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THE situation was bizarre; the accurately trained mind of Bevis Holroyd was impressed foremost by this; that the situation was bizarre; he could not guess that the opening of a door would turn it into tragedy.
"I am afraid I can't stay," he had said pleasantly, humouring a sick man; he was too young and had not been long enough completely successful to have a professional manner but a certain balanced tolerance just showed in his attitude to this prostrate creature.
"I've got a good many claims on my time," he added, "and I'm afraid it would be impossible. And it isn't the least necessary, you know. You're quite all right. I'll come back after Christmas if you really think it worth while."
The patient opened one eye; he was lying flat on his back in a deep, wide old-fashioned bed hung with a thick dark, silk lined tapestry; the room was dark for there were thick curtains of the same material drawn half across the windows, rigidly excluding all save a moiety of the pallid winter light; to make his examination Dr. Holroyd had had to snap on the electric light that stood on the bedside table; he thought it a dreary unhealthy room, but had hardly found it worth while to say as much.
The patient opened one eye; the other lid remained fluttering feebly over an immobile orb.
He said in a voice both hoarse and feeble:
"But, doctor, I'm being poisoned."
Professional curiosity and interest masked by genial incredulity instantly quickened the doctor's attention.
"My dear sir," he smiled, "poisoned by this nasty bout of 'flu you mean, I suppose "
"No," said the patient, faintly and wearily dropping both lids over his blank eyes, "by my wife."
"That's an ugly sort of fancy for you to get hold of," replied the doctor instantly. "Acute depression we must see what we can do for you "
The sick man opened both eyes now; he even slightly raised his head as he replied, not without dignity:
"I fetched you from London, Dr.
Holroyd, that you might deal with my case impartially
from the local man there is no hope of
Dr. Holroyd made a movement as if to protest but a trembling sign from the patient made him quickly subsist.
"Please let me speak. She will come in soon and I shall have no chance. I sent for you secretly she knows nothing about that. I had heard you very well spoken of as an authority on this sort of thing. You made a name over the Pluntre murder case as witness for the Crown."
"I don't specialize in murder," said Dr. Holroyd, but his keen handsome face was alight with interest. "And I don't care much for this kind of case Sir Harry."
"But you've taken it on," murmured the sick man. "You couldn't abandon me now."
"I'll get you into a nursing home," said the doctor cheerfully, "and there you'll dispel all these ideas."
"And when the nursing home has cured me I'm to come back to my wife for her to begin again?"
Dr. Holroyd bent suddenly and sharply over the sombre bed. With his right hand he deftly turned on the electric lamp and tipped back the coral silk shade so that the bleached acid light fell full over the patient lying on his back on the big fat pillows.
"Look here," said the doctor, "what you say is pretty serious."
And the two men stared at each other, the patient examining his physician as acutely as his physician examined him.
Bevis Holroyd was still a young man with a look of peculiar energy and austere intelligence that heightened by contrast purely physical dark good looks that many men would have found sufficient passport to success; resolution, dignity and a certain masculine sweetness, serene and strong, different from feminine sweetness, marked his demeanour which was further softened by a quick humour and a sensitive judgment.
The patient, on the other hand, was a man of well past middle age, light, flabby and obese with a flaccid, fallen look about his large face which was blurred and dimmed by the colours of ill health, being one pasty livid hue that threw into unpleasant relief the grey speckled red of his scant hair.
Altogether an unpleasing man, but of a certain fame and importance that had induced the rising young doctor to come at once when hastily summoned to Strangeways Manor House, a man of a fine, renowned family, a man of repute as a scholar, an essayist who had once been a politician who was rather above politics, a man whom Dr. Holroyd only knew vaguely by reputation, but who seemed to him symbolical of all that was staid, respectable and stolid.
And this man blinked up at him and whimpered:
"My wife is poisoning me."
Dr. Holroyd sat back and snapped off the electric light. "What makes you think so?" he asked sharply.
"To tell you that," came the laboured voice of the sick man, "I should have to tell you my story."
"Well, if you want me to take this up "
"I sent for you to do that, doctor."
"Well, how do you think you are being poisoned?"
"Arsenic, of course."
"Oh? And how administered?"
