The Loudwater Tragedy
1. Page scan source: The Internet Web Archive
T. W. SPEIGHT
AUTHOR OF "THE MYSTERIES OF HERON DYKE," "HOODWINKED,"
"BACK TO LIFE," ETC.
CHATTO & WINDUS, PICCADILLY
|I.||ON THE EDGE OF A SECRET.|
|II.||WHO IS MRS. WINSLADE?|
|III.||THE SECRET TOLD.|
|IV.||IN WHICH MISS SUDLOW SPEAKS HER MIND.|
|V.||A FAMILY CONFERENCE AND WHAT CAME OF IT.|
|VI.||IN WHICH MISS SUDLOW HAS HER WAY.|
|VII.||PERSONAL TO PHIL.|
|VIII.||PHIL TAKES UP THE TRAIL AFRESH.|
|XI.||FANNY AT LOUDWATER HOUSE.|
|XII.||MRS. MELRAY THE YOUNGER IN A NEW LIGHT.|
|XIII.||MRS. MELRAY'S STATEMENT.|
|XIV.||THE STATEMENT CONCLUDED.|
|XV.||A SCRAP OF PAPER.|
|XVI.||A FRESH LINE OF INQUIRY.|
|XVII.||"A MAN I AM, CROSS'D WITH ADVERSITY."|
|XVIII.||AN UNLOOKED-FOR DEVELOPMENT.|
|XIX.||AN UNAVOIDABLE NECESSITY.|
|XX.||"WE MUST SPEAK BY THE CARD."|
|XXI.||THE TRUTH AT LAST.|
|XXII.||ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.|
THE STORY OF THE CRIME.
12 Leighton Place, Worthing.
"My Dear Phil.--By this post I send you a copy of a certain pennyweekly journal entitled The Family Cornucopia, which, for lack ofsomething better to read, I picked up the other day at a bookstallwhile on my way to the beach.
"Naturally, you will at once say to yourself (for you cannot deny,dear, that you occasionally express yourself with somewhat unnecessaryemphasis over trifles), 'What the dickens does the girl mean bybothering me with her trumpery penny rubbish?' Well, that is just thepoint about which 'the girl' is going to enlighten you.
"Of course you have not forgotten 'The Loudwater Tragedy,' as most ofthe newspapers called it at the time (although some there were whowrote of it as the 'Merehampton Mystery'). Neither, perhaps, has itescaped your memory how, with the object of helping to interest andcarry out of herself for a little while, a young woman who, just then,was staying at a dull Devonshire village with the captious, butmuch-to-be-pitied, invalid in whose service she was, you wrote her anumber of letters, dated from the very roof under which the tragedy inquestion had been enacted, in which you recapitulated for herinformation all the details of the crime as gathered by you on thespot; nor how you sketched for her the old mansion and its inmates,with the view from its windows, and all the quaint features of thesleepy little seaport, so that, after a time, she could almost havepersuaded herself that what you had written formed a part of herpersonal experiences. If you have forgotten those letters, I have not.Yesterday I refreshed my memory by reading them again, and the reasonI did so is this.
"In the periodical I am sending you there is an article extending overfive pages, entitled, 'How, and Why' which, strange to say, not merelyseems to be based on the Loudwater Tragedy, but, under the guise offiction, tells the story of the crime down to its minutest details;and not only does that, but, with almost photographic fidelity, limnsfor its readers the portraits of the various persons who were in anyway mixed up with that mysterious affair.
"But the writer of 'How, and Why'--he or she, as the case may be--doesmore, much more, than merely retell the story of the crime anddescribe the people who had to do with it. The article in questionpurports to be the confession of the murderer of Mr. Melray, writtenon the eve of his suicide, and professes to trace, step by step, howhe was led on to the commission of the crime, and, in point of fact,sets the whole affair in an entirely fresh and startling light. Toprove to you that this is so, it will only be necessary to say thatthe writer of the confession describes himself as having been a lover,before her marriage, of the old merchant's 'girl-wife,' and that itwas owing to his inadvertently interrupting an assignation between theyoung people that 'Mr. Melville' came by his death. High words passedbetween the elder man and the younger; there was a scuffle; a blow wasgiven in the heat of passion, and in a moment the irrevocable deed wasdone. I have omitted to say that, according to the story, after thepolice have given up the case as hopeless, suspicion unexpectedlyattaches itself to the head-clerk, (who figures as 'Mr. Day'), andthat, in the result, circumstantial evidence is brought to bearagainst him sufficiently strong to ensure his conviction on thecapital charge. It is after 'Mr. Day' is left for execution that thewriter of the confession--who, although he acknowledges to the crimeof which he has been guilty, is careful to impress upon his readersthat he is not without his fine qualities--overcome by remorse,determines to avow the truth and thereby save the life of an innocentman, albeit at the expense of his own. He pens a farewell message tothe 'Ernestine' of the story--that is to say, to the murdered man'swidow--and then gives his readers to understand that the moment afterthe last word of his confession shall have been written he willswallow the poison which he has procured in readiness for thatpurpose.
"Now, all this seems to me sufficiently remarkable. Of course, thequestion is, how much truth and how much fiction underlies thesupposititious confession? That the whole of the latter part of it ispurely fictitious we know already. We know, for instance, that not aniota of suspicion ever attached itself to Mr. Melray's managing clerk.Consequently that he has never been arrested, tried, or condemned.Further than that, we know that the crime remains an unexplainedmystery to this day.
