FERDINAND BAIRD AT BAY

The announcement of Ackworth was so terrible, and so unexpected, that
Clarice could scarcely believe her ears. She knew that Frank Clarke
was a rascal and extravagant, that he was selfish and dishonourable,
but it never entered her head that he would turn out to be a
cold-blooded murderer. No wonder the vicar, who had forgiven much to
his prodigal son, had stopped short of finally pardoning such an
unmitigated scoundrel.

“He must have known what Frank was,” said: Clarice, involuntarily.

“Who must have known?” asked Anthony, quickly.

“Mr. Clarke. He was here a short time ago, and would not let me
mention his son’s name. He must know. Yes,” Clarice struck her hands
together, “this was why he refused to let Prudence marry Ferdy.”

“I thought that it was Prudence herself who refused to marry Ferdy.”

“Yes, but for another reason. I told you that reason–the accusation
of Mr. Clarke by Zara Dumps.”

“I remember.” Anthony ruffled his hair in sore perplexity. “What have
you done about that?”

“I have seen Zara.”

“You have seen that girl? When? Where?”

“Last night–in London. At the Mascot Music Hall, and at her own
rooms. You look surprised.”

“I am. You should not have gone to her rooms, let alone the Mascot
Music Hall.”

“I know that–but to save Ferdy I did so. It was just as well that I
went, for several reasons. Oh, I have much to tell you”–Clarice drew
her lover to the sofa with gentle force–“and perhaps you will be
angry with me.”

“I said that I would trust you,” remarked Ackworth, slowly.

“Your trust has not been misplaced. But I have done what you may think
rather a bold thing. Still, in this case, what I have learned is so
important, that I can safely say that the end has justified the
means.”

“What have you done?” Anthony looked apprehensive.

She tapped his cheek. “Nothing to make you colour up in that way, my
dear boy. I’ll tell you everything when you have explained how you
came to find out about Frank Clarke.”

“Oh, that will not take long. I asked Ferdy down yesterday, as you
desired me to do, and he came without any suspicions that you wanted
him out of the way. We had a very jolly evening. At least, Ferdy had,
for I was worrying about you, and wondering what you were doing. Also,
I must admit that I had the detective fever.”

“What is that?” asked Miss Baird, opening her eyes.

“Well, the errand you wanted me to execute raised my curiosity to
fever heat. I felt that I could not rest until I had learned the name
of Jerce’s consumptive patient, especially when I remembered that he
was one of the Purple Fern triumvirate. Next morning, I had no duties
to attend to, so I handed Ferdy over to an Irish chap, who would amuse
him and keep an eye on him, and then bunked off to London by the ten
o’clock train.”

“You did not come up to see what I was doing?” asked Clarice, in a
suspicious manner.

“No. I did not even know that you were in London,” replied Anthony,
rather wounded by her doubts, “and in any case, as I intended to trust
you, I should not have spied upon you.”

“I ask your pardon, dear,” and she kissed him.

Ackworth accepted the delightful apology, and continued. “I went down
to Whitechapel, and had a deuce of a hunt to find Tea Street. But I
came across a kind of Sister of Mercy, who knew all about Jerce and
his philanthropic missions. Jerce has a surgery in Tea Street, and
goes there twice a week, usually at night. Sister Anne–so she told me
she was called, and it reminded me of Bluebeard–showed me where the
consumptive young man had lived. The police had been there, after
Jerce had communicated that letter to Scotland Yard.”

“What letter?”

“The one given by the dying man to Jerce, warning him that he might be
attacked by Osip. If you remember, the sick chap confessed that he was
one of the members of the triumvirate. According to Sister Anne, this
young man was called Felix Exton, but the police found stray letters
in his rooms which showed that he was really Frank Clarke, the son of
the vicar.”

Clarice nodded. “And I expect the police came down and told Mr.
Clarke about the discovery. Poor man, no wonder he suffers so
terribly, and will not allow his son’s name to be mentioned. That
miserable Frank–and yet I remember him a handsome, bright young man.”

“He was a bad lot,” said Ackworth, emphatically. “I scarcely blame
a man for striking a blow in hot blood, but to murder in such
cold-blooded ways as those adopted by the Purple Fern gang is too
terrible to think of. And now that we know Frank Clarke was an
assassin, it would seem as if the instinct to murder was hereditary.”

“No,” said Clarice, quickly. “You must not think so badly of the
vicar, Anthony. He is innocent.” And she related to her lover all that
Mr. Clarke had explained to her.

“Humph!” said Ackworth, when she ended, “that’s a very plausible tale,
but we have only the vicar’s word for its truth. And it is to his
interest to exonerate himself. His son was connected with Osip, so
Clarke himself, through Frank, may be connected also with that
blackguard. I wish he could be found–Osip, I mean. I wonder with such
a personality he has not been spotted.”

“I saw him,” said Clarice, unexpectedly.

“You?” Anthony rose, with a startled gesture.

“Yes,” she said, faintly, “at the Mascot Music Hall.”

The young man looked at her anxiously. “Clarice,” he said, taking her
cold hand, “you look pale. Mrs. Rebson said something about your
having influenza; yet you were all right when I saw you last.”

Clarice nodded. “I might say that I caught cold, as you were afraid I
should do, when we were in the porch. But I can’t say that, because it
is not true. I am quite well.”

“You don’t look it.”

“I have not the influenza, I mean,” she corrected; “I pretended to be
ill, so that I might carry out my scheme.”

“What scheme?”

“The one I had in my mind, when I asked you to trust me. Anthony, I
want you to tell me. Do you trust me still?”

“Of course I do.” He laid his hand caressingly on her head, “don’t be
afraid that I’ll blame you in any–why, Clarice!”

He might well utter her name in an astonished tone, for the hair, so
lightly pinned on her head, came off, and the plaits remained in his
hand. There she sat, with her head cropped like a man’s, and a pale
smile on her face. “I intended to tell you,” said she, quietly, “but
it is just as well that you have found out in this way.”

“Found out what? Why have you cut off your beautiful hair?”

“Don’t you think that I look rather like Ferdy?”

“Very. But I don’t want you to look like Ferdy. I prefer you as you
are, my dear.”

“My dear,” she echoed, “does that mean forgiveness?”

“For what?” Anthony looked more puzzled than ever.

“For my masquerade. I cut off my hair. I dressed in a suit of Ferdy’s
clothes. I went to London as Ferdy, and stopped at his favourite
hotel. Also I went to the Mascot Music Hall as Ferdy, and to Zara
Dumps’ flat as Ferdy, and learned a great deal.”

Anthony stared at her open-mouthed. “Do you mean to say that you
dressed as a man?” he asked, aghast.

“Yes. It was necessary to learn Ferdy’s secrets, so I utilised my
resemblance to him to find out what I wanted. No one discovered that I
was Clarice Baird, save Zara.”

“Oh, Lord!” Anthony clutched his head. “She will tell everyone.”

“No, I have made that right. I know too much about Zara for her to
betray me. I am quite safe. Only Zara knows, and Mrs. Rebson knows,
and now you know. I am absolutely safe.”

“But what made you do such a mad thing?”

“I have told you–to save Ferdy.”

“But I could have gone up, and—-”

“No,” interrupted Clarice, imperiously. “Zara would have laughed at
you. I did what I did, with a full knowledge of what I was doing. You
must forgive me, Anthony, and I think you will, when you learn what
terrible things I have discovered.”

