Was she a witch—this stranger in silk and jewels who walked in darkness so confidently up the tortuous unpaved street?—this apparition who, coming out of the seas and the dumb fog, talked of the Islands and the Islanders as though she had known them all her life?
As if to prove she was a witch, she paused before the very cottage which once already to-night had given pause to his steps and to his thoughts. The fog had been thinning little by little as they mounted the hill, and at a few paces' distance he recognized the closed door, daubed over with that same staring paint which your true Islander uses for choice upon his boat.
"You remember this door?" she asked, pointing to it as he overtook her.
Witch she might be, but why should he give away to her this innocent small secret?
"Of course I remember it," he answered; "passing it as I do, half-a-dozen times a day."
"Yes," she said, almost as if speaking to herself; but her voice, for the first time since their meeting, seemed to be touched with a faint shade of dejection. "Naturally you would not remember it for any other reason."
He was silent.
"Yet," she went on, "you really ought to remember that door, Major Vigoureux, if only for old sake's sake; for it was, I believe, the first you entered when you came to the Islands. That was in the year——"
"Never mind the year," interrupted the Commandant, hastily. "I remember it well. I almost never pass the door without remembering it."
"Ah!" she cried, putting her jewelled hands together, and the Commandant took it for an exclamation of triumph at her cleverness. "But other tenants have the house. The man who was master of it is dead."
"You know everything, it seems to me. Yes; he was a widower, and late that evening at the fishing. It was an evening when he should not have been late; for the door stood open for him, and his daughters—he had two daughters—sat expecting him. It was the open door that drew me to ask my way." Here he paused.
"Go on, please."
"One of the girls was to leave the Islands next morning for the mainland, which she had never seen. She told me this. And she sat reading aloud to her sister, there by the fire."
"That is all. Yes, that is all—except that the book was Shakespeare, and the girl—" He paused again, staring at her between sudden enlightenment and stark incredulity. "You—you don't mean to tell me you were that girl!"
She nodded; and as, forgetting politeness, he held the lantern close to her face, he saw two large tears brim up, tremble, and hang for a second before they fell.
"You?" he murmured.
She nodded again. "I am Vashti—Vazzy Cara, they called me, Philip Cara's daughter. I daresay, though, you never heard my name? No, there is no reason why you should. And my sister, Ruth——"
"She is married and lives on Saaron Island. But you know this, of course? You who seem to know everything about us."
"My sister writes me all the news.... So now," she added smiling, "it is all explained, and there is no mystery about me after all. Are you so very much disappointed?"
But the Commandant continued to stare. No mystery? That the fisherman's daughter with the Island lilt in her voice—well he recalled it!—should have turned into this apparition of furs and jewels?... And yet the metamorphosis lay not in the furs and jewels, but in her careless air of command, of reliance upon her power, beauty, charm—whatever her woman's secret might be; an air of one accustomed to move in courts, maybe, or to control great audiences, or to live habitually with lofty thoughts; an air of one, above all, sure of herself. The poor Commandant had lived the better part of his life in exile, but by instinct of breeding he recognised this air at once. Vashti, however, seemed to mistake his astonishment, for she frowned.
"Well?" she asked, a trifle impatiently.
"Your sister never told us," he stammered. "At least—that is to say——"
"Do you suppose she was ashamed of me?"
"Ashamed?" he echoed, for indeed no such thought had occurred to him. If ever a man could have taken honi soit qui mal y pense for his motto, it was our Commandant.
"Ah, to be sure!" she said slowly, but less in indignation (it seemed) than in disappointment with him. "Naturally that would be the explanation to occur to you, living so long in such a place."
She turned on her heel, half contemptuously, and resumed her way, walking with a yet quicker step than before. The Commandant, aware that he had offended, but not in the least understanding how, toiled after her up the steep incline to the garrison gate.
They reached the door of the Barracks. To his surprise it was standing open, and from behind the ragged blind of his sitting-room—to the left of the entrance hall—a light shone feebly out upon the fog. He could not remember that he had lit the lamp there, nor that he had left the front door open.
Vashti paused upon the doorstep and turned to him:
"My good sir," she said curtly, "run and fetch Mrs. Treacher to me, for goodness' sake."
He hesitated, on the point of stepping past her to open the door of the lighted room. Her manner forbade him, and he stood still, there by the doorstep, gazing after her a moment as she disappeared into the dark hall. Then, as he heard the door latch rattle gently, he turned to hurry in search of Mrs. Treacher.
He had taken but a dozen steps, however, when her light footfall sounded again close behind him. She, too, had turned and was following him almost at a run.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she gasped.
He swung up his lantern. Her eyes were wide with a kind of horror; and yet she seemed to be laughing, or ready to laugh.
"Tell you?" he echoed.
"Oh, but it was unkind!"
"But—but, excuse me—what on earth——"
"Why, that you were entertaining ladies!"
She nodded, still round-eyed, reproachful. "Two of them—sitting on your sofa! And, I think—I rather think—one of them is Miss Gabriel!"
TRIBULATIONS OF MRS. POPE AND MISS GABRIEL
"We have only to keep straight on," said Miss Gabriel.
"Ye-es," said Mrs. Pope, less hardily. "I really think the gentlemen might have waited for us."
"For aught they know," said Miss Gabriel, "it's a matter of life and death. And we cannot be more than two hundred yards from our own gates."
"In my opinion," persisted Mrs. Pope, who was apt to turn peevish when frightened, "a man's first duty is to look after his own."
"Is it?" snapped Miss Gabriel, herself no coward. "Well, you must argue that out with Mr. Pope, if you haven't made up your minds about it by this time. For my part, I never wanted a man to look after me, I thank the Lord."
"It would have been more gallant, and that you must allow." Mrs. Pope stuck to her point (which is a capital thing to do in a fog), but only to let it go abruptly a moment later. "Besides," she added, "my new cap is no better than a pulp already. I can feel it. Sopping isn't the word."
"Fiddlestick!" said Miss Gabriel. "You and your cap!" She, herself, was not frightened, only a little nervous. "If you ask me, it's better you were thinking of those poor souls out on the rocks yonder. Little enough they'll be thinking, just now, of such things as caps!"
"Of course," hazarded Mrs. Pope, after they had groped their way forward for twenty paces or so, "if you are quite certain where we are——"
"We are among the Islands," said Miss Gabriel, tartly, feeling the roadway with the edge of her shoe, for her sole had just encountered turf; "and this is one. My dear Charlotte, if you could refrain from bumping into me at the precise moment when I am standing on one leg——"
"How can I help it, in this darkness?" whimpered Mrs. Pope. "Besides"—with sudden spirit—"if you want to stand on one leg, I shouldn't have thought this the time or the place."
"T'cht!" said Miss Gabriel, striding forward with gathering confidence; but at the seventh stride or so a sharp exclamation escaped her, as she stood groping with both hands into the night.
"What's the matter?"
"It's a wall, I think.... I had almost run against it.... Yes, this must be the wall of Buttershall's garden."
"Are you sure?"
"Certain. We have been bearing away to the right; people always do in a fog."
"Then if this really is Buttershall's garden—and I only hope and trust you are not mistaken—we can bear away from it to the left, on purpose, and then as likely as not we shall find ourselves going straight," reasoned Mrs. Pope, lucidly.
"My dear Charlotte"—Miss Gabriel was within an ace of calling her a fool—"if this is Buttershall's garden——"
"But a moment ago you were sure of it!"
"And so I am. Very well then; since this is Buttershall's garden, we have only to hold on by the wall and go forward, and that will take us——"
But here the wall ended, and the sentence with it.
"Are you hurt?... I said," asserted Mrs. Pope, desperately, and with conviction, "that one of us would break a limb before we finished."
"It seems to be—yes, it certainly is—a pump." Miss Gabriel's voice had begun to shake by this time, but she steadied it. "For the moment I—I half thought it might be a man."
"I would to heaven it were!" said Mrs. Pope, fervently.
"My dear Charlotte!"
"My dear Elizabeth, I mean it. And, what's more, I wouldn't care who he was. A pump? What earthly use is a pump? It must be Mumford's then, if it is a pump."
"It can't be."
"For the simple reason that Mumford's is on the other side of the road."
"Then we are on the other side of the road, as I have been maintaining all along."
"Would you mind walking round it?... Yes, you are right. It is Mumford's pump, for I have just bruised my wrist against the handle. Can you find the trough?"
"The astonishing thing to me," announced Mrs. Pope, groping her way with trepidation, "is that nobody shows a light. I don't like to call people unfeeling; but really, with folks in distress out at sea, and the guns firing, I wouldn't have believed such callousness."
They made the circuit of Mumford's pump, and assured themselves—for what the knowledge was worth—that it really was a pump, and Mumford's. But this cost them dear, for at the end of the circuit, or rather of a circuit and a half, they had lost all sense of their compass bearings.
"And after all," Mrs. Pope began afresh, her mind working sympathetically in a circle, "I don't understand what Mumford's pump is doing on the wrong side of the road."
"Don't be a ninny, Charlotte! Of course, it's not on the wrong side of the road."
"But you said it was." (Pause.) "You really did say so, Elizabeth, for I remember it distinctly." (Another pause, and a sigh.) "For my part, I never pretended to have what they call the bump of locality."
