Chapter XXXI. Ysola Camber's Confession
Paul Harley, with Wessex and Inspector Aylesbury, presently set out for Market Hilton, where Colin Camber and Ah Tsong were detained and where the body of Colonel Menendez had been conveyed for the purpose of the post-mortem. I had volunteered to remain at Cray's Folly, my motive being not wholly an unselfish one.
"Refer reporters to me, Mr. Knox," said Inspector Wessex. "Don't let them trouble the ladies. And tell them as little as possible, yourself."
The drone of the engine having died away down the avenue, I presently found myself alone, but as I crossed the hall in the direction of the library, intending to walk out upon the southern lawns, I saw Val Beverley coming toward me from Madame de Staemer's room.
She remained rather pale, but smiled at me courageously.
"Have they all gone, Mr. Knox?" she asked. "I have really been hiding. I suppose you knew?"
"I suspected it," I said, smiling. "Yes, they are all gone. How is Madame de Staemer, now?"
"She is quite calm. Curiously, almost uncannily calm. She is writing. Tell me, please, what does Mr. Harley think of Inspector Aylesbury's preposterous ideas?"
"He thinks he is a fool," I replied, hotly, "as I do."
"But whatever will happen if he persists in dragging me into this horrible case?"
"He will not drag you into it," I said, quietly. "He has been superseded by a cleverer man, and the case is practically under Harley's direction now."
"Thank Heaven for that," she murmured. "I wonder----" She looked at me hesitatingly.
"Yes?" I prompted.
"I have been thinking about poor Mrs. Camber all alone in that gloomy house, and wondering----"
"Perhaps I know. You are going to visit her?"
Val Beverley nodded, watching me.
"Can you leave Madame de Staemer with safety?"
"Oh, yes, I think so. Nita can attend to her."
"And may I accompany you, Miss Beverley? For more reasons than one, I, too, should like to call upon Mrs. Camber."
"We might try," she said, hesitatingly. "I really only wanted to be kind. You won't begin to cross-examine her, will you?"
"Certainly not," I answered; "although there are many things I should like her to tell us."
"Well, suppose we go," said the girl, "and let events take their own course."
As a result, I presently found myself, Val Beverley by my side, walking across the meadow path. With the unpleasant hush of Cray's Folly left behind, the day seemed to grow brighter. I thought that the skylarks had never sung more sweetly. Yet in this same instant of sheerly physical enjoyment I experienced a pang of remorse, remembering the tragic woman we had left behind, and the poor little sorrowful girl we were going to visit. My emotions were very mingled, then, and I retain no recollection of our conversation up to the time that we came to the Guest House.
We were admitted by a really charming old lady, who informed us that her name was Mrs. Powis and that she was but an hour returned from London, whither she had been summoned by telegram.
She showed us into a quaint, small drawing room which owed its atmosphere quite clearly to Mrs. Camber, for whereas the study was indescribably untidy, this was a model of neatness without being formal or unhomely. Here, in a few moments, Mrs. Camber joined us, an appealing little figure of wistful, almost elfin, beauty. I was surprised and delighted to find that an instant bond of sympathy sprang up between the two girls. I diplomatically left them together for a while, going into Camber's room to smoke my pipe. And when I returned:
"Oh, Mr. Knox," said Val Beverley, "Mrs. Camber has something to tell you which she thinks you ought to know."
"Concerning Colonel Menendez?" I asked, eagerly.
Mrs. Camber nodded her golden head.
"Yes," she replied, but glancing at Val Beverley as if to gather confidence. "The truth can never hurt Colin. He has nothing to conceal. May I tell you?"
"I am all anxiety to hear," I assured her.
"Would you rather I went, Mrs. Camber?" asked Val Beverley.
Mrs. Camber reached across and took her hand.
"Please, no," she replied. "Stay here with me. I am afraid it is rather a long story."
"Never mind," I said. "It will be time well spent if it leads us any nearer to the truth."
