I found the rear of the building in darkness unrelieved from within; on the other hand, the climbing moon beat so full upon the garden wall, it was as though a lantern pinned me as I crept beneath it. In passing I thought I might as well try the gate; but Eva was right; it was locked; and that made me half inclined to distrust my eyes in the matter of the two horsemen, for whence could they have come, if not from the hall? In any case I was well rid of them. I now followed the wall some little distance, and then, to see over it, walked backwards until I was all but in the beck; and there, sure enough, shone my darling's candle, close as close against the diamond panes of her narrow, lofty window! It brought those ready tears back to my foolish, fevered eyes. But for sentiment there was no time, and every other emotion was either futile or premature. So I mastered my full heart, I steeled, my wretched nerves, and braced my limp muscles for the task that lay before them.
I had a garden wall to scale, nearly twice my own height, and without notch or cranny in the ancient, solid masonry. I stood against it on my toes, and I touched it with my finger-tips as high up as possible. Some four feet severed them from the coping that left only half a sky above my upturned eyes.
I do not know whether I have made it plain that the house was not surrounded by four walls, but merely filled a breach in one of the four, which nipped it (as it were) at either end. The back entrance was approachable enough, but barred or watched, I might be very sure. It is ever the vulnerable points which are most securely guarded, and it was my one comfort that the difficult way must also be the safe way, if only the difficulty could be overcome. How to overcome it was the problem. I followed the wall right round to the point at which it abutted on the tower that immured my love; the height never varied; nor could my hands or eyes discover a single foot-hole, ledge, or other means of mounting to the top.
Yet my hot head was full of ideas; and I wasted some minutes in trying to lift from its hinges a solid, six-barred, outlying gate, that my weak arms could hardly stir. More time went in pulling branches from the oak-trees about the beck, where the latter ran nearest to the moonlit wall. I had an insane dream of throwing a long forked branch over the coping, and so swarming up hand-over-hand. But even to me the impracticability of this plan came home at last. And there I stood in a breathless lather, much time and strength thrown away together; and the candle burning down for nothing in that little lofty window; and the running water swirling noisily over its stones at my back.
This was the only sound; the wind had died away; the moonlit valley lay as still as the dread old house in its midst but for the splash and gurgle of the beck. I fancied this grew louder as I paused and listened in my helplessness. All at once—was it the tongue of Nature telling me the way, or common gumption returning at the eleventh hour? I ran down to the water's edge, and could have shouted for joy. Great stones lay in equal profusion on bed and banks. I lifted one of the heaviest in both hands. I staggered with it to the wall. I came back for another; for some twenty minutes I was so employed; my ultimate reward a fine heap of boulders against the wall.
Then I began to build; then mounted my pile, clawing the wall to keep my balance. My fingers were still many inches from the coping. I jumped down and gave another ten minutes to the back-breaking work of carrying more boulders from the water to the wall. Then I widened my cairn below, so that I could stand firmly before springing upon the pinnacle with which I completed it. I knew well that this would collapse under me if I allowed my weight to rest more than an instant upon it. And so at last it did; but my fingers had clutched the coping in time; had grabbed it even as the insecure pyramid crumbled and left me dangling.
Instantly exerting what muscle I had left, and the occasion gave me, I succeeded in pulling myself up until my chin was on a level with my hands, when I flung an arm over and caught the inner coping. The other arm followed; then a leg; and at last I sat astride the wall, panting and palpitating, and hardly able to credit my own achievement. One great difficulty had been my huge revolver. I had been terribly frightened it might go off, and had finally used my cravat to sling it at the back of my neck. It had shifted a little, and I was working it round again, preparatory to my drop, when I saw the light suddenly taken from the window in the tower, and a kerchief waving for one instant in its place. So she had been waiting and watching for me all these hours! I dropped into the garden in a very ecstasy of grief and rapture, to think that I had been so long in coming to my love, but that I had come at last. And I picked myself up in a very frenzy of fear lest, after all, I should fail to spirit her from this horrible place.
Doubly desolate it looked in the rays of that bright October moon. Skulking in the shadow of the wall which had so long baffled me, I looked across a sharp border of shade upon a chaos, the more striking for its lingering trim design. The long, straight paths were barnacled with weeds; the dense, fine hedges, once prim and angular, had fattened out of all shape or form; and on the velvet sward of other days you might have waded waist high in rotten hay. Towards the garden end this rank jungle merged into a worse wilderness of rhododendrons, the tallest I have ever seen. On all this the white moon smiled, and the grim house glowered, to the eternal swirl and rattle of the beck beyond its walls.
Long enough I stood where I had dropped, listening with all my being for some other sound; but at last that great studded door creaked and shivered on its ancient hinges, and I heard voices arguing in the Portuguese tongue. It was poor Eva wheedling that black rascal Jose. I saw her in the lighted porch; the nigger I saw also, shrugging and gesticulating for all the world like his hateful master; yet giving in, I felt certain, though I could not understand a word that reached me.
And indeed my little mistress very soon sailed calmly out, followed by final warnings and expostulations hurled from the step: for the black stood watching her as she came steadily my way, now raising her head to sniff the air, now stooping to pluck up a weed, the very picture of a prisoner seeking the open air for its own sake solely. I had a keen eye apiece for them as I cowered closer to the wall, revolver in hand. But ere my love was very near me (for she would stand long moments gazing ever so innocently at the moon), her jailer had held a bottle to the light, and had beaten a retreat so sudden and so hasty that I expected him back every moment, and so durst not stir. Eva saw me, however, and contrived to tell me so without interrupting the air that she was humming as she walked.
"Follow me," she sang, "only keep as you are, keep as you are, close to the wall, close to the wall."
And on she strolled to her own tune, and came abreast of me without turning her head; so I crept in the shadow (my ugly weapon tucked out of sight), and she sauntered in the shine, until we came to the end of the garden, where the path turned at right angles, running behind the rhododendrons; once in their shelter, she halted and beckoned me, and next instant I had her hands in mine.
"At last!" was all that I could say for many a moment, as I stood there gazing into her dear eyes, no hero in my heroic hour, but the bigger love-sick fool than ever. "But quick—quick—quick!" I added, as she brought me to my senses by withdrawing her hands. "We've no time to lose." And I looked wildly from wall to wall, only to find them as barren and inaccessible on this side as on the other.
"We have more time than you think," were Eva's first words. "We can do nothing for half-an-hour."
"I'll tell you in a minute. How did you manage to get over?"
"Brought boulders from the beck, and piled 'em up till I could reach the top."
I thought her eyes glistened.
"What patience!" she cried softly. "We must find a simpler way of getting out—and I think I have. They've all gone, you know, but Jose."
"The captain has been gone all day."
Then the other two must have been my horse-men, very probably in some disguise; and my head swam with the thought of the risk that I had run at the very moment when I thought myself safest. Well, I would have finished them both! But I did not say so to Eva. I did not mention the incident, I was so fearful of destroying her confidence in me. Apologizing, therefore, for my interruption, without explaining it, I begged her to let me hear her plan.
It was simple enough. There was no fear of the others returning before midnight; the chances were that they would be very much later; and now it was barely eleven, and Eva had promised not to stay out above half-an-hour. When it was up Jose would come and call her.
"It is horrid to have to be so cunning!" cried little Eva, with an angry shudder; "but it's no use thinking of that," she was quick enough to add, "when you have such dreadful men to deal with, such fiends! And I have had all day to prepare, and have suffered till I am so desperate I would rather die to-night than spend another in that house. No; let me finish! Jose will come round here to look for me. But you and I will be hiding on the other side of these rhododendrons. And when we hear him here we'll make a dash for it across the long grass. Once let us get the door shut and locked in his face, and he'll be in a trap. It will take him some time to break in; time enough to give us a start; what's more, when he finds us gone, he'll do what they all used to do in any doubt."
"Say nothing till it's found out; then lie for their lives; and it was their lives, poor creatures on the Zambesi!" She was silent a moment, her determined little face hard—set upon some unforgotten horror. "Once we get away, I shall be surprised if it's found out till morning," concluded Eva, without a word as to what I was to do with her; neither, indeed, had I myself given that question a moment's consideration.
"Then let's make a dash for it now!" was all I said or thought.
"No; they can't come yet, and Jose is strong and brutal, and I have heard how ill you are. That you should have come to me notwithstanding—" and she broke off with her little hands lying so gratefully on my shoulders, that I know not how I refrained from catching her then and there to my heart. Instead, I laughed and said that my illness was a pure and deliberate sharp, and my presence there its direct result. And such was the virtue in my beloved's voice, the magic of her eyes, the healing of her touch, that I was scarce conscious of deceit, but felt a whole man once more as we two stood together in the moonlight.
