of course, deemed
him to be perfection, which he was not; but he had more virtues than
faults, and assuredly was masterful enough to satisfy the most
exacting woman. As a Greek god, Anthony Ackworth was a failure; as a
man to trust and love he came off very well. That he was not
superlatively clever, did not lower Clarice’s appreciation of his
character.

“Well?” asked Anthony, unoriginally, “how are things?”

“All wrong,” replied Clarice, quickly. “I have been most anxious to
see you, dear. I want help.”

“I should think you were clever enough to do without any help I could
give you,” said Ackworth, admiringly, for he looked upon Miss Baird as
a Queen Elizabeth-cum-Catherine-George Eliot kind of woman. “Is Mr.
Horran any better?”

“No–that is, he’s asleep.”

“He was asleep last time I was here.”

“Yes. He then slept for ten hours and woke up to drop asleep again for
a longer period.”

“What a dormouse sort of existence. Is it that which worries you?”

“No. Uncle Henry is no better and no worse than he ever was. I have
several things to worry me. Ferdy is engaged to Prudence Clarke.”

“Lucky man. She’s a pretty girl,” said Anthony; “that shouldn’t worry
you, dearest. You wished to have her for a sister-in-law.”

“Yes, but there’s Sarah Dumps.”

“What a name. Who is Sarah Dumps?”

“Butterfly.”

“Butterfly what?”

“You know. She dances and sings under the name of–”

“Oh!” Anthony was suddenly enlightened. “I remember. I saw a dancer
called Butterfly at the Mascot Music-hall. She’s pretty, but not the
kind of woman I admire.”

“I am afraid Ferdy does,” sighed Clarice.

“What. You don’t mean to say–”

“Yes, I do. Listen to what Mrs. Rebson says.” And Clarice related the
conversation with the old housekeeper. “And you see,” ended Miss
Baird, anxiously, “if Sarah Dumps has come back, and Ferdy has gone to
see her so immediately, I am afraid he is entangled with her.”

Ackworth shook his head. “No, my dear,” he said, very decidedly,
“Ferdy is not clever, but, at least, he is a gentleman. No man would
propose to one woman, and then immediately visit another old flame. I
don’t believe there is anything in the matter. Besides, Butterfly–to
give her the name she is best known by–is ambitious of a richer
husband than your brother, to say nothing of her wish for a title.”

“But Mrs. Dumps–”

“Oh, the mother living here naturally thinks Ferdy a good match.”

“Well, he is. He will have two thousand a year.”

“Butterfly will want ten thousand. From all I have heard she has a
wonderful capacity for spending.”

“Is she–is she–,” Clarice hesitated, “quite respectable?”

“Oh, quite,” assented Ackworth, decisively, “she’s too clever a young
woman to play fast and loose with her reputation. She wants to marry
well, you see, and therefore keeps straight. But I don’t think you
need be afraid of Ferdy, darling. He’s only one of the many moths that
have fluttered round that candle. Now that he’s engaged he’ll forget
her. And, after all, it’s mere talk. He may not be in love with
Butterfly at all.”

“Why should he visit her, so–”

“He may have gone to see the mother, or to have a drink,” said
Anthony, vaguely. “Ferdy’s an ass, but he’s all right.”

“But Dr. Jerce says he drinks and gambles, and–”

“I’ll have to talk to Ferdy, and see if I can lead him in the right
way,” said Ackworth, with some impatience. “Don’t trouble yourself
over your brother, dearest. Every young man of that age is more or
less of an ass. But it’s only like a young colt kicking his heels in a
flowery meadow.”

“Then I need not worry, Anthony?”

“No, I’ll speak to Ferdy and take this especial worry off your
shoulders, my dear. Anything else?”

“This.” Clarice held out the letter, without explanation, as she
wanted to know if the elusive memory would come more clearly to
Anthony. He opened the envelope in silence, then sprang up with a
shout when he saw the contents.

“The Purple Fern, by Jupiter!” said Ackworth, staring. “What does it
mean?” asked Clarice, vaguely terrified.

Ackworth looked anxious. “Nothing very pleasant,” he muttered; “I
thought it had been stamped out.”

“What had been stamped out?”

“This purple fern business. Don’t you remember that the papers were
full of it a year ago, Clarry?”

Clarice put her hand to her head. The memory came back with a rush,
and she now knew why the pictorial representation of the fern had been
vaguely familiar to her. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “does it mean death to
Uncle Henry?”

“What?” Anthony looked relieved. “Then _you_ did not get it?”

“No. Uncle Henry told me that he found it outside his bedroom window.
I expect he remembered about the murders, and received the shock he
talked about. Why do you look so relieved?”

“I thought that the warning might have been directed to you,” muttered
Ackworth, turning over the envelope, “apparently it is not, and
perhaps not even to Mr. Horran, since there is no address.”

“Tell me, Anthony, exactly what it means,” said Clarice, anxiously. “I
remember reading a lot about those murders, but I almost forget.”

“I wonder at that, considering how we talked them over,” said
Ackworth, sitting down again, and slipping his arm round her as though
to protect her from harm. “Don’t you remember, darling, that one
person after another was found murdered in houses and in streets, with
a purple fern stamped on the forehead. And in every case, a warning of
a stamped fern was sent beforehand. Then the police caught one man
red-handed. He was tried and hanged, but he would not give away his
associates. But the police gathered that he was one of a gang who
killed people to get money–since all the victims were wealthy–and in
every instance the sign of the association, a purple fern, was stamped
on the forehead of the victim. But with the hanging of the man that
was caught, the murders ceased. This is the first time I have heard of
a new warning being given. I should recommend Mr. Horran to take care
of himself.”

“Oh, Anthony, how terrible. Do you really think that he is in danger
of his life?”

“Judging by the fact that seven people, men and women, were killed,
after such a warning had been sent, I do think it is dangerous. I
shall see the local police about this at once. The house must be
watched. I wonder why Horran is to be killed. Is he very rich?”

Recollecting what Clarke had said, Clarice could reply easily: “On the
contrary, he has nothing but what he earns by acting as our guardian.
I wish he could explain exactly how he picked up the letter; but he is
still asleep.”

At this minute the wheels of a carriage were heard. Clarice, wondering
if the new arrival was Jerce, opened the French window and stepped out
on to the terrace, now sloppy with mixed snow and water and mud. She
strolled to the end, followed by Anthony, and saw that Dr. Jerce had
indeed arrived. He was stepping out of a hired fly, and had just
handed the man his fare, when he caught sight of Clarice. At once he
came towards her with outstretched hand. She took it unwillingly
enough. “I received a wire from Wentworth,” he said, anxiously. “I
hope my old friend is not very ill again.”

“No. He’s in a sound sleep, and Dr. Wentworth is puzzled over the
length of his slumber. Come in this way.” And she went along the
terrace.

“Thank you. Ah, Mr. Ackworth, how are you? Quite a change in the
weather, isn’t it? And I–why, what’s the matter?”

The ejaculation was caused by a cry from Clarice. She had picked up a
small object, which the thaw had revealed. It was a small gold box,
and on its face was set a curved fern in amethysts.

“The Purple Fern again!” exclaimed Ackworth, amazed.