The poor lady prattled on, more and more querulously, and to the increasing exasperation of Miss Gabriel, who on the whole believed that they were making for home, yet could not shake off a haunting suspicion that they were moving in a direction precisely opposite. Moreover, the behaviour of Mumford's pump troubled her more than she cared to confess, even to herself. It stood on the right of the road as you went towards St. Hugh's; but they had encountered it upon the left. Therefore, either they had been walking off the road, though in the right direction, or—terrible thought!—somewhere or somehow they had turned right about-face, and were walking away from St. Hugh's....
As a matter of fact, they were bending away from the road in a line which would lead them past the rear of their own back gardens. Their feet no longer trod the causeway. They were on turf, and, so far as they could feel it in the darkness, the turf seemed to be mounting in a fairly stiff slope. Miss Gabriel stooped to feel the grass with the palm of her hand, and just at that moment her ears caught the faint note of a bell, some way ahead.
She stood erect, with a little cry of dismay.
"That settles it. We have turned round!"
"Why, what makes you think so?"
"Listen to that bell! Can't you hear it?"
"Of course, I hear it?" Mrs. Pope apparently was nettled by the question. "But I don't see——"
"The church bell—we are walking straight towards Old Town."
"It don't sound to me like the church bell."
"That's because of the fog. Nothing sounds natural in a fog.... The Vicar is having it rung to alarm the people in Old Town. I heard him say this very night that it used to be the custom when a wreck went ashore.... Besides, what other bell could it be? There is no other bell."
Mrs. Pope was silent, though unconvinced. She did not suggest the garrison bell, for even to her scattered intelligence it was a thing incredible that they should at this moment be rounding the slope of Garrison Hill, at the back of St. Hugh's.
"Anything might happen in a fog like this; and if I don't wake up to find myself over the cliffs, it's no thanks"—bitterly—"to them we might have relied on. But I don't believe it's the church bell, not if you went on your bended knees."
"Then, what do you say to this?" announced Miss Gabriel, triumphantly.
Mrs. Pope would reserve her opinion until she saw what Miss Gabriel had hold of.
"Railings," said Miss Gabriel. "We are at the corner of Church Lane, and here's the railing close alongside of us. Now we have only to keep by the railing and feel our way—if you'll follow me—and we must find the churchyard gate. The man ringing the bell will certainly have a lantern, and will take us home."
"I don't fancy churchyards at this time of night," said Mrs. Pope; "and what's more, I never did."
"You must make up your mind to one, then; that is, unless you prefer to wait here till morning."
They advanced, feeling their way by the rails, Mrs. Pope close behind Miss Gabriel's heels. The bell continued tolling, not far away; yet somehow after three minute's progress they appeared to be no nearer to it.
"Church Lane was never so long as all this," asserted Mrs. Pope, coming to a desperate halt; "and you needn't try to persuade me."
"It does seem a long way," Miss Gabriel conceded; "but no doubt the fog magnifies things."
"You had the same tale just now, about the church bell. For my part, I don't believe in your church bell, and—listen!"
"It has stopped ringing!"
So it had. It was too much, perhaps, to say that Miss Gabriel's blood ran cold, there in the darkness, as Mrs. Pope clutched and clung to her; but certainly her heart sunk.
"All the better," she said, bravely, clenching her jaw that her teeth might not be heard to chatter. "Whoever was ringing the bell will be returning this way presently, and we can ask his help."
But here inspiration came to Mrs. Pope.
"It's my belief," she said, "we are not in Church Lane at all, but in the churchyard; and these rails don't belong to Church Lane, but to old Bonaday's grave."
"My dear Charlotte! When we've been following them for at least two hundred yards!"
"My dear Elizabeth, that's just it. We've been following round and round them, and at this rate there's no reason why ever we should stop, in this world."
"You don't say.... But, after all, there's an easy way of proving if you are right. You walk to the left, feeling round them, and I'll walk to the right, and then, if it really is Bonaday's grave, we shall meet."
"Oh, but I couldn't! Elizabeth, if you leave me—if once I lose hold of you—I shall die next moment."
"Then there's only one thing to be done. We must stay here and cry out at the top of our voices, and both together."
"Yes, yes.... Why didn't we think of it before?"
"For," argued Miss Gabriel, "a bell doesn't ring of itself; and if we can hear the bell, very likely the man who was ringing it can hear us."
"Will you begin, Elizabeth? I declare to you my whole cage of teeth is loose——"
"Help!" called Miss Gabriel. Her voice, despite herself, quavered a little at first. "Help! Help!"
"Help—help—help!" chirupped Mrs. Pope, much as an extremely nervous person seeks to attract the attention of a waiter.
"Louder ... much louder. He-lp!"
"Help—help—he-lp! Oh, Elizabeth, and in a churchyard, too!"
"Louder still.... He-el-lp!"
"Help!... It's like waking the dead...."
"Hi, there! Who is it, and whatever on earth's the matter?" answered a voice from somewhere on their right.
"Oh, listen, Elizabeth! Heaven be praised!..."
"Who is it?" sounded the voice again, and a dot of light shone through the wall of fog.
"Answer him, Elizabeth!"
"Him? It isn't a man's voice, but a woman's ... unless the fog.... Hi, there! Help! Here are two ladies.... Why, it's—it's Mrs. Treacher!"
For the fog had parted suddenly, and through it, as through a breach in a wall, stepped Mrs. Treacher with a lantern, which she held up close to their faces.
"Eh? Mrs. Pope and Miss Gabriel? Well, I declare!"
"Bless you, Mrs. Treacher! But, however came you here?"
"Why not?" asked Mrs. Treacher, after a pause.
"Here, in the churchyard!... You don't tell me you've lost your way, too?"
"No, I don't," answered Mrs. Treacher, shortly, lifting her lantern. "Churchyard? What churchyard?"
"We thought.... We were under the impression...." Miss Gabriel's voice rocked a little before she recovered her self-command. "Would you mind telling us where we are, and what railings are these?"
"You're on Garrison Hill," said Mrs. Treacher, who disliked Miss Gabriel. "And you have hold of the rails round the old powder magazine. But what you're tryin' to do with 'em, and at this hour of night, I'll leave you to explain."
But here, for the first time since their troubles began, Mrs. Pope came to her companion's help. She did so by leaning back limply against the railings and declaring that she, for her part, was going to faint.
Mrs. Treacher caught her as she dropped, and with Miss Gabriel's help supported her up the slope to the Barracks, less than fifty yards above.
"The Barracks?" exclaimed Miss Gabriel, halting as Mrs. Treacher's lantern revealed to her through the fast-thinning fog a portion of the whitewashed facade. "Oh, but I couldn't—on any account whatever!"
"You'll have to," answered Mrs. Treacher, shortly, "that is, unless you'd rather have her laid outside on the bare road, and in a dead faint, too."
Indeed, Mrs. Pope was in a state of collapse that silenced all scruples. Mrs. Treacher—a powerfully-built woman—caught up the all but inanimate lady in both arms, and bore her into the passage, nodding to Miss Gabriel to unhitch from its nail a lamp which hung, backed by a tin reflector, just within the doorway.
"Unhasp the door to the left, please. We'll rest her down in the Commandant's parlour. There's a sofa—though he do mostly use to keep his books and papers upon it." She laid down her burden. "Oh, you needn't fear to look about you! The men folk be all off to the wreck, and won't be back till Lord knows when."
Miss Gabriel, however, was not looking about her. Her gaze, following the ray of the lamp as she held it aloft, travelled across the stooping shoulders of Mrs. Treacher and fastened itself upon a garment of gaudily-striped woolwork—her antimacassar—lying across the arm of the sofa where the Commandant had tossed it impatiently.
"Terribly messy a man always is when left to himself," said Mrs. Treacher, rising and stepping to a corner cupboard. "If he keeps such a thing as a drop of brandy on the premises, it'll be here, I reckon."
But the cupboard was empty. For the sternest of reasons the Commandant had, for two or three years past, denied himself the taste of strong waters.
Mrs. Treacher passed the back of her hand across the bridge of her nose. "I'll step over to the Castle," she announced, "for a drop of gin I keep against Treacher's attacks." (Let not Mrs. Treacher's idiom frighten the reader. She meant only that her husband suffered from an internal trouble which need not be specified, and that she kept the gin by her as a precaution.)
"And there's a quill pen of the Commandant's on the writing-table," she added; "if you'll burn the feather of it under her nose."
She bustled off. Miss Gabriel stepped to the table, picked up the quill, and held it over the lamp's flame; but her eyes still questioned the antimacassar. She was bending close to it when Mrs. Pope emitted a fluttering sigh and lifted her eyelids feebly.
"You are feeling better, dear?" asked Miss Gabriel, solicitously.
At this moment the latch of the door rattled gently. She looked up in surprise, for Mrs. Treacher could scarcely have gone and returned in so short a while.
The door opened. On the threshold stood a vision—a woman clad in furs—a woman with diamonds flashing on her white throat where the furs parted.
Miss Gabriel gasped.
The apparition stood for a moment, looked her in the eyes, and was gone, closing the door softly.
Miss Gabriel tottered, and sank back against the sofa's edge.
A BRIEF REVENGE
"Ladies?" ejaculated the Commandant. "In my quarters?"
Vashti nodded demurely. "I think you might have told me," she said in a tone of mild reproach.
"But—my dear young lady——"
"—for calling me young." She reached out a hand, and, taking the lantern from him, held it high so that the beams fell on her face. "It is many years since our first meeting, and unhappily we have the date of it fixed. Give me credit that I reminded you; for I don't mind confessing that, though it hasn't come to a quarrel yet, my looking-glass and I are not the friends we were."
