The words broke from him with prophetic solemnity; their hands fell apart, and Adrian, led by the jailer, stumbled forth blindly. Jack Smith stood erect, still smiling, watching them: were Adrian to turn he should find no weakness, no faltering for the final remembrance.
But Adrian did not turn. And the door closed, closed upon hope and happiness and life, shut in shame and death. Out yonder, with Adrian, was the fresh bright world, the sea, the sunshine, the dear ones; here the prison smells, the gloom, the constraint, the inflicted dreadful death. All his hard-won calm fled from him; all his youth, his immense vitality woke up and cried out in him again. He raised his hands and pulled fiercely at his collar as if already the rope were round his neck strangling him. His blood hammered in his brain. God—God—it was impossible—it could not be—it was a dream!
Beyond, from far distant in the street came the cry of a little child:
The prisoner threw up his arms and then fell upon his face upon the bed, torn by sobs.
Yes, Adrian would have children; but Hubert Cochrane, who, from the beautiful young brood that was to have sprung from his loins would have grafted on the old stock a fresh and noble tree, he was to pass barren out of life and leave no trace behind him.
THE ONE HE LOVED AND THE ONE WHO LOVED HIM
On the evening of the previous day Lady Landale and her Aunt had arrived at Pulwick. The drive had been a dismal one to poor Miss O'Donoghue. Neither her angry expostulations, nor her tender remonstrances, nor her attempts at consolation could succeed in drawing a connected sentence from Molly, who, with a fever spot of red upon each cheek only roused herself from the depth of thought in which she seemed plunged to urge the coachman to greater speed. Miss O'Donoghue tried the whole gamut of her art in vain, and was obliged at last to desist from sheer weariness and in much anxiety.
Madeleine and Sophia were seated by the fireside in the library when the unexpected travellers came in upon them. Sophia, in the blackest of black weeds, started guiltily up from the volume of "The Corsair," in which she had been plunged, while Madeleine, without manifesting any surprise, rose placidly, laid aside her needlework—a coarse flannel frock, evidently destined for charity—and bestowed upon her sister and aunt an affectionate though unexpansive embrace.
She had grown somewhat thinner and more thoughtful-looking since Molly and she had last met, on that fatal 15th of March, but otherwise was unchanged in her serene beauty. Molly clutched her wrist with a burning hand, and, paying not the slightest attention to the other two, nor condescending to any preamble, began at once, in hurried words to explain her mission.
"He has asked for you, Madeleine," she cried, her eyes flaming with unnatural brilliance as they sought her sister's mild gaze. "He has asked for you, I will take you back with me, to-morrow, not later than to-morrow. Don't you understand?" shaking her impatiently as she held her, "he is in prison, condemned to death, he has asked for you, he wants to see you. On Saturday—on Saturday——" Something clicked in her throat, and she raised her hand to it with an uneasy gesture, one that those who surrounded her had grown curiously familiar with of late.
Madeleine drew away from her at this address, the whole fair calm of her countenance troubled like a placid pool by the casting of a stone. Clasping her hands and looking down: "I saw that the unfortunate man was condemned," she said. "I have prayed for him daily, I trust he repents. I am truly sorry for him. From my heart I forgive him the deception he practised upon me. But——" a slight shudder shook her, "I could not see him again—surely you could not wish it of me."
She spoke with such extreme gentleness that for a minute the woman before her, in the seething turmoil of her soul, failed to grasp the meaning of her words.
"You could not go!" she repeated in a bewildered way, "I could not wish it of you—!" then with a sort of shriek which drew Tanty and Miss Sophia hurriedly towards her, "Don't you understand—on Saturday—if it all fails, they will hang him?"
"A-ah!" exclaimed Madeleine with a movement as if to ward off the sound—the cry, the gesture expressive, not of grief, but of shrinking repugnance. But after a second, controlling herself:
"And what should that be now, sister, to you or to me?" she said haughtily.
Lady Landale clapped her hands together.
"And this is the woman he loves!" she cried with a shrill laugh. And she staggered, and sank back upon a chair in an attitude of utter prostration.
"Molly, Molly," exclaimed her sister reprovingly, while she glanced in much distress at Miss O'Donoghue, "you are not yourself; you do not know what you are saying."
"Remember," interposed Sophia in tragic tones, "that you are speaking of the murderer of my beloved brother." Then she dissolved in tears, and was obliged to hide her countenance in the folds of a vast pocket-handkerchief.
"Killing vermin is not murder!" cried Molly fiercely, awakening from her torpor.
Miss O'Donoghue, who in the most unwonted silence had been watching the scene with her shrewd eyes, here seized the horrified Sophia by the elbow and trundled her, with a great deal of energy and determination, to the door.
"Get out of this, you foolish creature," she said in a stern whisper, "and don't attempt to show your nose here again till I give it leave to walk in!" Then returning to the sisters, and looking from Molly's haggard, distracted face to Madeleine's pale one: "If you take my advice, my dear," she said, a little drily, to the latter, "you will not make so many bones about going to see that poor lad in the prison, and you'll stop wrangling with your sister, for she is just not able to bear it. We shall start to-morrow, Molly," turning to Lady Landale, and speaking in the tone of one addressing a sick child, "and Madeleine will be quite ready as early as you wish."
"My dear aunt," said Madeleine, growing white to the lips, "I am very sorry if Molly is ill, but you are quite mistaken if you think I can yield to her wishes in this matter. I could not go; I could not; it is impossible!"
"Hear her," cried the other, starting from her seat. "Oh, what are you made of? Is it water that runs in your veins? you that he loves"—her voice broke into a wail—"you who ought to be so proud to know he loves you even though your heart be broken! You refuse to go to him, refuse his last request!... Come to the light," she went on, seizing the girl's wrists again; "let me look at you. Bah! you never loved him. You don't even understand what it is to love.... But what could one expect from you, who abandoned him in the moment of danger. You are afraid; afraid of the painful scene, the discomfort, the sight of the prison, of his beautiful face worn and changed—afraid of the discredit. Oh! I know you, I know you. But mind you, Madeleine de Savenaye, he wishes to see you, and I swore you would go to him, and you shall go, if I have to drag you with these hands of mine."
Her grip was so fierce, her eyes so savage, the words so strange, that Madeleine screamed faintly, "She is mad!" and was amazed that Miss O'Donoghue did not rush to the rescue!
But Miss O'Donoghue, peering at her from the depths of her arm-chair, merely said snappishly: "Ah, child, can't you say you will go, and have done! Oughtn't you to be ashamed to be so hard-hearted?" and mopped her perspiring and agitated countenance with her kerchief. Then upon the girl's bewildered mind dawned a glimmer of the truth; and, blushing to the roots of her hair, she looked at her sister with a growing horror.
"Oh, Molly, Molly!" she said again, with a sort of groan.
"Will you go?" cried Molly from between her set teeth.
Again the girl shuddered.
"Less than ever—now," she murmured. And as Molly threw her from her, almost with violence, she covered her face with her hands and fell, weeping bitter tears, upon the couch behind her.
Lady Landale, with great steps, stormed up and down the room, her eyes fixed on space, her lips moving; now and again a word escaped her then, sometimes hurled at her sister, sometimes only in desperate communing with herself.
"Base, cowardly, mean! Oh, my God, cruel—cruel! To go back without her."
After a little, with a sudden change of mood, she halted and stood a while, as if in deep reflection, holding her hand to her head, then crossing the room hurriedly, she knelt down, and flung her arms round the weeping figure.
"Ma petite Madeleine," she said in a voice of the most piteous pleading, "thou and I, we were always good friends; thou canst not have the heart to be so cruel to me now. See, my darling, he must die, they say—oh, Madeleine, Madeleine! And he asked for you. The one thing, he told Rene, the only thing we could do for him on earth was to let him see you once more. My little sister, you cannot refuse: he loves you. What has he done to offend you? Your pride cannot forgive him for being what he is, I suppose; yet such as he is you should be proud of him. He is too noble, too straightforward to have intentionally deceived you. If he did wrong, it was for love of you. Madeleine, Madeleine!"
Her tones trailed away into a moan.
Miss O'Donoghue sobbed loudly from her corner. Madeleine, who had looked at her sister at first with repulsion, seemed moved; she placed her hands upon her shoulders, and gazed sadly into the flushed face.
"My poor Molly," she said hesitatingly, "this is dreadful! But I too—I too was led into deceit, into folly." She blushed painfully. "I would not blame you; it was not your fault that you were carried away in his ship. You went only for my sake: I cannot forget that. Yet that he should have this unhappy power over you too, you with your good husband, you a married woman, oh, my poor sister, it is terrible! He is a wicked man; I pray that he may yet repent."
