The Watchers

Chapter XVI

An Unsatisfactory Explanation

A.E.W. Mason

WE WENT into the house, but no farther than the hall. For the moment we were come there she placed herself in front of me. I remember that the door of the house was never shut, and through the opening I could see a shoulder of the hill and the stars above it, and hear the long roar of the waves upon the beach.

“We are good friends, I hope, you and I,” she said. “Plain speech is the privilege of such friendship. Speak, then, as though you were speaking to a man. Wherein have I not been frank with you?”

There must be, I thought, some explanation which would free her from all suspicion of deceit. Else, how could she speak with so earnest a tongue or look with eyes so steady?

“As man to man, then,” I answered,”I am grieved I was not told that Cullen Mayle had come secretly to Tresco and had thence escaped.”

“Cullen!” she said, in a wondering voice. “He was on Tresco! Where?”

I constrained myself to answer patiently.

“In the Abbey grounds, on St. Helen’s Island, and—” I paused, thinking, nay hoping, that even at this eleventh hour she would speak, she would explain. But she kept silence, nor did her eyes ever waver from my face.

—“And,” I continued, “on Castle Down.”

“There!” she exclaimed, and added, thoughtfully, “Yes, there he would be safe. But when was Cullen upon Tresco? When?”

So the deception was to be kept up.

“On the night,” I answered, “when I first came to Merchant’s Point.”

She looked at me for a little without a word, and I could imagine that it was difficult for her to hit upon an opportune rejoinder. There was one question, however, which might defer her acknowledgments of her concealments, and, to be sure, she asked it:

“How do you know that?” and before I could answer, she added another, which astonished me by its assurance. “When did you find out?”

I told her, I trust with patience, of the key and the various steps by which I had found out. “And as to when,” I said, “it was this afternoon.”

At that she gave a startled cry, and held out a trembling hand towards me.

“Had you known,” she cried, “had you known only yesterday that Cullen had come and had safely got him back, you would have been spared all you went through last night!”

“What I went through last night!” I exclaimed, passionately. “Oh, that is of small account to me, and I beg you not to suffer it to trouble your peace. But—I do not say had I known yesterday, I say had I been told yesterday—I should have been spared a very bitter disappointment.”

“I do not understand,” she said, and again she put out her hand towards me and drew it in and stretched it out again with an appearance of distress to which even at that moment I felt myself softening. However, I took no heed of the hand. “In some way you blame me, but I do not understand.”

“You would, perhaps, find it easier to understand if you were at the pains to remember that on the night I landed upon Tresco, I came over Castle Down and past the shed to Merchant’s Point.”

“Well?” and she spoke with more coldness, as though her pride made her stubborn in defiance. No doubt she was unaware that I was close to her that night. It remained for me to reveal that, and God knows I did it with no sense of triumph, but only a great sadness.

“As I stood in the darkness a little this side of the shed, a girl hurried down the hill from it. She was dressed in white, so that I could make no mistake. On the other hand, my dark coat very likely made me difficult to see. The girl passed me, and so closely that her frock brushed against my hand. Now, can you name the girl?”

She looked at me with the same stubbornness.

‘’No,” she said, “I cannot.”

“On the other hand,” said I, “I can. One circumstance enables me to be certain. I slipped on the grass that night, and catching hold of a bush of gorse pricked my hand.”

“Yes, I remember that.”

“I pricked my hand a minute or two before the girl passed me. As I say, she brushed against my hand, which was bleeding, and the next day I saw the blood smirched upon a white frock—and who wore it, do you think?”

“I did,” she answered.

“Ah! Then you own it. You will own too that I have some cause of discontentment in that you have played with me, whose one thought was to serve you like an honest gentleman.”

And at that the stubbornness, the growing resentment at my questions, died clean out of her face.

“You would have!” she cried eagerly. “You would indeed have cause for more than discontent had I played with you. But you do not mean that. You cannot think that I would use any trickeries with you. Oh! take back your words! For indeed they hurt me. You are mistaken here. I wore the frock, but it was not I who was on Castle Down that night. It was not I who brushed past you——”

“And the stain?” I asked.

“How it came there I do not know,” she said. “But this I do know,—it was not your hand that marked it. I never knew that Cullen was on Tresco. I never saw him, much less spoke to him. You will believe that? No! Why should I have kept it secret if I had?” and her head drooped as she saw that still I did not believe.

There was silence between us. She stood without changing her attitude, her head bent, her hands nervously clasping and unclasping. The wind came through the open door into the hall. Once in the silence Helen caught her breath; it was as though she checked a sob; and gradually a thought came into my mind which would serve to explain her silence—which would, perhaps, justify it—which, at all events, made of it a mistaken act of kindness. So I spoke with all gentleness—and with a little remorse, too, for the harshness I had shown:

“You said we were good friends, you hoped; and, for my part, I can say that the words were aptly chosen. I am your friend—your good friend. You will understand? I want you also to understand that it was not even so much as friendship which brought me down to Tresco. It was Dick’s sturdy example, it was my utter weariness, and some spark of shame Dick kindled in me. I was living, though upon my soul living is not the word, in one tiresome monotony of disgraceful days. I had made my fortune, and in the making had somehow unlearnt how fitly to enjoy it.”