“Of course, I am somewhat annoyed,” said Ackworth, slowly, “at least,
I would be, were you an ordinary woman. But you are so clever, and so
well able to look after yourself, that I forgive you this time. But I
must ask you not to masquerade again as Ferdy.”

“I promise that,” she said, with a sigh. “Ferdy is in such danger that
you must help me.”

“Ferdy in danger? What sort of danger?”

“Let me begin at the beginning, and go on to the end. Don’t interrupt,
Anthony.” And then she related her adventures. Ackworth held his peace
until she detailed her recognition of Osip, when he jumped with a
muttered oath.

“Why did you not have him arrested?” he cried; “everything would then
have been discovered.”

“Yes–even to the fact that Ferdy is implicated in these terrible
crimes,” said Clarice, sarcastically.

Ackworth jumped again. Her revelations were getting on his nerves.
“What do you mean?” he asked, irritably.

“Let me go on from where I saw Osip,” said Clarice, and continued her
recital up to the point when she fainted in Ferdy’s bedroom with the
stamp in her hand. “Now, what do you say?” she asked, breathlessly.

“I don’t know what to say,” muttered Ackworth, much agitated. “It
looks as though Ferdy knew something. Yet if he was locked in his
room, he could not have murdered Horran.”

“Oh, I don’t for one moment believe that he did. But, having the
stamp, he might have impressed the Purple Fern on—-”

“Nonsense,” interrupted the soldier, violently.

“He was drunk and incapable–he was locked in.”

Clarice looked down. “Anthony,” she said, in a pained voice, “I have
tried to fight against my doubts of Ferdy, but they will come. He is
so weak, so tricky, so deceitful, and so carried away by his own
selfish impulses, that he is capable of all things.”

“Save murder. Ferdy is a fool, I grant you. But a murderer–no.”

“I never accused him of murder,” said the girl, faintly, “but he may
be an accomplice.”

“That’s just as bad.”

“Not when we know that Ferdy is so weak a man. Osip is strong-willed
and may have coerced Ferdy into stamping Uncle Henry’s forehead, after
the death.”

“Of which Osip is guilty?”

“Yes, I firmly believe, from the warning sent, that Osip is guilty.”

“Then you mean to say that Osip went upstairs after killing Horran,
released Ferdy, and brought him down to—-”

“No! no! Osip would not know where Ferdy’s room was, and he would not
know that he was drunk and locked up. But Ferdy himself might have
feigned drunkenness so as to induce me to lock him up.”

“Had you ever done so before?”

“Oh, yes. I punished Ferdy in that way. Besides, I was afraid that, in
his drunken mood, he might wander about the house, and perhaps set the
place on fire. Ferdy always resented my locking him up. But in this
instance, if he was likely to be implicated in a crime, and forced to
be an accomplice by the stronger will of Osip, the locked door would
provide a convenient alibi. Ferdy might have pretended drunkenness,
and then have released himself with another key, and have–done what I
said.”

Anthony did not immediately reply. He stood before Clarice, biting his
nails and thinking. “When I went up to town this morning,” he said,
slowly, “Ferdy asked me to get him any letters that might be waiting
for him at Sir Daniel Jerce’s place in Harley Street.”

“Yes. Ferdy lives with him. Well?”

“Jerce was away, and had been for some time. Down in Whitechapel, I
think the servant said. It was just as well.”

“Why?” asked Clarice, rising, as Ackworth took three letters from his
pocket.

“Because he might have seen this especial letter addressed to
Ferdy–this letter stamped with the Purple Fern.”

Clarice took the square envelope he held out. It was addressed to her
brother at Jerce’s house, and on the flap of the envelope, in purple
wax, was stamped a small fern. Few people, unless they looked very
closely, would have noticed the fern, and certainly nine people out of
ten would not have connected the stamp with the crimes, unless the
murders were in their minds. Apparently, the tenth and more observant
person was Anthony. “I intend to take that letter to Ferdy, and make
him open it in my presence,” said Ackworth, “and–oh, Clarice, what
are you doing?”

“I am opening the letter,” said the girl, calmly. “I take all
responsibility for doing so, and will tell Ferdy.”

“Still, it is not quite right to open—-”

“Not quite right!” repeated Clarice, fiercely, “do you think I care
for that when Ferdy’s neck may be at stake. I do this”–she opened the
letter–“in a most deliberate way, and well knowing what I am doing.
Now I shall read it.”

Anthony could not but admit that Clarice was right, and secretly
thought that it would be better for her to read the letter than for
the police to scan its contents. She read quietly enough, and then
passed it to her lover. “There’s a masked ball at the Shah’s Rooms
to-night,” she said, irrelevantly.

“Is there?” said Anthony, puzzled, “but why—-”

“Read the letter.” Ackworth did so. It contained only a few lines,
saying that the writer wanted to meet Mr. Ferdinand Baird at the
Shah’s Rooms on that evening on particular business. “After last
night,” wrote the anonymous correspondent, for there was no name
appended to the note, “you can scarcely wonder that I insist upon a
meeting, and you can guess who I am. Wear a red domino with a white
favour, and I will wear a purple domino with golden stars. Meet me at
ten o’clock under the Omar Khayyám Palm in The Desert.”

Anthony read this twice. “I wonder who wrote it?” he said.

“Osip,” replied Clarice, promptly; “and what’s more—-excuse me.” She
hastily left the room, much to the amazement of Anthony. But he had
plenty to think about until she returned, which she did almost
immediately, with an open letter in her hand. “This is the anonymous
note sent to you,” said Clarice, handing it to him, and looking over
his shoulder. “See, the writings are distinctly similar. It was Osip
who tried to stop our marriage by threatening Ferdy, and now Osip,
thinking that Ferdy saw him at the Mascot Music Hall last night, wants
to arrange a meeting.”

“And why?” asked Ackworth, recognising that the handwritings were
indeed similar.

“I can’t tell you that, until I see Osip.”

“Clarice! How can you see Osip this evening? It is now five.”

“I can catch the seven train up, and I can see him as I saw him last
night. He won’t tell Clarice Baird anything, but he may tell Ferdy
Baird a lot.”

“Do you want to disguise yourself again?” said Ackworth, looking
angry.

“I must–I must,” she said, eagerly, “if I am to save my brother.”

“But to go to those rooms–they aren’t respectable.”

“Oh, what does that matter?” said Clarice, impatiently. “I go as a
young man–no one will recognise me. And Ferdy stops to-night at
Gattlinsands.”

“But you promised—-”

“You must release me from my promise,” she declared, obstinately.

Ackworth bit his lip. “I don’t like it,” he said, decidedly.

“Then you are not the man I took you for,” retorted the girl. “I
should have thought you were above all this conventional rubbish,
Anthony. I am to be your wife, and you must trust me in every way.”

“I do. I am sure that I have proved my trust in you.”

“Ah, you did not know what I was about to do,” said Clarice, rather
unjustly. “And now that you do know, you refuse to trust me.”

“No, I don’t, only I don’t wish you to go alone to the Shah’s Rooms.”

“I’ll be quite safe. No one will know me.”

“This Osip is a murderer,” said Ackworth, “and he may kill you,—-”

“Why should he kill me?” she interpolated.

“Thinking you are Ferdy Baird who recognised him at the Mascot Music
Hall. I dare say that he believes that you have told the police, and
now seeks revenge.”