"Heavens," interrupted Molly, her passion up in arms again, loosening as she spoke her clasp upon her sister, and rising to her feet to look down on her with withering scorn, "have I not made myself clear? Are you deaf, stupid, as well as heartless? It is you—you—you he loves, you he wants. What am I to him?" with a curious sob, half of laughter, half of anguish. "Your pious fears are quite unfounded as far as he is concerned—the wicked man, as you call him! Oh, he spurns my love with as much horror as even you could wish!"
"Ay—Molly, and Molly—how shocked you are! Yes, I love him, I don't care who hears it. I love him—Adrian knows—he is not as virtuous as you, evidently, for Adrian pities me. He is doing all he can, though they say it is in vain, to get a reprieve for him—though I do love him! While you—you are too good, too immaculate even to soil your dainty foot upon the floor of his prison, that floor that I could kiss because his shoe has trod it. But it is impossible! no human being could be so hard, least of all you, whom I have seen turn sick at the sight of a dead worm—Madeleine——!"
Crouching down in the former imploring manner, while her breast heaved with dry tearless sobs: "It cannot hurt you, you who loved him." And then with the old pitiful cry, "it is the only thing he wants, and he loves you."
Madeleine disengaged herself from the clinging hands with a gesture almost of disgust.
"Listen to me," she said, after a pause, "try and compose yourself and understand. All this month I have had time to think, to realise, to pray. I have seen what the world is worth, that it is full of horror, of sin, of trouble, of dreadful dissensions—that its sorrow far outweighs its happiness. I have suffered," her pretty lips quivered an instant, but she hardened herself and went on, "but it is better so—it was God's will, it was to show me where to find real comfort, the true peace. I have quite made up my mind. I was only waiting to see you again and tell you—next week I am going back to the convent for ever. Oh, why did we leave it, Molly, why did we leave it!" She broke down, and the tears gushed from her eyes.
Lady Landale had listened in silence.
"Well—is that all?" she said impatiently, when her sister ceased speaking, while in the background Tanty groaned out a protest, and bewailed that she was alive to see the day. "What does it matter what you do afterwards—you can go to the convent—go where you will then; but what has that to say to your visit to him now?"
"I have done with all human love," said Madeleine solemnly, crossing her hands on her breast, and looking upward with inspired eyes. "I did love this man once," she answered, hardening herself to speak firmly, though again her lips quivered—"he himself killed that love by his own doing. I trusted him; he betrayed that trust; he would have betrayed me, but that I have forgiven, it is past and done with. But to go and see him now, to stir up in my heart, not the old love, it could not be, but agitation, sorrow—to disturb this quietness of soul, this calm which God has given me at last after so much prayer and struggle—no, no—it would not be right, it cannot be! Moreover, if I would, I could not, indeed I could not. The very thought of it all, the disgrace, that place of sin and shame, of him in chains, condemned—a criminal—a murderer!..."
A nervous shudder shook her from head to foot, she seemed in truth to sicken and grow faint, like one forced to face some hideous nauseating spectacle. "As for him," she went on in low, feeble tones, "it will be the best too. God knows I forgive him, that I am sorry for him, that I regret his terrible fate. But I feel it would be worse for him to see me—if he must die, it would be wrong to distract him from his last preparations. And it would only be a useless pain to him, for I could not pretend—he would see that I despise him. I thought I loved a noble gentleman, not one who was even then playing with crime and cheating."
The faint passionless voice had hardly ceased before, with a loud cry, Molly sprang at her sister as if she would have strangled her.
"Oh, unnatural wretch," she exclaimed, "you are not fit to live!"
Tanty rushed forward and dragged the infuriated woman away.
Madeleine rose up stiffly—swayed a moment as she stood—and then fell unconscious to the ground.
* * * * *
Next day in the dawn Lady Landale came into her sister's bedroom. Her circled eyes, her drawn face bespeaking a sleepless night.
Madeleine was lying, beautiful and white, like a broken lily, in the dim light of the lamp; Sophia, an unlovely spectacle in curl papers, wizened and red-eyed from her night's watch, looked up warningly from the arm-chair beside her. But Molly went unhesitatingly to the window, pulled the curtains, unbarred the shutters, and then walked over to the bed.
As she approached, Madeleine opened her blue eyes and gazed at her beseechingly.
"There is yet time," said Molly in a hollow voice. "Get up and come with me."
The wan face upon the pillow grew whiter still, the old horror grew in the uplifted eyes, the wan lips murmured, "I cannot."
There was an immense strength of resistance in the girl's very feebleness.
Molly turned away abruptly, then back again once more.
"At least you will send him a message?"
Madeleine drew a deep breath, closed her eyes a moment and seemed to whisper a prayer; then aloud she said, while, like a shadow so faint was it, a flush rose to her cheeks:
"Tell him that I forgive him, that I forgive him freely—that I shall always pray for him." The flush grew deeper. "Tell him too that I shall never be any man's bride, now."
She closed her eyes again and the colour slowly ebbed away. Molly stood, her black brows drawn, gazing down upon her in silence.—Did she love him after all? Who can fathom the mystery of another's heart?
"I will tell him," she answered at last. "Good-bye, Madeleine—I shall never see you or speak to you again as long as I live."
She left the room with a slow, heavy step.
Madeleine shivered, and with both hands clasped the silver crucifix that hung around her neck; two great tears escaped from her black lashes and rolled down her cheeks. Miss Sophia moaned. She, poor soul, had had tragedy enough, at last.
* * * * *
When the jailer brought in the mid-day meal after Adrian's departure, he found the prisoner seated very quietly at his table, his open Bible before him, but his eyes fixed dreamily upon the space of dim whitewashed wall, and his mind evidently far away.
Upon his guardian's entrance he roused himself, however, and begged him, when he should return for the dish, to restore neatness to the bed and to assist him in the ordering of his toilet which he wished to be spick and span.
"For I expect a visitor," said Captain Jack gravely.
When in due course the fellow had carried out these wishes with the surly good-nature characteristic of him, Jack set himself to wait.
The square of sky through his window grew from dazzling white to deepest blue, the shadows travelled along the blank walls, the street noises rose and fell in capricious gusts, the church bells jangled, all the myriad sounds which had come to measure his solitary day struck their familiar course upon his ear; yet the expected visitor delayed. But the captain, among other things, had learnt to possess his soul in patience of late; and so, as he slowly paced his cell after his wont, he betrayed neither irritation nor melancholy. If she did not come to-day, then it would be to-morrow. He had no doubt of this.
The afternoon had waned—golden without, full of grey shadows in the prison room—when light footfalls mingled with the well-known heavy tread and jangle of keys, along the echoing passage.
There was the murmur of a woman's voice, a word of gruff reply, and the next moment a tall form wrapped in a many-folded black cloak and closely veiled, advanced a few steps into the room, while, as before, the turnkey retired and locked the door behind him.
His heart beating so thickly that for the moment utterance was impossible, Captain Jack made one hurried pace forward with outstretched hands, only to check himself, however, and let them fall by his side. He would meet her calmly, humbly, as he had resolved.
The woman threw back her veil, and it was Molly's dark gaze, Molly's brown face, flushed and haggard, yet always beautiful, that looked out of the black frame.
An ashen pallor spread over the prisoner's countenance.
"Madeleine?" he asked in a whisper; then, with a loud ring of stern demand, "Madeleine!"
"I went for her, I went for her myself—I did all I could—she would not come."
She would not come!
It is a sort of unwritten law that the supremely afflicted have the right, where possible, to the gratification of the least of their wishes. That Madeleine could refuse to come to him in his last extremity, had never once crossed her lover's brain. He stood bewildered.
"She is not ill?"
"Ill!" Lady Landale's red lips curved in scorn, "No—not ill—but a coward!" She spat the word fiercely as if at the offender's face.
There fell a minute's silence, broken only by a few labouring deep-drawn breaths from the prisoner's oppressed lungs. Then he stood as if turned to stone, not a muscle moving, his eyes fixed, his jaw set.
Molly trembled before this composure, beneath which she divined a suffering so intense that her own frail barriers of self-restraint were well-nigh broken down by a torrent of passionate pity.
But she braced herself with the feeling of the moment's urgency. She had no time to lose.
"Hear me," she cried in low hurried tones, laying a hand upon his folded arm and then drawing it away again as if frightened by the rigid tension she felt there. "Waste no more thought on one so unworthy—all is not lost—I bring you hope, life. Oh, for God's sake, wake up and listen to me—I can save you still. Captain Smith, Jack—Jack!"
