A LOUD RAPPING on the door roused me. The mist had cleared away, and out of the open window I could see a long sunlit slope of gorse all yellow and purple stretching upwards, and over the slope a great space of blue sky whereon the clouds sailed like racing boats in a strong breeze. The door was thrust open and Dick Parmiter entered.
“You keep London hours, sir,” said he, standing at the foot of the bed, and he happened to raise his eyes. “What’s that?” he asked.
That was the silk scarf still dangling from the cross-bar, and the sight of it brought back to me in a flash my adventure of the night. With the clear sunlight filling the room and the bright wind chasing the clouds over the sky, I could hardly believe that it had really occurred. But the silk scarf hung between the posts.
“My God,” I cried out. “What if I had never waked up!”
There would have been the sunlight and the wind in the sky as now, but, facing me, no longer swaying, but still, inert, horrible, I should have seen—and I clapped my hands over my face, so distinct was this unspeakable vision to me, and cried out again: “What if I had not waked up!
“You have not waked up very early,” said Dick, looking at me curiously, and recovering my self-possession I hasten to explain.
“I have had dreams, Dick. The strange room! I am barely awake yet.”
It appeared that I was not the only one to keep London hours that morning. It was close upon mid-day and Dick had not waked me before, because he had not before had speech with the mistress of the house. Helen Mayle had risen late. But she knew now of my presence in the house and what had brought me, and was waiting to offer me her thanks.
In spite of this news that she was waiting, I made my toilette very slowly. It would be the most awkward, embarrassing meeting imaginable. How could one bow and smile and exchange the trivial courtesies with a girl whom one had saved from that silk noose some eight hours before? With what countenance would she greet me? Would she resent my interference? Dick, however, had plainly noticed nothing unusual in her demeanour; I consoled myself with that reflection. He noticed, however, something unusual here in my room, for as I tied my cravat before the mirror I saw that he was curiously looking at the silk scarf.
“Perhaps you have seen it before,” said I without turning round. Dick started, then he coloured.
“I was wondering why it hung there,” said he.
“It is curious,” said I calmly, and I stood upon the bed and with some trouble, for the knots were stiff, I took it down and thrust it into the pocket of my coat.
“It is yours?” cried Dick.
“One silk scarf is very like another,” said I, and he coloured again and was silent. His silence was fortunate, since if he had asked to what end I had hung it above my bed, I should have been hard put to it for an answer.
“I am ready,” said I, and we walked along the passage to the balustrade, and the head of the stairs where I had crept on tiptoe during the night.
I noticed certain marks, a few dents, a few scratches on the panels of the wall at the head of the stairs, and I was glad to notice them, for they reminded me of the business upon which I had come and of certain conjectures which Dick had suggested to my mind. It was at the head of the stairs that Adam Mayle had stood when he drove out his son. The marks no doubt were the marks of that handful of guineas which Cullen had flung to splatter and sparkle against the wall behind his father’s head. I was glad to notice them, as I say, for the tragical incident in which I had borne a share that night had driven Cullen Mayle’s predicament entirely from my thoughts.
I saw the flutter of a dress at the foot of the stairs, and a face looked up to mine. It was the face which I had seen on a level with mine in the black gloom of the night, and as I saw it now in the clear light of day, I stopped amazed. It wore no expression of embarrassment, no plea for silence. She met me with a grateful welcome in her eyes as for one who had come unexpectedly to do her a service, and perhaps a hint of curiosity as to why I should have come at all.
“Dick has told me of you,” she said, as she held out her hand. “You are very kind. Until this morning I did not even know the reason of Dick’s journey to London. I was not aware that he had paid a visit to Lieutenant Clutterbuck.”
There was a trifle of awkwardness in her voice as she pronounced his name. I could not help feeling and no doubt expressing some awkwardness as I heard it. Lieutenant Clutterbuck had not hesitated to accuse her of duplicity; I at all events could not but acknowledge that she was excellently versed in the woman’s arts of concealment. There was thus a moment’s silence before I answered.
“You will accept me I hope as Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s proxy.”
“We had no right,” she returned, “to expect any service from Lieutenant Clutterbuck, much less from——” and she hesitated and stopped abruptly.
“From a stranger you would have said,” I added.
“We shall count you a stranger no longer,” she said, with a frank smile, and that I might not be outdone in politeness, I said:
“If Dick had lacked discretion and told you allthat he might have told, you would understand that the obligation is upon my side. For whereas I do not know that I can render you any service whatever, I do know that already you have rendered me a great one.”
