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Chapter III.

IT was the third anniversary of David Cowen's murder, and just such another evening—chill, wet, gusty, and gloomy. Doctor Ford sat alone over the bright fire in his study. A book lay on his lap; but he was not reading. He was gazing intently into the glowing fire—that unfailing inspirer of dreamy reflection—and thinking of a woman.

Dr. Ford had married early in life, and had soon become a widower. Solitary he had remained ever since—long lonely years he had gone through until middle age came and found him

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still lonely. He told people he was wedded to his profession, but some time before this night he had awakened to the fact of how cold and cheerless a wife she was. For a living, vital, absorbing love had grown into his life.

The seeds were sown when he first met Mrs. Cowen. Her beauty, her tragic sorrow, and her touching faith in the dead, all impressed him profoundly. A friendship grew up between them, which on his part developed into love. He asked Mrs. Cowen to be his wife, and her answer threw him into despair. The mystery of her husband's death stood between them. She declared that while that mystery remained unsolved her mind could know no peace, her thoughts must dwell ever in the past. That being so, to marry the doctor would have been to do him a grievous wrong.

Sharing, as he did, her conviction that David Cowen had been murdered, Dr. Ford had no arguments with which to shake this decision, the justice of which he could not but acknowledge. Feeling, too, the hopelessness of the mystery being cleared up, he despaired.

He was thinking mournfully of these things, when a servant entered and presented a card. It bore the name Mr. Jules Merlin.

“Merlin, Merlin?” muttered the doctor. “The name seems familiar enough. Show the gentleman up, please.”

When Dr. Ford saw Mr. Merlin he remembered him, for he was not a man to forget a face he

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had once seen, and Mr. Merlin's face was one not readily forgotten. Three years had wrought a change in it, however. It had grown thinner and more sallow. The features were startling in their distinctness; the eyes hollow and roving, and the lips painfully restless. Mr. Merlin looked ill, not passingly so, but organically. He looked as though some internal disease was slowly but surely consuming him. So the doctor thought, after a quick but comprehensive glance at his visitor.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Merlin?” he asked, after they had shaken hands.

“Nothing, thank you, doctor. My visit is not a professional one.”

“No! Pardon me, but as you are looking out of sorts, I thought——”

Mr. Merlin laughed strangely.

“You thought I had come for advice,” he interrupted. “No. My visit is simply a friendly one. To tell you the truth, I was never better in my life.”

“Then I pity you,” thought the doctor.

“We Merlins are queer folk,” continued the visitor, drawing his chair to the fire as if cold. “Our looks always pity us. We are thin to emaciation, and sallow to yellowness. But the thinner and yellower we are the better we feel. The worse we look, the better we are. Strange, isn't it?”

Mr. Merlin was evidently jesting, but the effect was not pleasant. His voice was high-pitched

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and somewhat grating, and there was no humour in the hard smile on his lips.

The doctor, having placed wine and cigars on the table, made a few remarks on topics of general interest. But his visitor made no reply; he had sunk into a restless silence. Presently he moved his chair from the fire, and sitting against the table drank a glass of wine.

“Try a cigar,” said the doctor. “These were sent me by a friend in Havana.”

“And you never proved the truth of your theory?” remarked Mr. Merlin, suddenly, and taking no notice of his host's invitation.

“What theory?”

“Concerning the death of that man on the Underground Railway.”

Dr. Ford was startled at this sudden broaching of a subject that lay so near his heart.

I required no proof,” he replied, slowly. “A murder was undoubtedly done. I would willingly give some years of my life to be able to lay hand on the guilty man,” he added, half to himself.

Mr. Merlin rose and walked the room. “It was an interesting case,” he said. “It fastened upon me. It has never left me night or day. So profoundly mysterious; so extraordinary in every way! If Cowen did not strike the blow, who did? I have asked myself ten thousand times. And, more interesting question still, how did the man escape? I have pictured the scene. I have been in the carriage with the two men.

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I have seen the blow struck. I have heard the dying gasp of the victim, and watched him as the death-look flooded his eyes. I hear the gasp now, and see the eyes!”

Merlin paused with his hands outstretched, and breathed heavily. His excitement was remarkable, and he had spoken as though he had no auditor. The doctor watched him with intense interest, and not without some uneasiness. He thought that the man's mind had been unhinged by dwelling upon that one terrible subject.

“You should not permit yourself to get so excited,” he said, gently.

“Then I have followed the murderer in his escape,” pursued Merlin. “Not a detail has been overlooked. I have forged and connected every link in the chain. It is complete. I know every point in the strange history. I am the only living man who does. It is all here in my brain—burning like molten iron. I must tell it, or it will kill me.”

“Tell me—quietly,” said the doctor. He himself, although outwardly calm, was now greatly excited. Mad though he appeared, there was a ring of terrible truth in Merlin's sharp voice. Despite the wildness of his words and manner, he impressed his listener with the conviction that he was about to hear truth, that light was about to be thrown on the dark mystery out of which had grown his despair. He trembled with the hope that that despair would be removed.

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Mr. Merlin again sat against the table, on which he leaned heavily.

“Yes, I'll tell you,” he said, in a lower voice. “You deserve to be told. You recognized murder when the police babbled suicide. You and I shall share and keep the secret. Listen! closer! It was the bearded man.”


“His beard was false. Oh! he laid his plans well and warily. Don't you remember saying that he must have had devilish craft and wonderful luck? Ha, ha! So he had! What is the good of the best-laid plans in the world without a little luck to back them? Our friend reckoned on his luck, and it stood by him well.”