“I’ll risk that.”

“Clarice, you are a brave girl. But I won’t let you go alone. I’ll
come up with you to-night.”

“But Ferdy. He must be kept away.”

“Flanigan will attend to him. I’ll cut over to Gattlinsands, and
arrange that. There I can catch the train which will meet, at the
Junction, the seven o’clock you come by. We’ll go together.”

“But you won’t tell the police about Osip?”

“Not until you learn–as Ferdy–the exact relations between that silly
brother of yours and this blackguard.”

The Shah’s Rooms were the latest sensation of frivolous London, and
had lasted for six months with undiminished success. The building
contained a number of rooms, and entertainments to suit all classes.
There was a variety theatre with three performances daily, bars
without number, billiard tables, lawn-tennis courts, a sawdust
football ground, a motor and bicycle track, and a large hall for
wrestling and boxing. But the glory of the Shah’s Rooms was The
Desert, as the conception was original and excellently carried out by
clever workmen and designers.

This was a vast expanse of real sand, covering several acres, and
bounded on all sides by painted scenery of tropical sky and arid
rocks, and occasional cities, and one or two pyramids. Here and there
was an oasis of palms with real grass and real trees and real water,
and with spotlessly white supper tents erected for the accommodation
of gay parties. Caravans of camels and horses and donkeys took bands
of pleasure-seekers from oasis to oasis, or into the desert itself, to
dine at one of the Bedouin encampments. For entertainment, there were
mirages, skilfully managed with magic-lanterns, and forays of wild
Arabs. Story-tellers relating the “Arabian Nights” could be hired,
singers could be obtained, dancing girls could be engaged, and eastern
fortune-tellers were frequently employed to read the future by means
of sand diagrams. It was all very new and very amusing, and very
fantastical, so it was little wonder that the Shah’s Rooms were
crowded nightly. They would be deserted when the novelty wore off, but
just now fashionable London was delighted with a sham life in a sham
East.

Anthony and Clarice arrived about nine o’clock, and went at once to
the great dancing saloon, where a masked ball was in progress. Clarice
had again assumed Ferdy’s evening dress, and Ackworth was astonished
to see how closely she resembled her brother, when tricked out in
masculine attire. As Anthony knew much more of the ways and means of
midnight London than was good for him, he had taken Clarice to a
costumier’s shop in Drury Lane, and there they had procured the
necessary dominos for their adventure. That of Ackworth was merely one
of black silk, plain and unpretentious, but Clarice wore a red cloak
with a bunch of loose white ribbons on the breast, so that Osip might
recognise her. Gazing at the dancers and dresses, the two looked
vainly for the purple domino with gold stars, but such a costume was
nowhere to be seen. Then Clarice reminded her companion that the
meeting was to take place in the Desert, so hither they bent their
steps, and, pending the arrival of Osip, they partook of a hasty
supper. Both were hungry, for the hurry of getting up from the country
had left them no time to eat.

“What am I to do when Osip comes for you?” asked Anthony.

“Remain here,” answered Clarice, looking round. “I won’t go out of
sight, I promise you.”

“If you do, I shall follow,” said Ackworth, resolutely. “I am not
going to let you remain alone with a known murderer. And I have
brought this!”

Clarice looked sideways, and saw that he was holding a heavy army
revolver under the folds of his domino. “You won’t require to use it,”
she said, hastily. “If Osip means anything by asking for this meeting
with Ferdy, it is, that he wishes to escape. He will, therefore, not
try to hurt me in any way.”

“You can’t trust such a scoundrel,” said Ackworth, quietly, “and if
you go out of sight I follow–remember that.”

They were seated under a tent on the extreme verge of the Desert, and
between them was a small Turkish table, upon which stood a tray heaped
with Eastern food. When the coffee came it was close upon ten o’clock,
and Anthony lighted a cigarette; also he offered one to Clarice, who
took it, smiling.

“I thought you did not like me to smoke?” she said.

“Nor do I. But you must keep up your character of Ferdy, and he is
rarely without a cigarette in his mouth. Look at the mirage.”

It was extremely pretty, for on the far horizon, out of the air
seemingly, grew a delicate ethereal vision of spires and temples and
embattled walls, all white and glorious against a blue sky, quivering
with heat. But Clarice was too restless to be tempted with such
pleasures, and walked out of the tent, while Ackworth settled with the
Arab attendant. Here and there she looked in vain for the purple
domino, but could see no sign. The Desert was filling rapidly, and
there was much laughter and much talking. Camels paced about in a
stately manner, the troupes of Bedouins were performing their raids
and displaying wonderful horsemanship, and from the near tents came
the chatter of merry people, enjoying the unaccustomed food. Shortly
Anthony, adjusting his mask, joined her, and they stood watching for
the coming of the man who was so ardently wanted by the police. In a
few minutes Ackworth touched Clarice’s arm, and drew her attention
silently to a couple of men in evening dress, and unmasked, who were
walking towards an oasis some distance away. Clarice nearly betrayed
herself by a feminine scream of surprise, when she beheld Sir Daniel
Jerce arm in arm with Barras, the lawyer.

“What does that mean?” she asked, in a low, astonished voice.

Anthony shrugged his square shoulders. “There’s nothing remarkable
about that,” he said, lightly. “Jerce, I suppose, feels the need of a
little excitement after his hard work, so comes here.”

“It’s not the kind of place I should expect him to visit,” said Miss
Baird, staring after the retreating figures; “and with Mr. Barras,
too, who is the driest and most uninteresting of men. I should not
have thought that he would go in for amusement of any kind.”

“Humph! Barras, like Jerce, may have two sides to his character.”

“The sides we don’t know of, scarcely seem to be respectable,”
retorted the girl, who felt uneasy at the sight of the two men. “I
wish you would follow them, Anthony,” she added, as Jerce and his
companion entered the central oasis, “and learn why they are here.”

“I don’t see what good that would do, my dear. Besides, I wish to keep
an eye on you and Osip.”

“Hush! Don’t mention his name. There may be spies about. I wonder when
he will come?”

Anthony glanced at his watch. “It wants two minutes to ten,” he
remarked, quickly. “We had better go to the Omar Khayyám palm.”

“I go alone,” said Clarice, hastily. “If he”–she did not mention the
name–“sees me with you, he won’t address me. Where is the palm you
speak of?”

“In the central oasis,” said Ackworth, pointing; “see–the golden palm
on the verge. But don’t disappear into the oasis, Clarice, or I’ll
come after you. Get that chap to converse where I can see you from
this tent. I’ll smoke and have a drink, and keep an eye on you both.”

Clarice nodded, and, leaving Anthony to re-seat himself at the Turkish
table, she walked slowly towards the golden palm, which was some
distance away. It was an artificial tree of gigantic height, and
nearly touched the glass roof which shut in the fairy Desert. Under it
she saw already waiting a man clothed in a purple domino glittering
with gold stars. He stood smoking a cigar, and gazed at the mirage,
now enveloped in rosy colours.

“I am here,” said Clarice, touching him on the arm.

The man wheeled quickly, and looked searchingly at her. “A red domino
with a white favour,” he said, softly. “Will you please remove your
mask, Mr. Baird?”

Anticipating this, the girl had already loosened the strings, and the
next moment Osip–if it was Osip–found himself staring into the face
of the individual he took to be Ferdy. As he gave a nod of
satisfaction, Clarice spoke to him in her turn. “Will you now remove
your mask?” she asked, replacing her own.