Here, had the Commandant been a readier man, he might have answered with a compliment, and a truthful one. For indeed it was a very beautiful face that the lantern showed him, and—here was the strange part of the business—it had been growing younger since she stepped off the ship, and somehow it must have contrived, in spite of the darkness, to convey a hint of its rejuvenescence, for the word "young" had slipped from him quite involuntarily.
But, after all, there is nothing so subtle as simplicity, and, after all, the Commandant managed to imply that she must be a witch.
"Then, my dear young lady," he replied, "since you have spirited these females into my quarters, I can only ask you to go and spirit them away again."
She shook her head.
"What! You won't?... Very well, then, I must deal with them, while you go off with the lantern and search for Mrs. Treacher."
"You are a brave man," said she; "and—and I think—by the look of them—you are going to have great fun."
The Commandant stood for a moment rubbing his chin and staring after the lantern, as it vanished in the fog. With a shake of the shoulders he pulled himself together, marched into the Barracks, and boldly opened the door.
"Certainly, ma'am—these being my own quarters, unless—" He paused and gazed around, as if to make sure that his eyes were not deceiving him.
"Yes, yes—and at this time of night. As I was just saying to Charlotte here, 'Think what a terrible construction one might put on it!'"
The Commandant lifted his eyebrows. ("I behaved like a brute," he confessed afterwards, "but the woman, a few hours before, had shown no mercy to me.") "Indeed, ma'am?" said he. "A construction? Then you must invent one for me, please, since I can think of none."
"We have had the most terrible experience, sir—the most terrible fright! You have seen Mrs. Treacher?"
"Has anything happened to Mrs. Treacher?"
"No—but it all came about through the fog——"
"—and my husband deserting me," put in Mrs. Pope.
The Commandant passed a hand across his brow. The gesture seemed to express perplexity; in truth it covered amusement and a kind of fearful joy in his newly-found talent for dissimulation.
"My dear Mrs. Pope," he answered, his voice faltering a little, "You don't mean to tell me that your excellent husband——"
"Of course she doesn't," snapped Miss Gabriel. "She means to say that the gentlemen were escorting us home, but, meeting the coastguard with the news of this terrible wreck——"
"A wreck, ma'am?"
"Why, God bless the man! Don't you know? Haven't you heard the guns going?... But of course you have. Mrs. Treacher told me you were down helping with the boats—you and her husband and Archelaus, though what help you three supposed yourselves capable of giving," wound up Miss Gabriel, reverting for a moment to her customary manner, "I don't pretend to guess."
"As for that," the Commandant answered gravely, "I am happy to tell you there has been no wreck. True, a vessel in distress—a large liner—had found herself among the Hell-deeps, of all abominably awkward places. But by the mercy of Heaven she managed to extricate herself, and has dropped anchor, not half an hour ago, in the Roads."
Miss Gabriel stared. "The Hell-deeps ... and at anchor in the Roads?" she repeated stupidly. "Oh, will someone kindly tell me whether I am standing on my head or my heels! A large liner?—the thing's impossible! And in a fog that thick you couldn't see your hand before your face!"
"Are you quite sure, ladies," asked the Commandant, still gravely, "that you are not exaggerating the thickness of the fog, somewhat?"
"What?" Miss Gabriel took him up, like an echo. "When we started for home and found we were half-way up Garrison Hill, and all the time convinced we were at Old Town, in the churchyard!"
The Commandant shook his head; and it must be conceded that he had some excuse.
"But why in the churchyard?" he asked, gently.
"Because of the bell. If it comes to that"—Miss Gabriel threw herself desperately on the offensive—"how do you account for the woman we saw here, just now?"
"I beg your pardon? A—a woman, did you say?" (Oh, Major Vigoureux!)
"Yes, sir—a woman; a bedizened woman."
"My dear Elizabeth," pleaded Mrs. Pope feebly, "are we quite sure that we saw her?—that it wasn't a—a sort of mistake? It certainly seemed—for a moment—— But really, you know, there is no one in the Islands——"
"My dear Charlotte, didn't we see her with our own eyes?"
Mrs. Pope sighed. "It seems to me I have seen such a number of things—of incredible things—to-night."
"You are sure it wasn't Mrs. Treacher?" suggested the Commandant, wickedly.
"Mrs. Treacher! Mrs. Trea—— Does Mrs. Treacher go about in silks and furs and low bodices with a thousand pounds' worth of diamonds on her abandoned neck?"
"Certainly not to my knowledge. But," said the Commandant, turning, as the door opened, "you had better ask her for yourself."
Now, it may be that Mrs. Treacher had also allowed Vashti to bewitch her. At any rate, she cordially hated Miss Gabriel, and she took, then and there, what she herself called afterwards, a strong line.
"What are they wanting to know now?" she demanded, addressing the Commandant.
"Miss Gabriel wants to know"—he answered, in a husky voice, while he pretended to trim the lamp—"if you go about in silks and furs."
"No, I don't," replied Mrs. Treacher, setting down the bottle of gin. "And what's more, I don't go a-sheevoing it around Garrison Hill in the small hours, and a-holding on to railings, and a-clammering for strong drink."
"That will do, Mrs. Treacher," interposed her master, suddenly reduced to contrition at the sight of Miss Gabriel, who stood speechless, opening and shutting her mouth like a fish. "The ladies have lost their way in the fog, and were, on the whole, extremely fortunate to reach here without accident. They will agree, I daresay, that the sooner I escort them home the better. Fetch me a lantern, if you please."
"It—it is extremely good of you," stammered Miss Gabriel.
"My dear madam!" he protested, with a good-natured smile.
Miss Gabriel did not respond to it. But, though bitterly angry, for the moment she was cowed, and she made no further reference to the mysterious lady.
She declined the Commandant's arm. Mrs. Pope, however, took it almost eagerly, and on the way down the hill he obtained from her a voluble if somewhat incoherent account of the night's adventures. He did his best now to make light of them. Accidents even more extraordinary had happened in fogs before now. He related how two companies of the Naval Brigade, under Sevastopol, had come within an ace of firing on each other.... He told of the Milo, and her wonderful escape, but said nothing of Vashti. In the midst of his narrative he found himself wondering what answer he could make if they questioned him again upon the apparition.
But neither Mrs. Pope nor Miss Gabriel made further allusion to it. Their silence, for which at first he was merely thankful, began to puzzle him after a while.
Could it be possible that he, too, had been cheated by an apparition?
He took leave of the ladies at their respective gates, retiring delicately as soon as, waiting in the road, he had assured himself that they were within doors. Miss Gabriel admitted herself with a latch-key. Mrs. Pope's timid knock was answered by her astonished husband, who, having just returned from the harbour, and assuming his spouse to be long since in bed and asleep, had lit a candle to explore the dining-room cellaret.
The front door was shut on their reciprocal surprise, and the Commandant withdrew. He had sighed, before now, as he had shut Mr. and Mrs. Pope's front gate after an evening's whist. Doubtless they were a stupid couple.
* * * * *
A light shone from the Barracks—from the office window to the right of the door. Within the office Vashti had dragged the sofa across the room and sat, with her fur cloak thrown back, toasting her shoes before a warm fire. In the dancing flame of it her diamonds sparkled as she turned to him.
"Mrs. Treacher is upstairs," she said, "hunting out sheets to air for me. Now fill your pipe, please, and sit down and tell me all about it."
Major Vigoureux found an old pipe on the mantel-shelf, dived in the tobacco jar for a few dry crumbs, filled, and lit and stamped out a spark that had dropped on the hearth-rug.
"It isn't a creditable story," said he, puffing slowly, and blinking at the flash of jewels below her white throat. "In fact, I behaved like a brute."
"Tell me about it," she repeated.
So he told her; and found himself smoking and watching her, while she laughed softly, leaning forward to the fire, and gazing into the heart of it.
THE SALVING OF S.S. MILO
Major Vigoreux awoke at daybreak with a vague sense that something important had happened or was going to happen—a feeling he had not known for years. It was so strange that he sat up wondering, rubbing the back of his head.
Then he remembered, and called out to Sergeant Archelaus.
Sergeant Archelaus appeared, a moment later, ready dressed, and on more than usually good terms with himself. He had indued his master's trousers, and, save for an unfashionable bagginess at the hips, they fitted him surprisingly well.
"Good morning, Archelaus. Did you happen to hear, last night, at what time the Milo weighs anchor?"
"I heard the captain, sir, tell the pilots to be aboard at half-after-seven. But with a vessel of her size you may count on their waiting till high-water or thereabouts."
"In any case"—the Commandant consulted his watch—"we have not too much time. Where is Treacher?"
"Downstairs, sir, along with his missus, stoking the kitchen fire, with mattresses built up before it like a sandbag battery. Seems to me the woman's been spending half the night airing one thing and another. She says the place is like a vault. Not," added Archelaus, magnanimously, "that I mind her talk."
"Quite right, Archelaus. I particularly hope you won't quarrel with Mrs. Treacher while she is here waiting on Miss—er—on the lady."
"If," said Archelaus, darkly, "as how I wanted to quarrel with a female, I should have taken and married one long ago. As 'tis, when the woman's tongue becomes afflicting, I turns round and pities Treacher. There's more ways of doing that than in so many words, and you'd be astonished how they both dislikes it."