Again the patient looked up with one eye seeming too fatigued to open the other.
"Cambric tea," he replied.
And Dr. Holroyd echoed:
"Cambric tea!" with a soft amazement and interest.
Cambric tea had been used as the
medium for arsenic in the Pluntre case and the
expression had become
"Very possibly," continued Sir Harry, "the Pluntre case made her think of it."
"For God's sake, don't," said Dr. Holroyd, for in that hideous affair the murderer had been a woman and to see a woman on trial for her life, to see a woman sentenced to death was not an experience he wished to repeat.
"Lady Strangeways," continued the sick man, "is much younger than I I over persuaded her to marry me, she was at the time very much attracted by a man of her own age, but he was in a poor position and she was ambitious."
He paused, wiped his quivering lips on a silk handkerchief and added faintly:
"Lately our marriage has been extremely unhappy. The man she preferred is now prosperous, successful and unmarried she wishes to dispose of me that she may marry her first choice."
"Have you proof of any of this?"
"Yes. I know she buys arsenic. I know she reads books on poisons. I know she is eating her heart out for this other man."
"Forgive me, Sir Harry," replied the doctor, "but have you no near friend nor relation to whom you can confide your suspicions?"
"No one," said the sick man impatiently. "I have lately come from the East and am out of touch with people. Besides I want a doctor, a doctor with skill in this sort of thing. I thought from the first of the Pluntre case and of you.
Bevis Holroyd sat back quietly; it was then that he thought of the situation as bizarre, the queerness of the whole thing was vividly before him, like a twisted figure on a gem a carving at once writhing and immobile.
"Perhaps," continued Sir Harry wearily, "you are married, doctor?"
"No." Dr. Holroyd slightly smiled; his story was something like the sick man's story but taken from another angle when he was very poor and unknown he had loved a girl who had preferred a wealthy man; she had gone out to India, ten years ago, and he had never seen her since, he remembered this, with sharp distinctness, and in the same breath he remembered that he still loved this girl, it was, after all, a commonplace story.
Then his mind swung to the severe professional aspect of the case; he had thought that his patient, an unhealthy type of man, was struggling with a bad attack of influenza and the resultant depression and weakness, but then he had never thought, of course, of poison, nor looked nor tested for poison.
The man might be lunatic, he might be deceived, he might be speaking the truth; the fact that he was a mean, unpleasant beast ought not to weigh in the matter; Dr. Holroyd had some enjoyable Christmas holidays in prospect and now he was beginning to feel that he ought to give these up to stay and investigate this case; for he could readily see that it was one in which the local doctor would be quite useless.
"You must have a nurse," he said, rising.
But the sick man shook his head.
"I don't wish to expose my wife more than need be," he grumbled. "Can't you manage the affair yourself?"
As this was the first hint of decent feeling he had shown, Bevis Holroyd forgave him his brusque rudeness.
"Well, I'll stay the night anyhow," he conceded.
And then the situation changed, with the opening of a door, from the bizarre to the tragic.
This door opened in the far end of the room and admitted a bloom of bluish winter light from some uncurtained high windowed corridor; the chill impression was as if invisible snow had entered the shaded, dun, close apartment.
And against this background appeared a woman in a smoke coloured dress with some long lace about the shoulders and a high comb; she held a little tray carrying jugs and a glass of crystal in which the cold light splintered.
Dr. Holroyd stood in his usual attitude of attentive courtesy, and then, as the patient, feebly twisting his gross head from the fat pillow, said:
"My wife doctor " he recognized in Lady Strangeways the girl to whom he had once been engaged in marriage, the woman he still loved.
"This is Doctor Holroyd," added Sir Harry. "Is that cambric tea you have there?"
She inclined her head to the stranger by her husband's bed as if she had never seen him before, and he, taking his cue, and for many other reasons, was silent.
"Yes, this is your cambric tea," she said to her husband. "You like it just now, don't you? How do you find Sir Harry, Dr. Holroyd?"
There were two jugs on the tray; one of crystal half full of cold milk, and one of white porcelain full of hot water; Lady Strangeways proceeded to mix these fluids in equal proportions and gave the resultant drink to her husband, helping him first to sit up in bed.