“Who is the man?” demanded the doctor, eagerly.

“I don't know him,” replied the other, drawing back and passing his hand across his eyes. “At least not—not in tangible form. I have him in my mind though, and there he is distinct. Shall I go on?”

“If you please,” said the doctor, with decreased interest. He was practical. He wanted to be told of a real murderer, not to be introduced to a creation of a disordered intelligence.

“We will go back,” resumed Mr. Merlin, folding his arms and staring at vacancy; “back in the history of the bearded man, say an hour before he was alone in the train with—with the man he killed. He is at Baker Street. He buys a first-class

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ticket to Notting Hill Gate. He is not bearded then, mind you. He puts that ticket in his pocket, crosses the road, and takes a ticket to Aldersgate Street, which he uses. Alone in the train, he places the clipped over the unclipped ticket, and with his penknife makes them correspond in that respect. You see he has now his ticket from Baker Street to Notting Hill Gate duly clipped as though he had passed through the gates of the former station. He alights at Aldersgate and makes his way, above ground, to Farringdon Street. On the way he assumes the beard and widens out the brim of his hat—in fine, the clerk described him correctly—beard, coat-collar turned up, dry umbrella. So he entered the train—the carriage—the place where it was done.”

Here Mr. Merlin came to a full stop.

“Go on,” said the doctor, in a low voice. His interest, reawakened, was now doubly intense.

“He left the carriage at Gower Street,” continued the narrator after a long pause, “and mingling with the crowd that hurried to the gates slipped off his beard. He dropped his ticket from Farringdon Street almost at the feet of the ticket-collector, who, he was sure, would afterwards pick it up under the impression that he had dropped it himself. Then he stole out of the crowd and re-entered the train three compartments away from the one he had left. In a few moments he was a different man. He had burnt the hair of the beard, twisted up the wire and

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thrown it out of the window, turned up the brim of his hat, turned down the collar of his coat, and put on a silk muffler. Moreover, he had taken a bottle of water from his pocket, with which, leaning out of the window, he had saturated his umbrella. Oh! he was another man altogether, and a passenger from Baker Street to Notting Hill Gate. And three compartments from him was discovered a suicide, with bloody knife still in his hand.”

Dr. Ford stared at his visitor in amazement. He could not see his face, however, for the lamp was shaded and his hand was against his cheek. Was he mad? And a murderer, too? Or a victim to terrible but absurd fancies?

“And why did he do it?” asked the doctor, throwing a soothing scepticism into his voice.

Merlin's right hand slowly sank from his cheek to the table, and rested on an ivory paper-knife. At that moment his dark face was illumined by the glare from a fresh coal on the fire, which suddenly became ablaze. Seeing that face, the doctor shuddered. Its sharp lines were drawn and twisted into hideous shape by the demons within the man. Terror, hatred, and craft were all written there in intertwisted contorted characters, and the hot, sullen eyes, shifting and reasonless, glowed like fire from within dark caverns.

“The motive?” said the madman, jerking the words out, and fidgeting in his chair, while the doctor watched him, calmly but vigilantly. “A new motive! Conceit—sublime or damnable, which

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you will—but conceit. The papers, the public, and the police had said often that it could not be done; at least, not without detection. I—the bearded man, I mean—he proved that it could, and proved a great truth. Well!” he continued, after a moment's pause, his voice rising sharply and harshly, “is not that sufficient? Had you been in the carriage instead of Cowen, you would have died as he did. Why do you look at me like that? Isn't it enough that dead eyes follow me? He tries to speak—you don't. His lips move, but the blood floods his throat, and he can only gasp. Hark! can you hear it? Curses on you, sir! Speak, I say!”

Merlin rose to his feet. His thin sinewy right hand grasped the paper-knife. His eyes burned with revengeful murderous fury like those of a wild cat. The scalp and ears seemed to retreat, as might an infuriated monkey's, leaving the face more sharply prominent than before. It was almost incredible, it struck Dr. Ford—despite the critical character of the situation—that even the hell of madness could transform so handsome a man into such incarnate ugliness.

The doctor rose also, gazing firmly upon the face of his dangerous visitor.

“You have no occasion to be either annoyed or alarmed, Mr. Merlin,” he said, quietly.

“The story's not quite finished,” yelled the madman, whose eyes were fixed upon the other's breast. “You will have the rest! You shall! I struck Cowen thus!”

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There was a blow struck like lightning; but the thin brittle ivory broke harmlessly against Dr. Ford's broad chest. The doctor's strength was proverbial among his male friends. He was set up and framed like a gladiator, and gifted with extraordinary muscular development. Merlin, on the contrary, was thin and wasted; but the imps which fed on his reason combined to strengthen the madman's sinews. The struggle, then, might have been long and severe, but that assistance quickly came and Merlin was secured.

Then, shrieking and foaming, he was carried away.

However strange it may appear, it is nevertheless a fact that the police stoutly refused to accept as truth the confession made by Merlin to Dr. Ford. They maintained that it was purely a lively invention of the madman's, and, as no positive proof could be adduced to support the story, their sceptical position was really unassailable. Mrs. Cowen believed it, however, for some months later she became Mrs. Ford.

It is said that the doctor's reply to the unbelieving police was this: “The motive for the murder, and your motive for refusing to accept the confession, are identical.”

Of the truth of the whole story I can vouch. I had it from the maniac himself.

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