“That is very prettily said,” she returned, as she walked into the parlour.
“Truth at times,” I answered lightly as I followed her, “can be as pretty as the most ingenious lie.”
So that first awkward meeting was past. I took my cue from her reticence, but without her success. I could not imitate her complete unconsciousness. It seemed she had no troubles. She sat at the table in a flow of the highest spirits. Smiles came readily to her lips, and her eyes laughed in unison. She was pale and the pallor was the more marked on account of her dark hair and eyes, but the blood came and went in her cheeks, and gave to her an infinite variety of expression. 1 could hardly believe that this voice which was now lively with contentment was the voice which had uttered that kecking sound in the night, or that the eyes which now sparkled and flashed were the eyes which had stared at me through the gloom. No doubt I looked at her with more curiosity than was convenient; at all events she said, with a laugh:
“I would give much to know what picture Dick painted of me, for if I may judge from your looks, Mr, Berkeley, the likeness is very unlike to the original.”
I felt my cheeks grow hot, and cast about for a reason to excuse my curiosity. Her own words susfcrested the reason.
“Dick told me,” I said, “of a woman in great distress and perplexity, whose house was watched, who dreaded why it was watched”
“And you find a woman on the top of her spirits,” she broke in, and was silent for a little, looking at the cloth. “And very likely,” she continued slowly, “you are disposed to think that you have been misled and persuaded hither for no more than a trivial purpose.”
“No,” I protested. “No such thought occurred to me,” and in my anxiety to free myself from the suspicion of this imputation I broke through that compact of silence upon which we seemed silently to have agreed. “I have no reason for pride, God knows, but indeed. Madam, I am not so utterly despicable as to regret that I came to Tresco and crept into your house last night. Already,—suppose there was nothing more for me to do but to wish you a good-morning and betake myself back to town—already I have every reason to be glad that I came, for if I had not come——” and I stopped.
Helen Mayle listened to me with some surprise of manner at the earnestness with which I spoke and when I stopped so abruptly, she blushed and her eyes again sought the table.
“Yes,” she said quietly, “Mr. Berkeley, you have guessed the reason of my good spirits. If you had not come, a woman in great distress and perplexity would be wandering restlessly about the house, as she did yesterday.”
Her eyes were still fixed upon the table, or she must have remarked my astonishment and the pretence would at once and for all have been torn away from between us. I leaned back in my chair; it was as much as I could do to stifle an exclamation. If I had not come, a woman’s spirit might be wandering to-day restlessly from room to room, but the woman—I had the silk scarf in my coat-pocket to assure me she would not.
“The distress and perplexity,” she continued, “are not done with, but to-day a hand has been stretched to me out of the dark, and I must think, to some good end. It could not be otherwise,” and she lifted her eyes to mine. I did not doubt their sincerity. “And—shall I tell you?” she continued with a frank smile. “I am glad, though I hardly know why—I am glad that the man who stretched out his hand was quite unknown to me and himself knew nothing of me, and had not so much as seen my face. He helps a woman, not one woman. I am more grateful for that, I take it to be of good augury.” And she held her hand to me.
I took the hand; I was tempted to let her remain in her misapprehension. But sooner or later she would learn the truth, and it seemed to me best that she should learn something of it from me.
“Madam,” I said, “I should account myself happy if I could honestly agree, but I fear it was not on a woman’s account that I travelled down to Tresco. Dick I think had something to do with it, but chiefly I came to do myself a service.”
“Well,” she answered as she rose and crossed to the window “that may be. You are here at all events, in the house that is watched” and then she suddenly called me to her side. “Look,” said she, “but keep well behind” the curtain.”
I looked across the water to a brown pile of rocks which was named Norwithel, and beyond Norwithel over St. Helen’s Pool to the island of St. Helen’s.
“Do you see?” she asked.
I saw the bare rock, the purple heather of St. Helen’s, to the right a wide shining beach of Tean, and to the left stretching out into the sea from the end of St. Helen’s a low ridge of rocks like a paved causeway. I pointed to that causeway.
“That is the Golden Ball Reef,” said I.
“Yes,” she answered, “Dick told you the story. You would not see the reef, but that the tide is low. But it is not that I wanted to show you. See!” and she stretched out her hand towards the rock pile of Norwithel.
I looked there again and at last I saw a man moving on the rocks close by the sea.