The man glanced round, and seeing that no one was sufficiently near to
examine him closely, he slipped off his mask. Clarice beheld a thin
face woefully scarred, especially on the cheeks. The criss-cross mark
had been entirely obliterated, and no one, at a casual glance, would
have recognised Osip as he had been. It did great credit to Mrs.
Dumps’ powers of observation that she had so rapidly guessed–and on
the stage, too–that the acrobat who played the chrysalis was the
assassin so anxiously sought for.

“Are you satisfied?” asked Osip, replacing his mask.

“I suppose you are the man,” said Clarice, trying to appear calm, but
shivering a little as she thought of what her companion had done,
“only I don’t know you by sight, remember.”

“Didn’t Mrs. Dumps tell you last night?”

“Yes. But how she recognised you without the criss-cross mark I cannot
say,” replied Clarice, quietly.

“Oh, trust a woman to jump to conclusions,” said Osip, coolly. “It
might have been my lean figure, or the shape of my head, or my general
air, that she knew me by. But I certainly congratulate Mrs. Dumps on
her cleverness. But you are wrong in saying that you do not know me by
sight. You saw me in the High Street of Crumel.”

Clarice suddenly recollected that Ferdy had noticed the man in grey,
and had told Jerce about him. “It was only a passing glance,” she
protested. “I should never have remembered you.”

“Ah, you are not a woman,” said Osip, thoroughly imposed upon by her
disguise and manly bearing. “But we cannot speak here; someone might
overhear, and I have to be careful,” he ended with a slight laugh.

“Ugh!” said Clarice, and shuddered.

“Why do you do that?” asked Osip, suddenly and curiously. “Granted
that I am–what I am. Are you any better, Mr. Baird?”

Clarice felt as though cold water was running through her veins. “What
do you mean?” she faltered.

“I think you know what I mean,” retorted Osip, “but we will camp in
the Desert, where there will be a wide space round us, and no one can
come within ear-shot without being seen. Come.”

He led the way towards the sandy track, beckoning to a picturesquely
attired waiter to follow. Clarice cast a look in the direction of
Anthony, who was watching at his tent door, and followed. In a short
space of time, the sham Arab attendant–he was a Bavarian–had spread
a carpet, and had arranged pillows. He also placed a Turkish stool in
the middle, and waited for orders. The scarred man reclined on one set
of pillows, and signalled to Clarice that she should recline on the
other, which she did. “Will you have some Turkish coffee and a
narghile?” he asked; “we must be strictly Eastern here, you know.”

Clarice accepted, although she secretly doubted if she could smoke a
narghile, and shortly the attendant brought them what was wanted. Then
he went away, and Miss Baird found herself smoking and drinking in
company with a scoundrel who had killed eight people. She shivered
again, as the waiter retreated, and they were left comparatively
alone. Osip noticed it.

“Is it the cold air, or my company?” he asked, jeeringly.

“Your company,” said Clarice, tartly.

“Oh, then, like doesn’t draw to like. I should think after what you
have done, Mr. Baird, you would be less scrupulous.”

“You dare to accuse me of murdering–”

“Ta! Ta! Ta! Don’t let us have any heroics, please. Do you think that
if I did not hold your life in my hand I would risk being here with
you, and so running the chance of capture. We are in the same boat,
Mr. Baird, and if I am hanged for murder, you will swing beside me, I
promise you.”

It took all Clarice’s self-control to keep herself quiet. After all,
Ferdy really was guilty of murder, and she had only to learn how he
had contrived to escape from the locked room. Osip apparently knew all
about it, and she impatiently awaited his recital. But had she not
been masked, he would have observed the pallor of her face, and
perhaps his suspicions would have been aroused. As it was, he quite
believed her to be her brother, and talked on leisurely. Owing to
their solitary position, no one could approach within hearing
distance, without being seen by the watchful Osip.

“Of course I know why you did murder him,” said Osip, in a low and
rapid voice, “that is, you were coerced. But what power has Jerce over
you to make you commit such a crime?”

“Jerce!” Clarice dropped the snaky twist of her narghile. This was the
last name she expected to hear.

“Yes,” snapped Osip, imperiously. “Oh, you needn’t try to hide his
doings. Ever since Frank Clarke betrayed me on his death-bed–the
scoundrel–I have been watching Jerce.”

“But why did you search him?” asked Clarice, perplexed.

Osip raised himself angrily on his elbow. “You _will_ pretend
ignorance,” he said, sharply, “when you know quite well that Frank
Clarke gave Jerce the gold box containing the stamp. I searched Jerce
to find it, and he had not got it on him. I did not know what had
become of it, but now I am certain that he gave the stamp to you, so
that you might impress the Purple Fern on Horran’s forehead, and so
make the police believe your murder was of a piece with the other
crimes.”

“You are quite wrong,” said Clarice, keeping her nerves in a wonderful
manner, considering the terrible communication. “The gold box was
found on the terrace, where you had dropped it.”

“I did not drop it. Jerce must have guessed why I was searching him,
and have flung it aside. Where is the gold box now?”

“Jerce took it to Scotland Yard.”

“A clever and daring villain,” said Osip, bitterly, “and the stamp?”

“I–I don’t know where it is. It was not in the box?”

“No. Jerce had removed it previously, and had given it to you. What a
fool he was to carry the box about with him. When did he give the
stamp to you?”

“He never did.”

“What’s the use of denying things?” cried Osip, angrily, and striking
with his clenched fist on the table. “You were seen in Horran’s
bedroom, after two o’clock in the morning, impressing the Purple Fern
on the body of your victim; and that was after Clarke had fled, Mr.
Baird. I expect just as you killed Horran you heard Clarke coming, and
so concealed yourself. When the parson went away, afraid lest he
should be accused, you, no doubt, came out from your hiding-place and
stamped the forehead. Then you returned to your own room, and
pretended innocence.”

“Who told you this?”

“Zara Dumps told me. After last night, she knew who I was, as her
mother told her. I went to her rooms to-day, and she wanted to have me
arrested. But I told her that I would accuse her of killing Horran,
for I knew that she accused Clarke, and had been near The Laurels
about the time of the murder.”

“How did you know that?”

“I learned it from Clarke himself. Yes! I went down secretly and in
disguise to Crumel after the murder, to learn what had become of the
stamp, and saw Clarke. He could not denounce me, as I told him that
his son Frank was concerned in the murders with me. Zara not only told
Prudence, so as to break off the marriage with you, but she also told
Clarke himself. When I learned that Zara had been near the house at
the time of the crime, I saw her to-day, and made her confess.”

“She only saw Clarke,” said Clarice, bravely. “She never told me that
she had seen me. I saw her last night.”

“Zara told you as much as she thought proper,” said Osip, in sharp
tones, “but I made her confess the rest. After Clarke had gone away
she stole up to the window and saw you, and what you were doing. I
think also,” added Osip, scathingly, “that she mentioned how you had
concealed the stamp.”

“She did?” muttered Clarice, wondering if Zara had betrayed her
disguise. But Osip’s next words reassured her.

“Of course she did. You wanted to get out of marrying her, and she was
forced to make use of her knowledge to make you consent. I understand
how she coerced you; but how did Jerce?”

“He did not.”