"I think that Sir Harry has a nasty turn of influenza," answered the doctor mechanically. "He wants me to stay. I've promised till the morning, anyhow."
"That will be a pleasure and a relief," said Lady Strangeways gravely. "My husband has been ill some time and seems so much worse than he need for influenza."
The patient, feebly sipping his cambric tea, grinned queerly at the doctor.
"So much worse you see, doctor!" he muttered.
It is good of you to stay," continued Lady Strangeways equally. "I will see about your room, you must be as comfortable as possible."
She left as she had come, a shadow coloured figure retreating to a chill light.
The sick man held up his glass as if he gave a toast.
"You see! Cambric tea!"
And Bevis Holroyd was thinking: does she not want to know me? Does he know what we once were to each other? How comes she to be married to this man her husband's name was Custiss and the horror of the situation shook the calm that was his both from character and training; he went to the window and looked out on the bleached park; light, slow snow was falling, a dreary dance over the frozen grass and before the grey copses that paled, one behind the other to the distance shrouded in colourless mist.
The thin voice of Harry Strangeways recalled him to the bed.
"Would you like to take a look at this, doctor?" He held out the half drunk glass of milk and water.
"I've no means of making a test here," said Dr. Holroyd, troubled. "I brought a few things, nothing like that."
"You are not so far from Harley Street," said Sir Harry. "My car can fetch everything you want by this afternoon or perhaps you would like to go yourself?"
"Yes," replied Bevis Holroyd sternly. "I would rather go myself."
His trained mind had been rapidly covering the main aspects of his problem and he had instantly seen that it was better for Lady Strangeways to have this case in his hands. He was sure there was some hideous, fantastic hallucination on the part of Sir Harry, but it was better for Lady Strangeways to leave the matter in the hands of one who was friendly towards her. He rapidly found and washed a medicine bottle from among the sick room paraphernalia and poured it full of the cambric tea, casting away the remainder.
"Why did you drink any?" he asked sharply.
"I don't want her to think that I guess," whispered Sir Harry. "Do you know, doctor, I have a lot of her love letters written by "
Dr. Holroyd cut him short.
"I couldn't listen to this sort of thing behind Lady Strangeways's back," he said quickly. "That is between you and her. My job is to get you well. I'll try and do that."
And he considered, with a faint disgust, how repulsive this man looked sitting up with pendant jowl and drooping cheeks and discoloured, pouchy eyes sunk in pads of unhealthy flesh and above the spiky crown of Judas coloured hair.
Perhaps a woman, chained to this man, living with him, blocked and thwarted by him, might be wrought upon to
Dr. Holroyd shuddered inwardly and refused to continue his reflection.
As he was leaving the gaunt sombre house about which there was something definitely blank and unfriendly, a shrine in which the sacred flames had flickered out so long ago that the lamps were blank and cold, he met Lady Strangeways.
She was in the wide entrance hall standing by the wood fire that but faintly dispersed the gloom of the winter morning and left untouched the shadows in the rafters of the open roof.
Now he would not, whether she wished or no, deny her, he stopped before her, blocking out her poor remnant of light.
"Mollie," he said gently, "I don't quite understand you married a man named Custiss in India."
"Yes. Harry had to take this name when he inherited this place. We've been home three years from the East but lived so quietly here that I don't suppose anyone has heard of us."
She stood between him and the firelight, a shadow among shadows; she was much changed; in her thinness and pallor, in her restless eyes and nervous mouth he could read signs of discontent, even of unhappiness.
"I never heard of you," said Dr. Holroyd truthfully. "I didn't want to. I liked to keep my dreams."
Her hair was yet the lovely cedar wood hue, silver, soft and gracious; her figure had those fluid lines of grace that he believed he had never seen equalled.
"Tell me," she added abruptly, "what is the matter with my husband? He has been ailing like this for a year or so."
With a horrid lurch of his heart that was usually so steady, Dr. Holroyd remembered the bottle of milk and water in his pocket.
"Why do you give him that cambric tea?" he counter questioned.
"He will have it he insists that I make it for him "
"Mollie," said Dr. Holroyd quickly, "you decided against me, ten years ago, but that is no reason why we should not be friends now tell me, frankly, are you happy with this man?"