In a trance I stood there gazing into her brave young eyes. In a trance I suffered her to lead me by the hand through the rank, dense rhododendrons. And still entranced I crouched by her side near the further side, with only unkempt grass-plot and a weedy path between us and that ponderous door, wide open still, and replaced by a section of the lighted hail within. On this we fixed our attention with mingled dread and impatience, those contending elements of suspense; but the black was slow to reappear; and my eyes stole home to my sweet girl's face, with its glory of moonlit curls, and the eager, resolute, embittered look that put the world back two whole months, and Eva Denison upon the Lady Jermyn's poop, in the ship's last hours. But it was not her look alone; she had on her cloak, as the night before, but with me (God bless her!) she found no need to clasp herself in its folds; and underneath she wore the very dress in which she had sung at our last concert, and been rescued in the gig. It looked as though she had worn it ever since. The roses were crushed and soiled, the tulle all torn, and tarnished some strings of beads that had been gold: a tatter of Chantilly lace hung by a thread: it is another of the relics that I have unearthed in the writing of this narrative.
"I thought men never noticed dresses?" my love said suddenly, a pleased light in her eyes (I thought) in spite of all. "Do you really remember it?"
"I remember every one of them," I said indignantly; and so I did.
"You will wonder why I wear it," said Eva, quickly. "It was the first that came that terrible night. They have given me many since. But I won't wear one of them—not one!"
How her eyes flashed! I forgot all about Jose.
"I suppose you know why they hadn't room for you in the gig?" she went on.
"No, I don't know, and I don't care. They had room for you," said I; "that's all I care about." And to think she could not see I loved her!
"But do you mean to say you don't know that these—murderers—set fire to the ship?"
"No—yes! I heard you say so last night."
"And you don't want to know what for?"
Out of politeness I protested that I did; but, as I live, all I wanted to know just then was whether my love loved me—whether she ever could—whether such happiness was possible under heaven!
"You remember all that mystery about the cargo?" she continued eagerly, her pretty lips so divinely parted!
"It turned out to be gunpowder," said I, still thinking only of her.
"But it was gunpowder," I insisted; for it was my incorrigible passion for accuracy which had led up to half our arguments on the voyage; but this time Eva let me off.
"It was also gold: twelve thousand ounces from the diggings. That was the real mystery. Do you mean to say you never guessed?"
"No, by Jove I didn't!" said I. She had diverted my interest at last. I asked her if she had known on board.
"Not until the last moment. I found out during the fire. Do you remember when we said good-by? I was nearly telling you then."
Did I remember! The very letter of that last interview was cut deep in my heart; not a sleepless night had I passed without rehearsing it word for word and look for look; and sometimes, when sorrow had spent itself, and the heart could bleed no more, vain grief had given place to vainer speculation, and I had cudgelled my wakeful brains for the meaning of the new and subtle horror which I had read in my darling's eyes at the last. Now I understood; and the one explanation brought such a tribe in its train, that even the perilous ecstasy of the present moment was temporarily forgotten in the horrible past.
"Now I know why they wouldn't have me in the gig!" I cried softly.
"She carried four heavy men's weight in gold."
"When on earth did they get it aboard?"
"In provision boxes at the last; but they had been filling the boxes for weeks."
"Why, I saw them doing it!" I cried. "But what about the gig? Who picked you up?"
She was watching that open door once more, and she answered with notable indifference, "Mr. Rattray."
"So that's the connection!" said I; and I think its very simplicity was what surprised me most.
"Yes; he was waiting for us at Ascension."
"Then it was all arranged?"
"And this young blackguard is as bad as any of them!"
"Worse," said she, with bitter brevity. Nor had I ever seen her look so hard but once, and that was the night before in the old justice hall, when she told Rattray her opinion of him to his face. She had now the same angry flush, the same set mouth and scornful voice; and I took it finally into my head that she was unjust to the poor devil, villain though he was. With all his villainy I declined to believe him as bad as the others. I told her so in as many words. And in a moment we were arguing as though we were back on the Lady Jermyn with nothing else to do.
"You may admire wholesale murderers and thieves," said Eva. "I do not."
"Nor I. My point is simply that this one is not as bad as the rest. I believe he was really glad for my sake when he discovered that I knew nothing of the villainy. Come now, has he ever offered you any personal violence?"
"Me? Mr. Rattray? I should hope not, indeed!"
"Has he never saved you from any?"
"I—I don't know."
"Then I do. When you left them last night there was some talk of bringing you back by force. You can guess who suggested that—and who set his face against it and got his way. You would think the better of Rattray had you heard what passed."
"Should I?" she asked half eagerly, as she looked quickly round at me; and suddenly I saw her eyes fill. "Oh, why will you speak about him?" she burst out. "Why must you defend him, unless it's to go against me, as you always did and always will! I never knew anybody like you—never! I want you to take me away from these wretches, and all you do is to defend them!"
"Not all," said I, clasping her hand warmly in mine. "Not all—not all! I will take you away from them, never fear; in another hour God grant you may be out of their reach for ever!"
"But where are we to go?" she whispered wildly. "What are you to do with me? All my friends think me dead, and if they knew I was not it would all come out."
"So it shall," said I; "the sooner the better; if I'd had my way it would all be out already."
I see her yet, my passionate darling, as she turned upon me, whiter than the full white moon.
"Mr. Cole," said she, "you must give me your sacred promise that so far as you are concerned, it shall never come out at all!"
"This monstrous conspiracy? This cold blooded massacre?"
And I crouched aghast.
"Yes; it could do no good; and, at any rate, unless you promise I remain where I am."
"In their hands?"
"Decidedly—to warn them in time. Leave them I would, but betray them—never!"
What could I say? What choice had I in the face of an alternative so headstrong and so unreasonable? To rescue Eva from these miscreants I would have let every malefactor in the country go unscathed: yet the condition was a hard one; and, as I hesitated, my love went on her knees to me, there in the moonlight among the rhododendrons.
"Promise—promise—or you will kill me!" she gasped. "They may deserve it richly, but I would rather be torn in little pieces than—than have them—hanged!"
"It is too good for most of them."
"To hold my tongue about them all?"
"When a hundred lives were sacrificed—"
"I can't," I said. "It's wrong."
"Then good-by!" she cried, starting to her feet.
"No—no—" and I caught her hand.
CHAPTER XV. FIRST BLOOD
So I bound myself to a guilty secrecy for Eva's sake, to save her from these wretches, or if you will, to win her for myself. Nor did it strike me as very strange, after a moment's reflection, that she should intercede thus earnestly for a band headed by her own mother's widower, prime scoundrel of them all though she knew him to be. The only surprise was that she had not interceded in his name; that I should have forgotten, and she should have allowed me to forget, the very existence of so indisputable a claim upon her loyalty. This, however, made it a little difficult to understand the hysterical gratitude with which my unwilling promise was received. Poor darling! she was beside herself with sheer relief. She wept as I had never seen her weep before. She seized and even kissed my hands, as one who neither knew nor cared what she did, surprising me so much by her emotion that this expression of it passed unheeded. I was the best friend she had ever had. I was her one good friend in all the world; she would trust herself to me; and if I would but take her to the convent where she had been brought up, she would pray for me there until her death, but that would not be very long.
All of which confused me utterly; it seemed an inexplicable breakdown in one who had shown such nerve and courage hitherto, and so hearty a loathing for that damnable Santos. So completely had her presence of mind forsaken her that she looked no longer where she had been gazing hitherto. And thus it was that neither of us saw Jose until we heard him calling, "Senhora Evah! Senhora Evah!" with some rapid sentences in Portuguese.
"Now is our time," I whispered, crouching lower and clasping a small hand gone suddenly cold. "Think of nothing now but getting out of this. I'll keep my word once we are out; and here's the toy that's going to get us out." And I produced my Deane and Adams with no small relish.
A little trustful pressure was my answer and my reward; meanwhile the black was singing out lustily in evident suspicion and alarm.
"He says they are coming back," whispered Eva; "but that's impossible."
"Because if they were he couldn't see them, and if he heard them he would be frightened of their hearing him. But here he comes!"
A shuffling quick step on the path; a running grumble of unmistakable threats; a shambling moonlit figure seen in glimpses through the leaves, very near us for an instant, then hidden by the shrubbery as he passed within a few yards of our hiding-place. A diminuendo of the shuffling steps; then a cursing, frightened savage at one end of the rhododendrons, and we two stealing out at the other, hand in hand, and bent quite double, into the long neglected grass.