“But this I know,” interrupted Helen, now lifting her face to me.

“I never told you.”

“But my violin told me. Do you remember? I wanted to know you through and through, to the heart’s core. So I took my violin and played to you in the garden. And your face spoke in answer. So I knew you.”

It was strange. This confession she made with a blush and a great deal of confusion—a confession of a trick if you will, but a trick to which no one could object, by which anyone might be flattered. But that other more serious duplicity she could deny with an unwavering assurance!

‘’You know then,” I went on. “It makes it easier for me. I want you to understand then that it was to serve myself I came, and I do verily believe that I have served myself better than I have served you. Why, I did not even know what you were like. I did not inquire of Clutterbuck, he drew no picture of you to persuade me to my journey. Thus then there is no reason why you should be silent concerning Cullen out of any consideration for me.”

She looked at me in perplexity. My hint had not sufficed. I must make myself more clear.

“I have no doubt,” I continued, “that you have seen. No doubt I might have been more circumspect. No doubt I have betrayed myself this last day. But, believe me, you are under no debt to me. If I can bring Cullen Mayle back to you, I will not harbour a thought of jealousy.”

Did she understand? I could not be sure. But I saw her whole face brighten and smile—it was as though a glory shone upon it—and her figure straighten with a sort of pride. Did she understand at the last that she need practise no concealments t But she said nothing, she waited for me to say what more I had to say. Well, I could make the matter yet more plain,

“Besides,” I said, “I knew—I knew very well before I set out from London, Clutterbuck told me. So that it is my own fault, you see, if when I came here I took no account of what he told me. And even so, believe me, I do not regret the fault.”

“Lieutenant Clutterbuck!” she exclaimed, with something almost of alarm. “He told you what?”

“He told me of a night very like this. You were standing in this hall, very likely as you stand now, and the door was open and the breeze and the sound of the sea came through the open door as it does now. Only where I stand Cullen Mayle stood, asking you to follow him out through the world. And you would have followed, you did indeed begin to follow——”

So far I had got when she broke in passionately, with her eyes afire!

“It is not true! How can men speak such lies? Lieutenant Clutterbuck! I know—he told me the same story. It would have been much easier, so much franker, had he said outright he was tired of his—friendship for me and wished an end to it. I should have liked him the better had he been so frank. But that he should tell you the same story Oh! it is despicable—and you believe it?” she challenged me. “You believe that story. You believe, too, I went to a trysting with Cullen on Castle Down, the night you came, and kept it secret from you and let you run the peril of your life. You will have it, in a word, whatever I may say or do,” and she wrung her hands with a queer helplessness. “You will have it that I love him. Pity, a sense of injustice, a feeling that I wrongly possess what is rightly his—these things you will not allow can move me. No, I must love him.”

“Have I not proof you do?” I answered. “Not from Clutterbuck, but from yourself. Have I not proof into what despair your love could throw you?” And I took from my pocket the silk scarf. “Where did I get this?”

She took it from my hands, while her face softened. She drew it through her fingers, and a smile parted her lips. She raised her eyes to me with a certain shyness, and she answered shyly:

“Yet you say you were not curious to know anything of me in London before you started to the West.”

The answer was no answer at all. I repeated my question:

“How do I come to have that scarf?”

“I can but guess,” she said; “I did not know that Lieutenant Clutterbuck possessed it. But it could be no one else. You asked it of Lieutenant Clutterbuck in London.”

For a moment I could not believe that I had heard a right. I stared at her. It was impossible that any woman could carry effrontery to so high a pitch. But she repeated her words.

“Lieutenant Clutterbuck gave it to you no doubt in London, and—will you tell me?—I should like to know. Did you ask him for it?”

Should I strip away this pretence? Should I compel her to own where I found it and how I came by it? But it seemed not worth while. I turned on my heel without a word, and went straight out through the open door and on to the hillside.

And so this was the second night which I spent in the gorse of Castle Down. One moment I was hot to go back to London and speak to no woman for the rest of my days. The next I was all for finding Cullen Mayle and heaping coals of fire upon Helen’s head. The coals of fire carried the day in the end.

As morning broke I walked down to the Palace Inn fully resolved. I would search for Cullen Mayle until I found him. I would bring him back. I would see him married to Helen from a dark corner in St. Mary’s Church, and when the pair were properly unhappy and miserable, as they would undoubtedly become—I was very sorry, but miserable they would be—why then I would send her a letter. The writing in the letter should be “Ha! ha!”—not a word more, not even a signature, but just “Ha! ha!” on a blank sheet of paper.

But, as I have said, I had grown very young these last few days.

The Watchers - Contents    |     Chapter XVII - Cullen Mayle Comes Home

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