"You have seen him," she replied slowly. "He seemed different ten years ago. I honestly was attracted by his scholarship and his learning as well as other things."
Bevis Holroyd needed to ask no more, she was wretched, imprisoned in a mistake as a fly in amber; and those love letters? Was there another man?
As he stood silent, with a dark reflective look on her weary brooding face, she spoke again:
"You are staying?"
"Oh yes," he said, he was staying, there was nothing else for him to do.
"It is Christmas week," she reminded him wistfully. "It will be very dull, perhaps painful, for you."
"I think I ought to stay."
Sir Harry's car was announced; Bevis Holroyd, gliding over frozen roads to London, was absorbed with this sudden problem that, like a mountain out of a plain, had suddenly risen to confront him out of his level life.
The sight of Mollie (he could not think of her by that sick man's name) had roused in him tender memories and poignant emotions and the position in which he found her and his own juxtaposition to her and her husband had the same devastating effect on him as a mine sprung beneath the feet of an unwary traveller.
London was deep in the whirl of a snow storm and the light that penetrated over the grey roof tops to the ugly slip of a laboratory at the back of his consulting rooms was chill and forbidding.
Bevis Holroyd put the bottle of milk on a marble slab and sat back in the easy chair watching that dreary chase of snow flakes across the dingy London pane
He was thinking of past springs, of violets long dead, of roses long since dust, of hours that had slipped away like lengths of golden silk rolled up, of the long ago when he had loved Mollie and Mollie had seemed to love him; then he thought of that man in the big bed who had said:
"My wife is poisoning me."
Late that afternoon Dr. Holroyd with his suit case and a professional bag, returned to Strangeways Manor House in Sir Harry's car; the bottle of cambric tea had gone to a friend, a noted analyst; somehow Doctor Holroyd had not felt able to do this task himself; he was very fortunate, he felt, in securing this old solitary and his promise to do the work before Christmas.
As he arrived at Strangeways Manor House which stood isolated and well away from a public high road where a lonely spur of the weald of Kent drove into the Sussex marshes, it was in a blizzard of snow that effaced the landscape and gave the murky outlines of the house an air of unreality, and Bevis Holroyd experienced that sensation he had so often heard of and read about, but which so far his cool mind had dismissed as a fiction.
He did really feel as if he was in an evil dream, as the snow changed the values of the scene, altering distances and shapes, so this meeting with Mollie, under these circumstances, had suddenly clanged the life of Bevis Holroyd.
He had so resolutely and so definitely put this woman out of his life and mind, deliberately refusing to make enquiries about her, letting all knowledge of her cease with the letter in which she had written from India and announced her marriage.
And now, after ten years, she had crossed his path in this ghastly manner, as a woman her husband accused of attempted murder.
The sick man's words of a former lover disturbed him profoundly; was it himself who was referred to? Yet the love letters must be from another man for he had not corresponded with Mollie since her marriage, not for ten years.
He had never felt any bitterness towards Mollie for her desertion of a poor, struggling doctor, and he had always believed in the integral nobility of her character under the timidity of conventionality; but the fact remained that she had played him false what if that had been "the little rift within the lute" that had now indeed silenced the music!
With a sense of bitter depression he entered the gloomy old house; how different was this from the pleasant ordinary Christmas he had been rather looking forward to, the jolly homely atmosphere of good fare, dancing, and friends!
When he had telephoned to these friends excusing himself his regret had been genuine and the cordial "bad luck!" had had a poignant echo in his own heart; bad luck indeed, bad luck
She was waiting for him in the hall that a pale young man was decorating with boughs of prickly stiff holly that stuck stiffly behind the dark heavy pictures.
He was introduced as the secretary and said gloomily:
"Sir Harry wished everything to go on as usual, though I am afraid he is very ill indeed."
Yes, the patient had been seized by another violent attack of illness during Dr. Holroyd's absence, the young man went at once upstairs and found Sir Harry in a deep sleep and a rather nervous local doctor in attendance.