"Yes?" she questioned, watching me anxiously, "you think so? I think so, too."
She became silent, sitting looking straight before her, the pupils of her blue eyes widely dilated. Then, at first in a queer, far-away voice, she began to speak again.
"I must tell you," she commenced "that before--my marriage, my name was Isabella de Valera."
"Ysola was my baby way of saying it, and so I came to be called Ysola. My father was manager of one of Senor Don Juan's estates, in a small island near the coast of Cuba. My mother"--she raised her little hands eloquently--"was half-caste. Do you know? And she and my father--"
She looked pleadingly at Val Beverley.
"I understand," whispered the latter with deep sympathy; "but you don't think it makes any difference, do you?"
"No?" said Mrs. Camber with a quaint little gesture. "To you, perhaps not, but there, where I was born, oh! so much. Well, then, my mother died when I was very little. Ah Tsong was her servant. There are many Chinese in the West Indies, you see, and I can just remember he carried me in to see her. Of course I didn't understand. My father quarrelled bitterly with the priests because they would not bury her in holy ground. I think he no longer believed afterward. I loved him very much. He was good to me; and I was a queen in that little island. All the negroes loved me, because of my mother, I think, who was partly descended from slaves, as they were. But I had not begun to understand how hard it was all going to be when my father sent me to a convent in Cuba.
"I hated to go, but while I was there I learned all about myself. I knew that I was outcast. It was"--she raised her hand--"not possible to stay. I was only fifteen when I came home, but all the same I was a woman. I was no more a child, and happy no longer. After a while, perhaps, when I forgot what I had suffered at the convent, I became less miserable. My father did all in his power to make me happy, and I was glad the work-people loved me. But I was very lonely. Ah Tsong understood."
Her eyes filled with tears.
"Can you imagine," she asked, "that when my father was away in distant parts of the island at night, Ah Tsong slept outside my door? Some of them say, 'Do not trust the Chinese' I say, except my husband and my father, I have never known another one to trust but Ah Tsong. Now they have taken him away from me."
Tears glittered on her lashes, but she brushed them aside angrily, and continued:
"I was still less than twenty, and looked, they told me, only fourteen, when Senor Menendez came to inspect his estate. I had never seen him before. There had been a rising in the island, in the year after I was born, and he had only just escaped with his life. He was hated. People called him Devil Menendez. Especially, no woman was safe from him, and in the old days, when his power had been great, he had used it for wickedness.
"My father was afraid when he heard he was coming. He would have sent me away, but before it could be arranged Senor the Colonel arrived. He had in his company a French lady. I thought her very beautiful and elegant. It was Madame de Staemer. It is only four years ago, a little more, but her hair was dark brown. She was splendidly dressed and such a wonderful horsewoman. The first time I saw her I felt as they had made me feel at the convent. I wanted to hide from her. She was so grand a lady, and I came from slaves."
She paused hesitatingly and stared down at her own tiny feet.
"Pardon me interrupting you, Mrs. Camber," I said, "but can you tell me in what way these two are related?"
She looked up with her naive smile.
"I can tell you, yes. A cousin of Senor Menendez married a sister of Madame de Staemer."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, "a very remote kinship."
"It was in this way they met, in Paris, I think, and"--she raised her hands expressively--"she came with him to the West Indies, although it was during the great war. I think she loved him more than her soul, and me--me she hated. As Senor Menendez dismounted from his horse in front of the house he saw me."
She sighed and ceased speaking again. Then:
"That very night," she continued, "he began. Do you know? I was trying to escape from him when Madame de Staemer found us. She called me a shameful name, and my father, who heard it, ordered her out of the house. Senor Menendez spoke sharply, and my father struck him."
