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17: A Life History

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Author Topic: 17: A Life History  (Read 2 times)
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« on: March 25, 2023, 07:40:23 am »

TO say that Ellis was amazed by the discovery that the pseudo Mrs. Moxton was really Janet Gordon, would be to give a feeble idea of his feelings. For some moments he was too thunderstruck to speak, and remained staring at Miss Gordon as though she were a ghost. Seeing this, the girl---for she was no more---gently took his hand and guided him to a comfortable chair by the fire. Then she sat down at his elbow and explained herself seriously. She was as pretty as ever, but her cheeks were pale, there were dark circles under her eyes, and she had the nervous, agitated manner of one suffering from a great strain.

"Yes, I am Janet Gordon," said she, with a sigh, "and I have been masquerading as my sister ever since the terrible night of her husband's murder. My reasons for so doing you shall learn later on, for I am determined to tell you the whole truth of this matter so far as it is known to me."

"This is the secret you have been keeping from me?" said Ellis, much agitated.

Miss Gordon nodded. "I was afraid to speak before, even to so good a friend as yourself. But I find that I can bear my burden no longer; so I turn to you for help and comfort. You must aid me, you must see after my unhappy sister who lies in the next room."

"Is she guilty of the murder?" asked the doctor, rather harshly.

"No, no," cried Janet, trembling. "She is innocent, although appearances are against her. You will hear her story about that night from herself, but first I intend to relate my life history. I do not wish you to have a wrong opinion of me, Dr. Ellis."

"I could never have that, Miss Gordon," said Ellis, promptly. "I always believed that you were more sinned against than sinning. I wonder I did not guess at your identity before. Schwartz and Mrs. Amber both spoke highly of you, and I could not reconcile their opinion of Mrs. Moxton with what I knew of you under that name. Your explanation makes all clear."

"How do you know Mrs. Amber?"

"I went there to see the supposed Janet Gordon, and Mrs. Amber told me that you---that is Mrs. Moxton---had gone."

"I was afraid to leave my sister there after what Busham said," replied Janet, with a troubled air. "I let him burn the will, so that he might hold his tongue about Laura, for I saw that he suspected her. I took Laura to Bayswater, where we lived quietly for the last few days. But she is ill, and seeing no way out of the difficulty, and being in want of money, I resolved to bring Laura here and ask for your help."

"It will be freely given, I assure you."

In spite of the gravity of the situation, Ellis looked at his companion with so meaning a gaze that her cheek flushed and her eyes dropped before his. Yet she raised a deprecating hand to quell his emotion. "No, no, not yet, perhaps never. You must hear my story before you can think of me in that way."

"I shall always think the same of you. You are the dearest and the noblest of women. But I must confess that I am anxious to hear your confession. Begin at once; I am all attention."

Janet folded her hands on her black dress and looked musingly at the fire. There was a shadow on her resolute face cast by some bitter memory of the past. Ellis watched her in silence, and noted with pity how weary and worn she looked. Her reverie continued for two or three moments. Then she raised her head and related her unhappy past in quiet, melancholy tones.

"Laura and I are twins," she began. "We are very much alike in looks, but entirely different in disposition. I am strong-minded and calm; she is frivolous and highly excitable---indeed, sometimes I think she is not in her right senses, so furious are her rages. She has the fiery Celtic nature inherited from our mother, who was a Highland woman. I am more like my father, who was a calm-tempered, persevering man. We were born in Edinburgh, where my parents lived for some years after their marriage. My father was a doctor, and made a great deal of money."

"How strange that I should be a doctor also," said Ellis, meaningly.

Janet smiled and shook her head at the interruption. "As I say, my father made a great deal of money," she continued, "for he had a large and increasing practice, but a chill he contracted while visiting a patient in the country carried him off when Laura and I were ten years old. My mother was left a widow and well off, so taking a dislike to Edinburgh after her husband's death, she travelled abroad. For some years we wandered on the Continent, and Laura and I were educated at several schools, but my mother so wished to keep us beside her, that I am afraid we gained little knowledge. However, we learnt to speak French, German and Italian, so we benefited in some degree by our roving. For some years things went on like this, until at Carlsbad my mother met with Colonel Zirknitz, who was in the Austrian army."

"Rudolph's father?"

"Yes. Rudolph was then eighteen years of age, Laura and I fifteen. My mother fell in love with Colonel Zirknitz, and hearing that she was rich, he married her. But I am sure that he never loved her. We went to Vienna and lived there for some time. Our stepfather was not unkind, and treated my mother with every courtesy, but he was a gambler and a spendthrift."

"I see. The vices of Zirknitz are hereditary!"

Janet sighed. "I suppose so," said she, "but you must not be too hard on Rudolph, doctor. His failings are hardly vices. He has many good qualities."

"Mostly negative qualities, I fear, Miss Gordon. You are fascinated by that splendid scamp, like everyone else."

"That may be. Rudolph has not a fine character, and I have rather a contempt for him. All the same I am fond of him, although sometimes I feel angry for being so. Of course, Rudolph grew up with me, so to speak, and I look upon him as a brother. He was always wild; he has never done anything all his life, and although I have great influence over him I cannot get him to settle down."

"Is Colonel Zirknitz alive?" asked Ellis, anxious that she should proceed with her story.

"No, he died some time ago, but lived long enough to spend all my mother's fortune."

"And is she dead also?"

"Yes, she is dead," sighed Janet. "She died six months after her husband. I believe the loss of him broke her heart. He was a singularly fascinating man."

