The Watchers

Chapter XI

Our Plans Miscarry Upon Castle Down

A.E.W. Mason

THE NEXT MORNING, you may be sure, I crossed the hill betimes, and came down to the house under Merchant’s Rock with my good news. I told her the news with no small elation, and with a like elation she began to hear it. But as I related what had occurred at the Palace Inn, she fell into thought, and now smiled with a sort of pride, and now checked a sigh; and when I came to the knife upon the table’s edge she shuddered.

“But you are in danger!” she cried. “Every minute you are in danger of your life, and on my account!”

“Nay,” said I lightly, ‘’you exaggerate. The best of women have that fault.”

But she did not smile. She laid a hand upon my arm, and said, very earnestly:

“I cannot have it. I am very proud you count the risk so little, but you must go.”

“No,” said I, “they must go, and we have the means to make them march. We have but to inform Captain Hathaway at the Garrison that here are some of Bartholomew Robert’s fry, and we and the world will soon be quit of them for ever.”

“But we cannot,” she exclaimed, “for then it would be known that my”—she hesitated for a second, or rather she paused, for there was no hesitation in her voice, as she continued—“my father also was of the band. It may be justice that it should be known. But I cannot help it; I guard his memory. Besides, there is Cullen.”

It was to Cullen that she always came in the end, and with such excuses as a girl might make who was loyal to a man whom she must know not to be worth her loyalty. The house in which she lived, the money which she owned were his by right. She dreaded what story these men, if captured, might have to tell of Cullen—she could not be persuaded that Glen and his friends had not a motive of vengeance as well as of gain,— and that story, whatever it was, would never have been enacted, had not Cullen been driven penniless from Tresco. It did not occur to her at all that this house was not Cullen’s by any right, but belonged to the scattered sons of many men with whom the ship Royal Fortune had fallen in.

She repeated her arguments to me as we walked in the grass-grown garden at the back of the house. A thick shrubbery of trees grew at the end of the garden, and behind the trees rose the Merchant’s Rock. On one side the Castle Down rolled up towards the sky, on the other a hedge closed the garden in, and beneath the hedge was the sea. Over the hedge I could see the uninhabited island of St. Helen’s and the ruined church upon the summit, and a ship or two in St. Helen’s Pool; and this side of the ships the piled boulders of Norwithel. It was at Norwithel that I looked as she spoke, and when she had done I continued:

“I do not propose that we should tell Captain Hathaway, but I can make a bargain with Glen. I can find out what he wants, and strike a bargain with him. We have the upper hand, we can afford to speak freely. I will make a bargain with him to-night, of which one condition shall be that he and his party leave Tresco and nowhere attempt to molest Cullen Mayle.”

But she stopped in front of me.

“I cannot have it,” she said, with energy. “This means danger to you who propose the bargain.”

“I shall propose it in the inn kitchen,” said I.

“And the knife on the table’s edge?” she asked; “that too was in the inn kitchen. Oh, no! no!” she cried, in a voice of great trouble. There was great trouble too in her eyes.

“Madam,” I said, gently, “I never thought that this would prove a schoolboy’s game. If I had thought so, I should be this instant walking down St. James’s. But you overrate my peril.”

I saw her draw herself erect.

“No; it is I who will propose the bargain and make the conditions. It is I who will charge them with their piracy.”

“How?” I asked.

“I will go this morning to the Palace Inn.”

“George Glen went out this morning before I rose.”

She looked over to Norwithel.

“There is no one to-day on Norwithel,” said I.

“I shall find Peter Tortue on the Castle Down.”

“But I crossed the Castle Down this morning——” and I suddenly stopped. There had been no one watching on the Castle Down. There was no one anywhere upon the watch to-day. The significance of this omission struck me then for the first time.

“What if already we are quit of them!” I cried. “What if that one tiny word Royal Fortune has sent them at a scamper into hiding?”

Helen caught something of my excitement.

“Oh! if it only could be so!” she exclaimed.

“Most like it is so,” I returned. “No man cutting ore-weed upon Norwithel! No man lounging on the Castle Down! It must be so!” and we shook hands upon that likelihood as though It was a certainty. We started guiltily apart the next moment, for a servant came into the garden with word that Dick Parmiter had sailed round in a boat from New Grimsby, and was waiting for me.