"Can you run for it?" I whispered.
"Yes, but not too fast, for fear we trip.'
"Come on, then!"
The lighted open doorway grew greater at every stride.
"He hasn't seen us yet—"
"No, I hear him threatening me still."
"Now he has, though!"
A wild whoop proclaimed the fact, and upright we tore at top speed through the last ten yards of grass, while the black rushed down one of the side paths, gaining audibly on us over the better ground. But our start had saved us, and we flew up the steps as his feet ceased to clatter on the path; he had plunged into the grass to cut off the corner.
"Thank God!" cried Eva. "Now shut it quick."
The great door swung home with a mighty clatter, and Eva seized the key in both hands.
"I can't turn it!"
To lose a second was to take a life, and unconsciously I was sticking at that, perhaps from no higher instinct than distrust of my aim. Our pursuer, however, was on the steps when I clapped my free hand on top of those little white straining ones, and by a timely effort bent both them and the key round together; the ward shot home as Jose hurled himself against the door. Eva bolted it. But the thud was not repeated, and I gathered myself together between the door and the nearest window, for by now I saw there was but one thing for us. The nigger must be disabled, if I could manage such a nicety; if not, the devil take his own.
Well, I was not one tick too soon for him. My pistol was not cocked before the crash came that I was counting on, and with it a shower of small glass driving across the six-foot sill and tinkling on the flags. Next came a black and bloody face, at which I could not fire. I had to wait till I saw his legs, when I promptly shattered one of them at disgracefully short range. The report was as deafening as one upon the stage; the hall filled with white smoke, and remained hideous with the bellowing of my victim. I searched him without a qualm, but threats of annihilation instead, and found him unarmed but for that very knife which Rattray had induced me to hand over to him in town. I had a grim satisfaction in depriving him of this, and but small compunction in turning my back upon his pain.
"Come," I said to poor Eva, "don't pity him, though I daresay he's the most pitiable of the lot; show me the way through, and I'll follow with this lamp."
One was burning on the old oak table. I carried it along a narrow passage, through a great low kitchen where I bumped my head against the black oak beams; and I held it on high at a door almost as massive as the one which we had succeeded in shutting in the nigger's face.
"I was afraid of it!" cried Eva, with a sudden sob.
"What is it?"
"They've taken away the key!"
Yes, the keen air came through an empty keyhole; and my lamp, held close, not only showed that the door was locked, but that the lock was one with which an unskilled hand might tamper for hours without result. I dealt it a hearty kick by way of a test. The heavy timber did not budge; there was no play at all at either lock or hinges; nor did I see how I could spend one of my four remaining bullets upon the former, with any chance of a return.
"Is this the only other door?"
"Then it must be a window."
"All the back ones are barred."
"Then we've no choice in the matter."
And I led the way back to the hall, where the poor black devil lay blubbering in his blood. In the kitchen I found the bottle of wine (Rattray's best port, that they were trying to make her take for her health) with which Eva had bribed him, and I gave it to him before laying hands on a couple of chairs.
"What are you going to do?"'
"Go out the way we came."
"But the wall?"
"Pile up these chairs, and as many more as we may need, if we can't open the gate."
But Eva was not paying attention any longer, either to me or to Jose; his white teeth were showing in a grin for all his pain; her eyes were fixed in horror on the floor.
"They've come back," she gasped. "The underground passage! Hark—hark!"
There was a muffled rush of feet beneath our own, then a dull but very distinguishable clatter on some invisible stair.
"Underground passage!" I exclaimed, and in my sheer disgust I forgot what was due to my darling. "Why on earth didn't you tell me of it before?"
"There was so much to tell you! It leads to the sea. Oh, what shall we do? You must hide—upstairs—anywhere!" cried Eva, wildly. "Leave them to me—leave them to me."
"I like that," said I; and I did; but I detested myself for the tears my words had drawn, and I prepared to die for them.
"They'll kill you, Mr. Cole!"
"It would serve me right; but we'll see about it."
And I stood with my revolver very ready in my right hand, while with the other I caught poor Eva to my side, even as a door flew open, and Rattray himself burst upon us, a lantern in his hand, and the perspiration shining on his handsome face in its light.
I can see him now as he stood dumfounded on the threshold of the hall; and yet, at the time, my eyes sped past him into the room beyond.
It was the one I have described as being lined with books; there was a long rent in this lining, where the books had opened with a door, through which Captain Harris, Joaquin Santos, and Jane Braithwaite followed Rattray in quick succession, the men all with lanterns, the woman scarlet and dishevelled even for her. It was over the squire's shoulders I saw their faces; he kept them from passing him in the doorway by a free use of his elbows; and when I looked at him again, his black eyes were blazing from a face white with passion, and they were fixed upon me.
"What the devil brings you here?" he thundered at last.
"Don't ask idle questions," was my reply to that.
"So you were shamming to-day!"
"I was taking a leaf out of your book."
"You'll gain nothing by being clever!" sneered the squire, taking a threatening step forward. For at the last moment I had tucked my revolver behind my back, not only for the pleasure, but for the obvious advantage of getting them all in front of me and off their guard. I had no idea that such eyes as Rattray's could be so fierce: they were dancing from me to my companion, whom their glitter frightened into an attempt to disengage herself from me; but my arm only tightened about her drooping figure.
"I shall gain no more than I expect," said I, carelessly. "And I know what to expect from brave gentlemen like you! It will be better than your own fate, at all events; anything's better than being taken hence to the place of execution, and hanged by the neck until you're dead, all three of you in a row, and your bodies buried within the precincts of the prison!"
"The very thing for him," murmured Santos. "The—very—theeng!"
"But I'm so soft-hearted," I went insanely on, "that I should be sorry to see that happen to such fine fellows as you are. Come out of that, you little fraud behind there!" It was my betrayer skulking in the room. "Come out and line up with the rest! No, I'm not going to see you fellows dance on nothing; I've another kind of ball apiece for you, and one between 'em for the Braithwaites!"
Well, I suppose I always had a nasty tongue in me, and rather enjoyed making play with it on provocation; but, if so, I met with my deserts that night. For the nigger of the Lady Jermyn lay all but hid behind Eva and me; if they saw him at all, they may have thought him drunk; but, as for myself, I had fairly forgotten his existence until the very moment came for showing my revolver, when it was twisted out of my grasp instead, and a ball sang under my arm as the brute fell back exhausted and the weapon clattered beside him. Before I could stoop for it there was a dead weight on my left arm, and Squire Rattray was over the table at a bound, with his arms jostling mine beneath Eva Denison's senseless form.
"Leave her to me," he cried fiercely. "You fool," he added in a lower key, "do you think I'd let any harm come to her?"
I looked him in the bright and honest eyes that had made me trust him in the beginning. And I did not utterly distrust him yet. Rather was the guile on my side as I drew back and watched Rattray lift the young girl tenderly, and slowly carry her to the door by which she had entered and left the hall just twenty-four hours before. I could not take my eyes off them till they were gone. And when I looked for my revolver, it also had disappeared.
Jose had not got it—he lay insensible. Santos was whispering to Harris. Neither of them seemed armed. I made sure that Rattray had picked it up and carried it off with Eva. I looked wildly for some other weapon. Two unarmed men and a woman were all I had to deal with, for Braithwaite had long since vanished. Could I but knock the worthless life out of the men, I should have but the squire and his servants to deal with; and in that quarter I still had my hopes of a bloodless battle and a treaty of war.
A log fire was smouldering in the open grate. I darted to it, and had a heavy, half-burned brand whirling round my head next instant. Harris was the first within my reach. He came gamely at me with his fists. I sprang upon him, and struck him to the ground with one blow, the sparks flying far and wide as my smoking brand met the seaman's skull. Santos was upon me next instant, and him, by sheer luck, I managed to serve the same; but I doubt whether either man was stunned; and I was standing ready for them to rise, when I felt myself seized round the neck from behind, and a mass of fluffy hair tickling my cheek, while a shrill voice set up a lusty scream for the squire.
I have said that the woman Braithwaite was of a sinister strength; but I had little dreamt how strong she really was. First it was her arms that wound themselves about my neck, long, sinuous, and supple as the tentacles of some vile monster; then, as I struggled, her thumbs were on my windpipe like pads of steel. Tighter she pressed, and tighter yet. My eyeballs started; my tongue lolled; I heard my brand drop, and through a mist I saw it picked up instantly. It crashed upon my skull as I still struggled vainly; again and again it came down mercilessly in the same place; until I felt as though a sponge of warm water had been squeezed over my head, and saw a hundred withered masks grinning sudden exultation into mine; but still the lean arm whirled, and the splinters flew, till I was blind with my blood and the seven senses were beaten out of me.