An exhaustive discussion of the case with this doctor threw no light on anything, and Dr. Holroyd, leaving in charge an extremely sensible looking housekeeper who was Sir Harry's preferred nurse, returned, worried and irritated, to the hall where Lady Strangeways now sat alone before the big fire.
She offered him a belated but fresh cup of tea.
"Why did you come?" she asked as if she roused herself from deep reverie.
"Why? Because your husband sent for me."
"He says you offered to come; he has told everyone in the house that."
"But I never heard of the man before to-day."
"You had heard of me. He seems to think that you came here to help me."
"He cannot be saying that," returned Dr. Holroyd sternly, and he wondered desperately if Mollie was lying, if she had invented this to drive him out of the house.
"Do you want me here?" he demanded.
"I don't know," she replied dully and confirmed his suspicions; probably there was another man and she wished him out of the way; but he could not go, out of pity towards her he could not go.
"Does he know we once knew each other?" he asked.
"No," she replied faintly, "therefore it seems such a curious chance that he should have sent for you, of all men!"
"It would have been more curious," he responded grimly, "if I had heard that you were here with a sick husband and had thrust myself in to doctor him! Strangeways must be crazy to spread such a tale and if he doesn't know we are old friends it becomes nonsense!"
"I often think that Harry is crazy," said Lady Strangeways wearily; she took a rose silk lined work basket, full of pretty trifles, on her knee, and began winding a skein of rose coloured silk; she looked so frail, so sad, so lifeless that the heart of Bevis Holroyd was torn with bitter pity.
"Now I am here I want to help you," he said earnestly. I am staying for that, to help you "
She looked up at him with a wistful appeal in her fair face.
"I'm worried," she said simply. "I've lost some letters I valued very much I think they have been stolen."
Dr. Holroyd drew back; the love letters, the letters the husband had found, that were causing all his ugly suspicions.
"My poor Mollie!" he exclaimed impulsively. "What Sort of a coil have you got yourself into!"
As if this note of pity was unendurable she rose impulsively, scattering the contents of her work basket, dropping the skein of silk and hastened away down the dark hall.
Bevis Holroyd stooped mechanically to pick up the hurled objects and saw among them a small white packet, folded, but opened at one end; this packet seemed to have fallen out of a needle case of gold silk.
Bevis Holroyd had pounced on it and thrust it in his pocket just as the pale secretary returned with his thin arms most incongruously full of mistletoe.
"This will be a dreary Christmas for you, Dr. Holroyd," he said with the air of one who forces himself to make conversation. "No doubt you had some pleasant plans in view we are all so pleased that Lady Strangeways had a friend to come and look after Sir Harry during the holidays."
"Who told you I was a friend?" asked Dr. Holroyd brusquely. "I certainly knew Lady Strangeways before she was married "
The pale young man cut in crisply:
"Oh, Lady Strangeways told me so herself."
Bevis Holroyd was bewildered; why did she tell the secretary what she did not tell her husband? both the indiscretion and the reserve seemed equally foolish.
Languidly hanging up his sprays and bunches of mistletoe the pallid young man, whose name was Garth Deane, continued his aimless remarks.
"This is really not a very cheerful house, Dr. Holroyd I'm interested in Sir Harry's oriental work or I should not remain. Such a very unhappy marriage! I often think," he added regardless of Bevis Holroyd's darkling glance, "that it would be very unpleasant indeed for Lady Strangeways if anything happened to Sir Harry."
"Whatever do you mean, sir?" asked the doctor angrily.
The secretary was not at all discomposed.
"Well, one lives in the house, one has nothing much to do and one notices."
Perhaps, thought the young man in anguish, the sick husband had been talking to this creature, perhaps the creature had really noticed something.
"I'll go up to my patient," said Bevis Holroyd briefly, not daring to anger one who might be an important witness in this mystery that was at present so unfathomable.
Mr. Deane gave a sickly grin over the lovely pale leaves and berries he was holding.
"I'm afraid he is very bad, doctor."
As Bevis Holroyd left the room he passed Lady Strangeways; she looked blurred, like a pastel drawing that has been shaken; the fingers she kept locked on her bosom; she had flung a silver fur over her shoulders that accentuated her ethereal look of blonde, pearl and amber hues.