She paused once more, biting her lip agitatedly, but presently proceeded:
"Do you know what they are like, the Spanish, when their blood is hot? Senor Menendez had a revolver, but my father knocked it from his grasp. Then they fought with their bare hands. I was too frightened even to cry out. It was all a horrible dream. What Madame de Staemer did, I do not know. I could see nothing but two figures twined together on the floor. At last one of them arose. I saw it was my father, and I remember no more."
She was almost overcome by her tragic recollections, but presently, with a wonderful courage, which, together with her daintiness of form, spoke eloquently of good blood on one side at any rate, continued to speak:
"My father found he must go to Cuba to make arrangements for the future. Of course, our life there was finished. Ah Tsong stayed with me. You have heard how it used to be in those islands in the old days, but now you think it is so different? I used to think it was different, too. On the first night my father was away, Ah Tsong, who had gone out, was so long returning I became afraid. Then a strange negro came with news that he had been taken ill with cholera, and was lying at a place not far from the house. I forgot my fears and hurried off with this man. Ah!"
She laughed wildly.
"I did not know I should never return, and I did not know I should never see my father again. To you this must seem all wild and strange, because there is a law in England. There is a law in Cuba, too, but in some of those little islands the only law is the law of the strongest."
She raised her hands to her face and there was silence for a while.
"Of course it was a trap," she presently continued. "I was taken to an island called El Manas which belonged to Senor Menendez, and where he had a house. This he could do, but"--she threw back her head proudly-- "my spirit he could not break. Lots and lots of money would be mine, and estates of my own; but one thing about him I must tell: he never showed me violence. For one, two, three weeks I stayed a prisoner in his house. All the servants were faithful to him and I could not find a friend among them. Although quite innocent, I was ruined. Do you know?"
She raised her eyes pathetically to Val Beverley.
"I thought my heart was broken, for something told me my father was dead. This was true."
"What!" I exclaimed. "You don't mean--"
"I don't know, I don't know," she answered, brokenly. "He died on his way to Havana. They said it was an accident. Well--at last, Senor Menendez offered me marriage. I thought if I agreed it would give me my freedom, and I could run away and find Ah Tsong."
She paused, and a flush coloured her delicate face and faded again, leaving it very pale.
"We were married in the house, by a Spanish priest. Oh"--she raised her hands pathetically--"do you know what a woman is like? My spirit was not broken still, but crushed. I had now nothing but kindness and gifts. I might never have known, but Senor Menendez, who thought"--she smiled sadly--"I was beautiful, took me to Cuba, where he had a great house. Please remember, please," she pleaded, "before you judge of me, that I was so young and had never known love, except the love of my father. I did not even dream, then, his death was not an accident.
"I was proud of my jewels and fine dresses. But I began to notice that Juan did not present any of his friends to me. We went about, but to strange places, never to visit people of his own kind, and none came to visit us. Then one night I heard someone on the balcony of my room. I was so frightened I could not cry out. It was good I was like that, for the curtain was pulled open and Ah Tsong came in."
She clutched convulsively at the arms of her chair.
"He told me!" she said in a very low voice.
Then, looking up pitifully:
"Do you know?" she asked in her quaint way. "It was a mock marriage. He had done it and thought no shame, because it was so with my mother. Oh!"
Her beautiful eyes flashed, and for the first time since I had met Ysola Camber I saw the real Spanish spirit of the woman leap to life.
"He did not know me. Perhaps I did not know myself. That night, with no money, without a ring, a piece of lace, a peseta, anything that had belonged to him, I went with Ah Tsong. We made our way to a half-sister of my father's who lived in Puerto Principe, and at first--she would not have me. I was talked about, she said, in all the islands. She told me of my poor father. She told me I had dragged the name of de Valera in the dirt. At last I made her understand--that what everyone else had known, I had never even dreamed of."
She looked up wistfully, as if thinking that we might doubt her.
"Do you know?" she whispered.
"I know--oh! I know!" said Val Beverley. I loved her for the sympathy in her voice and in her eyes. "It is very, very brave of you to tell us this, Mrs. Camber."