CHAPTER XVI. A DEADLOCK
It must have been midnight when I opened my eyes; a clock was striking as though it never would stop. My mouth seemed fire; a pungent flavor filled my nostrils; the wineglass felt cold against my teeth. "That's more like it!" muttered a voice close to my ear. An arm was withdrawn from under my shoulders. I was allowed to sink back upon some pillows. And now I saw where I was. The room was large and poorly lighted. I lay in my clothes on an old four-poster bed. And my enemies were standing over me in a group.
"I hope you are satisfied!" sneered Joaquin Santos, with a flourish of his eternal cigarette.
"I am. You don't do murder in my house, wherever else you may do it."
"And now better lid 'im to the nirrest polissstation; or weel you go and tell the poliss yourself?" asked the Portuguese, in the same tone of mordant irony.
"Ay, ay," growled Harris; "that's the next thing!"
"No," said Rattray; "the next thing's for you two to leave him to me."
"We'll see you damned!" cried the captain.
"No, no, my friend," said Santos, with a shrug; "let him have his way. He is as fond of his skeen as you are of yours; he'll come round to our way in the end. I know this Senhor Cole. It is necessary for 'im to die. But it is not necessary this moment; let us live them together for a leetle beet."
"That's all I ask," said Rattray.
"You won't ask it twice," rejoined Santos, shrugging. "I know this Senhor Cole. There is only one way of dilling with a man like that. Besides, he 'as 'alf-keeled my good Jose; it is necessary for 'im to die."
"I agree with the senhor," said Harris, whose forehead was starred with sticking-plaster. "It's him or us, an' we're all agen you, squire. You'll have to give in, first or last."
And the pair were gone; their steps grew faint in the corridor; when we could no longer hear them, Rattray closed the door and quietly locked it. Then he turned to me, stern enough, and pointed to the door with a hand that shook.
"You see how it is?"
"They want to kill you!"
"Of course they do."
"It's your own fault; you've run yourself into this. I did my best to keep you out of it. But in you come, and spill first blood."
"I don't regret it," said I.
"Oh, you're damned mule enough not to regret anything!" cried Rattray. "I see the sort you are; yet but for me, I tell you plainly, you'd be a dead man now."
"I can't think why you interfered."
"You've heard the reason. I won't have murder done here if I can prevent it; so far I have; it rests with you whether I can go on preventing it or not."
"With me, does it?"
He sat down on the side of the bed. He threw an arm to the far side of my body, and he leaned over me with savage eyes now staring into mine, now resting with a momentary gleam of pride upon my battered head. I put up my hand; it lit upon a very turban of bandages, and at that I tried to take his hand in mine. He shook it off, and his eyes met mine more fiercely than before.
"See here, Cole," said he; "I don t know how the devil you got wind of anything to start with, and I don't care. What I do know is that you've made bad enough a long chalk worse for all concerned, and you'll have to get yourself out of the mess you've got yourself into, and there's only one way. I suppose Miss Denison has really told you everything this time? What's that? Oh, yes, she's all right again; no thanks to you. Now let's hear what she did tell you. It'll save time."
I repeated the hurried disclosures made by Eva in the rhododendrons. He nodded grimly in confirmation of their truth.
"Yes, those are the rough facts. The game was started in Melbourne. My part was to wait at Ascension till the Lady Jermyn signalled herself, follow her in a schooner we had bought and pick up the gig with the gold aboard. Well, I did so; never mind the details now, and never mind the bloody massacre the others had made of it before I came up. God knows I was never a consenting party to that, though I know I'm responsible. I'm in this thing as deep as any of them. I've shared the risks and I'm going to share the plunder, and I'll swing with the others if it ever comes to that. I deserve it hard enough. And so here we are, we three and the nigger, all four fit to swing in a row, as you were fool enough to tell us; and you step in and find out everything. What's to be done? You know what the others want to do. I say it rests with you whether they do it or not. There's only one other way of meeting the case."
"Be in it yourself, man! Come in with me and split my share!"
I could have burst out laughing in his handsome, eager face; the good faith of this absurd proposal was so incongruously apparent; and so obviously genuine was the young villain's anxiety for my consent. Become accessory after the fact in such a crime! Sell my silence for a price! I concealed my feelings with equal difficulty and resolution. I had plans of my own already, but I must gain time to think them over. Nor could I afford to quarrel with Rattray meanwhile.
"What was the haul?" I asked him, with the air of one not unprepared to consider the matter.
"Twelve thousand ounces!"
"Forty-eight thousand pounds, about?"
"And your share?"
"Fourteen thousand pounds. Santos takes twenty, and Harris and I fourteen thousand each."
"And you offer me seven?"
"I do! I do!"
He was becoming more and more eager and excited. His eyes were brighter than I had ever seen them, but slightly bloodshot, and a coppery flush tinged his clear, sunburnt skin. I fancied he had been making somewhat free with the brandy. But loss of blood had cooled my brain; and, perhaps, natural perversity had also a share in the composure which grew upon me as it deserted my companion.
"Why make such a sacrifice?" said I, smiling. "Why not let them do as they like?"
"I've told you why! I'm not so bad as all that. I draw the line at bloody murder! Not a life should have been lost if I'd had my way. Besides, I've done all the dirty work by you, Cole; there's been no help for it. We didn't know whether you knew or not; it made all the difference to us; and somebody had to dog you and find out how much you did know. I was the only one who could possibly do it. God knows how I detested the job! I'm more ashamed of it than of worse things. I had to worm myself into your friendship; and, by Jove, you made me think you did know, but hadn't let it out, and might any day. So then I got you up here, where you would be in our power if it was so; surely you can see every move? But this much I'll swear—I had nothing to do with Jose breaking into your room at the hotel; they went behind me there, curse them! And when at last I found out for certain, down here, that you knew nothing after all, I was never more sincerely thankful in my life. I give you my word it took a load off my heart."
"I know that," I said. "I also know who broke into my room, and I'm glad I'm even with one of you."
"It's done you no good," said Rattray. "Their first thought was to put you out of the way, and it's more than ever their last. You see the sort of men you've got to deal with; and they're three to one, counting the nigger; but if you go in with me they'll only be three to two."
He was manifestly anxious to save me in this fashion. And I suppose that most sensible men, in my dilemma, would at least have nursed or played upon good-will so lucky and so enduring. But there was always a twist in me that made me love (in my youth) to take the unexpected course; and it amused me the more to lead my young friend on.
"And where have you got this gold?" I asked him, in a low voice so promising that he instantly lowered his, and his eyes twinkled naughtily into mine.
"In the old tunnel that runs from this place nearly to the sea," said he. "We Rattrays have always been a pretty warm lot, Cole, and in the old days we were the most festive smugglers on the coast; this tunnel's a relic of 'em, although it was only a tradition till I came into the property. I swore I'd find it, and when I'd done so I made the new connection which you shall see. I'm rather proud of it. And I won't say I haven't used the old drain once or twice after the fashion of my rude forefathers; but never was it such a godsend as it's been this time. By Jove, it would be a sin if you didn't come in with us, Cole; but for the lives these blackguards lost the thing's gone splendidly; it would be a sin if you went and lost yours, whereas, if you come in, the two of us would be able to shake off those devils: we should be too strong for 'em."
"Seven thousand pounds!" I murmured. "Forty-eight thousand between us!"
"Yes, and nearly all of it down below, at this end of the tunnel, and the rest where we dropped it when we heard you were trying to bolt. We'd got it all at the other end, ready to pop aboard the schooner that's lying there still, if you turned out to know anything and to have told what you knew to the police. There was always the possibility of that, you see; we simply daren't show our noses at the bank until we knew how much you knew, and what you'd done or were thinking of doing. As it is, we can take 'em the whole twelve thousand ounces, or rather I can, as soon as I like, in broad daylight. I'm a lucky digger. It's all right. Everybody knows I've been out there. They'll have to pay me over the counter; and if you wait in the cab, by the Lord Harry, I'll pay you your seven thousand first! You don't deserve it, Cole, but you shall have it, and between us we'll see the others to blazes!"
He jumped up all excitement, and was at the door next instant.
"Stop!" I cried. "Where are you going?"
"Downstairs to tell them."