Her voice rose as high as she dare lift it, but no statue could be more unhearing.
The woman cast a desperate look around her; hearkened fearfully, all was silent within the prison; then with tremulous haste she cast off her immense cloak, pulled her bonnet from her head, divested herself of her long full skirt and stood, a strange vision, lithe, unconscious, unashamed, her slender woman's figure clad in complete man's raiment, with the exception of the coat. Her dark head cropped and curly, her face, with its fever-bloom, rising flower-like above the folds of her white shirt.
With anxious haste she compared herself with the prisoner.
"Rene told me well," she said; "with your coat upon me none would tell the difference in this dark room. I am nearly as tall as you too. Thanks be to God that he made me so. Jack," calling in his ear, "don't you see? Don't you understand? It is all quite easy. You have only to put on these clothes of mine, this cloak, the bonnet comes quite over the face; stoop a little as you go out and hold this handkerchief to your face as if in tears. The carriage waits outside and Rene. The rest is planned. I shall sit on the bed with your coat on. It is a chance—a certainty. When I found Rene had failed, I swore that I would save you yet. Ever since I came from Pulwick this morning he and I have worked together upon this last plan. There is not a flaw; it must succeed. Oh, God, he does not hear me! Jack—Jack!"
She shook him with a sort of fury, then, falling at his feet, clasped his knees.
"For God's sake—for God's sake!"
He sighed, and again came the murmur:
"She would not come——" He lifted his hand to his forehead and looked round, then down at her, as if from a great height.
She saw that he was aroused at last, sprang to her feet, and poured out the details of the scheme again.
"I run no risk, you see. They would not dare to punish me, a woman—Lady Landale—even if they could. Be quick, the precious moments are going by. I gave the man some gold to leave us as long as he could, but any moment he may be upon us."
"Poor woman," said Jack, and his voice seemed as far off as his gaze; "see these chains."
She staggered back an instant, but the next, crying:
"The file—the file—that was why Rene gave it to me." She seized the skirt as it lay at her feet, and, striving with agonised endeavours to control the trembling of her hands, drew forth from its pocket a file and would have taken his wrist. But he held his hands above his head, out of her reach, while a strange smile, almost of triumph, parted his lips.
"The bitterness of death is past," he said.
She tore at him in a frenzy, but, repulsed by his immobility, fell again broken at his feet.
In a torrent of words she besought him, for Adrian's sake, for the sake of the beautiful world, of his youth, of the sweetness of life—in her madness, at last, for her own sake! She had ruined him, but she would atone, she would make him happy yet. If he died it was death to her....
When at length her voice sank away from sheer exhaustion, he helped her to rise, and seated her on the chair; then told her quietly that he was quite determined.
"Go home," said he, "and leave me in peace. I thank you for what you would have done, thank you for trying to bring Madeleine," he paused a moment. How purely he had loved her—and twice, twice she had failed him. "Yet, I do not blame her," he went on as if to himself; "I did not deserve to see her, and it has made all the rest easy. Remember," again addressing the woman whom hopelessness seemed for a moment to have benumbed, "that if you would yet do me a kindness, be kind to her. If you would atone—atone to Adrian."
"To Adrian?" echoed Molly, stung to the quick, with a pale smile of exceeding bitterness. And with a rush of pride, strength returned to her.
"I leave you resolved to die then?" she asked him, fiercely.
"You leave me glad to die," he replied, unhesitatingly.
She spoke no more, but got up to replace her garments. He assisted her in silence, but as his awkward bound hands touched her she shuddered away from him.
As she gathered the cloak round her shoulders again, there was a noise of heavy feet at the door.
The jailer thrust in his rusty head and looked furtively from the prisoner to his visitor as they stood silently apart from each other; then, making a sign to some one whose dark figure was shadowed behind him without, entered with a hesitating sidelong step, and, drawing Captain Jack on one side, whispered in his ear.
"The blacksmith's yonder. He's come to measure you, captain, for them there irons you know of—best get the lady quietly away, for he wunnut wait no longer."
The prisoner smiled sternly.
"I am ready," he said, aloud.
"I'll keep him outside a minute or two," added the man, wiping his brow, evidently much relieved by his charge's calmness. "I kep' him back as long as I could—but happen it's allus best to hurry the parting after all."
He moved away upon tiptoe, in instinctive tribute to the lady's sorrow, and drew the door to.
Molly threw back her veil which she had lowered upon his entrance, her face was livid.
"What is it?" she asked, articulating with difficulty.
"Nothing—a fellow to see to my irons."
He moved his hands as he spoke, and she understood him, as he had hoped, to refer only to his manacles.
She drew a gasping breath. How they watched him! Yet all was not lost after all.
"I will leave the file," she said, in a quick whisper; "you will reflect; there is yet to-morrow," and rushed to hide it in his bed. But he caught her by the arm, his patience worn out at length.
"Useless," he answered, harshly. "I shall not use it. Moreover, it would be found, and I am sure it is not your wish to bring unnecessary hardship upon my last moments. I should lose the only thing that is left to me, the comfort of being alone. And to-morrow I shall see no one."
The door groaned apart:
"Very sorry, mum," came the husky voice in the opening, "Time's up."
She turned a look of agony upon Captain Jack's determined figure. Was this to be the end? Was she to leave him so, without even one kind word?
Alas, poor soul! All her hopes had fallen to this—a parting word.
He was unpitying; his arms were folded; he made no sign.
She took a step away and swayed; the turnkey came forward compassionately to lead her out. But the next instant she wheeled round and stood alone and erect, braced up by the extremity of her anguish.
"I have a message," she cried, as if the words were forced from her. "I could not make her come, but I made her send you a message. She told me to say that she forgave you, freely; that she would always pray for you. She bade me tell you too that she would never be any man's bride now."
It had been like the rending of body and soul to tell him this. As she saw the condemned man's face quiver and flush at last out of its impassiveness, she thought hell itself could hold no more hideous torment.
He extended his arms:
"Now welcome death!" he exclaimed.
And she turned and fled down the passage as though driven upon this last cry.
* * * * *
"E-h, he be a strange one!" said the jailer afterwards to his mate. "If ye'd heard that poor lady sob as she went by! I've seen many a one in the same case, but I was sore for her, I was that. And he—as cool—joking with Robert over the hanging irons the next minute. 'New sort of tailor I've got,' says he. 'Make them smart,' he says, 'since I'm to wear them in so exalted a position.' So exalted a position, that's what he says. 'And they've got to last me some long time, you know,' says he."
"He'll be something worth looking at on Saturday. I could almost wish he could ha' got off, only that it's a fine sight to see a real gentleman go through it. Ah, it's they desperate villains has the proper pluck!"
LAUNCHED ON THE GREAT WAVE
Sir Adrian made, at first personally, then through Miss O'Donoghue, two attempts to induce his wife to return to Pulwick, or at any rate to leave Lancaster on the next day. But the contempt, then the fury, which she opposed to their reasoning rendered it worse than useless.
The very sight of her husband, indeed, seemed to exasperate the unfortunate woman to such a degree that, in spite of his anxiety concerning her, he resolved to spare her even to the consciousness of his presence, and absented himself altogether from the house.
Miss O'Donoghue, unable to cope with a state of affairs at once so distressing and so unbecoming, finally retired to her own apartment with a book of piety and some gruel, and abandoned all further endeavour to guide her unruly relations. So that Molly found herself left to her own resources, in the guardianship of Rene, the only company her misery could tolerate.
Three times she went to the castle, to be met each time with the announcement that, by the express wish of the prisoner, no visitors were to be admitted to him again. Then in restless wandering about the streets—once entering the little chapel where the silent tabernacle seemed, with its closed door, to offer no relenting to the stormy cry of her soul, and sent her forth uncomforted in the very midst of Rene's humble bead-telling, to pace the flags anew—so the terrible day wore to a close for her; and so that night came, precursor of the most terrible day of all.
The exhaustion of Lady Landale's body produced at last a fortunate torpor of mind. Flung upon her bed she fell into a heavy sleep, and Tanty who announced her intention of watching her, when Rene's guardianship had of necessity to cease, had the satisfaction of informing Adrian, as he crept into the house, like one who had no business there, of this consoling fact before retiring herself to the capacious arm-chair in which she heroically purposed to spend the night.
