The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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Within the course of the next few days, a strange rumour spread through Dominey and the district,--from the farm labourer to the farmer, from the school children to their homes, from the village post-office to the neighbouring hamlets. A gang of woodmen from a neighbouring county, with an engine and all the machinery of their craft, had started to work razing to the ground everything in the shape of tree or shrub at the north end of the Black Wood. The matter of the war was promptly forgotten. Before the second day, every man, woman and child in the place had paid an awed visit to the outskirts of the wood, had listened to the whirr of machinery, had gazed upon the great bridge of planks leading into the wood, had peered, in the hope of some strange discovery into the tents of the men who were camping out. The men themselves were not communicative, and the first time the foreman had been known to open his mouth was when Dominey walked down to discuss progress, on the morning after his arrival.
"It's a dirty bit of work, sir," he confided. "I don't know as I ever came across a bit of woodland as was so utterly, hopelessly rotten. Why, the wood crumbles when you touch it, and the men have to be within reach of one another the whole of the time, though we've a matter of five hundred planks down there."
"Come across anything unusual yet?"
"We ain't come across anything that isn't unusual so far, sir. My men are all wearing extra leggings to keep them from being bitten by them adders--as long as my arm, some of 'em. And there's fungus there which, when you touch it, sends out a smell enough to make a man faint. We killed a cat the first day, as big and as fierce as a young tigress. It's a queer job, sir."
"How long will it take?"
"Matter of three weeks, sir, and when we've got the timber out you'll be well advised to burn it. It's not worth a snap of the fingers.-- Begging your pardon, sir," the man went on, "the old lady in the distance there hangs about the whole of the time. Some of my men are half scared of her."
Dominey swung around. On a mound a little distance away in the park, Rachael Unthank was standing. In her rusty black clothes, unrelieved by any trace of colour, her white cheeks and strange eyes, even in the morning light she was a repellent figure. Dominey strolled across to her.
"You see, Mrs. Unthank," he began--
She interrupted him. Her skinny hand was stretched out towards the wood. "What are those men doing, Sir Everard Dominey?" she demanded. "What is your will with the wood?"
"I am carrying out a determination I came to in the winter," Dominey replied. "Those men are going to cut and hew their way from one end of the Black Wood to the other, until not a tree or a bush remains upright. As they cut, they burn. Afterwards, I shall have it drained. We may live to see a field of corn there, Mrs. Unthank."
"You will dare to do this?" she asked hoarsely.
"Will you dare to tell me why I should not, Mrs. Unthank?"
She relapsed into silence, and Dominey passed on. But that night, as Rosamund and he were lingering over their dessert, enjoying the strange quiet and the wonderful breeze which crept in at the open window, Parkins announced a visitor.
"Mrs. Unthank is in the library, sir," he announced. "She would be glad if you could spare her five minutes."
Rosamund shivered slightly, but nodded as Dominey glanced towards her enquiringly.
"Don't let me see her, please," she begged. "You must go, of course.-- Everard!"
"I know what you are doing out there, although you have never said a word to me about it," she continued, with an odd little note of passion in her tone. "Don't let her persuade you to stop. Let them cut and burn and hew till there isn't room for a mouse to hide. You promise?"
"I promise," he answered.
Mrs. Unthank was making every effort to keep under control her fierce discomposure. She rose as Dominey entered the room and dropped an old- fashioned curtsey.
"Well, Mrs. Unthank," he enquired, "what can I do for you?"
"It's about the wood again, sir," she confessed. "I can't bear it. All night long I seem to hear those axes, and the calling of the men."
"What is your objection, Mrs. Unthank, to the destruction of the Black Wood?" Dominey asked bluntly. "It is nothing more nor less than a noisome pest-hole. Its very presence there, after all that she has suffered, is a menace to Lady Dominey's nerves. I am determined to sweep it from the face of the earth."
The forced respect was already beginning to disappear from her manner. "There's evil will come to you if you do, Sir Everard," she declared doggedly.