"Tell them what?"
"That you're going in with me, and it's all right."
"And do you really think I am?"
He had unlocked the door; after a pause I heard him lock it again. But I did not see his face until he returned to the bedside. And then it frightened me. It was distorted and discolored with rage and chagrin.
"You've been making a fool of me!" he cried fiercely.
"No, I have been considering the matter, Rattray."
"And you won't accept my offer?"
"Of course I won't. I didn't say I'd been considering that."
He stood over me with clenched fists and starting eyes.
"Don't you see that I want to save your life?" he cried. "Don't you see that this is the only way? Do you suppose a murder more or less makes any difference to that lot downstairs? Are you really such a fool as to die rather than hold your tongue?"
"I won't hold it for money, at all events," said I. "But that's what I was coming to."
"Very well!" he interrupted. "You shall only pretend to touch it. All I want is to convince the others that it's against your interest to split. Self-interest is the one motive they understand. Your bare word would be good enough for me."
"Suppose I won't give my bare word?" said I, in a gentle manner which I did not mean to be as irritating as it doubtless was. Yet his proposals and his assumptions were between them making me irritable in my turn.
"For Heaven's sake don't be such an idiot, Cole!" he burst out in a passion. "You know I'm against the others, and you know what they want, yet you do your best to put me on their side! You know what they are, and yet you hesitate! For the love of God be sensible; at least give me your word that you'll hold your tongue for ever about all you know."
"All right," I said. "I'll give you my word—my sacred promise, Rattray—on one condition."
"That you let me take Miss Denison away from you, for good and all!"
His face was transformed with fury: honest passion faded from it and left it bloodless, deadly, sinister.
"Away from me?" said Rattray, through his teeth.
"From the lot of you."
"I remember! You told me that night. Ha, ha, ha! You were in love with her—you—you!"
"That has nothing to do with it," said I, shaking the bed with my anger and my agitation.
"I should hope not! You, indeed, to look at her!"
"Well," I cried, "she may never love me; but at least she doesn't loathe me as she loathes you—yes, and the sight of you, and your very name!"
So I drew blood for blood; and for an instant I thought he was going to make an end of it by incontinently killing me himself. His fists flew out. Had I been a whole man on my legs, he took care to tell me what he would have done, and to drive it home with a mouthful of the oaths which were conspicuously absent from his ordinary talk.
"You take advantage of your weakness, like any cur," he wound up.
"And you of your strength—like the young bully you are!" I retorted.
"You do your best to make me one," he answered bitterly. "I try to stand by you at all costs. I want to make amends to you, I want to prevent a crime. Yet there you lie and set your face against a compromise; and there you lie and taunt me with the thing that's gall and wormwood to me already. I know I gave you provocation. And I know I'm rightly served. Why do you suppose I went into this accursed thing at all? Not for the gold, my boy, but for the girl! So she won't look at me. And it serves me right. But—I say—do you really think she loathes me, Cole?"
"I don't see how she can think much better of you than of the crime in which you've had a hand," was my reply, made, however, with as much kindness as I could summon. "The word I used was spoken in anger," said I; for his had disappeared; and he looked such a miserable, handsome dog as he stood there hanging his guilty head—in the room, I fancied, where he once had lain as a pretty, innocent child.
"Cole," said he, "I'd give twice my share of the damned stuff never to have put my hand to the plough; but go back I can't; so there's an end of it."
"I don't see it," said I. "You say you didn't go in for the gold? Then give up your share; the others'll jump at it; and Eva won't think the worse of you, at any rate."
"But what's to become of her if I drop out?
"You and I will take her to her friends, or wherever she wants to go."
"No, no!" he cried. "I never yet deserted my pals, and I'm not going to begin."
"I don't believe you ever before had such pals to desert," was my reply to that. "Quite apart from my own share in the matter, it makes me positively sick to see a fellow like you mixed up with such a crew in such a game. Get out of it, man, get out of it while you can! Now's your time. Get out of it, for God's sake!"
I sat up in my eagerness. I saw him waver. And for one instant a great hope fluttered in my heart. But his teeth met. His face darkened. He shook his head.
"That's the kind of rot that isn't worth talking, and you ought to know it," said he. "When I begin a thing I go through with it, though it lands me in hell, as this one will. I can't help that. It's too late to go back. I'm going on and you're going with me, Cole, like a sensible chap!"
I shook my head.
"Only on the one condition."
"You—stick—to—that?" he said, so rapidly that the words ran into one, so fiercely that his decision was as plain to me as my own.
"I do," said I, and could only sigh when he made yet one more effort to persuade me, in a distress not less apparent than his resolution, and not less becoming in him.
"Consider, Cole, consider!"
"I have already done so, Rattray."
"Murder is simply nothing to them!"
"It is nothing to me either."
"Human life is nothing!"
"No; it must end one day."
"You won't give your word unconditionally?"
"No; you know my condition."
He ignored it with a blazing eye, his hand upon the door.
"You prefer to die, then?" "Infinitely."
"Then die you may, and be damned to you!"
CHAPTER XVII. THIEVES FALL OUT
The door slammed. It was invisibly locked and the key taken out. I listened for the last of an angry stride. It never even began. But after a pause the door was unlocked again, and Rattray re-entered.
Without looking at me, he snatched the candle from the table on which it stood by the bedside, and carried it to a bureau at the opposite side of the room. There he stood a minute with his back turned, the candle, I fancy, on the floor. I saw him putting something in either jacket pocket. Then I heard a dull little snap, as though he had shut some small morocco case; whatever it was, he tossed it carelessly back into the bureau; and next minute he was really gone, leaving the candle burning on the floor.
I lay and heard his steps out of earshot, and they were angry enough now, nor had he given me a single glance. I listened until there was no more to be heard, and then in an instant I was off the bed and on my feet. I reeled a little, and my head gave me great pain, but greater still was my excitement. I caught up the candle, opened the unlocked bureau, and then the empty case which I found in the very front.
My heart leapt; there was no mistaking the depressions in the case. It was a brace of tiny pistols that Rattray had slipped into his jacket pockets.
Mere toys they must have been in comparison with my dear Deane and Adams; that mattered nothing. I went no longer in dire terror of my life; indeed, there was that in Rattray which had left me feeling fairly safe, in spite of his last words to me, albeit I felt his fears on my behalf to be genuine enough. His taking these little pistols (of course, there were but three chambers left loaded in mine) confirmed my confidence in him.
He would stick at nothing to defend me from the violence of his bloodthirsty accomplices. But it should not come to that. My legs were growing firmer under me. I was not going to lie there meekly without making at least an effort at self-deliverance. If it succeeded—the idea came to me in a flash—I would send Rattray an ultimatum from the nearest town; and either Eva should be set instantly and unconditionally free, or the whole matter be put unreservedly in the hands of the local police.
There were two lattice windows, both in the same immensely thick wall; to my joy, I discovered that they overlooked the open premises at the back of the hall, with the oak-plantation beyond; nor was the distance to the ground very great. It was the work of a moment to tear the sheets from the bed, to tie the two ends together and a third round the mullion by which the larger window was bisected. I had done this, and had let down my sheets, when a movement below turned my heart to ice. The night had clouded over. I could see nobody; so much the greater was my alarm.
I withdrew from the window, leaving the sheets hanging, in the hope that they also might be invisible in the darkness. I put out the candle, and returned to the window in great perplexity. Next moment I stood aghast—between the devil and the deep sea. I still heard a something down below, but a worse sound came to drown it. An unseen hand was very quietly trying the door which Rattray had locked behind him.
"Diablo!" came to my horrified ears, in a soft, vindictive voice.
"I told ye so," muttered another; "the young swab's got the key."
There was a pause, in which it would seem that Joaquin Santos had his ear at the empty keyhole.
"I think he must be slipping," at last I heard him sigh. "It was not necessary to awaken him in this world. It is a peety."
"One kick over the lock would do it," said Harris; "only the young swab'll hear."
"Not perhaps while he is dancing attendance on the senhora. Was it not good to send him to her? If he does hear, well, his own turn will come the queecker, that is all. But it would be better to take them one at a time; so keeck away, my friend, and I will give him no time to squil."