"In view, then, of the fact that the latter half of the self-styledconfession is proved to be a sheer invention, might it not reasonablybe assumed that the first half pertains to the same class ofnarrative? Such would seem to be a common-sense way of looking at theaffair, were it not that there is so much of actual fact as regardsthe commission of the crime itself mixed up with the narrative, and somany real persons under assumed names introduced therein, as to createa suspicion (in my mind, at least) that there may be some substratumof truth in that part of it which attributes the death of Mr. Melrayto a quarrel with a former lover of his young and attractive wife.
"That you will read 'How, and Why,' after what I have here said aboutit, I do not doubt; after which I think you will agree with me thatthe story refers to 'The Loudwater Tragedy' and to no other crime, andthat the writer of it, whoever he may be, displays a singularly minuteand intimate acquaintance with all the details of that still unsolvedmystery.
"You will say to yourself that this is a strange letter for a youngwoman to write to her lover, and so it is, but then the circumstancesof the case are peculiar. However, I promise you that my next lettershall be a very different kind of composition.
"Miss Mawby's bell has just rung, so I will conclude without a wordmore, except that, now and always, I am yours and yours only,
Such was the letter which Philip Winslade found one morning on hisbreakfast-table. But before introducing either the writer or therecipient of it to the reader's notice, it mokers andgeneral merchants. Of the two brothers who made up the firm, James,the elder, was, to all intents and purposes, the sole representative.Robert, the younger brother, had been delicate from boyhood, and foundit to the advantage of his health to winter abroad. Indeed, wheneverhe happened to be in England his visits to Merehampton were few andperfunctory, and while retaining a monetary interest in the business,he never concerned himself with the details, but willingly left theentire management to James, who, on his part, being a masterful kindof man and one who would have felt it irksome to have to put up with apartner who might chance to hold independent views--was quite contentthat matters should remain as they were. At this time James Melray wasfifty years old, Robert being his junior by some ten or eleven years.
The house in which James dwelt, and under the roof of which both thebrothers had been born, was known as Loudwater House, through having,once on a time, been the domicile of an old county family of thatname. It was a handsome and substantial red-brick structure of theearly Georgian period, with a good deal of ornamental stonework aboutit, and stood fronting the river Laming (for Merehampton is betweenthree and four miles up stream from the sea) on what in these latterdays was known as the Quay-side, but which at the time the house wasbuilt had doubtless been either green fields or private groundspertaining to it. So long ago, however, was it since that part of theriver had been banked in and the Quay-side called into existence, andsince its row of ugly warehouses had been erected, each with its craneprotruding from its second or third storey, and each with its suite ofgloomy offices on the ground floor, that not even the oldestinhabitant of Merehampton could remember the place as being other thanit was now. It was only a matter of course that, having become thehome of a commercial family, the Georgian mansion should, to someextent, be put to commercial uses. Thus it had come to pass that theground-floor rooms had been turned in part into offices and in partinto a warehouse, with an additional room in which were storedcordage, blocks, sails, spars, chains and tools of various kinds,together with a miscellaneous assortment of maritime gear andappliances.
There could be but little doubt that Merehampton had passed the zenithof its prosperity as a seaport. With the opening of the railway avital blow had been struck at the shipping interests of the littletown. The coasting trade had dwindled by degrees to less than half ofwhat it had been a few years before; some of the merchants andshippers had become bankrupt; others had taken themselves and theircapital elsewhere; others, on the principle of half a loaf beingbetter than none, had made the best of what could not be helped; halfthe warehouses on the Quay-side were untenanted; but through it allthe firm of Melray Brothers had held manfully on its way, although inthe face of a sorely diminished trade.
James Melray's household was a small one, comprising, as it did, onlyhimself, his mother--a venerable lady between seventy and eighty yearsof age--who had her own suite of rooms and her own maid and companion,and, lastly, the merchant's girl-wife, who at the time the tragedytook place had been married to him some two and a half years.
Mr. Melray was a widower of some years' standing, but without family,when he first met Denia Lidington, who was the orphan niece and wardof one of his oldest friends. This friend dying, left Denia and hersmall fortune to his charge till the girl should come of age--a chargewhich Mr. Melray willingly undertook. How and by what degrees thekindly semi-paternal feeling with which he at first regarded thelonely girl changed to a sentiment of a far different texture is notwithin the scope of this narrative to describe. It is enough to saythat about a year after his friend's death James Melray proposed toDenia Lidington, and, somewhat to his own surprise, was acceptedwithout the slightest demur.
The marriage took place at Solchester, an inland town about a dozenmiles from Merehampton, where, after her uncle's death, Denia hadfound a home in the house of a widowed lady of good family, butlimited means, in whom Mr. Melray had implicit confidence. A monthlater the bride entered upon her new duties as the mistress ofLoudwater House.
That she was an exceedingly pretty and attractive-looking young womaneverybody was agreed; indeed, there were not wanting some who went sofar as to call her beautiful. Her figure was slight, but full ofgrace, and was rather under the medium height of her sex. She had eyesof the clearest April blue, shaded by heavy lashes, finely-archedeyebrows, and a mass of silky maize-coloured hair. Her complexion wasa pure creamy white, with only the very faintest flush of colourshowing through it. There was nothing striking or pronounced about herfeatures;