"Plenty of evil has come to me from that wood as it is," he reminded her.
"You mean to disturb the spirit of him whose body you threw there?" she persisted.
Dominey looked at her calmly. Some sort of evil seemed to have lit in her face. Her lips had shrunk apart, showing her yellow teeth. The fire in her narrowed eyes was the fire of hatred.
"I am no murderer, Mrs. Unthank," he said. "Your son stole out from the shadow of that wood, attacked me in a cowardly manner, and we fought. He was mad when he attacked me, he fought like a madman, and, notwithstanding my superior strength, I was glad to get away alive. I never touched his body. It lay where he fell. If he crept into the wood and died there, then his death was not at my door. He sought for my life as I never sought for his."
"You'd done him wrong," the woman muttered.
"That again is false. His passion for Lady Dominey was uninvited and unreciprocated. Her only feeling concerning him was one of fear; that the whole countryside knows. Your son was a lonely, a morose and an ill-living man, Mrs. Unthank. If either of us had murder in our hearts, it was he, not I. And as for you," Dominey went on, after a moment's pause, "I think that you have had your revenge, Mrs. Unthank. It was you who nursed my wife into insanity. It was you who fed her with the horror of your son's socalled spirit. I think that if I had stayed away another two years, Lady Dominey would have been in a mad- house to-day."
"I would to Heaven!" the woman cried, "that you'd rotted to death in Africa!"
"You carry your evil feelings far, Mrs. Unthank," he replied. "Take my advice. Give up this foolish idea that the Black Wood is still the home of your son's spirit. Go and live on your annuity in another part of the country and forget."
He moved across the room to throw open a window. Her eyes followed him wonderingly.
"I have heard a rumour," she said slowly; "there has been a word spoken here and there about you. I've had my doubts sometimes. I have them again every time you speak. Are you really Everard Dominey?"
He swung around and faced her.
"There's one," she went on, "has never believed it, and that's her ladyship. I've heard strange talk from the people who've come under your masterful ways. You're a harder man than the Everard Dominey I remember. What if you should be an impostor?"
"You have only to prove that, Mrs. Unthank," Dominey replied, "and a portion, at any rate, of the Black Wood may remain standing. You will find it a little difficult, though.-- You must excuse my ringing the bell. I see no object in asking you to remain longer."
She rose unwillingly to her feet. Her manner was sullen and unyielding.
"You are asking for the evil things," she warned him.
"Be assured," Dominey answered. "that if they come I shall know how to deal with them."
Dominey found Rosamund and Doctor Harrison, who had walked over from the village, lingering on the terrace. He welcomed the latter warmly.
"You are a godsend, Doctor," he declared. "I have been obliged to leave my port untasted for want of a companion. You will excuse us for a moment Rosamund?"
She nodded pleasantly, and the doctor followed his host into the dining-room and took his seat at the table where the dessert still remained.
"Old woman threatening mischief?" the latter asked, with a keen glance from under his shaggy grey eyebrows.
"I think she means it," Dominey replied, as he filled his guest's glass. "Personally," he went on, after a moment's pause, "the present situation is beginning to confirm an old suspicion of mine. I am a hard and fast materialist, you know, Doctor, in certain matters, and I have not the slightest faith in the vindictive mother, terrified to death lest the razing of a wood of unwholesome character should turn out into the cold world the spirit of her angel son."
"What do you believe?" the doctor asked bluntly.
"I would rather not tell you at the present moment," Dominey answered. "It would sound too fantastic."
"Your note this afternoon spoke of urgency," the doctor observed.
"The matter is urgent. I want you to do me a great favour--to remain here all night."
"You are expecting something to happen?"
"I wish, at any rate, to be prepared."
"I'll stay, with pleasure," the doctor promised. "You can lend me some paraphernalia, I suppose? And give me a shake-down somewhere near Lady Dominey's. By-the-by," he began, and hesitated.
"I have followed your advice, or rather your orders," Dominey interrupted, a little harshly. "It has not always been easy, especially in London, where Rosamund is away from these associations. -- I am hoping great things from what may happen to-night, or very soon."