The sun was bright in the heavens, there was a clatter and bustle in the street, when Molly woke with a great start out of this sleep of exhaustion. Her heart beating with heavy strokes, she sat up in bed and gazed upon her surroundings with startled eyes. What was this strange feeling of oppression, of terror? Why was she in this sordid little room? Why was her hair cut short? Ah, my God! memory returned upon her all too swiftly. It was for to-day—to-day; and she was perhaps too late. She might never see him again!
The throbbing of her heart was suffocating, sickening, as she slipped out of bed. For a moment she hardly dared consult the little watch that lay ticking upon her dressing table. It was only a few minutes past seven; there was yet time.
The energy of her desire conquered the weakness of her overwrought nerves.
Noiselessly, so as to avoid awakening the slumbering watcher in the arm-chair, but steadily, she clothed herself, wrapt the dark mantle round her; and then, pausing for a moment to gaze with a fierce disdain at the unconscious face of Miss O'Donoghue, which, with snores emerging energetically and regularly from the great hooked nose, presented a weird and witchlike vision in the frame of a nightcap, fearfully and wonderfully befrilled, crept from the room and down the stairs.
At Rene's door she paused and knocked.
He opened on the instant. From his worn face she guessed that he had been up all night. He put his finger to his lips as he saw her, and glanced meaningly towards the bed.
The words she would have spoken expired in a quick-drawn breath. Her husband, with face of deathlike pallor and silvered hair abroad upon the pillow, lay upon the poor couch, still in his yesterday attire, but covered carefully with a cloak. His breast rose and fell peacefully with his regular breath.
The scorn with which she had looked at Miss O'Donoghue now shot forth a thousand times intensified from Molly's circled eyes upon the prostrate figure.
"Asleep!" she cried.
And then with that incongruity with which things trivial and irrelevant come upon us, even in the supremest moments of life, the thought struck her sharply how old a man he was. Her lip curved.
"Yes, My Lady—asleep," answered Rene steadily—it seemed as if the faithful peasant had read her to her soul. "Thank God, asleep. It is enough to have to lose one good gentleman from the world this day. If his honour were not sleeping at last, I should not answer for him—I who speak to you. I took upon myself to put some of the medicine, that he has had to take now and again, when his sorrows come upon him and he cannot rest, into his soup last night. It has had a good effect. His honour will sleep three or four hours still, and that, My Lady, must be. His honour has suffered enough these last days, God knows!"
The wife turned away with an impatient gesture.
"Look, Madame, at his white hairs. All white now—they that were of a brown so beautiful, all but a few locks, only a few months past! Well may he look old. When was ever any one made to suffer as he has been, in only forty years of life? Ah, My Lady, we were at least tranquil upon our island!"
There was a volume of reproach in the quiet simplicity of the words, though Lady Landale was too bent on her own purpose to heed them. But she felt that they lodged in her mind, that she would find them there later; but not now—not now.
"It is to be for nine o'clock, you know," she said, with desperate calmness. "I must see him again. I must see him well. Alone I shall not be able to get a good place in the crowd. Oh, I would see all!" she added, with a terrible laugh.
Rene cast a glance at his master's placid face.
"I am ready to come with My Lady," he said then, and took his hat.
A turbulent, tender April day it was. Gusts of west wind, balmy and sweet with all the sweet budding life of the fields beyond, came eddying up the dusty streets and blowing merrily into the faces of the holiday crowd that already pressed in a steady stream towards the castle courtyard to see the hanging. In those days there were hangings so many after assizes that an execution could hardly be said to possess the interest of novelty. But there were circumstances enough attending the forthcoming show to give it quite a piquancy of its own in the eyes of the worthy Lancastrian burghers, who hurried with wives and children to the place of doom, anxious to secure sitting or standing room with a good view of the gallows-tree.
It was not every day, indeed, that a gentleman was hanged. So handsome a man, too, as the rumours went, and so dare-devil a fellow; friend of the noble family of Landale, and a murderer of its most respected member. Could justice ever have served up a spicier dish whereon to regale the multitude?
First the courtyard, then, the walls, the roofs of the adjoining houses, swarmed with an eager crowd. Every space of ground and slate and tile, every ledge and window, was occupied. As thick as bees they hung—men, women, and children; a sea of white faces pressed together, each still, yet all as instinct with tremulous movement as a field of corn in the wind; while the hoarse, indescribable murmur that seizes one with so strange and fearsome an impression, the voice of the multitude, rose and fell with a mighty pulsation, broken here and there by the shriller cry of a child.
Overhead the sky, a delicious spring blue sky, flecked with tiny white clouds, looked down like a great smile upon the crowd that laughed and joked beneath.
No pity in heaven or on earth.
But as the felon came out into the air, which, warm and fickle, puffed against his cheek, he cast one steady glance around upon the black human hive and then looked up into the white flecked ether, without the quiver of a nerve.
He drew the spring breath into his lungs with a grateful expansion of his deep chest. How fresh it was! And the sky, how fair and blue!
As the eagerly expected group emerged from the prison door and was greeted by a roar that curdled the blood in at least one woman's heart there, an old Irish hag, who sat in a coign of vantage, hugging her knees and crooning, a little black pipe held in her toothless jaws, ceased her dismal hum to concentrate all her attention upon the condemned man.
The creature was well known for miles around as a constant attendant at such spectacles, and had become in the course of time a privileged spectator. No one would have dreamt of disputing the first place to old Judy. Since the day when, still a young woman, she had seen her two sons, mere lads, hanged, the one for sheep-stealing, the other for harbouring the booty, she had, by a strange freak of nature, taken a taste for the spectacle of justice at work, and what had been the cause of her greatest sorrow became the only solace of her life. Judy and her pipe had become as familiar a figure at the periodical entertainment as the executioner himself—more so, indeed, for she had seen many generations of these latter, and could compare their styles with the judgment of a connoisseur.
But as Captain Jack advanced, the pallor of his clean shorn, handsome face illumined not so much by the morning sun without it seemed as by the shining of the bright spirit within; as gallantly clad as he had ever been, even in the old Bath days when he had been courting fair Madeleine de Savenaye; his head proudly uplifted, his tread firm, strong of soul, strong of body—some chord was struck in the perverted old heart that had so long revelled in unholy and gruesome pleasure. She drew the pipe from her lips, and broke out into screeching lamentations.
"Oh, me boy, me boy, me beautiful boy! Is it hang him they will, and he so beautiful and brave? The murthering villains, my curse on them—a mother's curse—God's curse on them—the black murtherers!"
She scrambled to her feet, and shook her fist wildly in the face of one of the sheriff's men.
A woman in the crowd, standing rigid and motionless, enveloped in mourning robes, here suddenly caught up the words with a muttering lip.
"Murderers, who said murderers? Don't they know who murdered him? Murdering Moll, Murdering Moll!"
"For heaven's love, Madam," cried a man beside her, who seemed in such anxiety concerning her as to pay little heed to the solemn procession which was now attracting universal attention, "let me take you away!"
But she looked at him with a distraught, unseeing eye, and pulled at the collar of her dress as if she were choking.
Old Judy's sudden expression of opinion created a small disturbance. The procession had to halt; a couple of officials good-naturedly elbowed her on one side.
But she thrust a withered hand expanded in protest over their shoulders, as the prisoner came forward again.
"God bless ye, honey, God bless ye: it's a wicked world."
He turned towards her; for the last time the old sweet smile sprang to lip and eye.
"Thank you, mother," he said, and raised his hand to his bare head with courteous gesture.
The crowd howled and swayed. He passed on.
And now the end! There is the cart; the officers draw back to make way for the man who is to help him with his final toilet. The chaplain, too, falls away after wringing his hand again and again. Good man, he weeps and cannot speak the sacred words he would. Why weep? We must all die! How blue the sky is: he will look once more before drawing down the cap upon his eyes. His hands are free, for he is to die as like a gentleman as may be. Just the old blue that used to smile down at him upon his merry Peregrine, and up at him from the dancing waves. He had always thought he would have liked to die upon the sea, in the cool fresh water ... a clean, brave death.
It is hard to die in a crowd. Even the very beasts would creep into cave or bush to die decently—unwatched.
A last puff of sweeping wind in his face; then darkness, blind, suffocating....
Ah, God is good! Here is the old ship giving and rising under his feet like the living creature he always thought her, and here is dazzling brilliant sunshine all around, so bright he scarce can see the free white-crested waves that are dashing down upon him; but he is upon the sea indeed, upon the sea alone, and the waves are coming. Hark how they roar, see how they gather! The brave Peregrine she dips and springs, she will weather the breakers with him at the helm no matter how they rear. On, on they come, mountain high, overwhelming, bitter drenching.
A great wave in very truth, it gathers and breaks and onward rolls, and carries the soul of Hubert Cochrane with it.