While my would-be murderers were holding this whispered colloquy, I had stood half-petrified by the open window; unwilling to slide down the sheets into the arms of an unseen enemy, though I had no idea which of them it could be; more hopeful of slipping past my butchers in the darkness, and so to Rattray and poor Eva; but not the less eagerly looking for some hiding-place in the room. The best that offered was a recess in the thick wall between the two windows, filled with hanging clothes: a narrow closet without a door, which would shelter me well enough if not too curiously inspected. Here I hid myself in the end, after a moment of indecision which nearly cost me my life. The coats and trousers still shook in front of me when the door flew open at the first kick, and Santos stood a moment in the moonlight, looking for the bed. With a stride he reached it, and I saw the gleam of a knife from where I stood among the squire's clothes; it flashed over my bed, and was still.
"He is not 'ere!"
"He heard us, and he's a-hiding."
"Make light, my friend, and we shall very soon see."
Harris did so.
"Here's a candle," said Santos; "light it, and watch the door. Perro mal dicto! What have we here?"
I felt certain he had seen me, but the candle passed within a yard of my feet, and was held on high at the open window.
"We are too late!" said Santos. "He's gone!"
"Are you sure
"Look at this sheet."
"Then the other swab knew of it, and we'll settle with him."
"Yes, yes. But not yet, my good friend—not yet. We want his asseestance in getting the gold back to the sea; he will be glad enough to give it, now that his pet bird has flown; after that—by all mins. You shall cut his troth, and I will put one of 'is dear friend's bullets in 'im for my own satisfaction."
There was a quick step on the stairs-in the corridor.
"I'd like to do it now," whispered Harris; "no time like the present."
"Not yet, I tell you!"
And Rattray was in the room, a silver-mounted pistol in each hand; the sight of these was a surprise to his treacherous confederates, as even I could see.
"What the devil are you two doing here?" he thundered.
"We thought he was too quite," said Santos. "You percive the rizzon."
And he waved from empty bed to open window, then held the candle close to the tied sheet, and shrugged expressively.
"You thought he was too quiet!" echoed Rattray with fierce scorn. "You thought I was too blind—that's what you mean. To tell me that Miss Denison wished to see me, and Miss Denison that I wished to speak to her! As if we shouldn't find you out in about a minute! But a minute was better than nothing, eh? And you've made good use of your minute, have you. You've murdered him, and you pretend he's got out? By God, if you have, I'll murder you! I've been ready for this all night!"
And he stood with his back to the window, his pistols raised, and his head carried proudly—happily—like a man whose self-respect was coming back to him after many days. Harris shrank before his fierce eyes and pointed barrels. The Portuguese, however, had merely given a characteristic shrug, and was now rolling the inevitable cigarette.
"Your common sense is almost as remarkable as your sense of justice, my friend," said he. "You see us one, two, tree meenutes ago, and you see us now. You see the empty bed, the empty room, and you imagine that in one, two, tree meenutes we have killed a man and disposed of his body. Truly, you are very wise and just, and very loyal also to your friends. You treat a dangerous enemy as though he were your tween-brother. You let him escape—let him, I repit—and then you threaten to shoot those who, as it is, may pay for your carelessness with their lives. We have been always very loyal to you, Senhor Rattray. We have leestened to your advice, and often taken it against our better judgment. We are here, not because we think it wise, but because you weeshed it. Yet at the first temptation you turn upon us, you point your peestols at your friends."
"I don't believe in your loyalty," rejoined Rattray. "I believe you would shoot me sooner than I would you. The only difference would be than I should be shot in the back!"
"It is untrue," said Santos, with immense emotion. "I call the saints to witness that never by thought or word have I been disloyal to you"—and the blasphemous wretch actually crossed himself with a trembling, skinny hand. "I have leestened to you, though you are the younger man. I have geeven way to you in everything from the moment we were so fullish as to set foot on this accursed coast; that also was your doeeng; and it will be your fault if ivil comes of it. Yet I have not complained. Here in your own 'ouse you have been the master, I the guest. So far from plotting against you, show me the man who has heard me brith one treacherous word behind your back; you will find it deeficult, friend Rattray; what do you say, captain?"
"Me?" cried Harris, in a voice bursting with abuse. And what the captain said may or may not be imagined. It cannot be set down.
But the man who ought to have spoken—the man who had such a chance as few men have off the stage—who could have confounded these villains in a breath, and saved the wretched Rattray at once from them and from himself—that unheroic hero remained ignobly silent in his homely hiding-place. And, what is more, he would do the same again!
The rogues had fallen out; now was the time for honest men. They all thought I had escaped; therefore they would give me a better chance than ever of still escaping; and I have already explained to what purpose I meant to use my first hours of liberty. That purpose I hold to have justified any ingratitude that I may seem now to have displayed towards the man who had undoubtedly stood between death and me. Was not Eva Denison of more value than many Rattrays? And it was precisely in relation with this pure young girl that I most mistrusted the squire: obviously then my first duty was to save Eva from Rattray, not Rattray from these traitors.
Not that I pretend for a moment to have been the thing I never was: you are not so very grateful to the man who pulls you out of the mud when he has first of all pushed you in; nor is it chivalry alone which spurs one to the rescue of a lovely lady for whom, after all, one would rather live than die. Thus I, in my corner, was thinking (I will say) of Eva first; but next I was thinking of myself; and Rattray's blood be on his own hot head! I hold, moreover, that I was perfectly right in all this; but if any think me very wrong, a sufficient satisfaction is in store for them, for I was very swiftly punished.
The captain's language was no worse in character than in effect: the bed was bloody from my wounded head, all tumbled from the haste with which I had quitted it, and only too suggestive of still fouler play. Rattray stopped the captain with a sudden flourish of one of his pistols, the silver mountings making lightning in the room; then he called upon the pair of them to show him what they had done with me; and to my horror, Santos invited him to search the room. The invitation was accepted. Yet there I stood. It would have been better to step forward even then. Yet I cowered among his clothes until his own hand fell upon my collar, and forth I was dragged to the plain amazement of all three.
Santos was the first to find his voice.
"Another time you will perhaps think twice before you spik, friend squire."
Rattray simply asked me what I had been doing in there, in a white flame of passion, and with such an oath that I embellished the truth for him in my turn.
"Trying to give you blackguards the slip," said I.
"Then it was you who let down the sheet?"
"Of course it was."
"All right! I'm done with you," said he; "that settles it. I make you an offer. You won't accept it. I do my best; you do your worst; but I'll be shot if you get another chance from me!"
Brandy and the wine-glass stood where Rattray must have set them, on an oak stool beside the bed; as he spoke he crossed the room, filled the glass till the spirit dripped, and drained it at a gulp. He was twitching and wincing still when he turned, walked up to Joaquin Santos, and pointed to where I stood with a fist that shook.
"You wanted to deal with him," said Rattray; "you're at liberty to do so. I'm only sorry I stood in your way."
But no answer, and for once no rings of smoke came from those shrivelled lips: the man had rolled and lighted a cigarette since Rattray entered, but it was burning unheeded between his skinny fingers. I had his attention, all to myself. He knew the tale that I was going to tell. He was waiting for it; he was ready for me. The attentive droop of his head; the crafty glitter in his intelligent eyes; the depth and breadth of the creased forehead; the knowledge of his resource, the consciousness of my error, all distracted and confounded me so that my speech halted and my voice ran thin. I told Rattray every syllable that these traitors had been saying behind his back, but I told it all very ill; what was worse, and made me worse, I was only too well aware of my own failure to carry conviction with my words.
"And why couldn't you come out and say so," asked Rattray, as even I knew that he must. "Why wait till now?"
"Ah, why!" echoed Santos, with a smile and a shake of the head; a suspicious tolerance, an ostentatious truce, upon his parchment face. And already he was sufficiently relieved to suck his cigarette alight again.
"You know why," I said, trusting to bluff honesty with the one of them who was not rotten to the core: "because I still meant escaping."
"And then what?" asked Rattray fiercely.
"You had given me my chance," I said; "I hould have given you yours."
"You would, would you? Very kind of you, Mr. Cole!"
"No, no," said Santos; "not kind, but clever! Clever, spicious, and queeck-weeted beyond belif! Senhor Rattray, we have all been in the dark; we thought we had fool to die with, but what admirable knave the young man would make! Such readiness, such resource, with his tongue or with his peestol; how useful would it be to us! I am glad you have decided to live him to me, friend Rattray, for I am quite come round to your way of thinking. It is no longer necessary for him to die!"
"You mean that?" cried Rattray keenly.
"Of course I min it. You were quite right. He must join us. But he will when I talk to him."
I could not speak. I was fascinated by this wretch: it was reptile and rabbit with us. Treachery I knew he meant; my death, for one; my death was certain; and yet I could not speak.
"Then talk to him, for God's sake," cried Rattray, "and I shall be only too glad if you can talk some sense into him. I've tried, and failed."