"At any rate," said the Commandant, mildly, "they have saved you the trouble of being late with the fire this morning. So you may fetch me my shaving-water at once, please."
He sprang out of bed and reached for his dressing-gown, astonished at his own good spirits. "It does make a difference," said he aloud, though the remark was addressed to himself.
"It do," said Archelaus, turning in the doorway.
"I—I beg your pardon?" The Commandant turned about, a trifle confused.
"It may seem a little thing; but it gives a man self-respect, and I'm glad you noticed 'em." Archelaus looked down at his legs, complacently. "Always supposin'," he added, "they don't take me for a Frenchman, owing to the fulness hereabouts."
Yes, certainly, it made a difference—to rise in the morning with a sense of something waiting to be done. So the Commandant put it to himself while he shaved, standing at his dressing-table under the barrack window. The window was set high in the wall: too high to afford him a view of the Islands, even though he stood on tip-toe. But through it and above the open pane he caught a glimpse of blue sky and lilac-coloured cloud, touched with gold by the risen sun. He could guess the rest. A perfect morning!—clean and crisp, with the sea a translucent blue, and sunlight glittering on the Island beaches; the air still, yet bracing, and withal ineffably pure—a morning mysterious with the sense of autumn, but of autumn rarified by its passage over the salt strait, deodorised, made pure of marsh fog and the rotting leaf.
The Commandant hummed to himself in the intervals of his shaving, which nevertheless he performed meticulously by force of habit. It was his custom to shave, and very carefully, before taking his bath. For years he had made a ritual of his morning toilet: so many passes of his razor across the strop (to be precise, one hundred and fifty, neither more nor less), so many douches with the sponge, so many petitions afterwards on his knees. Yes, it is to be feared that his prayers, no less than his shaving, had become a drill, though one may plead for him that he always went through it conscientiously. A stroke too few across the strop—a petition to the Almighty missed—either would have worried him with a feeling that the day had been begun amiss. He was poor, but with the never-failing well on Garrison Hill he could come clean as the richest to his prayers. Even Miss Gabriel had to admit that the poor man (as she put it) knew how to take care of his person.
"We shall be in good time, Archelaus," said the Commandant, with a side glance at his watch; "that is, if you'll step down the hill and get the boat ready."
Archelaus, whose hearing had not improved of late, checked himself in the act of filling his master's tub.
"I didn't clearly catch what you said, for the splashing.... Boat? If you want the boat, I put her off to the moorings last night. Found her tied up and bumping against the quay steps, quite as if money was no object to any of us."
"Thank you. Yes, I relied on your finding and mooring her properly. Well, now, when you are ready I want you to unmoor her again. We are going off to the liner to fetch Miss—that is to say—the lady's boxes."
Sergeant Archelaus faced about slowly, cap in hand.
"Oh—oh!" said he slowly. "Relative of yours, sir?—making so bold."
"Dear me, no; nothing of the sort."
"Paying lodger, perhaps.... Or else we've come into a fortune all of a sudden, an' that accounts for Treacher's playing ad lib. with the coals—begging your pardon again."
The Commandant winced, and came within an ace of gashing himself severely. He had forgotten the penny in his pocket, the gulf between this and pay-day ... and Vashti, no doubt, was used to fare daintily, luxuriously!
"I really think"—he turned on Archelaus in sudden anger—"you might know better than to stare into the glass when I am shaving. Moreover, you forget your place, and inexcusably, even for an old servant."
Archelaus resumed his filling of the bath, and, having filled it, withdrew without another word.
Yes; but while the manner of Archelaus' speech had deserved rebuke, in the matter of it Archelaus was right. The matter of it was urgent, too, and not to be played with. In an hour or so Vashti would be awake.... She must delay dressing until her boxes arrived; but, once dressed, she would expect breakfast. The larder, to his knowledge, contained but the rusty end of a flitch of green bacon—that, and perhaps a couple of rusty eggs, a loaf, and some salt butter. Fool that he was! And a minute ago he had greeted the day so light-heartedly!
What was to be done? In the pauses of sponging and towelling himself, the Commandant asked the question again and again. Could he go to Mrs. Treacher and borrow back the four shillings he had given her last night? Fish, new-laid eggs, fresh butter, marmalade, the best tea procurable in the Islands.... Yes, undoubtedly four shillings would go a long way towards providing breakfast. But after breakfast would come luncheon, and after luncheon—
There was Mr. Tregaskis, of the Shop. Mr. Tregaskis sold almost everything "advantageous to life"—as Shakespeare's exiles said upon another island: everything from bacon and pickles to boots, iron-mongery, and sun-bonnets. For twelve years the Commandant had dealt with Mr. Tregaskis, paying whatever Mr. Tregaskis charged him, and always in ready money. He knew, moreover, that Mr. Tregaskis gave credit: and yet, after twelve years of ready-money dealing, he winced as he saw himself entering the shop and proposing to open an account. He foresaw himself inexorably driven to it. But he foresaw himself also stammering out the suggestion with every sign of conscious rascality. And, after all, was it honest to enter a shop and open an account with one penny in pocket? Suppose that, next pay-day, no pay were forthcoming!
He must approach Mr. Tregaskis: there was no help for it. Yet the prospect pleased him so little that, as he walked down the hill to the quay, he decided to put off the interview, and was almost running past the shop (which had just been unshuttered) when Mr. Tregaskis himself appeared, framed of a sudden in the upper and open half of his shop doorway.
"Eh? Is it you, sir? Good morning!" he called.
"Good morning! And a fine morning, too, Mr. Tregaskis."
"After a night of marvels. You've heard about the liner, sir, out in the Roads?... 'Tis all a mystery to me how she ever found her way in."
"I am putting off to learn the particulars. And, by the way, Mr. Tregaskis"—the Commandant paused—"I intended to call in upon you on my way back."
"Anything I can do for you, sir, and at any time," responded Mr. Tregaskis. "I suppose, now," he added, "you'd take it as a liberty if I was to ask for a seat in your boat?"
"Not in the least. There she is, waiting off the quay steps: so if you have business on board, put on your hat, come along with me, and welcome!"
"Thanking you kindly, sir. Which I was reckoning that—she being from foreign parts and the Islands the first place she've touched at, I might pick up a bravish order in the way of fresh milk and eggs, not to mention that Job Clemow sold me half-a-hundredweight of plaice, with a cod or two, that he took on the spiller yesterday."
"Come along, by all means," repeated the Commandant, moving off towards the quay steps; and Tregaskis, having tucked his shop-apron around his waist and run into the back passage for his billy-cock hat, hurried in his wake.
Reuben Tregaskis—known throughout the Islands as The Bester—was a genial ruffian of familiar accost, red-faced, round in the stomach, utterly unscrupulous at a bargain. The Commandant did not like him, and particularly disliked the prospect of asking him a favour. Most of all he regretted, as they pushed off, that chance this morning had forced him to put such a man under a small obligation. He feared that, when it came to asking leave to open an account, he might seem to be using this advantage. (Such a fear, it scarcely needs saying, was groundless. In his business dealings, The Bester was superior alike to gratitude and rancour, and would bargain with his own mother as with his worst enemy.)
The Commandant, oppressed with his own thoughts, bent his attention upon the steering, and punctuated with monosyllables only the exuberant flow of Mr. Tregaskis' conversation, which, bye-and-bye, as they neared the roadstead, resolved itself into offers of wagers on the length, tonnage, and actual carrying capacity of the liner.
She lay very nearly in the middle of the roadstead, broadside-on to the morning sunshine, and the more the Commandant studied her the more he wondered at last night's miracle. She had not yet begun to weigh, though he discerned a couple of St. Ann's pilots talking with an officer on the bridge. Presently the officer left them, and descended to the deck, where he stood in the gangway awaiting the boat.
"Major Vigoureux?" he asked, lifting the peak of his cap, as she fell alongside.
The Commandant, not a little astonished, returned the salutation. "That is my name, sir."
"I have been expecting you," said the officer. "I am Captain Whitaker, at your service—the skipper of this vessel, in fact, and thankful enough, I can tell you, to be alive this morning and in command of her. Madame's boxes are on deck here, if you do me the favour to climb on board.... Ah, and here is Madame's maid, to give account of them!"
The Commandant, drawing breath at the head of the ladder, and glancing down the Milo's majestic length of deck, was aware of four large trunks, and beside them a neat, foreign-looking woman, who curtsied in foreign fashion as she came forward.
"M'sieur will take my duty to Madame, and tell her that I have done my best to pack to her orders. The rest I am to report from Plymouth, when we arrive."
"And I daresay," put in Captain Whitaker, with an amused turn of the eye towards the trunks, then back at the Commandant, "Madame would call these 'just a few necessaries.' Though I say to you, sir," he went on gravely, "that all the Milo's hold—and the Milo will carry close on four thousand tons—hasn't room enough to stow what Madame deserves, be it in clothes or jewels."
"I—I beg your pardon?"
"She hasn't told you? No; I bet she wouldn't," said Captain Whitaker. "Come down to my cabin, sir, and let me offer you a brandy-and-soda? No? Then, perhaps, you'll do me the honour to join me at breakfast—which must be ready at this moment," he added, as eight strokes sounded on the ship's bell forward. "Never mind the size of the trunks, sir; one of my men shall help you ashore with 'em."