The woman in the black cloak falls as if she had been struck, and as those around her draw apart to let her companion and another man lift her and carry her away, they note with horror that her face is dark and swollen, as if the cord that had just done its evil work yonder had been tightened also round her slender throat.
THE GIBBET ON THE SANDS
Woman! take up thy life once more Where thou hast left it; Nothing is changed for thee, thou art the same, Thou who didst think that all things Would be wholly changed for thee.
Pulwick again. The whirlwind of disaster that upon that fatal fifteenth of March had burst upon the house of Landale has passed and swept away. But it has left deep trace of its passage.
The restless head, the busy hand, the scheming brain of Rupert Landale lie now mouldering under the sod of the little churchyard where first they started the mischief that was to have such far reaching effects. Low, too, lies the proud head of the mistress of Pulwick, so stricken, indeed, so fever-tortured, that those who love her best scarce dare hope more for her than rest at last under the same earth that presses thus lightly above her enemy's eternal sleep.
There is a great stillness in the house. People go to and fro with muffled steps, the master with bent white head; Miss O'Donoghue, indefatigable sick nurse; Madeleine, who may not venture as far as the threshold of her sister's room, and awaits in prayer and tears the hour of that final bereavement which will free her to take wing towards the cloister for which her soul longs; Sophia, crushed finally by the sorrows she has played at all her days. Seemingly there is peace once more upon them all, but it is the peace of exhaustion rather than that of repose. And yet—could they but know it, as the sands run down in the hour-glass of time there are golden grains gathering still to drop into the lives of each.
But meanwhile none may read the future, and Molly fights for her life in the darkened room, the gloom of which, to the souls of the dwellers at Pulwick, seems to spread even to the sunny skies without.
* * * * *
When Lady Landale was brought back to her home from Lancaster, it was held by every one who saw her that Death had laid his cold finger on her forehead, and that her surrender to his call could only be a matter of hours.
The physician in attendance could point out no reasonable ground for hope. Such a case had never come within his experience or knowledge, and he was with difficulty induced to believe that it was not the result of actual violence.
"In every particular," said he, "the patient's symptoms are those of coma resulting from prolonged strangulation or asphyxia. These spectacles are very dangerous to highly sensitive organisations. Lady Landale no doubt felt for the miserable wretch in the benevolence of her heart. Imagination aiding her, she realised suddenly the horror of his death throes, and this vivid realisation was followed by the actual simulacrum of the torture. We have seen hysterical subjects simulate in the same manner diverse diseases of which they themselves are organically free, such as epilepsy, or the like. But Lady Landale's condition is otherwise serious. She is alive; more I cannot say."
According to his lights, he had bled the patient, as he would have bled, by rote, to recall to life one actually cut down from the beam. But, although the young blood did flow, bearing testimony to the fact that the heart still beat in that deathlike frame, the vitality left seemed so faint as to defy the power of human ministration.
The flame of life barely flickered; but the powers of youth were of greater strength in the unconscious body than could have been suspected, and gradually, almost imperceptibly, they asserted themselves.
With the return of animation, however, came a new danger: fever, burning, devastating, more terrible even than the almost mortal syncope; that fever of the brain which wastes like the rack, before which science stands helpless, and the watcher sinks into despair at his impotence to screen a beloved sufferer from the horrible, ever-recurring phantoms of delirium.
Had not Sir Adrian intuitively known well-nigh every act of the drama which had already been so fatal to his house, Molly's frenzied utterances would have told him all. Every secret incident of that storm of passion which had desolated her life was laid bare to his sorrowing heart:—her aspirations for an ideal, centred suddenly upon one man; her love rapture cruelly baulked at every step; the consuming of that love fire, resisting all frustration of hope, all efforts of conscience, of honour; how her whole being became merged into that of the man she loved and whom she had ruined, her life in his life, her very breath in his breath. And then the lamentable, inevitable end: the fearful confrontation with his death. Again and again, in never ceasing repetition, was that fair, most dear body, that harrowed soul, dragged step by step through every iota of the past torture, always to fall at last into the same stillness of exhaustion—appalling image of final death that wrung Adrian with untold agonies of despair.
For many days this condition of things lasted unaltered. In the physician's own words it was impossible that life could much longer resist such fierce onslaughts. But one evening a change came over the spirit of the sufferer's vision.
There had been a somewhat longer interval between the paroxysms; Sir Adrian seated as usual by the bed, waiting now with a sinking heart for the wonted return of the frenzy, clamouring in his soul to heaven for pity on one whom seemingly no human aid could succour, dared yet draw no shadow of hope from the more prolonged stillness of the patient. Presently indeed, she grew restless, tossed her arms, muttered with parched lips. Then she suddenly sat up and listened as if to some deeply annoying and disquieting sound, fell back again under his gentle hands, rolling her little black head wearily from side to side, only however to start again, and again listen. Thus it went on for a while until the haunted, weary eyes grew suddenly distraught with terror and loathing. Straining them into space as if seeking something she ought to see but could not, she began to speak in a quick yet distinct whisper:
"How it creaks, creaks—creaks! Will no one stop that creaking! What is it that creaks so? Will no one stop that creaking!" And again she placed her cheek on the pillow, covering her ear with her little, wasted hand, and for a while remained motionless, moaning like a child. But it was only to spring up again, this time with a cry which brought the physician from the adjacent sleeping room in alarm to her bedside.
"Ah, God," she shrieked, her eyes distended and staring as if into the far distance through walls and outlying darkness. "I see it! They have done it, they have done it! It is hanging on the sands—how it creaks and sways in the wind! It will creak for ever, for ever.... Now it spins round, it looks this way—the black face! It looks at me!" She gave another piercing cry, then her frame grew rigid. With mouth open and fixed eyeballs she seemed lost in the frightful fascination of the image before her brain.
As, distracted by the sight of her torments, Adrian hung over her, racking his mind in the endeavour to soothe her, her words struck a chill into his very soul. He cast a terrified glance at the doctor who was ominously feeling her pulse.
"There is a change," he faltered.
The doctor shrugged his shoulders.
"I have told you before," he retorted irritably, "that you should attach no more importance to the substance of these delirious wanderings than you would to the ravings of madness. It is the fact of the delirium itself which must alarm us. She is less and less able to bear it."
The patient moaned and shuddered, resisting the gentle force that would have pressed her down on her pillow.
"Oh the creaking, the creaking! Will no one stop that creaking! Must I hear it go on creak, creak, creak for ever, and see it sway and sway.... Will no one ever stop it!"
Sir Adrian took a sudden resolution. "I will," he said, low and clear into her ear. She sank down on the instant and looked at him, back from her far distance, almost as if she understood him and the pitiful cry for the help he would have given his heart's blood to procure for her, was silent for the moment upon her lips.
"I will prepare an opiate," said the physician in a whisper.
"And I," said Sir Adrian to him, with a strange expression upon his pale face, "am going to stop that creaking."
The man of medicine gazed after him with a look of intense astonishment which rapidly changed to one of professional interest.
"It is evident that I shall soon have another mentally deranged patient to see to," he remarked to himself as he rose to seek the drugs he meant to administer.
Downstairs, Sir Adrian immediately called for Rene, and being informed that he had left for the island early in the afternoon and had announced his return before night, cast a cloak over his shoulders and hurried forth in the hope of meeting him upon his homeward way. His pulses were beating well-nigh as wildly as those of the fever stricken woman upstairs in the house. He dared not pause to reflect on his purpose, or seek to disentangle the confusion of his thoughts, for fear of being confronted with the hopelessness of their folly. But the exquisite serenity of the night sky, where swam the moon, "a silver splendour;" the freshness of the sweeping breeze that dashed, keen from the east, over the sea against his face; all the glorious distance, the unconsciousness and detachment of nature from the fume and misery of life, brought him unwittingly to a calmer mood.
He had reached the extreme confine of the pine wood, when, across the sands that stretched unbroken to the lips of the sea, a figure advanced towards him.
"Renny!" called Sir Adrian.
"Your honour!" cried the man, breaking into a run to meet him. O God! how ghostly white looked the master's face in the moon-flood!
"Not worse; yet not better—and that means worse now. But there is a change. Renny," sinking his voice and clasping the man's sturdy arm with clammy hand, "is it true they have placed him on the sands to-day?"
The man stared.
"How did your honour know? Yes—they have done so. It is true: the swine! not more than an hour, in verity. How could it have come so soon to your honour's ears? This morning, indeed, they came from the town in a cart, and planted the great gibbet on Scarthey Point, at low water. And to-night they brought the body, all bound in irons, and from a boat, for it was high tide, they riveted it on the chain. And it is to remain for ever, your honour—so they say."