“There is something new!” said Helen, clasping her hands over her heart, and in a second she was all anxiety. I hastened to reassure her. Dick had come at my bidding, for I was minded to sail over to St. Mary’s, and discover if there was anywhere upon that island a record of the doings of the Royal Fortune. To that end I asked Helen to give me a letter to the chaplain there, who would be likely to know more of what happened up and down the world than the natives of the islands. I was not, however, to allow that I had any particular interest in the matter, lest the Rev. Mr. Milray should smell a rat as they say, and on promising to be very exact in this particular and to return to the house in time for supper, I was graciously given the letter.

I found the Rev. Mr. Milray in his parsonage at Old Town, a small, elderly man, who would talk of nothing but the dampness of his house since the great wave which swept over this neck of land on the day of the earthquake at Lisbon. I left him very soon, therefore, and went about another piece of business.

I had travelled from London with no more clothes and linen than a small valise would hold. On setting out, I had not considered, indeed, that I should be thrown much into the company of a lady, but only that I was journeying into a rough company of fisher-folk. Yesterday, however, it had occurred to me that I must make some addition to my wardrobe and the necessity was yet more apparent to-day. I was pleased, therefore, to find that Hugh Town was of greater importance than I had thought it to be. It is much shrunk and dwindled now, but then ships from all quarters of the world were continually putting in there, so that they made a trade by themselves, and there was always for sale a great store of things which had been salved from wrecks. I was able, therefore, to fit myself out very properly.

I sailed back to the Palace Inn, dressed with some care, and walked over to sup at Merchant’s Rock—little later perhaps. Helen Mayle was standing in the hall by the foot of the stairs. I saw her face against the dark panels as I entered, and it looked very white and strained with fear.

“There is no news of Cullen at St. Mary’s,” I said, to lighten her fears; and she showed an extravagant relief, before, indeed, she could barely have heard the words. Her face coloured brightly and then she began to laugh. Finally she dropped me a curtsey.

“Shall I lend you some hair-powder?” she asked, whimsically; and when we were seated at table, “How old are you?”

“I was thirty and more a month ago,” said I, “but I think that I am now only twenty-two.”

“As much as that?” said she, with a laugh, and grew serious in an instant. “What did you discover at St. Mary’s besides a milliner?”

“Nothing,” said I, “except that the Rev. Milray suffers from the rheumatics.”

She remained in the same variable disposition during the whole of that supper, at one moment buoyant on a crest of light-heartedness and her eyes sparkling like stars, at another sunk into despondency and her white brows all wrinkled with frowns. But when supper was over she went to a cabinet, and taking from it a violin, said:

“Now, I will play to you.”

And she did—out in that tangled garden over the sea.

“The violin came to the Scillies In a ship that was wrecked upon the Stevel Rock one Christmas. But the violin will tell you,” she said, with a smile. “My father bought it at St. Mary’s and gave it to me, and an old pilot now dead taught me;” and she swept the bow across the strings and the music trembled across the water, through the lucent night, up to the stars, a voice vibrating with infinite wisdom and infinite passion.

It seemed to me that I had at last got the truth of her. All my guesses, my suspicions of something like duplicity, even my recollection of our first meeting were swept out of my mind. She sat, her white face gleaming strangely solemn under her black wealth of hair, her white hand flashing backwards and forwards, and she made the violin speak. It spoke of all things, things most sad and things most joyous; it spoke with complete knowledge of the heights and the depths; it woke new, vague, uncomprehended hungers in one’s heart; it called and called till all one’s most sacred memories rose up, as it were from graves, to answer the summons. It told me, I know, all my life, from my childhood in the country to the day when I set out with my cadet’s portion to London. It sang with almost a pæan of those first arduous years—set them to a march,—and then with a great pity told of those eight wasted years that followed—years littered with cards, stained with drink; years in which, and there was the humiliation of it, my fellow-drunkards, my fellow-gamblers had all been younger than myself—years in which I grew a million years old. That violin told it all out to me, until I twisted in my chair through sheer shame, and I looked up and the girl’s eyes were fixed upon me. What it was that compelled me to speak I could never tell, unless it was the violin. But as she looked at me, and as that violin sobbed out its notes, I cried in a passionate excuse:

“You asked me how old I was. Do you know I never was young—I never had the chance of youth! When the chance came, I had forgotten what youth can do. That accounts, surely, for those eight years. I was tired then, and I was never young.”