In the Captain's cabin, which had a floor of parquet and panels of teak set in mahogany, stood a table with a white cloth upon it, and a breakfast array of blue-and-white china. A steward, in a blue suit with brass buttons, brought the meats in dishes of polished electro-plate, and on a small sideboard stood other dishes with small spirit lamps burning beneath. The Commandant seated himself; ate, drank, and marvelled.
"You know Madame?" asked Captain Whitaker, helping himself to a dish of kidneys and bacon. He nodded, intercepting the Commandant's gaze. "We keep them in ice, if you're not above trying our fare. You'll find they are not bad. My other meals I take with the passengers, but I breakfast alone, as a rule."
The Commandant's mind ran on the breakfast yet to be extracted from Mr. Tregaskis' shop.
"You know her?" asked Captain Whitaker.
"I once had the pleasure—years ago——"
"If that's so"—Captain Whitaker nodded—"we'll take her praises for granted. She's great; you can sum it up at that. By the way, did she happen to tell you why she is leaving the ship here?"
"Yes; she went ashore in a hurry, she said, to avoid being thanked——"
"Then I guessed right."
"—though," confessed the Commandant, "I haven't a notion what she meant."
Captain Whitaker set down his breakfast-cup and buttered himself a piece of toast, gazing the while long and earnestly at his companion.
"No? Then I'll tell you. The passengers don't know it as yet, though I've caught a guess or two flying around; but the truth is sure to come out, sooner or later. Man, it was she that saved the Milo last night, in that ghastly twenty minutes before we picked up the pilot.... Oh, I see by your face you don't believe me!—but you must take it or leave it. Shall I go on?"
"Go on," said the Commandant.
"We were due out of New York on the 27th, but missed our tide in clearing and didn't pass the bar till early next morning. We carried fifty-nine saloon passengers, seventy-five second, and a hundred and twenty-five steerage, with a crew of a hundred exactly. Besides these we had the mails—two hundred and twenty bags—and a fair amount of dollars in specie (I needn't tell how much.) The weather was thick from the first with a heavy sea running on the other side. We met it full just outside Sandy Hook, and for three days I pitied the passengers. The third night out the mischief happened. I had left the bridge soon after four bells and was just turning in for my beauty-sleep when I heard an unholy racket below in the engine-room, and felt the ship slow down of a sudden. One of the rods had kicked loose from its gib and started to flail around death and destruction. Thanks to Crosbie, our first engineer, she was brought up before kicking our insides out, and we hove to; but the repairs cost us close on eighteen hours. By daybreak the weather was thickening worse than ever, though with no great amount of wind, and we started again in a fog so thick that from the bridge you could see her bows, and only just. Well, that's how it was with us, all the way across. We seemed to carry the fog; and though it lifted a bit, off and on, it never looked like giving us a chance of an observation. All yesterday afternoon I was worried by the thought that we'd overrun our reckoning and must be somewhere near the Islands, and about two o'clock—though the soundings were good—I ordered the engines to be reduced below the half-speed at which she was running.
"To ease the passengers' minds I had arranged for a concert in the saloon after dinner, and Madame—she had booked with us under a name that wasn't her own to dodge the New York newspaper men, but the passengers recognized her—had promised me to sing to them. (You have heard her, eh?—it makes you cry, and not mind, either, who sees you.) I remember now that she looked at me pretty straight when she gave the promise, but seeing me not minded to speak, she asked no questions.
"Well, the concert came off. At any other time I'd have given pounds to be sitting there and listening; but the worry on my mind kept me to the bridge, and from there I heard her, the notes lifting up through the saloon sky-light as if heaven and earth had somehow got capsized or else an angel had come aboard to sing us clear of the fog. There were three of us on the bridge—myself, and the third officer, Mr. Francillon, and a seaman called Petersen; and when the song ended—it was a little Italian something-or-other, very bright and gay—and the clapping began and the calls for an encore, I couldn't stand it any longer, and I was afraid she'd be starting on 'Home, Sweet Home,' or something of that sort, and I didn't want Mr. Francillon to see my face. So I made up an excuse and sent him off to the chart-house for a pair of dividers (which I didn't want), and away he went.
"When he was gone I stood by the wheel for a bit listening as the clapping died down. It stopped at last, and I braced myself up and waited to have my feelings wrung, when just behind me I heard a step on the ladder. Of course, I took it for Mr. Francillon returning, and I wheeled about, short-tempered like, to tell him he needn't be tip-toeing—we weren't on the bridge to listen to grand opera—when what do I see but Madame! 'You needn't look so cross, Captain,' she says; 'for I know well enough I'm breaking all rules, and I'll go away quietly and sing to them again. But we're somewhere near the Islands, and the call came on me to warn you!' 'Why, truly, ma'am,' I answered, 'I believe we're not far off them.' 'We're close to them,' she answered me, nodding her head. 'I'm Island-born, Captain, and I feel 'em in my blood.' I put this down to craziness—hysterics—or whatever you choose to call it; but just to soothe her mind and get her down quietly off the bridge I sang out to the leadsman to know if he had found soundings. I was bending over the rail when I felt a touch on my arm, and heard her cry out 'Starboard! Hard a-starboard—hard!'—just like that." Captain Whitaker dropped his voice to a low, fierce whisper as he imitated her. "It took the helmsman sharp and sudden, so that he had begun to put the wheel down before he realised that the order didn't come from me; and the next moment Madame had flung herself upon it and was helping with both hands. 'Hullo!' says I, stepping after her smartly, and as good as asking if she or I commanded the Milo. The passengers below had started to sing 'D'ye ken John Peel?' and were yelling out a lot of silly hunting-cries with the chorus. I could hear nothing above the racket. But, sure enough, looking to port over my shoulder as I laid hand on the wheel to check it, I saw a whitish smear that meant breakers; and the smear no sooner showed than above it a great black cliff stood out as if 'twere a moving thing and meant to carve into us right amidships—a great cliff with a rock on it like the Duke of Wellington's nose. A man from the top of it could have jumped onto our bulwarks, and I shut my eyes as it overhung, waiting for the crash; but it slid by and was gone like a slide you pass through a magic lantern.
"'Port now! Port for your life!' she called out; and I saw first of all her hand go out to push Petersen off, and then the little sparks flickering on her rings as she gripped the spokes, and checking 'em, dragged the wheel back hand over hand. A man's strength she must have had. 'Help me,' was all she said, in a kind of panting voice, and as I caught hold to help it over, 'That was the Head! Hard up, now! and ring down for full speed!' 'Full speed!' I grunted, yet pressing on the wheel all the time—'It's stop her you mean, and anchor.' 'What, here? with Hell-deeps on your starboard bow and a five-knot tide running! Full speed ahead—there's no room to swing—no, nor half.' She stopped my hand on the bell and rang down herself, 'full speed ahead'; and the passengers whooping away at 'John Peel!' all the while.
"Then, as the engines began to run, she looked at me, still holding on by the wheel. 'They may do it,' she said, 'they may do it. At half speed she'd never point off, against a five-knot tide.' 'God have mercy on us!' was all I could say. 'If you know—?' 'Know?' she caught me up. 'I was brought up to know. But she'll never do it if she don't pick up way.... Ah, that's better!' she said with a kind of sigh staring over the starboard bow into the fog. 'Now!'—and we held our breath, all of us; for Mr. Francillon was back on the bridge standing close behind her and wondering what the devil was up. She let thirty seconds pass, and then turned to him as if he'd been there all the while and she knew it.
"'Look astern,' she said, 'and maybe, if you're clever, you can see the Monk.'
"'The Monk!' We cried this out together; for that we had passed the Monk without sighting her or catching sound of her fog-horns was a thing incredible.
"'But so it is,' said she. 'We have passed the Monk; passed it close. Don't I know the Pope's Head on Lesser Teague? Now hard-a-port still—for we've the Gunnel Dogs somewhere there to leeward, and they're worse almost than Hell-deeps.'
"We were racing by this time. There was nothing in the world to see—only the fog, which had turned, within the last minute, to dusk; and nothing to feel except that we were racing down between the walls of it like a stick caught in a mill heat. Worse it was; we were driving down full tilt with a five-knot tide under us. If we struck there was one consolation; the end would come soon. As 'John Peel' ended we could hear the tide race take up the tune and hum it on the wind of our passage; and above it I heard the third officer call out that he had glimpsed a light astern.
"'The Monk!' said Madame, nodding her head to me to help her in easing off the wheel.
"And I don't know, sir, if you have ever been through a gale at sea; a really tight gale, I mean; with a while in it—maybe an hour only, maybe twenty-four—when the odds are slowly turning against you. Then there comes a point when, with nothing to show for it, you feel that you are holding your own; and another point when you feel that, bar accidents, the worst is over. The sea seems to break just as savage as ever, and you can't swear that the wind has lessened. You have nothing to point to, but, all the same, you know, and can thank the Lord.
"That's how it was with the Milo. I couldn't say when the danger ceased; but I found myself looking at Madame across the binnacle lamp and she was looking at me. My hand went out and I rang down for half-speed, then for dead slow. We stood there and listened while the engines changed their beat from one to the other. In the saloon they had started a comic song with a chorus. Said she, after a bit, 'You can bring up now and wait for morning. North of the Gunnel here there's an eddy slack where the tides meet, and you may count on thirty fathoms.'