"Strange," murmured Sir Adrian to himself, gazing seaward with awestruck eyes. "And did you," he asked, "hear its creaking, Renny, as it swayed in the wind?"
Again Rene cast a quick glance of alarm at his master. The master had a singular manner with him to-night! Then edging closer to him he whispered in his ear:
"They say it is to hang for ever. There is a warning to those who would interfere with this justice of theirs. But, your honour, there came one to the island to-day, I do not know if your honour knows him, the captain's second on that vessel of misfortune. And I believe, your honour, the dawn will never see that poor, black body hanging over yonder like a scarecrow, to spoil our view. This man, this brave mariner, Curwen is his name, he is mad furious with us all! He has just but come from hearing of his captain's fate, and he is ready to kill us, that we let him be murdered without breaking some heads for him. Faith, if it could have done any good, it is not I that would have balanced about it! But, as I told him, there was no use running one's own head into a loop of rope when that would please nobody but Mr. the Judge. But he is not to be reasoned with. He is like a wild animal. When I left him," said Rene, dropping his voice still lower, "he was knocking a coffin together out of the old sea wood on Scarthey. He said his captain would rest better in those boards that were seasoned with salt water. And when I went away, your honour, and left him hammering there—faith, I thought that the coffin was like to be seasoned by another kind of salt water too."
His face twitched and the ready tears sprang to his own eyes which, unashamed, he now wiped with his sleeve after his custom. But Sir Adrian's mind was still drifting in distant ghastly companionship.
"How the wind blows!" he said, and shuddered a little. "How the poor body must sway in the wind, and the chains creak."
"If it can make any difference to the poor captain he will lie in peace to-night, please God," said Rene.
"Ay," said Sir Adrian, "and you and I, friend, will go too, and help this good fellow in his task. I hope, I believe, that I should have done this thing of my own thought, had I had time to think at all. But now, more hangs upon those creaking chains than you can dream of. This is a strange world—and it is full of ghosts to-night. But we must hurry, Renny."
* * * * *
Bound even to the tips of her burning little fingers by the spell of the opiate, Lady Landale lay in the shadowed room as one dead, yet in her sick brain fearfully awake, keenly alive.
At first it was as if she too was manacled in chains till she could not move a muscle, could not breathe or cry because of the ring round her breast; and she was hanging with the black figure, swaying, while the rusty iron links went creak, creak, creak, with every swing to and fro. Then suddenly she seemed to stand, as it were, out of herself and to be seeing with the naked soul alone. And what she saw was the great stretch of beach and sea, white, white, white, in the moonlight and spreading, it seemed, for leagues and leagues, spreading till all the world was only beach and sea.
But close to her in the whitest moonlight rose the great gibbet, gaunt and black, cutting the pale sky in two and athwart; and hanging from it was the black figure that swayed and swung. And though the winds muttered and the waves growled, she could not hear them with the ears of the soul, for that the whole of this great world of sea and sand was filled with the creaking of the chains.
But now, across the bleak and pallid spaces came three black figures. And, as she looked and watched and they drew nearer, the dreadful burthen of the gibbet swung round as if to greet them, and she too, felt in her soul that she knew them all three, though not by names, as creatures of earth know each other, but by the kinship of the soul. This man with hair as white as the white beach, hair that seemed to shine silver as he came; and him yonder who followed him as a dog his master; and yonder again the third, in the seaman's dress, with hard face hewn into such rugged lines of grief and fury—she knew them all. And next they reached the gibbet: and one swarmed up the black post, and hammered and filed and prised, and then, oh merciful God! the creaking stopped at last!
Now she could hear the wash of the waves, the rush of the wholesome wind!
A mist came across her vision; faintly she saw the stiffened disfigured corpse which yet she felt had once been something she had loved with passion, laid reverently upon a stretcher, its irons loosened and cast away, and then covered with a great cloak. Then the sea, the beach, the white moon faded and waved and receded. Molly's soul went back to her body again, while blessed tears fell one by one from her hot eyes. She breathed; her limbs relaxed; round the tired brain came, with a soft hush like that of gentle wings, dark oblivion.
Bending over her, for he was aware that for good or evil the crisis was at hand, the physician saw moisture bead upon the suddenly smoothed brow, heard a deep sigh escape the parted lips. And then with a movement like a weary child's she drew her arms close and fell asleep.
* * * * *
Having laid his friend to his secret rest, deep in the rock of Scarthey, where the free waves that his soul had revelled in would beat till the world's end, Sir Adrian returned to Pulwick in the early morning, spent with the long and heavy night's toil—for it had taxed the strength of even three men to hollow out a grave in such a soil. On the threshold he was greeted by the physician.
"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messengers of glad tidings!" From afar, by the man's demeanour, he knew that the tidings were glad. And most blessed they were indeed to his ears, but to them alone not strange. Throughout every detail of his errand his mind had dwelt rather with the living than the dead. What he had done, he had done for her; and now, the task achieved, it seemed but natural that the object for which it had been undertaken should have been achieved likewise.
But, left once more with her, seeing her once more wrapt in placid sleep, whom he had thought he would never behold at rest again save in the last sleep of all, the revulsion was overpowering. He sat down by her side, and through his tears gazed long at the lovely head, now in its pallor and emaciation so sadly like that of his dead love in the sorrowful days of youth; and he thanked heaven that he was still of the earth to shield her with his devotion, to cherish her who was now so helpless and bereft.
And with such tears and such thoughts came a forgetfulness of that anguish which in him, as well as in her, had for so long been part of actual existence.
When Tanty entered on tiptoe some hours later, she saw her niece motionless upon her pillow, sleeping as easily and reposefully as a child. And close to her head, Sir Adrian, reclining in the arm-chair, asleep likewise. His arm was stretched limply over the bed and, on its sleeve still stained with the red mud of the grave in Scarthey, rested Lady Landale's little, thin, ivory-white fingers.
* * * * *
Thus ended Molly's brief but terrible madness.
"Then you have hope, real hope?" asked Sir Adrian, of the physician as they met again that day in the gallery.
"Every hope," replied the man of science with the proud consciousness of having, by his wisdom, pulled his patient out of the very jaws of death. "Recovery is now but a question of a time; of a long time, of course, for this crisis has left her weaker than the new-born babe. Repose, complete repose, sleep: that is almost everything. And she will sleep. Happily, as usual in such cases, Lady Landale seems to have lost all memory. But I must impress upon you, Sir Adrian, that the longer we can keep her in this state, the better. If you have reason to believe that even the sight of you might recall distressing impressions, you must let me request of you to keep away from the sick room till your wife's strength be sufficiently restored to be able to face emotions."
This was said with a certain significance which called the colour to Sir Adrian's cheek. He acquiesced, however, without hesitation; and, banished from the place where his treasure lay, fell to haunting the passages for the rest of the day and to waylaying the privileged attendants with a humble resignation which would have been sorrowful but for the savour of his recent relief from anguish.
But the next morning, Lady Landale, though too weak of body to lift a finger, too weak of mind to connect a single coherent phrase, nevertheless took the matter into her own hands, and proved that it is as easy to err upon the side of prudence as upon its reverse.
Miss O'Donoghue, emerging silently from the room after her night's vigil, came upon her nephew at his post, and, struck to her kind heart by his wistful countenance, bade him with many winks and nods enter and have a look at his wife.
"Don't make a sound," she whispered to him, "and then she won't hear you. But, faith she's sleeping so well, it's my belief if you danced a jig she would not stir a limb. Go in, child, go in. It's beautiful to see her!"
And Adrian, pressed by his own longing, was unable to resist the offer. Noiselessly he stepped across the forbidden threshold and stood for a long time contemplating the sleeper in the dim light. As he was about to creep out at length, she suddenly opened her eyes and fixed them wonderingly upon him. Fearful of having done the cruel deed against which he had been warned, he felt his heart contract and would have rushed away, in an agony of self-accusation, when there occurred what seemed to him a miracle.
A faint smile came upon the pale lips, and narrowed ever so little the large sunken eyes. Yes; by all that was beautiful, it was a smile—transient and piteous, but a smile. And for him!
As he bent forward, almost incapable of believing, the lips relaxed again and the lids drooped, but she shifted her hands upon the bed, uneasily, as if seeking something. He knelt, trembling, by her side, and as with diffident fingers he clasped the wandering hands he felt them faintly cling to his. And his heart melted all in joy. The man of science had reasoned astray; there need be no separation between the husband who would so dearly console, and the wife who needed help so sorely.