“Until to-night,” she said quietly, and the music quickened. I suppose that she was right, for I had never spoken so intimately to any one, whether man or woman; and I cursed myself for a fool, as one does when one is first betrayed into speaking of one’s secret self.

She took the violin from her shoulder, and the glory of the music died off the sea, but lingered for a little faintly upon the hills. I rose up to go and Helen drew a breath and shivered.

“This afternoon,” said I, “a brig went out from the islands through Crow Sound, bound for Milford. I’ll wager the five were on it.”

“But if not?”

“There’s the ‘Palace’ kitchen.”

“Speak when there are others by, not within hearing, but within reach! You will? Promise me!”

I promised readily enough, thinking that I could keep the promise, and she walked back with me through the house to the door. There is a little porch at the door, four wooden beams and a slate roof on the top, and half a dozen stone steps from the porch to the garden. Helen Mayle stood in the porch, with her violin still in her hand. She wished me “Good-night” when I was at the bottom of the steps, but a little afterwards, when I had passed through the gateway of the palisade and had begun to ascend the hill, she drew the bow sharply across one of the strings and sent a little chirp of music after me, which came to my ears, with an extraordinarily friendly sound. The air was still hereabouts, though from the motion of the clouds there was some wind in the sky, and the chirp came very clear and pretty.

It was a few minutes short of ten when I left the house, and I set off at a good pace, for I was anxious to keep my promise and make my bargain with George Glen, quietly in a corner, before the fishing-folk had gone home to bed. A young moon hung above the crest of the hill, a few white clouds were gathering towards it, and the gorse at my feet was black as ink. I walked upwards then steadily. I had walked for perhaps a quarter of an hour, when I heard a low, soft whistle. It came to me quite as clearly as the chirp of the violin, but it had not the same friendly sound. It sounded very lonesome, it set my heart jumping, it brought me to a stop. For I had heard precisely that whistle on one occasion before, on the night when I first crossed this hill with Dick Parmiter down to Merchant’s Rock.

The whistle had sounded from below me and from no great distance away. I turned and looked down the slope, but I could see no one. It was very lonely and very still. Whoever had whistled lay crouched on the gorse. And then the whistle sounded again, but this time it came from above me, higher up the slope. Immediately I dropped to the ground. The gorse which hid them from me might well hide me from them. A few paces above me the gorse seemed thicker than it was where I lay. I crawled laboriously, flat upon my face, till I reached this patch. I forced myself into it, holding my face well down to keep the thorns out of my eyes, until the bushes were so close I could crawl no further. Then I lay still as a mouse, holding my breath, listening with every nerve. I had eluded them before in just this way, but I got little comfort from that reflection. There had been a fog on that night, whereas to-night it was clear. Moreover, they had a more urgent reason now for persevering in their search. I possessed some dangerous knowledge about them as they were aware—knowledge, too dangerous; knowledge which would harden into a weapon in my hand if—if I reached the Palace Inn alive.

I lay very still, and in a little I heard the brushing of their feet through the grass. They were closing down from above, they were closing up from below; but they did not speak or so much as whisper. I turned my head sideways, ever so gently, and looked up to the sky. I saw to my delight that the clouds were over the moon. I buried my face again in the grass, lest they should detect me by its pallor against the black gorse. I was very thankful indeed that I had not accepted that proffered loan of hair-powder—I was dressed in black, too, from head to foot; I blessed the good fortune which had led me to buy black stockings at St. Mary’s, and, in a word, my hopes began to revive.

The feet came nearer, and I heard a voice whisper:

“It was here.” The voice was Peter Tortue’s, as I knew from the French accent, and the next instant a stick fell with a heavy thud not a foot from my head. If only the clouds hung in front of the moon! Round and about they tramped—the whole five of them. For in a little they began in low tones to curse, first of all me, and afterwards Peter Tortue, who had whistled from below. Let them only quarrel amongst themselves, I thought, and there’s a good chance they will forget the reason of their quarrel. It seemed that they were well on the road to a quarrel at last; a man, quite young as I judged from his voice, flung himself down on the grass with an oath.

“But he is here, close to us,” said Peter. “I heard the girl thrum good-night to him on her fiddle, and then I saw him, and followed him, and whistled.”

“Well, it is your business, not mine. Yours and George Glen’s,” the other returned. I learned later that his name was Nathaniel Roper. “I was never on no Royal Fortune, devil damn me.”

“Whist, you lousy fool”—and this was George Glen speaking. I am sure he was winking and pinching the fellow’s arm,—’‘we are all in the same boat whether we’ve sailed in the Royal——” and he stopped.