"I shall not fail," said Santos softly. "But it is better that he has a leetle time to think over it calmly; better steel for 'im to slip upon it, as you say. Let us live 'im for the night, what there is of it; time enough in the morning."
I could hardly believe my ears; still I knew that it was treachery, all treachery; and the morning I should never see.
"But we can't leave him up here," said Rattray; "it would mean one of us watching him all night."
"Quite so," said Santos. "I will tell you where we could live him, however, if you will allow me to wheesper one leetle moment."
They drew aside; and, as I live, I thought that little moment was to be Rattray's last on earth. I watched, but nothing happened; on the contrary, both men seemed agreed, the Portuguese gesticulating, the Englishman nodding, as they stood conversing at the window. Their faces were strangely reassuring. I began to reason with myself, to rid my mind of mere presentiment and superstition. If these two really were at one about me (I argued) there might be no treachery after all. When I came to think of it, Rattray had been closeted long enough with me to awake the worst suspicions in the breasts of his companions; now that these were allayed, there might be no more bloodshed after all (if, for example, I pretended to give in), even though Santos had not cared whose blood was shed a few minutes since. That was evidently the character of the wretch: to compass his ends or to defend his person he would take life with no more compunction than the ordinary criminal takes money; but (and hence) murder for murder's sake was no amusement to him.
My confidence was further restored by Captain Harris; ever a gross ruffian, with no refinements to his rascality, he had been at the brandy bottle after Rattray's example; and now was dozing on the latter's bed, taking his watch below when he could get it, like the good seaman he had been. I was quite sorry for him when the conversation at the window ceased suddenly, and Rattray roused the captain up.
"Watches aft!" said he. "We want that mattress; you can bring it along, while I lead the way with the pillows and things. Come on, Cole!"
"Where to?" I asked, standing firm.
"Where there's no window for you to jump out of, old boy, and no clothes of mine for you to hide behind. You needn't look so scared; it's as dry as a bone, as cellars go. And it's past three o'clock. And you've just got to come."
CHAPTER XVIII. A MAN OF MANY MURDERS
It was a good-sized wine-cellar, with very little wine in it; only one full bin could I discover. The bins themselves lined but two of the walls, and most of them were covered in with cobwebs, close-drawn like mosquito-curtains. The ceiling was all too low: torpid spiders hung in disreputable parlors, dead to the eye, but loathsomely alive at an involuntary touch. Rats scuttled when we entered, and I had not been long alone when they returned to bear me company. I am not a natural historian, and had rather face a lion with the right rifle than a rat with a stick. My jailers, however, had been kind enough to leave me a lantern, which, set upon the ground (like my mattress), would afford a warning, if not a protection, against the worst; unless I slept; and as yet I had not lain down. The rascals had been considerate enough, more especially Santos, who had a new manner for me with his revised opinion of my character; it was a manner almost as courtly as that which had embellished his relations with Eva Denison, and won him my early regard at sea. Moreover, it was at the suggestion of Santos that they had detained me in the hall, for much-needed meat and drink, on the way down. Thereafter they had conducted me through the book-lined door of my undoing, down stone stairs leading to three cellar doors, one of which they had double-locked upon me.
As soon as I durst I was busy with this door; but to no purpose; it was a slab of solid oak, hung on hinges as massive as its lock. It galled me to think that but two doors stood between me and the secret tunnel to the sea: for one of the other two must lead to it. The first, however, was all beyond me, and I very soon gave it up. There was also a very small grating which let in a very little fresh air: the massive foundations had been tunnelled in one place; a rude alcove was the result, with this grating at the end and top of it, some seven feet above the earth floor. Even had I been able to wrench away the bars, it would have availed me nothing, since the aperture formed the segment of a circle whose chord was but a very few inches long. I had nevertheless a fancy for seeing the stars once more and feeling the breath of heaven upon my bandaged temples, which impelled me to search for that which should add a cubit to my stature. And at a glance I descried two packing-cases, rather small and squat, but the pair of them together the very thing for me. To my amazement, however, I could at first move neither one nor the other of these small boxes. Was it that I was weak as water, or that they were heavier than lead? At last I managed to get one of them in my arms—only to drop it with a thud. A side started; a thin sprinkling of yellow dust glittered on the earth. I fetched the lantern: it was gold-dust from Bendigo or from Ballarat.
To me there was horror unspeakable, yet withal a morbid fascination, in the spectacle of the actual booty for which so many lives had been sacrificed before my eyes. Minute followed minute in which I looked at nothing, and could think of nothing, but the stolen bullion at my feet; then I gathered what of the dust I could, pocketed it in pinches to hide my meddlesomeness, and blew the rest away. The box had dropped very much where I had found it; it had exhausted my strength none the less, and I was glad at last to lie down on the mattress, and to wind my body in Rattray's blankets.
I shuddered at the thought of sleep: the rats became so lively the moment I lay still. One ventured so near as to sit up close to the lantern; the light showed its fat white belly, and the thing itself was like a dog begging, as big to my disgusted eyes. And yet, in the midst of these horrors (to me as bad as any that had preceded them), nature overcame me, and for a space my torments ceased.
"He is aslip," a soft voice said.
"Don't wake the poor devil," said another.
"But I weesh to spik with 'im. Senhor Cole! Senhor Cole!"
I opened my eyes. Santos looked of uncanny stature in the low yellow light, from my pillow close to the earth. Harris turned away at my glance; he carried a spade, and began digging near the boxes without more ado, by the light of a second lantern set on one of them: his back was to me from this time on. Santos shrugged a shoulder towards the captain as he opened a campstool, drew up his trousers, and seated himself with much deliberation at the foot of my mattress.
"When you 'ave treasure," said he, "the better thing is to bury it, Senhor Cole. Our young friend upstairs begs to deefer; but he is slipping; it is peety he takes such quantity of brandy! It is leetle wikness of you Engleesh; we in Portugal never touch it, save as a liqueur; therefore we require less slip. Friend squire upstairs is at this moment no better than a porker. Have I made mistake? I thought it was the same word in both languages; but I am glad to see you smile, Senhor Cole; that is good sign. I was going to say, he is so fast aslip up there, that he would not hear us if we were to shoot each other dead!"
And he gave me his paternal smile, benevolent, humorous, reassuring; but I was no longer reassured; nor did I greatly care any more what happened to me. There is a point of last, as well as one of least resistance, and I had reached both points at once.
"Have you shot him dead?" I inquired, thinking that if he had, this would precipitate my turn. But he was far from angry; the parchment face crumpled into tolerant smiles; the venerable head shook a playful reproval, as he threw away the cigarette that I am tired of mentioning, and put the last touch to a fresh one with his tongue.
"What question?" said he; "reely, Senhor Cole! But you are quite right: I would have shot him, or cut his troth" (and he shrugged indifference on the point), "if it had not been for you; and yet it would have been your fault! I nid not explain; the poseetion must have explained itself already; besides, it is past. With you two against us—but it is past. You see, I have no longer the excellent Jose. You broke his leg, bad man. I fear it will be necessary to destroy 'im." Santos made a pause; then inquired if he shocked me.
"Not a bit," said I, neither truly nor untruly; "you interest me." And that he did.
"You see," he continued, "I have not the respect of you Engleesh for 'uman life. We will not argue it. I have at least some respect for prejudice. In my youth I had myself such prejudices; but one loses them on the Zambesi. You cannot expect one to set any value upon the life of a black nigger; and when you have keeled a great many Kaffirs, by the lash, with the crocodiles, or what-not, then a white man or two makes less deeference. I acknowledge there were too many on board that sheep; but what was one to do? You have your Engleesh proverb about the dead men and the stories; it was necessary to make clin swip. You see the result."
He shrugged again towards the boxes; but this time, being reminded of them (I supposed), he rose and went over to see how Harris was progressing. The captain had never looked round; neither did he look at Santos. "A leetle dipper," I heard the latter say, "and, perhaps, a few eenches—" but I lost the last epithet. It followed a glance over the shoulder in my direction, and immediately preceded the return of Santos to his camp-stool.
"Yes, it is always better to bury treasure," said he once more; but his tone was altered; it was more contemplative; and many smoke-rings came from the shrunk lips before another word; but through them all, his dark eyes, dull with age, were fixed upon me.
"You are a treasure!" he exclaimed at last, softly enough, but quickly and emphatically for him, and with a sudden and most diabolical smile.
"So you are going to bury me?"
I had suspected it when first I saw the spade; then not; but since the visit to the hole I had made up my mind to it.