The doctor nodded sympathetically.
"I shouldn't wonder if you weren't on the right track," he declared.
Rosamund came in through the window to them and seated herself by Dominey's side.
"Why are you two whispering like conspirators?" she demanded.
"Because we are conspirators," he replied lightly. "I have persuaded Doctor Harrison to stay the night. He would like a room in our wing. Will you let the maids know, dear?"
She nodded thoughtfully.
"Of course! There are several rooms quite ready. Mrs. Midgeley thought that we might be bringing down some guests. I am quite sure that we can make Doctor Harrison comfortable."
"No doubt about that, Lady Dominey," the doctor declared. "Let me be as near to your apartment as possible."
There was a shade of anxiety in her face.
"You think that to-night something will happen?" she asked.
"To-night, or one night very soon," Dominey assented. "It is just as well for you to be prepared. You will not be afraid, dear? You will have the doctor on one side of you and me on the other."
"I am only afraid of one thing," she answered a little enigmatically. "I have been so happy lately."
Dominey, changed into ordinary morning clothes, with a thick cord tied round his body, a revolver in his pocket, and a loaded stick in his hand, spent the remainder of the night and part of the early morning concealed behind a great clump of rhododendrons, his eyes fixed upon the shadowy stretch of park which lay between the house and the Black Wood. The night was moonless but clear, and when his eyes were once accustomed to the pale but sombre twilight, the whole landscape and the moving objects upon it were dimly visible. The habits of his years of bush life seemed instinctively, in those few hours of waiting, to have reestablished themselves. Every sense was strained and active; every night sound--of which the hooting of some owls, disturbed from their lurking place in the Black Wood, was predominant--heard and accounted for. And then, just as he had glanced at his watch and found that it was close upon two o'clock, came the first real intimation that something was likely to happen. Moving across the park towards him he heard the sound of a faint patter, curious and irregular in rhythm, which came from behind a range of low hillocks. He raised himself on his hands and knees to watch. His eyes were fastened upon a certain spot,--a stretch of the open park between himself and the hillocks. The patter ceased and began again. Into the open there came a dark shape, the irregularity of its movements swiftly explained. It moved at first upon all fours, then on two legs, then on all fours again. It crept nearer and nearer, and Dominey, as he watched, laid aside his stick. It reached the terrace, paused beneath Rosamund's window, now barely half a dozen yards from where he was crouching. Deliberately he waited, waited for what he knew must soon come. Then the deep silence of the breathless night was broken by that familiar, unearthly scream. Dominey waited till even its echoes had died away. Then he ran a few steps, bent double, and stretched out his hands. Once more, for the last time, that devil's cry broke the deep stillness of the August morning, throbbing a little as though with a new fear, dying away as though the fingers which crushed it back down the straining throat had indeed crushed with it the last flicker of some unholy life.
When Doctor Harrison made his hurried appearance, a few moments later, he found Dominey seated upon the terrace, furiously smoking a cigarette. On the ground, a few yards away, lay something black and motionless.
"What is it?" the doctor gasped.
For the first time Dominey showed some signs of a lack of self- control. His voice was choked and uneven.
"Go and look at it, Doctor," he said. "It's tied up, hand and foot. You can see where the spirit of Roger Unthank has hidden itself."
"Bosh!" the doctor answered, with grim contempt. "It's Roger Unthank himself. The beast!"
A little stream of servants came running out. Dominey gave a few orders quickly.
"Ring up the garage," he directed, "and I shall want one of the men to go into Norwich to the hospital. Doctor, will you go up and see Lady Dominey?"
The habits of a lifetime broke down. Parkins, the immaculate, the silent, the perfect automaton, asked an eager question.
"What is it, sir?" There was the sound of a window opening overhead. At that moment Parkins would not have asked in vain for an annuity. Dominey glanced at the little semicircle of servants and raised his voice.