"I've come back for my work basket," she said. "Will you go up to my husband? He is ill again "
"Have you been giving him anything?" asked Dr. Holroyd as quietly as he could.
"Only some cambric tea, he insisted on that."
"Don't give him anything leave him alone. He is in my charge now, do you understand?"
She gazed up at him with frightened eyes that had been newly washed by tears.
"Why are you so unkind to me?" she quivered.
She looked so ready to fall that he could not resist the temptation to put his hand protectingly on her arm, so that, as she stood in the low doorway leading to the stairs, he appeared to be supporting her drooping weight.
"Have I not said that I am here to help you, Mollie?"
The secretary slipped out from the shadows behind them, his arms still full of winter evergreens.
"There is too much foliage," he smiled, and the smile told that he had seen and heard.
Bevis Holroyd went angrily upstairs, he felt as if an invisible net was being dragged closely round him, something that which, from being a cobweb would become a cable; this air of mystery, of horror in the big house, this sly secretary, these watchful looking servants, the nervous village doctor ready to credit anything, the lovely agitated woman who was the woman he had long so romantically loved, and the sinister sick man with his diabolic accusations, a man Bevis Holroyd had, from the first moment, hated all these people in these dark surroundings affected the young man with a miasma of apprehension, gloom and dread.
After a few hours of it he was nearer to losing his nerve than he had ever been; that must be because of Mollie, poor darling Mollie caught into all this nightmare.
And outside the bells were ringing across the snow, practicing for Christmas Day; the sound of them was to Bevis Holroyd what the sounds of the real world are when breaking into a sleeper's thick dreams.
The patient sat up in bed, fondling the glass of odious cambric tea.
"Why do you take the stuff?" demanded the doctor angrily.
"She won't let me off, she thrusts it on me," whispered Sir Harry.
Bevis Holroyd noticed, not for the first time since he had come into the fell atmosphere of this dark house that enclosed the piteous figure of the woman he loved, that husband and wife were telling different tales, on one side lay a burden of careful lying.
"Did she " continued the sick man, "speak to you of her lost letters?"
The young doctor looked at him sternly.
"Why should Lady Strangeways make a confidante of me?" he asked. "Do you know that she was a friend of mine ten years ago before she married you?"
"Was she? How curious! But you met like strangers."
"The light in this room is very dim "
"Well, never mind about that, whether you knew her or not " Sir Harry gasped out in a sudden snarl. "The woman is a murderess, and you'll have to bear witness to it I've got her letters, here under my pillow, and Garth Deane is watching her "
"Ah, a spy! I'll have no part in this, Sir Harry. You'll call another doctor "
"No, it's your case, you'll make the best of it My God, I'm dying, I think "
He fell back in such a convulsion of pain that Bevis Holroyd forgot everything in administering to him. The rest of that day and all that night the young doctor was shut up with his patient, assisted by the secretary and the housekeeper.
And when, in the pallid light of Christmas Eve morning, he went downstairs to find Lady Strangeways he knew that the sick man was suffering from arsenic poison, that the packet taken from Mollie's work box was arsenic, and it was only an added horror when he was called to the telephone to learn that a stiff dose of the poison had been found in the specimen of cambric tea.
He believed that he could save the husband and thereby the wife also, but he did not think he could close the sick man's mouth, the deadly hatred of Sir Harry was leading up to an accusation of attempted murder; of that he was sure, and there was the man Deane to back him up.
He sent for Mollie who had not been near her husband all night, and when she came, pale, distracted, huddled in her white fur, he said grimly:
"Look here, Mollie, I promised that I'd help you and I mean to, though it isn't going to be as easy as I thought, but you have got to be frank with me."
"But I have nothing to conceal "
"The name of the other man "
"The other man?"
"The man who wrote those letters your husband has under his pillow."
"Oh, Harry has them!" she cried in pain. "That man Deane stole them then! Bevis, they are your letters of the old days that I have always cherished."
"Yes, do you think that there has ever been anyone else?"
"But he says Mollie, there is a trap or trick here, some one is lying furiously. Your husband is being poisoned."
"By arsenic given in that cambric tea. And he knows it. And he accuses you."
She stared at him in blank incredulity, then she slipped forward in her chair and clutched the big arm.