"After seeing the son I can well believe that. What happened when you found yourself alone in the world?"

"I came back to London with Laura. We were left penniless in Vienna, but Rudolph procured money somehow---by gambling, I fancy, and came to England with us. We left him in London staying at Mrs. Amber's house in Geneva Square, and went to Edinburgh to see if our father's relations would help us. Alas! they would do nothing."

"So much for the world's charity," said Ellis, cynically. "Brutes! what made them refuse, or, rather, what excuse did they make?"

"The excuse that my mother had married a second time. I begged and implored them to help Laura, if not me, but as they refused we came back to London. Rudolph behaved very well, for he paid our board at Mrs. Amber's for some time; so you see, doctor, he has some good points."

"I suppose so," replied Ellis, grudgingly. "He could do no less. Then you met Schwartz, I suppose?"

"We did. Some years ago in Germany we knew him, and on hearing of our penniless condition he gave me first an engagement as an attendant, and afterwards made me his private secretary. He offered to take on Laura also as an attendant, but I knew how frivolous she was, so I got her a situation in a typewriting office instead. I might have saved myself the trouble of protecting her from harm," sighed Janet, wearily, "for look what she has come to."

"Why did she marry Moxton?"

"She was tired of poverty and work. Moxton was the heir to wealth, and he professed to love her deeply. Against my will she married the man. I think she was encouraged by Rudolph, who fancied Moxton, as a brother-in-law, would lend him money. But after the marriage took place Edgar had no money to lend. His father resented the marriage, and cut him off with a shilling. With what money he had inherited from his mother Edgar went abroad with my sister. He gambled and drank, and treated Laura cruelly, as he accused her of being the cause of his ruin. They came back to England, and lived in this house the life I described at the inquest in the character of Mrs. Moxton."

"Ah," said Ellis, "now you come to the crucial point. Why did you impersonate your sister?"

"To save her from arrest and perhaps from death," replied Janet, feverishly. "I knew she could not face the inquest, or protect herself, and knowing that few people in this district were acquainted with her looks, and being very like her myself as her twin-sister, I seized the advantage offered, and stepped into her shoes."

"You are a brave and noble woman, Miss Gordon. So all through these terrible months you have been fighting on your sister's behalf?"

"Yes; she could not fight for herself. Rudolph, of course, knew the truth and supported me. Do you not remember how he called me Laura when you met him here?"

"I remember," replied Ellis, drily. "He never faltered or hesitated once. I think the young man has a positive genius for intrigue. But now that we have arrived at this point, Miss Gordon, I should like to know what really happened on that night."

"I will tell you all I know," said Janet, frankly, "then you shall see Laura and hear her story." She paused for a moment and continued in rapid tones: "I came here on that night to pay a visit to Laura, as I knew that Edgar would be at the Merryman Music-Hall as usual. I found Laura in a state of nervous rage against her husband, as he left her at home night after night, kept her short of money, and was altogether cruel to her. Laura, as you must know, doctor, has a neurotic temperament, and when angered lets her temper carry her beyond all bounds. She inherited this disposition with her Highland blood from our mother, who was likewise given to these fits of causeless rage. Often and often I implored Edgar not to anger Laura, knowing how dangerous she was when roused. But he neglected my warnings, and the pair were always fighting. I declare, doctor, that a dread of what might occur kept me in so nervous a state that I grew quite ill. I came down here constantly to soothe Laura, and never remained absent for any time without expecting to hear of a tragedy."

"I know the kind of irresponsible being your sister is," said Ellis, "and I do not wonder you were terrified. So the tragedy happened at last?"

"It did, and on that night," answered Janet, much agitated. "But it is not as you appear to think, doctor. Laura did not kill her husband."

"What about the carving-knife?"

"Oh, Edgar was killed with that, without doubt. What was said in Dukesfield about Laura carrying the knife was true. She was afraid of tramps in her half-hysterical state; and whenever a ring came to the door after dark she never opened it without arming herself with the knife. In this way she confronted the telegraph boy who spread the rumour."

"I wonder you did not take the knife from her," observed Ellis.

"If I had she would only have used a smaller knife. Well," continued Miss Gordon, "on that fatal night Laura was particularly angry with Edgar because she had been informed by Rudolph that he was flirting with Polly Horley. However, I managed to soothe her, and, as Rudolph never came for me as he promised, I left this house for the station a few minutes after eleven. When I got near the station I found that I had forgotten my purse and returned for it; then, Dr. Ellis," said Janet, clasping her hands, "I came on a terrible sight. Edgar was lying dead on the path, and Laura was lying beside him. The moon showed at intervals, so I saw all quite plainly. Finding Edgar was dead I thought Laura had murdered him, especially as the carving-knife lay on the path beside her. Laura revived very soon, and said she had not killed Edgar. I dragged her into the house; but picking up the carving-knife she said it was the cause of all, and threw it behind some laurels. I had no time to look for it, as my sole object was to get Laura away. I made her put on my hat and cloak and take my purse, telling her to go to Mrs. Amber's and remain in her bedroom, and that I would impersonate her and see the matter through. Laura was beside herself with terror, saying that she was innocent; but she had wit enough to see her danger if she stayed. Therefore, she braced herself up and went away to take a cab to Pimlico. She got one and arrived at Geneva Square safely."

"Yes, and remained in her bedroom as you told her. Mrs. Amber informed me of that. And you, Miss Gordon?"

"I," said Janet, simply, "assumed my sister's character and ran round to call you to see the corpse. You know the rest."

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