"Yes? Do you think so?" asked the girl, simply. "What does it matter if it can help Colin?
"This aunt of mine," she presently continued, "was a poor woman, and it was while I was hiding in her house--because spies of Senor Menendez were searching for me--that I met--my husband. He was studying in Cuba the strange things he writes about, you see. And before I knew what had happened--I found I loved him more than all else in the world. It is so wonderful, that feeling," she said, looking across at Val Beverley. "Do you know?"
The girl flushed deeply, and lowered her eyes, but made no reply.
"Because you are a woman, too, you will perhaps understand," she resumed. "I did not tell him. I did not dare to tell him at first. I was so madly happy I had no courage to speak. But when"--her voice sank lower and lower--"he asked me to marry him, I told him. Nothing he could ever do would change my love for him now, because he forgave me and made me his wife."
I feared that at last she was going to break down, for her voice became very tremulous and tears leapt again into her eyes. She conquered her emotion, however, and went on:
"We crossed over to the States, and Colin's family who had heard of his marriage--some friend of Senor Menendez had told them--would not know us. It meant that Colin, who would have been a rich man, was very poor. It made no difference. He was splendid. And I was so happy it was all like a dream. He made me forget I was to blame for his troubles. Then we were in Washington--and I saw Senor Menendez in the hotel!
"Oh, my heart stopped beating. For me it seemed like the end of everything. I knew, I knew, he was following me. But he had not seen me, and without telling Colin the reason, I made him leave Washington, He was glad to go. Wherever we went, in America, they seemed to find out about my mother. I got to hate them, hate them all. We came to England, and Colin heard about this house, and we took it.
"At last we were really happy. No one knew us. Because we were strange, and because of Ah Tsong, they looked at us very funny and kept away, but we did not care. Then Sir James Appleton sold Cray's Folly."
She looked up quickly.
"How can I tell you? It must have been by Ah Tsong that he traced me to Surrey. Some spy had told him there was a Chinaman living here. Oh, I don't know how he found out, but when I heard who was coming to Cray's Folly I thought I should die.
"Something I must tell you now. When I had told my story to Colin, one thing I had not told him, because I was afraid what he might do. I had not told him the name of the man who had caused me to suffer so much. On the day I first saw Senor Menendez walking in the garden of Cray's Folly I knew I must tell my husband what he had so often asked me to tell him--the name of the man. I told him--and at first I thought he would go mad. He began to drink--do you know? It is a failing in his family. But because I knew--because I knew--I forgave him, and hoped, always hoped, that he would stop. He promised to do so. He had given up going out each day to drink, and was working again like he used to work--too hard, too hard, but it was better than the other way."
She stopped speaking, and suddenly, before I could divine her intention, dropped upon her knees, and raised her clasped hands to me.
"He did not, he did not kill him!" she cried, passionately. "He did not! O God! I who love him tell you he did not! You think he did. You do--you do! I can see it in your eyes!"
"Believe me, Mrs. Camber," I answered, deeply moved, "I don't doubt your word for a moment."
She continued to look at me for a while, and then turned to Val Beverley.
"You don't think he did," she sobbed, "do you?"
She looked such a child, such a pretty, helpless child, as she knelt there on the carpet, that I felt a lump rising in my throat.
Val Beverley dropped down impulsively beside her and put her arms around the slender shoulders.
"Of course I don't," she exclaimed, indignantly. "Of course I don't. It's quite unthinkable."
"I know it is," moaned the other, raising her tearful face. "I love him and know his great soul. But what do these others know, and they will never believe me."
"Have courage," I said. "It has never failed you yet. Mr. Paul Harley has promised to clear him by to-night."
"He has promised?" she whispered, still kneeling and clutching Val Beverley tightly. She looked up at me with hope reborn in her beautiful eyes. "He has promised? Oh, I thank him. May God bless him. I know he will succeed."
I turned aside, and walked out across the hall and into the empty study.