"I called down to know what the lead reported. I felt my voice shaking and the leadsman's voice shook a bit too as he called back that he had found the bottom with the red seventeen fathom mark. Half a minute later he sang out that his line had lost it. I was just about calling to let go anchor when away on our starboard bow we heard the pilots hailing. We sent up a flare, and at sight of it the lighthousemen, away on the Monk, began banging, and small blame to them!"
THE ADVENTURES OF FOUR SHILLINGS
As he finished his story Captain Whitaker stood up and reached out a hand to open a glass-fronted cupboard in which he kept his books and papers. The Commandant, mistaking his movement, rose also.
"No, no, sir," the Captain corrected him. "Sit down and finish your breakfast. The fact is, when her maid, last night, handed me the letter telling me she had gone ashore, I sat down and wrote an answer. Here it is, and I was going to ask you to deliver it for me."
The Commandant took it, and placed it carefully in his breast pocket. "I thank you," he answered, "but I have breakfasted. If you don't mind—it occurs to me that, if I delay, some of your passengers will soon be about the decks, and will see the luggage going overside, and ask questions."
"And that's well thought of," interrupted Captain Whitaker, "though I expect the luggage is all in your boat before this. How far lies your house from the quay, by the way?"
The Commandant answered that his house—the Barracks—stood at the very top of the hill.
"Why, then," said the Captain, leading the way up the companionway, "the least I can do is to send a couple of my men along with you to help. Your fellows—you'll excuse me—don't look equal to it. Pensioners, eh?"
The Commandant winced. "One of them," he answered stiffly, "is on the active list. His strength would surprise you, sir."
"H'm!" said the Captain, with a glance at Sergeant Archelaus.
"The other—but where is Tregaskis?"
"Gone off, sir, to do business with the steward," explained Archelaus, saluting.
"The other is a Mr. Tregaskis, a respectable man, and our principal tradesman in Garland Town. He has a design, I believe, to sell you whatever you may want in the way of fresh provisions."
"Certainly. The steward can go ashore, too, and do business with him, and his boat will bring the others back. Here—Hoskings! Arnott!" Captain Whitaker called to a couple of seamen, and sent a third off to summon the steward.
Five minutes later the Commandant found himself back in his boat, seated besides the Milo's steward, and confronting a tall pile of luggage. The two seamen had already put off with Mr. Tregaskis in the steward's boat.
"And you will present my duty to Madame?" said Madame's maid, looking down from the ship's side. "And tell her that I charge myself to see the rest of her luggage safe to the hotel, where I will report myself and wait for Madame's orders."
Captain Whitaker waved good-bye. Archelaus pushed off and fell to the oars. The Commandant took the tiller. As the boat pointed for shore the garrison bell on the hill rang out nine o'clock.
Nine o'clock! The notes of the bell struck apprehension upon the Commandant's heart. His guest would certainly be awake by this time, and as certainly hungry. To be sure, she could not attire herself until her boxes arrived—at any rate, would not appear. And yet, with such a strong-willed person, he could not be certain. A lady capable of landing on a foggy night in an evening gown and diamonds, and of walking up the street of St. Hugh's in shoes of rose-coloured satin, might well be capable of descending to breakfast in those garments.
To breakfast!—and as yet that breakfast had to be bought, and on credit!
He wished now that he had offered to convey Mr. Tregaskis back in his own boat. He might (he told himself) have broached his proposition on the way.
The Milo's steward, affably inclined, let fall a remark or two upon the Islands. He opined that they were quaint. The poor man meant well, but was a person slightly above his station, and clipped his words. This gave him a patronising tone, which the Commandant, in his impatience, found offensive. He answered in curt monosyllables, which in turn caused the steward to mistake him for a stand-offish gentleman.
The steward was a very resplendent figure indeed. The morning sunlight, which drew sparkles from the brass-buttoned suit and brass-bound cap beside him, exposed pitilessly the threadbare woof of the Commandant's uniform coat. There had been nothing amiss with the coat, yesterday; nothing to observe, at least—- And, "Confound the fellow!" thought the Commandant, "how am I to get rid of him and have a word with Tregaskis?"
For desperate ills, desperate remedies. Drawing alongside the quay, where Mr. Tregaskis and the two seamen had landed and stood waiting, the Commandant called upon his best service voice, concealing the shake in it:
"I desire a word with you."
"And in private," went on the Commandant, stepping ashore and marching straight up the steps.
"Certainly, sir." After all, and not so long ago, Major Vigoureux had been Governor and Chief Magistrate of the Islands, with power to inflict fine and imprisonment. Mr. Tregaskis (conscious, perhaps, of some close dealings in the not remote past) turned obediently and led the way to his shop door at the corner of the hill, thence through the shop, and thence to the threshold of a dark parlour behind it, into which he was passing when the Commandant's voice brought him to a stand.
"We will talk here, if you please," said the Commandant.
"Certainly, sir," Mr. Tregaskis turned about.
"I want," said the Commandant, "half a pound of your best tea, half a dozen new laid eggs, an amount of bacon which I leave to you, and a pot of marmalade."
"With pleasure, sir. Anything I can do——"
"And on credit."
"As I said sir—to be sure—and hoping that I have given satisfaction hitherto—" Mr. Tregaskis, still a trifle flurried, fell to rubbing his hands together, thus producing an appearance of haste before he actually collected himself and hurried to execute the order.
"Good God!" thought the Commandant to himself. "Am I browbeating this man?"
He watched as Mr. Tregaskis cut and weighed out the butter and bacon and tied them up into parcels, with the help of a small boy summoned from the back premises; or rather, the small boy (Melk by name, which was short for Melchisedek) did the weighing and tying while Mr. Tregaskis stood over him and exhorted him to look sharp, or he'd never make a grocer. The steward watched from the doorway, puffing a cigarette, and expressed a hope that he was not excluding the light. The Commandant wished him a thousand miles away. Sergeant Archelaus had borrowed a light trolley from the quay; the two seamen had loaded it; and already Madame's luggage was half-way up the hill, and must infallibly reach the Barracks before Madame's breakfast could overtake it.
"And when would you like it sent, sir?" asked Mr. Tregaskis, nodding at the piles on the counter.
"Sent?" echoed the Commandant. "I beg your pardon," he went on hastily. "I had meant to ask you for the loan of a basket. I will carry the things myself."
"Indeed, sir?" Mr. Tregaskis hesitated. "You are welcome to a basket, of course, if you think it wise."
"I am not ashamed to be seen carrying a basket, Mr. Tregaskis."
"No, indeed, sir! But the hill being steep—and a little exercise would do Melk, here, all the good in the world."
"I prefer to carry the goods myself, I thank you." (Was everybody in a conspiracy to take the Commandant for a very old man?)
He waited impatiently until the basket was filled, slung it on his arm, and hurried out of the shop with such impetuosity that the steward, still lounging in the doorway, had scarcely time to skip into the roadway and give passage.
"They must be going in for some kind of feast, up to Barracks," said the boy Melk meditatively, after a pause.
"Why?" asked Mr. Tregaskis, looking up from the counter.
"Because," said the boy, "Old Mother Treacher was here, not ten minutes ago, and the way she spent her money was a caution. There's the best part of four shillin' in the till, if only you'll look."
"What did she buy?"
"Eggs mostly—and bacon—and marmalade."
Mr. Tregaskis walked to his shop door, and stared up the hill after the Commandant.
"Must be going off their heads," he decided, and shook his own doubtfully. "It can't be a merry-makin' either; for, when you come to think of it, folks don't feast off such things as streaky bacon."
"Not off this sort, any'ow," airily agreed the steward, who had been examining a piece on the counter.
* * * * *
The Commandant had started fiercely enough to climb the hill, but by the time he reached the bend of the hill where stood the cottage which had been Vashti's home he was drawing difficult breath. Indeed, he was on the point of setting down his load and resting when, as he turned the corner, he came full upon Mrs. Banfield, the good wife of the present occupier, in conversation with Mrs. Medlin, her neighbour across the road. The two women were staring up the hill, each from her doorway, but at the sound of the Commandant's footsteps they turned and stared at him instead: whereat he blushed and hung on his heel for a moment before charging through the cross-fire of gossip.
"Good morning, ladies!"
"Aw, good morning to you, sir," answered Mrs. Banfield, with a curtsey, and gazed hard at his basket. "Nothing wrong up to the garrison, I hope?"
"So far as I know, ma'am, nothing at all."
"Seein' that great stack of luggage go up the hill," explained Mrs. Medlin, "why naturally it made a person anxious. And when you put a civil question, as I did to Sergeant Archelaus, and he turns round and as good as snaps your head off, why a person can't help putting two and two together."
"Indeed, ma'am, and what did you make the result?" asked the Commandant, politely.
"Why, sir, Mrs. Banfield here was reckoning that the Government had sent stores for you at last, and says I, 'You may be right, Sarah, and glad enough we shall a-be to hear of it, for it do make my heart bleed to remember old days and see what the garrison is reduced to in vittles and small-clothes. But,' says I, 'the luggage comes from the great steamship, and the great steamship comes from America, and that Government would be sending stores from America, even in these days of tinned meats, is what, beggin' your pardon, no person could believe that wasn't born a fool.'"
"Which I answered to Mrs. Medlin," said Mrs. Banfield, "'Granted, ma'am,' I said, 'but, food or no food, I'd sooner swallow it than believe what you were tellin' just now.'"
"And what was that?" asked the Commandant, turning on Mrs. Medlin.