“He is cutting the weed,” said I.
“That is the pretence,” said she. “But so long as he stays there no one can enter this house without he knows, no one can go out without he knows.”
“Unless one goes in or out by the door I used.”
“That door is within view of the Castle Down. There will be some man smoking his pipe, stretched on the grass of the Castle Down.”
“You have never spoken to them?”
“Yes! They wanted nothing of me. They only watch. I know for whom they watch. I could learn nothing by questioning them.”
“Have you asked Captain Hathaway’s help?”
“No. What could he do? They do no one any hurt. They stand out of my way when I pass. And besides—I am afraid. I do not know. If these men were questioned closely by some one in authority, what story might they have to tell and what part in that story does Cullen play?”
I hesitated for a few moments whether to risk the words which were on my lips. I made an effort and spoke them.
“You will pardon the question—I have once met Cullen Mayle—and is he worth all this anxiety?”
“He had a strange upbringing in this house. There is much to excuse him in the eyes of any one. And for myself I cannot forget that all which people say is mine, is more rightly his.”
She spoke very gently about Cullen, as I had indeed expected that she would, but with sufficient firmness to prove to me that it was not worth while to continue upon this strain.
“And the negro?” I asked. “He has not spoken?”
For answer she led me up the stairs, and into a room which opened upon the landing. The negro lay in bed and asleep. The flesh had shrivelled off his bones, his face was thin and peaked, and plainly his days were numbered. Helen leaned over the bed, spoke to him and pressed upon his shoulder. The negro opened his eyes. Never in my life had I seen anything so melancholy as their expression. The conviction of his helplessness was written upon them and I think too an appeal for forgiveness that he had not discharged his mission.
“Speak to him,” said Helen. “Perhaps a stranger’s voice may rouse him if only to speak two words.”
I spoke to him as she bade me; a look of intelligence came into the negro’s face; I put a question to him.
“Why does George Glen watch for Cullen Mayle?”—and before I had completed the sentence his eyelids closed languidly over his eyes and he was asleep. I looked at him as he lay there, an emaciated motionless figure, the white bedclothes against his ebony skin, and as I thought of his long travels ending so purposelessly in this captivity of sleep, I was filled with a great pity. Helen uttered a moan, she turned towards me wringing her hands.
“And there’s our secret,” she cried, “the secret which we must know and which this poor negro burns to tell and it’s locked up within him! Bolts and bars,” she burst out, “what puny things they seem! One can break bolts, one can sever bars, but a secret buried within a man, how shall one unearth it?”
It just occurred to me that she stopped with unusual abruptness, but I was looking at the negro, I was still occupied with pity.
“Heaven send my journey does not end so vainly as his,” I said solemnly. I turned to Helen and I saw that she was staring at me with a great astonishment, and concern for which I could not account.
“I have a conjecture to tell you of,” said I, “I do not know that it is of value.”
“Let us go downstairs,” she replied, “and you shall tell me,” but she spoke slowly as though she was puzzled with some other matter. As we went downstairs I heard Dick Parmiter’s voice and could understand the words he said. I stopped.
‘’Where is Dick?”
“Most likely in the kitchen.”
When we were come to the foot of the stairs I asked where the kitchen was?
“At the end of that passage across the hall,” she answered.
Upon that I called Dick. I heard a door open and shut, and Dick came into the hall.
“The kitchen door was closed,” said I, “I do not know but what my conjecture may have some value after all.”
Helen Mayle walked into the parlour, Dick followed her. As I crossed the hall my coat caught on the back of a chair. Whilst I was disengaging my coat, I noticed that an end of the white scarf was hanging from my pocket and that the initials “H. M.” were embroidered upon it. I recollected then how Helen Mayle had abruptly ended her outcry concerning the bolts and bars, and how she had looked at me and how she had spoken. Had she noticed the scarf? I thrust it back into my pocket and took care that the flap of the pocket should hide it completely. Then I, too, went into the parlour. But as I entered the room I saw then Helen’s eyes went at once to my pocket. She had, then, noticed the scarf. It seemed, however, that she was no longer perplexed as to how I came by it. But, on the other hand, it was my turn to be perplexed. For, as she raised her eyes from my pocket, our glances crossed. It was evident to her that I had detected her look and understood it. Yet she smiled—without any embarrassment; it was as though she thought I had stolen her scarf for a favour and she forgave the theft. And then she blushed. That, however, she was very ready to do upon all occasions.