“Yes, he did. You never murdered Horran of your own free will. Jerce
wanted money, I suppose?”

“Jerce has plenty of money.”

“No doubt. He earns a lot, and he borrows a lot, and he steals a lot,
Mr. Baird. Why do you try to stand up for Jerce? I have been watching
him for weeks, and I have been making enquiries in all sorts of
quarters. I know much that goes on, owing to the faculties I have, for
discovering things people would rather were kept quiet. Jerce, to the
world, is a genial philanthropist, and a famous physician. But you
know, as I know, that he is one of the fastest men in London, and a
complete scoundrel, and under the rose has spent no end of money on
worthless women. His pretended visits to Whitechapel were all bosh. He
really went on the spree. I wonder he has not been found out long ago.
You must have found him out, living in the same house with him, Mr.
Baird. Did Jerce make you murder Horran, or did Barras?”

“Barras?” said Clarice, still more surprised, and wondering how much
of this was true. The whole story seemed too terrible to be believed.

“Barras is quite as bad as Jerce, as I happen to know. I am going to
see that lawyer, and utilise my knowledge of his shady doings, to make
him part, Mr. Baird. England is getting too hot for me, so I intend to
leave the country. But Barras and Jerce are in league in some way.
Barras is Horran’s lawyer, so their league may have something to do
with the property.”

“Perhaps it has,” murmured Clarice, white as a corpse under her mask.
She felt that it would be impossible to sustain her manly character
much longer under these accumulated horrors.

“Pah!” said Osip, scornfully, as he rose to his feet. “What is the use
of pretending 2 You know everything, as I do. I don’t care if you did
murder Horran, as I commit murders myself, and have a fellow-feeling
for such daring. In fact, I rather admire you, Mr. Baird, and if I
could remain in England I should propose a partnership, since my
partners are dead. There’s heaps of money to be made with the Purple
Fern yet, you know.”

“What a villain you are!” cried Clarice, involuntarily.

“Pooh! You say that because you are new to the criminal business. I am
no more a villain than a swindling stockbroker in the city, or one of
your pious, chapel-going hypocrites who sweat those they employ. You
must get rid of your conscience, if you want to succeed, Mr. Baird,
although I admit that you have made an excellent start. It was a
clever idea to use the Purple Fern stamp, to shift the murder of
Horran on to my shoulders. I know that I am accused, but _you_ know
that I am innocent.”

“Of this crime, perhaps, but not of others.”

“Of four others,” said Osip, politely. “I murdered four people, Clarke
murdered one, and our third partner, who was hanged, poor chap, killed
the remaining two. I invented the Purple Fern Murder Syndicate, so I
had to do most of the work.”

“Stop! Stop!”

“No. I must try and harden you, as I have taken a fancy to you, for
your boldness and for your cleverness in using the stamp to implicate
me. It’s a pity we can’t start the Syndicate again, with you and Jerce
and Barras. Upon my word,” said Osip, musingly, and lighting a cigar,
“it would be a splendid idea, and no one would suspect. We made heaps
of money, you know, Mr. Baird. Some of the people we killed were put
out of the way by the desire of relatives, who paid very largely for
the crimes. I have saved money myself, but have not enough. Clarke–or
Exton, as he called himself–was a spendthrift, and indulged in
swagger things. You remember the gold box–a neat design, but risky,
wasn’t it? Clarke’s idea–poor ass.”

“And the stationery?” asked Clarice, recollecting the superfine paper
upon which the letters had been written.

“Clarke’s also, but I rather approved of that, as I like to do things
neatly. Of course, you saw the stamped fern I sent to your guardian,
Mr. Baird. It was a hint that he should look out, as I guessed that
Jerce, having the stamp, intended business. I also sent the letter to
Ackworth, forbidding him to marry your sister, unless he wanted to see
you in the dock.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I wanted to make Miss Baird–your sister–think that Jerce was mixed
up with the Purple Fern business, as I guessed that she would
recognise the paper of the stamped fern and the paper of my letter to
Ackworth to be the same. You see, I have been trying all along to get
at Jerce, and learn why he wished Horran killed, and how he managed to
make use of you. Besides, I want money. Jerce has money, and so has
Barras. I will get large sums from both, as soon as I can prove that
they are mixed up with Horran’s murder. You committed it, so you must
confess all. If you don’t, I’ll leave England, but before leaving I’ll
send a note to Scotland Yard telling the truth. Then both you and Zara
will be arrested.”

“She is innocent, as I am.”

“Oh, she is innocent, of course,” said Osip, easily, “but I dare say
the police can build up a case against her, since she was near the
scene of the crime, and practically saw you commit the murder. She
could be brought in as an accomplice after the fact, you know.”

“Did she–did she-see me–commit the crime?” stammered Clarice,
hoarsely. “Well, no; but she saw you stamp the corpse, and–”

“Stop! for heaven’s sake stop!” cried the girl, and, sick with fear
for her miserable brother, she fell forward on the Turkish table, and
on her outstretched arms, not insensible, but nearly so. By this time
the Desert was crowded with people, and many were wandering aimlessly
here and there near at hand. Camels were grunting, mules squealing,
Arabs shrieking, nautch-girls were dancing, and the busy, glittering
life of pleasure hummed everywhere with feverish persistency. Osip,
rather amazed at what he took to be Baird’s unmanly weakness, was
about to stoop and raise “him,” when he saw Ackworth running rapidly
forward. He did not know the soldier, but saw that some man was
bearing straight down on him. “A trap–a trap,” said Osip, with a
glare at Clarice, and she overheard.

“No! no!” she gasped, with a last effort, “but I am a woman–Baird’s
sister!”

“Damn!” breathed Osip, thoroughly taken aback, and casting one fearful
look around at the people, whose attention was now attracted, he
slipped away amongst the crowd. Anthony raced up, breathless.

“What has he done? Let me give the alarm. He must be—-”

Clarice clutched his arm desperately, and raised herself to her feet.
“No, no! for my sake–for Ferdy’s–for–” and then she fainted in
earnest.

“The heat–the heat,” said Ackworth, sharply, to an officious
attendant. “My friend–ill-health–delicate boy. I’ll look after him.
Get out, clear the way, damn you.”

And the crowd, accepting the natural excuse, fell back.

The next day, late in the afternoon, Clarice sat in the drawing-room
of The Laurels, waiting for the arrival of several people. It was a
very wet day, and the rain beat drowsily against the windows. Through
the streaming panes she could see the dull grey skies, the leafless
gardens, and the soaking lawns, dismal and depressing. With a sigh,
the girl thought how the hopeless weather resembled her life at the
present moment. Her brother was in danger of arrest, and even if he
were not arrested, how could she have anything to do with him again,
when he was practically a murderer? Even now, and in spite of Zara’s
evidence, as reported by Osip, the girl could not bring herself to
believe that Ferdy had actually struck the blow. But only from his own
lips could she hear the truth–that is if he could be induced to speak
it, and she was anxiously waiting for him to be brought over from
Gattlinsands by Ackworth. Until Clarice accused him herself, she and
Anthony had arranged that Ferdy should be left in ignorance that the
secrets of his life had been discovered. Also a telegram had been sent
to Sir Daniel Jerce, asking him to come down on especial business, and
he likewise was ignorant of the true significance of the message.
Finally, Mr. Clarke was expected.