"Oh, God," she muttered in panic terror. "He always swore that he'd be revenged on me because he knew that I never cared for him "
But Bevis Holroyd recoiled; he did not dare listen, he did not dare believe.
"I've warned you," he said, "for the sake of the old days, Mollie "
A light step behind them and they were aware of the secretary creeping out of the embrowning shadows.
"A cold Christmas," he said rubbing his hands together. "A really cold, seasonable Christmas. We are almost snowed in and Sir Harry would like to see you, Dr. Holroyd."
"I have only just left him "
Bevis Holroyd looked at the despairing figure of the woman, crouching in her chair; he was distracted, overwrought, near to losing his nerve.
"He wants particularly to see you," cringed the secretary.
Mollie looked back at Bevis Holroyd, her lips moved twice in vain before she could say: "Go to him."
The doctor went slowly upstairs and the secretary followed.
Sir Harry was now flat on his back, staring at the dark tapestry curtains of his bed.
"I'm dying," he announced as the doctor bent over him.
"Nonsense. I am not going to allow you to die."
"You won't be able to help yourself. I've brought you here to see me die."
"What do you mean?"
"I've a surprise for you too, a Christmas present. These letters now, these love letters of my wife's what name do you think is on them?"
"Your mind is giving way, Sir Harry."
"Not at all come nearer. Deane the name is Bevis Holroyd."
"Then they are letters ten years old. Letters written before your wife met you."
The sick man grinned with infinite malice.
"Maybe. But there are no dates on them and the envelopes are all destroyed. And I, as a dying man, shall swear to their recent date I, as a foully murdered man."
"You are wandering in your mind," said Bevis Holroyd quietly. "I refuse to listen to you any further."
"You shall listen to me. I brought you here to listen to me. I've got you. Here's my will, Deane's got that, in which I denounced you both, there are your letters, every one thinks that she put you in charge of the case, every one knows that you know all about arsenic in cambric tea through the Pluntre case, and every one will know that I die of arsenic poisoning."
The doctor allowed him to talk himself out; indeed it would have been difficult to check the ferocity of his malicious energy.
The plot was ingenious, the invention of a slightly insane, jealous recluse who hated his wife and hated the man she had never ceased to love; Bevis Holroyd could see the nets very skilfully drawn round him; but the main issue of the mystery remained untouched; who was administering the arsenic?
The young man glanced across the sombre bed to the dark figure of the secretary.
"What is your place in all this farrago, Mr. Deane?" he asked sternly.
"I'm Sir Harry's friend," answered the other stubbornly, "and I'll bring witness any time against Lady Strangeways. I've tried to circumvent her "
"Stop," cried the doctor. "You think that Lady Strangeways is poisoning her husband and that I am her accomplice?"
The sick man, who had been looking with bitter malice from one to another, whispered hoarsely:
"That is what you think, isn't it, Deane?"
"I'll say what I think at the proper time," said the secretary obstinately.
"No doubt you are being well paid for your share in this."
"I've remembered his services in my will," smiled Sir Harry grimly. "You can adjust your differences then, Dr. Holroyd, when I'm dead, poisoned, murdered. It will be a pretty story, a nice scandal, you and she in the house together, the letters, the cambric tea!"
An expression of ferocity dominated him, then he made an effort to dominate this and to speak in his usual suave stilted manner.
"You must admit that we shall all have a very Happy Christmas, doctor."
Bevis Holroyd was looking at the secretary, who stood the other side of the bed, cringing, yet somehow in the attitude of a man ready to pounce; Dr. Holroyd wondered if this was the murderer.
"Why," he asked quietly to gain time, "did you hatch this plan to ruin a man you had never seen before?"
"I always hated you," replied the sick man faintly. "Mollie never forgot you, you see, and she never allowed me to forget that she never forgot you. And then I found those letters she had cherished."
"You are a very wicked man," said the doctor drily, "but it will all come to nothing, for I am not going to allow you to die."
"You won't be able to help yourself," replied the patient. "I'm dying, I tell you. I shall die on Christmas Day."
He turned his head towards the secretary and added:
"Send my wife up to me."