All at once there was a dead silence. I have never in my life experienced anything so horrible as that sudden, complete silence. I could not see what caused it, for my face was buried in the grass, and I dared not move. One moment I had a sensation that they were gazing at my back, and I felt—it is the only way I can express it—I felt naked. Another moment I imagined it to be a ruse to beguile me into stirring; and it lasted for ever and ever.

At length one sound—not a voice—broke the silence: the man who had thrown himself down was getting to his feet. But when he had stood up he made no further movement; he stood motionless, like the others, and the silence began again and again it lasted for ever and ever.

All sorts of tremors began to creep over my body; the muscles of my back jerked of their own accord. The suspense was driving me mad. I had to move, I had to see, if only to hinder myself from leaping to my feet and making a headlong rush. Very slowly I turned my head sideways; I looked backwards along the ground, until I saw. The moon had swum out from the clouds, and the five men were standing in arrested attitudes with their eyes fixed upon something that glittered very bright upon the ground. I could see it myself through the gorse glittering and burning white, like a delicate flame, and my heart gave a great leap within me as I understood what it was. It was a big silver shoe-buckle that shone in the moonlight, and the shoe-buckle was on my foot.

The game was up. I thought that I might as well make a fight of it at the last, and I jumped to my feet suddenly, with a faint hope that the suddenness of the movement might startle them and let me through. But there was to be no fighting for me that night. It is true that the men all scattered from about me, but a voice a few yards to my right thundered, “Stand!” and I stood stock-still, obedient as a charity-school boy.

For Peter Tortue was standing stock still too, with his right arm stretched out in a line with his shoulder and the palm of his hand upturned. On the palm of that hand was balanced a long knife with an open blade, and the moonhght streaked along that blade in flame, just as it had burned upon my shoe-buckle.

George Glen rubbed his hands together.

“You will lie down, Mr. Berkeley,” said he, with his most insinuating smile. “You will down, ‘flat on my face,’ says you.”

“But I have only just got up,” said I.

Glen tittered nervously, but no one else showed any appreciation of my sally. I thought it best to lie down flat on my face.

“Cross your hands behind your back,” said George Glen, and I knew he was winking.

“Any little thing like that, I am sure,” I murmured, as I obeyed. “Only too happy,” and in a trice I was nothing more than a coil of rope. It cut into my wrists, it crushed my chest, it snaked round my legs, it bit my ankles.

“To be sure,” said I, “they mean to send me somewhere by the post.”

Mr. George Glen sniggered and mentioned my destination, which was impolite, though he mentioned it politely; but Roper thumped me in the small of the back, and thrust my handkerchief into my mouth. So I had done better to have kept silence.

Two of the men lifted me up on their shoulders and staggered up hill. In a moment or two they descended a small incline, and I saw that I was being carried into the hollow where the shed stood. Glen pushed at the door of the shed and it fell open inwards. A great cavern of blackness gaped at us, and they carried me in and set me down unceremoniously on the floor.

“Brisk along with that lantern, Nat Roper,” said Glen, and the young fellow who had flung himself down on the grass struck a light and set fire to the candle. The shed was divided by a wooden partition, in which was a rickety door hardly hanging on its hinges.

“In there!” said Glen, swinging the lantern towards the inner room. My bearers picked me up again and carried me to the door. One of them kicked at the door, but it did not yield.

“It’s jammed,” said the other, “there’s something ’twixt it and the floor,” and raising a great sea boot, he kicked with all his might.

I heard a metallic clinking, as though a piece of iron was hopping across the stone floor, and the door flew open.

They carried me into the inner room and set me down against the partition. There was no furniture of any sort, not even a bucket to sit upon; there was no window either, a thatched roof rested upon heavy beams over my head. They placed the lantern at my feet, four of them squatted down about me, the fifth went out of the shed to keep watch.

It was, after all, not in the inn kitchen of the Palace Inn that any bargain was to be struck. I could not deny that they had chosen their place very well. Not a man in Tresco but would give this shed the widest of berths, and if he saw the glint of this lantern through a chink, or heard, perhaps, as he was like to do, one loud cry—why, he would only take to his heels the faster. The ropes, too, made my bones ache.

I would have preferred the kitchen at the Palace Inn.

The Watchers - Contents    |     Chapter XII - I Find an Unexpected Friend

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