"It is the end, I trust, of these foolish superstitions about Roger Unthank's ghost. There lies Roger Unthank, half beast, half man. For some reason or other--some lunatic's reason, of course--he has chosen to hide himself in the Black Wood all these years. His mother, I presume, has been his accomplice and taken him food. He is still alive but in a disgusting state."
There was a little awed murmur. Dominey's voice had become quite matter of fact.
"I suppose," he continued, "his first idea was to revenge himself upon us and this household, by whom he imagined himself badly treated. The man, however, was half a madman when he came to the neighbourhood and has behaved like one ever since.-- Johnson," Dominey continued, singling out a sturdy footman with sound common sense, "get ready to take this creature into Norwich Hospital. Say that if I do not come in during the day, a letter of explanation will follow from me. The rest of you, with the exception of Parkins, please go to bed."
With little exclamations of wonder they began to disperse. Then one of them paused and pointed across the park. Moving with incredible swiftness came the gaunt, black figure of Rachael Unthank, swaying sometimes on her feet, yet in their midst before they could realise it. She staggered to the prostrate body and threw herself upon her knees. Her hands rested upon the unseen face, her eyes glared across at Dominey.
"So you've got him at last!" she gasped.
"Mrs. Unthank," Dominey said sternly, "you are in time to accompany your son to the hospital at Norwich. The car will be here in two minutes. I have nothing to say to you. Your own conscience should be sufficient punishment for keeping that poor creature alive in such a fashion and ministering during my absence to his accursed desire for vengeance."
"He would have died if I hadn't brought him food," she muttered. "I have wept all the tears a woman's broken heart could wring out, beseeching him to come back to me."
"Yet," Dominey insisted, "you shared his foul plot for vengeance against a harmless woman. You let him come and make his ghoulish noises, night by night, under these windows, without a word of remonstrance. You knew very well what their accursed object was--you, with a delicate woman in your charge who trusted you. You are an evil pair, but of the two you are worse than your half-witted son."
The woman made no reply. She was still on her knees, bending over the prostrate figure, from whose lips now came a faint moaning. Then the lights of the car flashed out as it left the garage, passed through the iron gates and drew up a few yards away. "Help him in," Dominey ordered. "You can loosen his cords, Johnson, as soon as you have started. He has very little strength. Tell them at the hospital I shall probably be there during the day, or to-morrow."
With a little shiver the two men stooped to their task. Their prisoner muttered to himself all the time, but made no resistance. Rachael Unthank, as she stepped in to take her place by his side, turned once more to Dominey. She was a broken woman.
"You're rid of us," she sobbed, "perhaps forever.-- You've said harsh things of both of us. Roger isn't always--so bad. Sometimes he's more gentle than at others. You'd have thought then that he was just a baby, living there for love of the wind and the trees and the birds. If he comes to--"
Her voice broke. Dominey's reply was swift and not unkind. He pointed to the window above.
"If Lady Dominey recovers, you and your son are forgiven. If she never recovers, I wish you both the blackest corner of hell."
The car drove off. Doctor Harrison met Dominey on the threshold as he turned towards the house.
"Her ladyship is unconscious now," he announced. "Perhaps that is a good sign. I never liked that unnatural calm. She'll be unconscious, I think, for a great many hours. For God's sake, come and get a whisky and soda and give me one!"
The early morning sunshine lay upon the park when the two men at last separated. They stood for a moment looking out. From the Black Wood came the whirr of a saw. The little troop of men had left their tents. The crash of a fallen tree heralded their morning's work.
"You are still going on with that?" the doctor asked.
"To the very last stump of a tree, to the last bush, to the last cluster of weeds," Dominey replied, with a sudden passion in his tone. "I will have that place razed to the bare level of the earth, and I will have its poisonous swamps sucked dry. I have hated that foul spot," he went on, "ever since I realised what suffering it meant to her. My reign here may not be long, Doctor--I have my own tragedy to deal with--but those who come after me will never feel the blight of that accursed place."
The doctor grunted. His inner thoughts he kept to himself. "Maybe you're right," he conceded.