"No," interrupted Dr. Holroyd strongly. "She shall not come near you again."
Sir Harry Strangeways ignored this.
"Send her up," he repeated.
"I will bring her, sir."
The secretary left, with a movement suggestive of flight, and Bevis Holroyd stood rigid, waiting, thinking, looking at the ugly man who now had closed his eyes and lay as if insensible. He was certainly very ill, dying perhaps, and he certainly had been poisoned by arsenic given in cambric tea, and, as certainly, a terrible scandal and a terrible danger would threaten with his death; the letters were not dated, the marriage was notoriously unhappy, and he, Bevis Holroyd, was associated in every one's mind with a murder case in which this form of poison, given in this manner, had been used.
Drops of moisture stood out on the doctor's forehead; if he could clear himself be sure that it would be very difficult for Mollie to do so; how could even he himself in his soul swear to her innocence!
Of course he must get the woman out of the house at once, he must have another doctor from town, nurses but could this be done in time, if the patient died on his hands would he not be only bringing witnesses to his own discomfiture? And the right people, his own friends, were difficult to get hold of now, at Christmas time.
He longed to go in search of Mollie she must at least be got away, but how, without a scandal, without a suspicion?
He longed also to have the matter out with this odious secretary, but he dared not leave his patient.
Lady Strangeways returned with Garth Deane and seated herself, mute, shadowy, with eyes full of panic, on the other side of the sombre bed.
"Is he going to live?" she presently whispered as she watched Bevis Holroyd ministering to her unconscious husband.
"We must see that he does," he answered grimly.
All through that Christmas Eve and the bitter night to the stark dawn when the church bells broke ghastly on their wan senses did they tend the sick man who only came to his senses to grin at them in malice.
Once Bevis Holroyd asked the pallid woman:
"What was that white packet you had in your work box?"
And she replied:
"I never had such a packet."
"I must believe you."
But he did not send for the other doctors and nurses, he did not dare.
The Christmas bells seemed to rouse the sick man from his deadly swoon.
"You can't save me," he said with indescribable malice. "I shall die and put you both in the dock "
Mollie Strangeways sank down beside the bed and began to cry, and Garth Deane, who by his master's express desire had been in and out of the room all night, stopped and looked at her with a peculiar expression. Sir Harry looked down at her also.
"Don't cry," he gasped, "this is Christmas Day. We ought all to be happy bring me my cambric tea do you hear?"
She rose mechanically and left the room to take in the tray with the fresh milk and water that the housekeeper had placed softly on the table outside the door; for all through the nightmare vigil, the sick man's cry had been for "cambric tea."
As he sat up in bed feebly sipping the vapid and odious drink the tortured woman's nerves slipped her control.
"I can't endure those bells, I wish they would stop those bells!" she cried and ran out of the room.
Bevis Holroyd instantly followed her; and now as suddenly as it had sprung on him, the fell little drama disappeared, fled like a poison cloud out of the compass of his life.
Mollie was leaning against the closed window, her sick head resting against the mullions; through the casement showed, surprisingly, sunlight on the pure snow and blue sky behind the withered trees.
"Listen, Mollie," said the young man resolutely. "I'm sure he'll live if you are careful you mustn't lose heart "
The sick room door opened and the secretary slipped out.
He nervously approached the two in the window place. "I can't stand this any longer," he said through dry lips. "I didn't know he meant to go so far, he is doing it himself, you know; he's got the stuff hidden in his bed, he puts it into the cambric tea, he's willing to die to spite you two, but I can't stand it any longer."
"You've been abetting this!" cried the doctor.
"Not abetting," smiled the secretary wanly. "Just standing by. I found out by chance and then he forced me to be silent I had his will, you know, and I've destroyed it."
With this the strange creature glided downstairs.
The doctor sprang at once to Sir Harry's room; the sick man was sitting up in the sombre bed and with a last effort was scattering a grain of powder into the glass of cambric tea.
With a look of baffled horror he saw Bevis Holroyd but the drink had already slipped down his throat; he fell back and hid his face, baulked at the last of his diabolic revenge.
When Bevis Holroyd left the dead man's chamber he found Mollie still leaning in the window; she was free, the sun was shining, it was Christmas Day.