"Why, sir, knowing the Lord Proprietor to be no friend of yours——"
"Hush, Mrs. Medlin—hush, if you please!"
"Of course, sir, if you don't want to hear——"
"I certainly cannot listen to any talk against Sir Caesar. It would be exceedingly improper."
"I warn' going to say anything improper," Mrs. Medlin protested stoutly. "And I wonder, sir, at your thinking it, after the years you've given good-day to me."
"Why, bless the woman!" interjected Mrs. Banfield, "you might talk as improper as you pleased and the Governor wouldn't understand your drift—he's that innocent-minded. But what she meant, sir, was that the Lord Proprietor had turned you out, belike—as everyone knows he has a mind to—and that a new Governor might be coming in your place."
The Commandant flushed. "My dear Mrs. Banfield, the Lord Proprietor has nothing to do with the military command here, either to appoint or to dismiss. I cannot forbid your gossipping; but it may help you to know that every soldier on the Islands holds his post directly under the Crown."
Mrs. Banfield gazed at the basket with the air of one who, seeming to yield, yet abides by her convictions. "The Crown's a long way off, seemin' to me," she objected; "and contrariwise I do know that when the Lord Proprietor wants his way on the Islands he gets it. Though it were ten times a week, he'd get it, and no one nowadays strong enough to stand up to him."
"My dear Mrs. Banfield!"
But Mrs. Banfield was not to be checked. "He's a tyrant," she declared, her voice rising shrilly; "and I'd say it a hundred times, though I went to the lock-up for it. He's a tyrant: and you, sir, are too simple-minded to cope with 'em. Yes, yes—'a Christian gentleman'—everyone grants it of you, and—saving your presence—everyone is sorry enough for it. You wouldn't hurt a fly, for your part. Man, woman, or child, you'd have every soul in the Islands to live neighbourly and go their ways in peace. No doubt 'tis good Gospel teaching, too, and well enough it worked till this rumping little tyrant came along and pushed you aside. Goodness comes easy to you, sir, I reckon; but it bears hard upon us poor folk that want someone to stand up for us against injustice."
"The Lord Proprietor, Mrs. Banfield, has a strong will of his own; but I certainly never heard that he was unjust."
"Then you haven't heard, sir, what's happening over on Saaron?"
"On Saaron, ma'am?"
"On Saaron, sir.... Eh? No, to be sure.... Folks may suffer on the Islands in these days, but what use to tell the Governor? He was good to us in his time, but now he has cut himself off from us with his own troubles.... Did anyone tell you, sir, the text that old Seth Hicks preached from, over to St. Ann's, at the last service before the Lord Proprietor closed the Meeting House? 'I will lift up mine eyes,' said he, 'to the hills, from whence cometh my help,' and then, having given it out, the old fellow turned solemn-like t'ards the window that looks across here to Garrison Hill. 'Amen,' said some person in the congregation; 'but 'tis no use, brother Seth, your seeking in that quarter.'"
The Commandant, who had set down his basket, lifted it again wearily. "Mrs. Banfield," said he, "won't you at least put it down to my credit that, having (as you say) my own troubles, I don't bother my neighbours with 'em?"
"Why, bless your heart, sir—that ever I should say it—that's what hurts us sorest! We can fit and fend along somehow, never you mind; but when for years you shared our little tribylations and taught us, forrigner, tho' you were, to be open with 'ee as daylight, it do seem cruel that you can't enjoy a bit of trouble on your own account but you must take it away and hide it."
The Commandant's eyes moistened suddenly. "Is that how the Islanders look at it, Mrs. Banfield?"
"It is, sir."
"Well, well," said the Major. "I never guessed.... I am a blind old fool, it seems. But"—and here, blinking away the moisture, he smiled at Mrs. Banfield almost gaily—"I can begin at once to make amends. The luggage that went up the hill, just now, belongs to—to a friend of mine—a visitor who will be my guest for a short while at the Barracks. And this"—he tapped the basket—"is for my friend's breakfast. In exchange for this information you shall tell me now what is the matter over at Saaron."
"The matter is, the Lord Proprietor has given the Tregarthens notice."
The Commandant's eyes grew round in his head as he stared at Mrs. Banfield, who answered by nodding her head briskly, as though each nod was the tap of a hammer driving home a nail.
"What? Eli Tregarthen—that married Cara's younger daughter—that used to live—" The Commandant recited this much in the fashion of a child repeating "The House that Jack Built." His gaze wandered past Mrs. Banfield to the blue-painted doorway behind her.
"It don't matter, that I can see, where the woman used to live," said Mrs. Banfield; "but it do matter to my mind that a Tregarthen has farmed Saaron for six generations, and now 'tis pack-and-go for 'em."
"Why?" echoed Mrs. Banfield, fiercely. "Because, as you was tellin' just now, sir, my lord has a strong will. Because my lord wants Saaron for his own. Because he wants to shoot rabbits. Because rabbits be of more account to him than men—and I don't blame him for it, seein' that all the men on the Islands be turned to mice in these days. Oh, 'tis an old tale! But there! You never heard of it. You never heard—not you—that the man was even unjust!"
"But, my dear Mrs. Banfield——"
"Go'st thy ways, good Governor. You was the poor man's friend—one time; but now there's too much Christianity in you.... And no more will I answer until you tells me who your guest is, that eats two breakfasts in one morning."
The Commandant gazed at her in mild surprise. Doubtless he would have asked the meaning of this cryptic utterance; but at this moment the two seamen from the Milo issued forth from the gateway up the road; and, descending a few paces, turned to call back farewell to Mrs. Treacher, who, having escorted them so far, halted under the arch and stood, with hands on hips, to watch them out of sight.
"Wish 'ee well, I'm sure!" said Mrs. Treacher. "You understand we be poor people in these parts."
"Don't mention that, ma'am," said one of the seamen, politely.
"There's no talk of favours, as between us and Madame," called out the other.
They passed the Commandant and saluted. On a sudden it struck him that these men would expect a small monetary acknowledgment for their trouble; and hastily nodding good-morning to Mrs. Banfield and Mrs. Medlin, he ran staggering up the slope to the gateway.
"Mrs. Treacher!" he panted, dumping down his burden, "I—er—it so happens that I have no small change about me."
"Me either," said Mrs. Treacher, idiomatically, and bent over the basket. "What's this?"
"You will forgive my mentioning it, Mrs. Treacher; but these good fellows very likely expected a sixpence or so for their trouble. If you wouldn't mind lending me back—for a short time only, a couple of shillings out of the four that—that I——"
"Very sorry, sir," said Mrs. Treacher, "but I spent 'em."
"Which I didn't like," pursued Mrs. Treacher, stonily, "to insult the lady's stomach with the kind of eatables I found in the larder. So while you was away, sir, I took the liberty to slip down to Tregaskisses and lay out three shillings. Which, finding no one in charge but that half-baked boy of his, I got good value for the money; and a sight better bacon than this, I don't mind saying—for all you have been so lavish."
She peered into the basket and looked up sharply. It was a cross-examining look, and seemed to ask where he had found the money for all this extravagance. The Commandant, evading it, turned and stared down the road, where already the two seamen had passed out of sight.
"You needn't mind them, sir," said Mrs. Treacher, reassuringly. "It's light come and light go with sailors."
Nevertheless, when the Commandant turned to accept the assurance, half eagerly and yet less than half convinced, she would not meet his eye; but picked up the basket and staggered along with it to the Barrack door. "There's a saying," said Mrs. Treacher, eagerly, halting there, "that sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. I've found it comforting before now. But it don't seem to allow for three meals per diem; and how to make bacon and eggs for dinner look different from bacon and eggs for breakfast is a question that'll take thought. You didn't happen to think upon cheese, now?"
"I did," said the Commandant, triumphantly. "There's half a pound of cheese—the very best Cheddar—or, so Tregaskis assured me."
"Tregaskis!" Mrs. Treacher put down her nose and sniffed the basket. "Tregaskis never sold better than third-class American in all his life."
"She comes from America," the Commandant hazarded.
"I shouldn't advise you to build on that," said Mrs. Treacher, dubiously; "but we'll hope for the best; and with beer in the place of tea it mayn't look altogether like breakfast over again."
He was stepping into the passage when she touched his sleeve in sudden contrition.
"I didn't mention it before, sir; but hearing as the sailors had brought up her boxes, she outs with this and asks me to give it to them for their trouble."
Mrs. Treacher held out a golden sovereign. The Commandant stared at it.
"You kept it back?" he gasped.
"I had to, sir. A couple of ignorant seamen—that didn't want it, either!"
"Give it to me!"
"There's one blessing—you can't possibly overtake 'em," said Mrs. Treacher, as the Commandant snatched the coin.
He gazed down the hill, and decided that to this extent she was right. With one hand gripping the sovereign, and the other lifted to his distraught brow, the Commandant strode to the room where Vashti sat at breakfast. She looked up and welcomed him with a gay smile.
PLAN OF CAMPAIGN
Vashti sat on the low stone wall beyond the Keg of Butter Battery and gazed out over the twinkling Sound and the Islands. The wall ran along the edge of the cliff and moreover was ruinous, as the Commandant had cautioned her when she chose her perch.