These meetings had been arranged by Clarice, who could see no other
way to clear up the many mysteries which seemed to environ the death
of Henry Horran. It was necessary to take some steps, to come to some
decision, and as speedily as possible, for it was likely that Osip,
out of revenge for the trick Clarice had played him, would inform
Scotland Yard of Ferdy’s guilt. So Clarice, clothed in her mourning
for the dead man, waited in silence and in sorrow.

Never would she forget the return journey on the previous night. After
being revived by a glass of brandy, Anthony had taken her at once in a
cab to Liverpool Street Station, and there they had been fortunate
enough to catch a late train to the Junction. Ackworth had telegraphed
for a closed brougham, and in this he drove with Clarice to Crumel,
some miles distant. Then, after he had seen her safely in the hands of
Mrs. Rebson, he had departed in the fly for Gattlinsands, promising to
bring over Ferdy on the afternoon of the ensuing day. All that could
be done had been done, and now Clarice waited with a sick heart for
the coming interviews with Ferdy and Jerce. Both promised to be stormy
ones.

Exactly as the clock struck four, Ferdy’s voice, gay and bright, was
heard in the hall. Clarice shuddered as she heard him. It was
extraordinary to her that Ferdy could laugh at all, seeing what he had
on his conscience. But he entered quite gaily, smiling and brisk, with
Anthony at his heels, looking grave. When the boy had kissed his
sister, he commented on Ackworth’s low spirits, gaily.

“I can’t make out what’s up with Anthony,” said he, taking a seat by
the fire and poking the coals into a blaze. “He came back late last
night, looking like an owl. I was playing snooker with Flanigan, and
he didn’t even take an interest in the game, although I made some
ripping shots. What’s the matter with him?”

“You are–” said Clarice, indignantly.

Ferdy dropped the poker with a clatter. “I am?” he echoed. “Why, what
do you mean?”–he glanced at Ackworth. “I say, old chap, what’s the
joke? Have I been doing anything wrong?”

Ackworth shrugged his shoulders and walked to the window. Then he
glanced at his watch, and mentally noted that Jerce’s train was almost
due. If Ferdy was to be disposed of, before the doctor arrived it
would be necessary to make him confess at once. Ferdy eyed Anthony in
astonishment, but no reason for this pointed silence occurred to his
shallow brain. He turned to his sister. “I say, Clarry!–”

“Sit down!” she commanded, harshly.

“What do you mean?” he flushed up. “Don’t speak to me in that way.”

Anthony crossed the room rapidly, and, taking Ferdy by the shoulders,
made him sit down. “You must not speak to your sister in that manner,
while I am by,” he declared, sternly. “You are about to be spoken to,
in a way you won’t like.”

“Then I’ll go,” raged Ferdy, evading Ackworth’s grip, and making for
the door. “How dare you lay hands on me–how dare you?”

“If you leave the room, Ferdy,” said Clarice, in a quiet and level
voice, “you will run straight into the hands of the police.”

The young man’s face changed immediately to a chalky white, and he
fell nervelessly into a chair near the door. “The police?” he
whispered.

“Yes,” said Clarice, pitilessly, for his unmanly terror disgusted her;
“you will probably spend your night in gaol.”

“Clarice!” Ferdy staggered to his feet, violently trembling.
“I–I–I–don’t know what you mean.”

Ackworth gave a low laugh of scorn, and strolled to the hearth-rug to
take up his position before the fire. “You had better confess,” he
said, in his sharp, military way.

“Confess what?”

“Oh!” Clarice clenched her hands and her eyes shot fire. “Why will you
keep up this pretence? You know well enough what you have to confess.
Will you do so here, or in the dock?”

“In the dock?” Ferdy flung forward half-way across the room. “I
don’t–I never did–what is it?–oh, Clarry, you are making a
mistake.”

“Is this a mistake?” asked his sister, and showed him the stamp.

Ferdy was drawn towards it like the ship to the fabled magnetic rocks
in the Arabian tale. “Where–where did you get it?” he whispered.

“In your room–hidden away.”

“And who put it–who hid it–who–oh–” he caught his breath–“this is
a conspiracy to ruin me.”

“Zara will ruin you–”

“Zara!”

“Jerce will ruin you–”

“Jerce!”

“Osip will ruin you.”

“Osip! Osip! Osip!”

“Only Anthony and I can save you. Tell the truth–the whole truth.”

“Clarry!”–Ferdy collapsed into a chair–“I–I never killed him.”

“Zara declares that you did. She saw you through the window.”

“She saw me–yes–she told me she saw me–but I was marking the
forehead of Uncle Henry with that”–he pointed to the stamp. “He was
dead when I entered the room; I swear that he was.”

“Then you WERE in Uncle Henry’s room on that night?” cried Clarice,
springing to her feet with horror-filled eyes. “You DID stamp his poor
flesh with that accursed Purple Fern. Oh, Anthony, Anthony,” she
rushed towards her lover and caught at him with both hands, “how can I
bear it–how can I bear it? Disgrace–shame–murder–”

Ferdy slipped on to the floor, and clutched at her dress. He was
terrified at seeing Clarice desert him in this way, and whimpered like
a child that had been left alone in the dark. “Not murder. No! no! I
swear not murder. But–but–but–” he broke down crying, and hid his
shameful face in his hands, sobbing bitterly.

A silence ensued. Clarice concealed her face in Anthony’s breast, and
he held her tightly to him, feeling absolutely helpless under the
strain of the moment, and feeling also that he was unable to console
her in any way. The door creaked and swung inward gently under a
scratching paw, and old Jane hobbled into the room, on the look-out
for afternoon tea. Seeing Ferdy on the ground, she went up to him and
licked the hands which concealed his face. In a mechanical manner he
smoothed her head, and in the stillness the clock on the mantelpiece
could be heard ticking steadily in the pauses of the beating rain.
Anthony was the first to recover his composure. “We must come to some
arrangement before Jerce arrives,” he said.

“Jerce!” Ferdy leaped to his feet so unexpectedly that Jane ran under
the sofa with a howl of dismay. “Jerce?”

“He is coming down–he will be here in a few minutes. Clarice,
dear”–he led her to an armchair–“sit down and compose yourself.”

“I am all right now,” said Clarice, in a suffocating voice, and calmed
her unruly nerves with a violent effort. “Now then, Ferdy,” she said,
in an ominously quiet voice, “we are waiting for your story.”

“How much do you know of it?” asked the miserable young man.

“As much as Zara could tell me,” said his sister, in a sad voice, “as
much as Osip knew.”

“You have seen Osip?”

“Yes. I need not tell you how I came to meet him. But he accuses you
of the murder of Uncle Henry, and for all I know, he may already have
given notice to the police.”

“What?” asked Ferdy, in a grating voice, “when he is wanted himself,
and for that crime?”

“Osip is innocent of this particular crime,” interposed Ackworth.

“Then if he did not kill Uncle Henry, I don’t know who did,” declared
Ferdy, his face becoming sullen.

“You WILL tell lies,” said Clarice, between her teeth.

“It is the truth; I swear it is the truth.”

“Tell your story and let us judge,” said Ackworth, imperiously, “and
remember, that your life is at stake.”

“Would you betray me?”

“We would save you, and only by knowing the absolute truth can we save
you. Come, Baird, out with it.”