For a long while he remained thus kneeling and holding her hands. It seemed as though some of the life strength he longed to be able to pour from himself to her, actually passed into her frame: as though there were indeed a healing virtue in his all encompassing tenderness; for, after a while, a faint colour came to the sunken cheeks. And presently, still holding his hand, she fell once more into that slumber which was now her healing.
After this it was found that the patient actually became fretful and fevered again when her husband was too long absent from her side; and thus it came to pass that he began to supersede all other watchers in her room. Tanty in highest good humour, declared that her services were no longer necessary, and volunteered to conduct Madeleine to the Jersey convent, whither (her decision being irrevocable) it was generally felt that it would be well for the latter to proceed before her sister's memory with returning strength should have returned likewise.
This memory, without which the being he loved would remain afflicted and incomplete, yet upon the working of which so much that was still uncertain must hinge—Sir Adrian at once yearned for, and dreaded it.
Many a time as he met the sweet and joyful greeting in those eyes where he had grown accustomed to find nought but either mockery or disdain, did he recall his friend's prophetic words: "Out of my death will grow your happiness." Was there happiness indeed yet in store in the future? Alas, happiness for them dwelt in oblivion; and, some day, "remembrance would wake with all her busy train, and swell at her breast," and then——
Meanwhile, however, the present had a sweetness of its own. There was now free scope for the passion of devotedness which almost made up the sum of this man's character—a character which, to the Molly of wayward days, to the hot-pulsed, eager, impatient "Murthering Moll," had been utterly incomprehensible and uncongenial. And to the Molly crushed in the direst battle of life, whom one more harshness of fate, even the slightest, would have straightaway hurled back into the grave that had barely been baulked of its prey, it gave the very food and breath of her new existence.
Week after week passed in this guise, during which her natural healthiness slowly but surely re-established itself; weeks that were happy to him, in later life, to look back upon, though now full of an anxiousness which waxed stronger as recovery drew nearer.
There was little talking between them, and that kept by him studiously on subjects of purely ephemeral, childish interest. Her mind, by the happy dispensation of nature which facilitates healing by all means when once healing has begun, was blank to any impressions save the luxury of rest, of passive enjoyment, indifferent to ought but the passing present. She took pleasure in flowers, in the gambols of pet animals, in long listless spells of cloud-gazing when the heavens were bright, in the presence of her husband in whom she only saw a being whose eyes were always beautiful with the light of kindness, whose touch invariably soothed her when fatigue or irritation marred the even course of her feelings.
She had ever a smile for him, which entered his soul like the radiance of sunshine through a stormy sky.
Thus the days went by. Like a child she ate and slept and chattered—irresponsible chatter that was music to his ear. She laughed and teased him too, as a child would; till sad, as it was, he hugged the incomplete happiness to his heart with a dire foreboding that it might be all he was to know in life.
But one evening, in sudden freak, she bade him open the shutters, pull the curtains, and raise the window that she might, from her pillow, look forth upon the night, and smell the sweet night air.
She had been unusually well that day, and on her face now filling out once more into its old soft oval, bloomed again a look of warm life and youth. Unsuspecting, unthinking Sir Adrian obeyed. It was a dim, close night, and the blush-roses nodded palely into the room from the outer darkness as he raised the sash. There was no moon, no stars shone in the mist hung sky; there was no light to be seen anywhere except one faint glimmer in the distance—the light upon Scarthey Island.
"Is that a star?" said Molly, after a moment's dreamy silence.
Sir Adrian started. A vision of all that might hang upon his answer flashed through his brain. With a trembling hand he pulled the curtain. It was too late.
Molly sat up in bed, with a contracted brow and hands outstretched as one who would seize a tantalising escaping memory.
"I used to watch it then, at night, from this window," she whispered. "What was it? The light of Scarthey?" Then suddenly, with a scream; "The light of Scarthey!"
Adrian sprang to her side but she turned from him, shrank from him, with a look of dread which seared him to the soul.
"Do not come near me, do not touch me," she cried.
And then he left her.
* * * * *
Miss O'Donoghue was gone upon her journey with Madeleine. There was none in whom he might confide, with whom seek counsel. But presently, listening outside the door in an agony of suspense, he heard a storm of sobs. In time these gradually subsided; and later he learnt from Moggie, whom he had hurriedly ordered to her mistress's side, that his wife was quiet and seemed inclined to rest.
On the next day, she expressed no desire to see him and he dared not go to her unsought. He gathered a great dewy bunch of roses and had them brought to her upon her breakfast tray instead of bringing them himself as had been his wont.
She had taken the roses, Moggie told him, and laid them to her cheek. "The master sent them, said I," continued the sturdy little matron, who was far from possessing the instinctive tact of her spouse; "an' she get agate o'crying quiet like and let the flowers fall out of her hands on the bed—Eh, what ever's coom to her, sin yesterday? Wannut you go in, sir?"
"Not unless she sends for me," said Sir Adrian hastily. "And remember, Moggie, do not speak my name to her. She must not be worried or distressed. But if she sends for me, come at once. You will find me in the library."
And in the library he sat the long, long day, waiting for the summons that did not come. She never sent for him.
She had wept a good deal during the day, the faithful reporter told him in the evening, but always "quiet like;" had spoken little, and though of unwonted gentleness of manner had persistently declined to be carried to the garden as usual, or even to leave her room. Now she had gone back to bed, and was sleeping peacefully.
An hour later Sir Adrian left his home for Scarthey once again. It is to be doubted whether, through all the vicissitudes of his existence he ever carried into the sheltering ruins a heart more full of cruel pain.
When Tanty returned to Pulwick from her travels again, it was to find in Miss Landale the only member of the family waiting to greet her. The old lady's displeasure on learning the reason of this defection, was at first too intense to find relief in words. But presently the strings of her tongue were loosened under the influence of the usual feminine restorative; and, failing a better listener, she began to dilate upon the situation with her wonted garrulity.
"Yes, my good Sophia, I will thank you for another cup of tea. What should we do without tea in this weary world? I declare it's the only pleasure left to me now—for, of all the ungrateful things in life, working for your posterity is the most ungrateful. Posterity is born to trample on one.... And now, sit down and tell me exactly how matters stand. My niece is greatly better, I hear. The doctor considers her quite convalescent? At least this is very satisfactory. Very satisfactory indeed! Just now she is resting. Quite so. I should not dream of disturbing her; more especially as the sight of me would probably revive painful memories, and we must not risk her having a bad night—of course not. Ah, my dear, memory, like one's teeth, is a very doubtful blessing. Far more trouble than pleasure when you have it, and yet a dreadful nuisance when you have not—But what's this I hear about Adrian? Gone back to that detestable island of his again! I left him and Molly smiling into each other's eyes, clasping each other's hands like two turtle-doves. Why, she could not as much as swallow a mouthful of soup, unless he was beside her to feed her—And now I am told he has not been near her for four days. What is the meaning of this? Oh, don't talk to me, Sophia! It's more than flesh and blood can bear. Here am I, having been backward and forward over nine hundred miles, looking after you all, at my age, till I don't know which it is, Lancashire or Somerset I'm in, or whether I'm on my head or my heels, though I'm sure I can count every bone of my body by the aching of them;—and I did think I was coming back to a little peace and comfort at length. That island of his, Sophia, will be the death of me! I wish it was at the bottom of the sea: that is the only thing that will bring your brother to his senses, I believe. Now he might as well be in his grave at once, like Rupert, for all the good he is; though, for that matter it's more harm than good poor Rupert ever did while he was alive——"
"Excuse me, Aunt Rose," here exclaimed Sophia, heroically, her corkscrew ringlets trembling with agitation, "but I must beg you to refrain from such remarks—I cannot hear my dear brother...."
But Miss O'Donoghue waved the interruption peremptorily away.
"Now it's no use your going on, Sophia. We don't think a man flies straight to heaven just because he's dead. And nothing will ever make me approve of Rupert's conduct in all this dreadful business. Of course one must not speak evil of those who can't defend themselves, but for all that he is dead and buried, Rupert might argue with me from now till doomsday, and he never would convince me that it is the part of a gentleman to act like a Bow Street runner. I hope, my dear, he has found more mercy than he gave. I hope so. But only for him my poor dear grand-niece Molly would never have gone off on that mad journey, and my poor grand-niece Madeleine would not be buried alive on that other island at the back of God's speed. Ah, yes, my dear, it has been a very sad time! I declare I felt all the while as if I were conducting a corpse to be buried; and now I feel as if I had come back from the dear girl's funeral. We had a dreadful passage, and she was so sick that I'm afraid even if she wanted to come out of that place again she'd never have the courage to face the crossing. She was a wreck—a perfect wreck, when she reached the convent. Many a time I thought she would only land to find herself dead. I wanted her to come to the hotel with me, where I should have popped her into bed with a hot bottle; but nothing would serve her but that she must go to the convent at once. 'I shall not be able to rest till I am there,' she said. 'And it's precious little rest you will get there,' said I, 'if it's rest you want?—What with the hard beds, and all the prayers you have to say, and the popping out of bed, as soon as you are asleep, to sing in the middle of the night, and those blessed little bells going every three minutes and a half. There is no rest in a convent, my dear.' But I might as well have talked to the wall.