For a while she did not appear to have heard him, but sat with lips half-parted as though they drank in their native air, and with eyes half-closed—but whether in mere delight or because through the present they were looking into the past, the Commandant could not determine. She had invited him after breakfast to conduct her round the old fortifications, and he had done so in some dread of her questions and comments. But she had asked scarcely a question and made no comment at all. She was thinking less of the change in his batteries and defences than of the change in him, as with a deeper knowledge of women he might have divined. In the inanimate work of man's hands woman takes no real interest, whatever she may feign, but of man himself she is insatiably curious and critical. So while the Commandant, moving with her from one battery to another, had halted and stared down on the grass-grown platforms, ashamed and half-afraid lest by lifting his eyes he should challenge her pity, he missed to perceive and missed altogether to guess that hers were occupied in taking note of him, of his thread-bare coat, of the stoop of his shoulders, of the whitened hair brushed back from his temples.
They had made the round of the batteries in almost complete silence; and coming to the wall above the Keg of Butter she had perched herself there and bent her eyes seaward.
She may or may not have been aware that this gave him opportunity to take stock of her in his turn, and that he was using it very deliberately, letting his gaze travel over her profile, or so much of it as she presented to him, and so from point to point of her attire down to her well-made walking shoes—all with a kind of grave wonder. Once only he glanced up and to the northward, where low on the horizon a faint line of smoke lingered in the wake of the Milo, already hull-down on her way; and his glance seemed to ask for assurance that he was not dreaming, that the steamship had really come and gone and left him this unaccountable guest.
It was just at this moment that she answered him.
"Yes, I can easily understand that you feel it," she said in a musing tone.
"Eh?" The Commandant had almost forgotten his warning about the ruinous state of the wall. His eyes had wandered back from the horizon to the close coils of hair above her neck and to the lobe of her small ear which (as he found himself noting) had never been pierced to admit an earring. She turned, and as she caught his gaze he blushed in no little confusion.
With the point of her sunshade she indicated the deserted battery on his left.
"Though I suppose," she went on, still musing, "all these fortifications were really out of date for years before Government dismantled them."
"If that were true," he replied, "it would date my uselessness further back than ever."
"Your uselessness?" she echoed, and now it was her eyes that expressed a grave wonder. "But you were Governor of the Islands; and you are Governor still, are you not?"
"These batteries," he went on hastily, "though antiquated, were never out of date, never useless; and there will be reason enough to regret them if ever an enemy's squadron makes a pounce on the Islands."
"Poor little Islands!" Vashti looked across the Sound with a smile. "It seems almost comic somehow that anyone should dream of attacking them!"
"Ah!" said he, almost bitterly, "you have been living in great cities and enlarging your mind."
"And in great cities, you imply, it is easy to despise, to forget?" She laughed softly. "Brefar—Saaron—Inniscaw!" she murmured, addressing the Islands by name, "here is one who tells me I forget you! Sir, we will take a boat this very day, and I will sail you out to the Off Islands and prove to you if I forget."
"There is no need, Miss Vashti"—he hesitated over the "Miss," but she did not correct him, and he went on more boldly. "I had a talk this morning with Captain Whitaker, of the Milo."
Vashti looked up with a quick smile. "He told you?... I am so glad! Yes, yes: I did not in the least want to have all those passengers crowding around me and paying me ridiculous compliments. But false modesty is another thing altogether, and I don't mind telling you I am quite inordinately proud of myself."
"You have a right to be."
"—as I don't mind confessing that I was horribly afraid at the time. But I am glad again, that Captain Whitaker told you. It was pretty good—eh?—after fifteen years."
She asked it frankly; not archly at all, but with a sudden earnest look that seemed to hold some sadness; and before the Commandant could reply this sadness grew and became so real that he wondered at his having doubted it at first glance.
"Fifteen years!" she went on. "We all have a quarrel against time, we men and women, but on grounds so different that a man scarcely understands a woman's grievance nor a woman a man's. With you it all rests in your work. Fifteen years knock holes in your fortifications, tumble your guns into the sea, send along a new generation of men to pull down what you have built, to rebuild in a flurry of haste, and see their work in its turn criticised and condemned by yet a new company of builders. At this we women only look on and marvel. Why all this fuss, we ask, over what you do? Why all this hopeful, hopeless craving to leave something permanent? The Islands, here, will outlast anything you can build. I come back after fifteen years, and they are unchanged; they would be unchanged were I to come back after a hundred. The same rocks, the same bracken, the same hum of the tides; the same flowers; the same blue here, below us, the same outline of a spear-head there, beyond St. Ann's, where the tide forces through the slack water; the same streak of yellow yonder on the south cliffs of Saaron.... Our grievance is more personal, more real ... and so should yours be, if you could only see it. It is to ourselves—to you and me, to any man and woman—that time makes the difference. You worry over your fortifications. Why? It is in ourselves that the tragedy lies. To lose our looks, our voice—to grow old and mumble—" She broke off with a shiver.
The Commandant smiled sadly. He had too much sense to pay an idle compliment. "If that be the tragedy, Miss Vashti," said he, "then we are wise in our folly, which bids us rest our hopes in our work though its permanence be all an illusion. We cannot cheat ourselves with a tale that we shall not grow old, but we are able to believe, however vainly, that our work will live."
"Yes," she admitted, "you are wise in your vanity—or would be, were it wisdom to shut one's eyes to fate. Let us grant that men are happier than women—than childless women at any rate. You do not know what it is to be a singer, for instance; to wake up each morning to a fear 'Has my voice gone? One of these days it will certainly go, but—Lord, not yet!' We must build on what we have. We must cling to our youth, knowing that after our youth comes darkness. No, sir, I do not blame men for setting up their rest upon what they do rather than upon ourselves; but for setting it upon that part of their work which, being the more visible, the more visibly decays."
The Commandant pondered while his eyes studied the grass-grown platform. He shook his head. "You puzzle me, Miss Vashti," he confessed.
"Why, sir, you have been mooning around these fortifications quite as though they had made up your life and their ruins stood for your broken purposes; whereas for fifteen years you have been Governor of the Islands and my sister tells me you are a good man. Surely, then, your real life has lain in the justice you have done, the wrongs you have righted, the trust you have built up in the people's hearts, and not in these decaying walls which no enemy ever threatened in your time nor for a hundred years before you came."
But again the Commandant shook his head.
"I say nothing of the first few years," he answered slowly. "I liked the people and I tried to do justice. But all that has passed out of my control. The Lord Proprietor takes everything into his own hands."
"Still on the Council—" she urged.
"I am no longer a member of the Council."
"You resigned? Why?"
"Because I saw that Sir Caesar was bent on humiliating me; and he had the power."
Vashti prised at a loose stone from the wall with the point of her sunshade.
"I have read somewhere," she said, after a pause, "that no wise man should avoid being a magistrate, because it is wrong to refuse help to those who need it, and equally wrong to stand aside and let worse men govern ill."
"The Lord Proprietor does not govern ill. He likes his own way; but he is a just man—" The Commandant hesitated and paused.
"A just man until you happen to thwart him. Is that what you were going to say?"
"No," he answered, smiling. "I was about to say that once or twice I have found him something less than fair to me. To others—" But here he paused again, remembering that morning's conversation on the hill.
"I do not much believe," persisted Vashti, "in men who act justly so long as they are not thwarted.... But you would remind me no doubt that, if questions are to be asked and answered this morning, it is I who should be giving an account of myself. Well, then, I have come to the Islands with a little plan of campaign in my mind, and last night it occurred to me suddenly that you were the very person to help. I am—you will excuse my telling you this, but it is necessary—a passably rich woman; that is to say, I have more money than I want to spend on myself, after putting by enough for a rainy day; and I can earn more again if I want more. I have no 'encumbrances,' as foolish people put it; no relatives in the world but my sister Ruth and her children. No two sisters ever loved one another better than did Ruth and I. We lost our mother early, when Ruth was just three years old, and from then until she was a grown woman I had the mothering of her, being by five years the elder. You have seen something like it, I dare say, in other poor families where the mother has been taken; but I tell you again that never were pair more absolutely wrapped up in one another than were Ruth and I. We shared each other's thoughts by day, we slept together and shared each other's dreams. Oh!"—Vashti clasped her hands and looked up with brimming eyes—"I can see now how beautiful it all was."
The Commandant bowed his head gravely. "I can believe it," he said; and as if he had stepped back fifteen years he found himself standing again on the hill and looking in upon the fire-lit room—only now the picture and the two figures in it shone with divine meaning.
"I know what you would ask," she went on. "Why, then, you would ask, did I ever leave the Islands?... But this had always been understood between us. I cannot tell you how. For years we never talked about it, yet we always talked as if, some day, it must happen. The fate was on us to be separated; and the strange part of it was," continued Vashti, throwing out her hands involuntarily, and with this action changing as it were from a confident woman back to a child helpless before its destiny, "we understood from the first that I, who loved the Islands, must be the one to go, while Ruth would find a husband here and settle down, nor perhaps ever wish to cross over to the mainland. You see, of the two I was the reader; and sometimes when I read Shakespeare to her—for we possessed but a few books, and some of these, like 'The Pilgrim's Progress,' had no real scenery in them to take hold of—sometimes when I read Shakespeare, or 'The Arabian Nights,' or 'Mungo Park's Travels,' and the real world would open to me, with cities like London, or Venice, or Bagdad, and with woods like the Forest of Arden, and ports with shipping and great empty deserts, then Ruth would catch hold and cling to me, as if I was slipping away and leaving her before the time.... Yet we both knew that the time must come, in the end. Do you understand at all?" she broke off to ask.