Ferdy stared at the ground, and felt that he was being very hardly
treated by the two before him. He stole a look at their set faces, and
saw that he would have to lay bare the secrets of his shallow, false
life. A bolder man would have braved the matter out; a weaker man
would have fainted in the extremity of his terror. But Ferdy Baird,
half fool, half knave, acted up to his double character–that is, he
told all that could place him in a pleasant light, and suppressed what
he could. But by questioning and browbeating the lovers got the truth
out of him at last. In substance his story came to this, but he told
it in a somewhat different way:–

“Since you must know all,” he said, sullenly, and with his eyes on the
carpet, “Jerce is the one to blame for the whole trouble; and Uncle
Henry is also–”

“Not a word against him,” said Clarice, sternly, and placed her hand
in that of Ackworth’s, for she felt that she needed what solace she
could obtain in this hour of sorrow and disgrace.

“Uncle Henry should have allowed me more money,” said Ferdy, doggedly,
“and then I should not have got into trouble with Jerce. I thought
that I would be able to get what I wanted, since I was heir to two
thousand a year, and when I went to London I had a good time.”

“A mad time–a reckless time–a wicked time,” said Clarice.

“That depends upon the way you look at it,” said the young man. “I had
a ripping time, I say, but it cost money. Jerce lent me some, because
he wanted to marry you, Clarry, and wished me to use my influence to
bring about the marriage.”

“You never had any influence,” said Clarice, while Anthony looked at
his future brother-in-law with the air of a man who wished to kick him
out of the house.

“Jerce thought I had, and lent me money. But I got into debt. I was in
love with Zara a year ago, and she made me spend no end of cash on
motor-drives and flowers and jewels, and all the rest of it.”

“But you told me of two thousand pounds, Ferdy. Was there more?”

“Much more. I gambled, you see, and lost heavily on bridge. But it’s
no use saying what I did, or how I spent the money, as I was simply
desperate. I did not dare to go to Uncle Henry, so I asked Jerce
again. He refused to help me, so I–I–” here Ferdy kicked a mat with
his feet and blurted out the shameful truth unwillingly, “I forged his
cheque for two hundred pounds.”

“What!” Clarice nearly fainted.

“You young scoundrel!” gasped Ackworth, his face growing red.

“That’s right. Preach away and kick a chap when he’s down. I didn’t
exactly forge the name, but I altered the figures of a cheque for
twenty pounds given me by Jerce, to one for two hundred. So you see I
am not quite a forger,” ended Ferdy, cheerfully.

“Go on,” commanded Anthony, curtly, and soothed the girl, who was
weeping bitterly. “Hush, Clarice, darling. We have heard the worst
now; nothing more shameful can be revealed.”

“A forger and a murderer,” cried Clarice, in agony–“my own brother.”

“I am neither the one nor the other,” said Ferdy, in a brazen manner.
“If you’ll only listen to me, I can explain. Jerce got the cheque and
held it over me as a whip. He said that he would put me in gaol, if I
did not do what he wanted. For a long time he left me alone, and
then”–Ferdy sank his voice to a terrified whisper–“then he brought
me the stamp of the Purple Fern, and told me that I was to kill Uncle
Henry and stamp his forehead with the fern, so that the crime would
look like the work of Osip.”

“And you accepted?” shrieked Clarice, with horror.

“I accepted to gain time,” said Ferdy, sulkily. “What else could I do?
I was in Jerce’s power, and could be sent to prison. But I never
intended to kill Uncle Henry.”

“Why did Jerce want him killed?” asked Ackworth, suddenly.

“Well, he said that Uncle Henry’s disease puzzled him, and that the
reason could not be found out, unless he was dead and his body was
examined. It was scientific curiosity.”

“Pshaw!” said Anthony, while Clarice heard this explanation with
incredulous horror. “Do you mean to tell me that Jerce would place his
neck in a noose in order to gain surgical knowledge?”

“He was going to place my neck in a noose,” corrected Ferdy, sulkily,
“and Jerce was quite mad about science. I found out a lot about his
devilries when I lived with him. He was a vivisection enthusiast, too.
Yes! You often wondered, Clarry, why Jane”–he glanced at the dog
lying quietly under the sofa–“why Jane hated Jerce so. Well, it was
because he started to vivisect her, and lamed her leg.”

“What a wretch,” cried Clarice, trembling with horror. “Oh, Anthony, I
can’t bear it–I can’t bear it.”

“Hush, dear, hush.” He sat beside her in the chair, and held her in
his arms like a mother nursing a babe. “Go on, Baird,” he commanded.

“Jerce wasn’t altogether bad,” said Ferdy, grudgingly. “He let Jane
go, when he found that she wasn’t much use as a subject, and gave her
to you, Clarry.”

“Jane! Jane!” called the girl, faintly, and when the dog came she
patted the smooth head. “My poor Jane, how cruelly you have been
treated,” whereon Jane licked the kind hand which caressed her, and
sat down with her tongue out, the picture of happiness.

“Well,” said Ferdy, after a pause, “you see how I was placed. I had to
kill Uncle Henry, or go to gaol through Jerce. I tried to find out
something against Jerce that would give me the whip hand of him, but
he was too clever. But I did find out some things. Jerce used to
pretend to go to Whitechapel, and sometimes he did, but usually he
changed his dress and went on the spree.”

“What do you mean by on the spree?” asked Clarice, sharply.

“I shouldn’t like to tell you,” said Ferdy, with great simplicity,
“for Jerce was a terror. I’m no great shakes, but Jerce was worse. He
spent money like water on women, buying jewels and houses and
furniture and dresses, and running race-horses, and gambling, and, in
fact,” ended Ferdy, with an air of fatigue, “Jerce was, and is, a
blackguard; and even I, don’t know everything about him.”

“It’s impossible that a well-known man like Sir Daniel Jerce could go
on in this way,” said Anthony, decidedly.

“Oh, but he did. I found lots of shady people who knew him. But Jerce
was clever in covering his trail. Then Barras was in with him.”

“Good heavens!” cried Clarice, in despair. “Are there no good men?”

“Barras wasn’t good. He used to lark about also, but I think Jerce led
him away, from what I can gather.”

“Remember, dear,” said Anthony, bending over Clarice, “we saw them
together at the Shah’s Rooms.”

“What?” cried Ferdy, quickly, “have you been there?”

“Never you mind, go on with your story. You say that Jerce wanted
Uncle Henry to be killed so that he might find out the reason for the
disease?”

“That was the reason Jerce gave me, and said that it would be a
merciful release, as Uncle Henry could not live long. But one night I
overheard a conversation between Barras and Jerce–not the whole of
it, but scraps, and I gathered that Barras was giving Jerce some of
Uncle Henry’s money–that is our money.”

“Oh!” Clarice started to her feet, “the forty thousand pounds. I am
beginning to see. Sir Daniel Jerce had that money.”

“I can’t say–I’m not sure. But there was some question of our money
being lent; for Barras–as I heard–said something about Uncle Henry
becoming suspicious of the business. I couldn’t exactly make out what
was meant,” ended Ferdy, “but I gathered that the finances of the
estate–our estate–were wrong.”

“I can see,” said Clarice, quickly, “I can understand. Barras told a
lie when he said that he gave Uncle Henry the forty thousand in gold.
He gave it to Jerce, and made Uncle Henry the scapegoat. Nothing wrong
was ever suspected by poor Uncle Henry. He told me some days before he
was murdered that I should find everything in order.”

“Well, you did.”