"Bury you? No, not alive," said Santos, in his playfully reproving tone. "It would be necessary to deeg so dip!" he added through his few remaining teeth.
"Well," I said, "you'll swing for it. That's something."
Santos smiled again, benignantly enough this time: in contemplation also: as an artist smiles upon his work. I was his!
"You live town," said he; "no one knows where you go. You come down here; no one knows who you are. Your dear friend squire locks you up for the night, but dreenks too much and goes to slip with the key in his pocket; it is there when he wakes; but the preesoner, where is he? He is gone, vanished, escaped in the night, and, like the base fabreec of your own poet's veesion, he lives no trace—is it trace?—be'ind! A leetle earth is so easily bitten down; a leetle more is so easily carried up into the garden; and a beet of nice strong wire might so easily be found in a cellar, and afterwards in the lock! No, Senhor Cole, I do not expect to 'ang. My schims have seldom one seengle flaw. There was just one in the Lady Jermyn; there was—Senhor Cole! If there is one this time, and you will be so kind as to point it out, I will—I will run the reesk of shooting you instead of—"
A pinch of his baggy throat, between the fingers and thumbs of both hands, foreshadowed a cleaner end; and yet I could look at him; nay, it was more than I could do not to look upon that bloodless face, with the two dry blots upon the parchment, that were never withdrawn from mine.
"No you won't, messmate! If it's him or us for it, let a bullet do it, and let it do it quick, you bloody Spaniard! You can't do the other without me, and my part's done."
Harris was my only hope. I had seen this from the first, but my appeal I had been keeping to the very end. And now he was leaving me before a word would come! Santos had gone over to my grave, and there was Harris at the door!
"It is not dip enough," said the Portuguese.
"It's as deep as I mean to make it, with you sittin' there talkin' about it."
And the door stood open.
"Captain!" I screamed. "For Christ's sake, captain!"
He stood there, trembling, yet even now not looking my way.
"Did you ever see a man hanged?" asked Santos, with a vile eye for each of us. "I once hanged fifteen in a row; abominable thifs. And I once poisoned nearly a hundred at one banquet; an untrustworthy tribe; but the hanging was the worse sight and the worse death. Heugh! There was one man—he was no stouter than you are captain—"
But the door slammed; we heard the captain on the stairs; there was a rustle from the leaves outside, and then a silence that I shall not attempt to describe.
And, indeed, I am done with this description: as I live to tell the tale (or spoil it, if I choose) I will make shorter work of this particular business than I found it at the time. Perverse I may be in old age as in my youth; but on that my agony—my humiliating agony—I decline to dwell. I suffer it afresh as I write. There are the cobwebs on the ceiling, a bloated spider crawling in one: a worse monster is gloating over me: those dull eyes of his, and my own pistol-barrel, cover me in the lamp-light. The crucifix pin is awry in his cravat; that is because he has offered it me to kiss. As a refinement (I feel sure) my revolver is not cocked; and the hammer goes up—up—
He missed me because a lantern was flashed into his eyes through the grating. He wasted the next ball in firing wildly at the light. And the last chamber's load became suddenly too precious for my person; for there were many voices overhead; there were many feet upon the stairs.
Harris came first—head-first—saw me still living as he reeled—hurled himself upon the boxes and one of these into the hole—all far quicker than my pen can write it. The manoeuvre, being the captain's, explained itself: on his heels trod Rattray, with one who brought me to my feet like the call of silver trumpets.
"The house is surrounded," says the squire, very quick and quiet; "is this your doing, Cole?"
"I wish it was," said I; "but I can't complain; it's saved my life." And I looked at Santos, standing dignified and alert, my still smoking pistol in his hand.
"Two things to do," says Rattray—"I don't care which." He strode across the cellar and pulled at the one full bin; something slid out, it was a binful of empty bottles, and this time they were allowed to crash upon the floor; the squire stood pointing to a manhole at the back of the bin. "That's one alternative," said he; "but it will mean leaving this much stuff at least," pointing to the boxes, "and probably all the rest at the other end. The other thing's to stop and fight!"
"I fight," said Santos, stalking to the door. "Have you no more ammunition for me, friend Cole? Then I must live you alive; adios, senhor!"
Harris cast a wistful look towards the manhole, not in cowardice, I fancy, but in sudden longing for the sea, the longing of a poor devil of a sailor-man doomed to die ashore. I am still sorry to remember that Rattray judged him differently. "Come on, skipper," said he; "it's all or none aboard the lugger, and I think it will be none. Up you go; wait a second in the room above, and I'll find you an old cutlass. I shan't be longer." He turned to me with a wry smile. "We're not half-armed," he said; "they've caught us fairly on the hop; it should be fun! Good-by, Cole; I wish you'd had another round for that revolver. Good-by, Eva!"
And he held out his hand to our love, who had been watching him all this time with eyes of stone; but now she turned her back upon him without a word. His face changed; the stormlight of passion and remorse played upon it for an instant; he made a step towards her, wheeled abruptly, and took me by the shoulder instead.
"Take care of her, Cole," said he. "Whatever happens—take care of her."
I caught him at the foot of the stairs. I do not defend what I did. But I had more ammunition; a few wadded bullets, caps, and powder-charges, loose in a jacket pocket; and I thrust them into one of his, upon a sudden impulse, not (as I think) altogether unaccountable, albeit (as I have said) so indefensible.
My back was hardly turned an instant. I had left a statue of unforgiving coldness. I started round to catch in my arms a half-fainting, grief-stricken form, shaken with sobs that it broke my heart to hear. I placed her on the camp-stool. I knelt down and comforted her as well as I could, stroking her hands, my arm about her heaving shoulders, with the gold-brown hair streaming over them. Such hair as it was! So much longer than I had dreamt. So soft—so fine—my soul swam with the sight and touch of it. Well for me that there broke upon us from above such a sudden din as turned my hot blood cold! A wild shout of surprise; an ensuing roar of defiance; shrieks and curses; yells of rage and pain; and pistol-shot after pistol-shot as loud as cannon in the confined space.
I know now that the battle in the hall was a very brief affair; while it lasted I had no sense of time; minutes or moments, they were (God forgive me!) some of the very happiest in all my life. My joy was as profound as it was also selfish and incongruous. The villains were being routed; of that there could be no doubt or question. I hoped Rattray might escape, but for the others no pity stirred in my heart, and even my sneaking sympathy with the squire could take nothing from the joy that was in my heart. Eva Denison was free. I was free. Our oppressors would trouble us no more. We were both lonely; we were both young; we had suffered together and for each other. And here she lay in my arms, her head upon my shoulder, her soft bosom heaving on my own! My blood ran hot and cold by turns. I forgot everything but our freedom and my love. I forgot my sufferings, as I would have you all forget them. I am not to be pitied. I have been in heaven on earth. I was there that night, in my great bodily weakness, and in the midst of blood-shed, death, and crime.
"They have stopped!" cried Eva suddenly. "It is over! Oh, if he is dead!"
And she sat upright, with bright eyes starting from a deathly face. I do not think she knew that she had been in my arms at all: any more than I knew that the firing had ceased before she told me. Excited voices were still raised overhead; but some sounded distant, yet more distinct, coming through the grating from the garden; and none were voices that we knew. One poor wretch, on the other hand, we heard plainly groaning to his death; and we looked in each other's eyes with the same thought.
"That's Harris," said I, with, I fear, but little compassion in my tone or in my heart just then.
"Where are the others?" cried Eva piteously.
"God knows," said I; "they may be done for, too."
"If they are!"
"It's better than the death they would have lived to die."
"But only one of them was a wilful murderer! Oh, Mr. Cole—Mr. Cole—go and see what has happened; come back and tell me! I dare not come. I will stay here and pray for strength to bear whatever news you may bring me. Go quickly. I will—wait—and pray!"
So I left the poor child on her knees in that vile cellar, white face and straining hands uplifted to the foul ceiling, sweet lips quivering with prayer, eyelids reverently lowered, and the swift tears flowing from beneath them, all in the yellow light of the lantern that stood burning by her side. How different a picture from that which awaited me overhead!
CHAPTER XIX. MY GREAT HOUR
The library doors were shut, and I closed the secret one behind me before opening the other and peering out through a wrack of bluish smoke; and there lay Captain Harris, sure enough, breathing his last in the arms of one constable, while another was seated on the table with a very wry face, twisting a tourniquet round his arm, from which the blood was dripping like raindrops from the eaves. A third officer stood in the porch, issuing directions to his men without.