“Yes,” said Clarice, indignantly, “because Mr. Barras cooked the
accounts, and put the blame of the missing thousands on to my poor
guardian, who could not defend himself. The villain. And you knew
this, Ferdy–you knew this, and did not tell me?”

“How could I, when I was in Jerce’s power over that bill? Besides, I
didn’t clearly understand things. I only heard bits of the
conversation, you know.”

“Go on–go on,” said Ackworth, quickly, “tell us how you committed the
murder.”

“I did not–I did not,” cried Ferdy, furiously. “I swear I am innocent
of that crime. After Christmas, Jerce said that if I didn’t kill Uncle
Henry before the end of the year, that he would denounce me. He said
that if I stamped the corpse with the Purple Fern everyone would think
that Osip had killed him. Then he told me about Frank Clarke, and how
he had given him the stamp and the gold box.”

“Then he did have the gold box?” asked Clarice.

“Yes. He gave me the stamp, but he kept the box in his pocket, as he
thought it was safest there. He feared lest it should be found, and
lest the amethyst fern on it should give him away. When Osip attacked
him out there”–Ferdy pointed to the terrace–“Jerce managed to throw
it away, and then bamboozled me when I came up, about not having Osip
arrested. He dared not,” cried Ferdy, tauntingly, “as Osip might have
given him away.”

“Oh, great heavens!” moaned Clarice, rocking herself to and fro, “is
there much more of this?”

“No,” said her brother, quickly. “I’m sure I want to end it as much as
you do, Clarry. I never intended to kill Uncle Henry, but Jerce
insisted.”

“You’ve said that several times,” said Anthony, impatiently.

“And I say it again. I got drunk on that night because Jerce worried
me so. I was quite feverish.”

“Were you really drunk?” asked Clarice, eagerly.

“Yes, I was. Mother Dumps had been feeding me up with bad champagne in
honour of Zara’s coming home. I came back, and you locked me in my
room, Clarry. I fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until nearly two
o’clock in the morning.”

“Are you sure of the time?” asked his sister, quickly.

“Yes, I am. I lighted the candle and looked at my watch. Then I drank
some water, and sat on the bed to think of what I should do. I felt
jolly miserable, I can tell you,” said Ferdy, in an aggrieved tone,
“what with all my debts, and being in love with Prudence, and with
Zara worrying me, and with Jerce making things hot. Then I thought
that it would be best to go down and see Uncle Henry, and tell him
all. Remembering the conversation of Jerce and Barras, I fancied that
the accounts were wrong, and that if Jerce made it hot for me over the
bill, that Uncle Henry could make it hot for Jerce. I swear,” cried
Ferdy again, “that when I went down the stairs I never intended to lay
a hand on the man who had been like a father to me. I intended to tell
him all, and throw myself on his mercy.”

“How did you get out, when I had locked you in?”

Ferdy cast a contemptuous look on her, “Why, I had another key, of
course. You locked me in several times, and thought that I was safe,
but I could get out whenever I liked. I unlocked the door, and went
down to see Uncle Henry in my cloth slippers and dressing-gown.”

“If you intended no harm,” asked Anthony, “why did you take the stamp
with you–the Purple Fern stamp?”

“I intended to give it to Uncle Henry, and tell him how Jerce had got
it from Frank Clarke, and the use he intended to make of it. Well,
then, I went down carefully, and opened the bedroom door. I thought
that Uncle Henry might be awake. But he wasn’t; he was dead.”

There was a pause. “Are you sure?” asked Clarice, in a husky voice.

“I can swear to it. He was dead–stabbed to the heart–with the
bedclothes all disarranged, and I very nearly gave the alarm. Then I
thought that as Uncle Henry was dead, all I had to do was to stamp his
forehead with the Purple Fern, to get the cheque from Jerce into my
possession. I was about to do so,” said Ferdy, frankly, while his
sister groaned at this fresh instance of callous wickedness, “when I
heard a noise outside, and slipped under the bed.”

“Why on earth did you do that?” demanded Anthony, bluntly.

“It was very natural,” protested Ferdy, sulkily. “I was afraid lest
the murderer should return and kill me; and, of course, I didn’t want
anyone to see me beside the dead body of Uncle Henry, considering the
circumstances. I fancied Chalks might be coming, and dreaded lest I
should get into trouble, as I had no business in the room at that
time. Oh, there were plenty of reasons for me to make myself scarce.”

“Well, and was it Chalks?” said Clarice, tapping her foot,
impatiently.

“No, it wasn’t. Old Clarke came in at the window calling softly on
Uncle Henry. I heard his voice, and peeped out to see him. He nearly
squealed when he spotted the body, so I don’t think that he is guilty.
Then he groaned and prayed, and, for some reason, arranged the
bedclothes smoothly. Afterwards he cut as hard as he could,
frightened out of his life, as I was. In a few minutes I crept out,
and stamped the corpse’s forehead, which was the only thing I could do
to put myself square with Jerce. When I crept upstairs and locked
myself again in my room, I thought that everything was safe. But it
wasn’t,” grumbled Ferdy, apparently thinking himself aggrieved. “Zara
was knocking about, and spotted me through the window. She made me
break off with Prudence by threatening to tell the police. I said that
Prudence wouldn’t let me off, but Zara said she could manage that, and
she did too, by telling the poor girl that Mr. Clarke had committed
the crime, which I swear he hadn’t,” finished Ferdy, generously.

“Is that all?” questioned Clarice, when he ended out of breath.

“What more do you wish me to say?” asked Ferdy, indignantly. “I’m not
to blame, as I couldn’t help Uncle Henry being killed. And I never
forged the cheque–that is, the name, you know, Clarry–I only altered
the figures a little. And I swear I never stabbed Uncle Henry, but
just stamped him with the Fern.”

“That was an abominable thing to do,” cried Ackworth, angrily.

“I don’t see that,” said the young man, obstinately. “What did it
matter when Uncle Henry was dead? I had to get even with Jerce, and
save myself somehow. And I did, too. Jerce, when he came for the
post-mortem, and saw the stamp on the forehead, gave me back the
cheque right enough, and I burnt it, so no one can harm me in that
way. I think you are making a great row over nothing,” ended Ferdy, in
an injured tone, “as I am quite innocent.”

Clarice looked at Anthony, and Anthony at Clarice, in despair. Both of
them were amazed at the callous view Ferdy took of the case. He really
did not seem to be aware of the enormity of his fault, and looked upon
his crimes–for crimes they were–as merely mistakes of ordinary life.
Perhaps Anthony–for Clarice was too heart-broken to speak–would have
proceeded to lecture Ferdy on his iniquities, but that a ring came to
the front door. Jane, at Miss Baird’s feet, raised her head, and
Ackworth went to the drawing-room door. When he opened it the
cheerful, bland voice of Sir Daniel Jerce was heard remarking on the
bad weather to Mrs. Rebson. At once Jane began to growl, and she flew
across the room.

“Anthony, catch her,” cried Clarice, and the young man had only time
to grip Jane by the scruff of the neck, and swing her aside, when the
doctor entered the room. Jerce looked quiet and smiling, and
apparently had no idea of the danger of his position. He laughed, when
he saw Jane snapping and snarling with blazing eyes, the picture of
impotent wrath. “I really wonder why that dog hates me so?” said Sir
Daniel, shrugging.

“She knows you better than we do,” retorted Clarice, sternly.