"When I went to see her the next day, true enough, she declared that she was more content already, and that her soul had found what it yearned for—peace. She was quite calm, and sent you all messages to say how she would pray for you and for the repose of the souls of those you loved—Rupert, your rector and all—that they may reach eternal bliss."
"God forbid!" exclaimed the pious Protestant, in horrified tones.
"God forbid?—You're a regular heathen, Sophia. Oh, I know what you mean quite well. But would it not have been better for you to have been praying for that poor fellow who never lived to marry you, all these years, than to have been wasting your time weeping over spilt milk? Tell me that, miss. Please to remember, too, that you could not have come to be the heretic you are, if your great grandfather had not been the time-server he was. Any how, you need not distress yourself. I don't think Madeleine's prayers will do any one any harm, even Rupert; though, honestly, I don't think they are likely to be of much good in that quarter. However, there, there, we won't discuss the subject any more. Poor darling; so I left her. I declare I never liked her so much as when I said good-bye, for I felt I'd never see her again. And the Reverend Mother—oh! she is a very good, holy woman—a Jerningham, and thus, you know, a connection of mine. She was an heiress but chose the cloister. And I saw the buckles sable on a memorial window in the chapel erected to another sister—also a nun—they are a terribly pious family. I knew them at once, for they are charges I also am entitled to bear, as you know, or, rather, don't know, I presume; for you have all the haziest notion of what sort of blood it is that runs in your veins. Well, as I said, she is a holy woman! She tried to console me in her pious way. Oh, it was very beautiful, of course:—bride of heaven and the rest of it. But I had rather seen her the bride of a nice young man. Many is the time I have wished I had not been so hasty about that poor young Smith. I don't believe he was purely Smith after all. He must have had some good blood in his veins! Oh, of course, of course, he was dreadfully wicked, I know; but he was a fine fellow, and all these complications would have been avoided. But, after all, it was Rupert's fault if everything ended in tragedy ... there, there, we won't speak another word about your brother; we must leave him to the Lord—and," added Miss O'Donoghue, piously under her breath, "if it's not the devil, He is playing with him, it's a poor kind of justice up there!—Alas, my poor Sophia, such is life. One only sees things in their true light when they're gone into the darkness of the past. And now we must make the best of the present, which, I regret to find, seems disposed to be peculiarly uncomfortable. But I have done what I could, and now I owe it myself to wash my hands of you and look after my own soul.—I'll take no more journeys, at any rate, except to lay my bones at Bunratty; if I live to reach it alive."
THE LIGHT REKINDLED
Look not upon the sky at eventide, For that makes sorrowful the heart of man; Look rather here into my heart, And joyful shalt thou always be.
It was on the fifth day after Sir Adrian's return to his island home. Outwardly the place was the same. A man had been engaged to attend to the lighthouse duties, but he and his wife lived apart in their own corner of the building and never intruded into the master's apartments or into the turret-room which had been Captain Jack's.
From the moment that Sir Adrian, attended by Rene, had re-entered the old rooms, the peel had resumed its wonted aspect. But the peace, the serenity which belonged to it for so many years, had fled—fled, it seemed to Sir Adrian, for ever. Still there was solitude and, in so far, repose. It was something to have such a haven of refuge for his bruised spirit.
The whole morning of this day had been spent in counting out and securing, in separate lots, duly docketted and distinguished, a portion of that unwieldy accumulation of wealth, the charge of which he had accepted, against the time when it should be called for and claimed by its depositors.
The task was by no means simple, and required all his attention; but there is a blessing even in mere mechanical labour, that soothes the torment of the mind. In the particular occupation upon which he had been engaged there was, moreover, a hidden touching element. It was work for the helpless dead, work for that erring man but noble soul who had been his loyal friend. As Sir Adrian tied up each bag of gold and labelled it with the name of some unknown creditor who had trusted Jack, dimly the thought occurred that it would stand material proof, call for recognition that this Captain Smith, who had died the death of a felon, had been a true man even in his own chosen lawless path.
On the table, amid the papers and books, a heap of gold pieces yet untold, remainder of his allotted day's task, awaited still his ministering hand. But he was tired. It was the dreamy hour of the day when the shadows grow long, the shafts of light level; and Sir Adrian sat at his open window, gazing at the distant view of Pulwick, while his thoughts wandered into the future, immediate and distant. With the self-detachment of his nature these thoughts all bore upon the future of the woman whom he pictured to himself lying behind those sunlit windows yonder, framed by the verdure of leafy June, gathering slowly back her broken strength for the long life stretching before her.
Unlike the musings which in the lonely days of old had ever drifted irresistibly towards the past and gathered round the image of the dead, all the power of his mind was now fixed upon what was to come, upon the child, still dearer than the mother, who had all her life to live. What would she do? What could he do for her, now that she required his helping hand no more? Life was full of sorrow past and present; and in the future there lurked no promise of better things. The mind of man is always fain, even in its darkest hour, to take flight into some distant realm of hope. To those whom life has utterly betrayed there is always the hope of approaching death—but this, even, reason denied to him. He was so strong; illness had never taken hold of him; he came from such long-lived stock! He might almost outlive her, might for ever stand as the one ineluctable check upon her peace of mind. And his melancholy reflections came circling back to their first starting-point—that barren rock of misery in a vast sea of despondency—there was nothing to be done.
The barriers raised between them, on his side partly by the poisonous words of his brother, partly by the phantom of that old love of which the new had at first been but an eluding reflex, and on hers, by the chilly disillusion which had fallen so soon upon her ardent nature; these sank into insignificance, contrasted to the whirl of baulked passion which had passed over her life, to leave it utterly blasted, to turn her indifference to hate.
Yes, that was the burden of his thoughts: she hated and dreaded him. His love, his forbearance, his chivalrousness had been in vain. All he had now to live upon was the memory of those few days when, under the spell of oblivion the beloved child had smiled on him in the unconscious love born of her helplessness and his care. But even this most precious remembrance of the present was now, like that of the past, to be obscured by its abrupt and terrible end.
Death had given birth to the first and last avowal of love in her who had perished between his arms under the swirling waters of the Vilaine—but it was Life itself, returning life and health of mind, which had changed looks of trust and affection into the chilly stare of dread in the eyes of her whom with all the strength of his hoarded manhood he now loved alone. The past for all its sorrows had held sweetness: the present, the future, nothing but torment. And now, even the past, with its love and its sorrow was gone from him, merged in the greater love and sorrow of the present. How long could he bear it?—Useless clamour of the soul! He must bear it. Life must be accepted.
Sir Adrian rose and, standing, paused a moment to let his sight, wandering beyond the immense sands, seek repose for a moment in the blue haze marking the horizon of the hills. The day was pure, exquisite in its waning beauty; the breeze as light and soft as a caress. In the great stillness of the bay the sisters sea and land talked in gentle intermittent murmurs. Now and then the cries of circling sea-fowl brought a note of uncanny joy into the harmony that seemed like silence in its unity.
A beautiful harmonious world! But to him the very sense of the outer peace gave a fresh emphasis to the discordance of his own life. He brought his gaze from afar and slowly turned to resume his work. But even as he turned a black speck upon the nearer arm of sea challenged his fleeting attention. He stood and watched—and, as he watched, a sensation, the most poignant and yet eerie he had ever known clutched him by the heart.
A boat was approaching: a small row-boat in which the oars were plyed by a woman. By the multi-coloured, glaring shawl (poor Jack's appreciated gift) he knew her, but without attaching name or personality to his recognition; for all his being was drawn to the something that lay huddled, black and motionless, in the stern. He felt to the innermost fibre of him that this something was a woman too—this woman Molly. But the conviction seized him with a force that was beyond surprise. And all the vital heat in him fled to his heart, leaving him deadly cold.
As her face grew out of the distance towards him, a minute white patch amid the dark cloud of silk and lace that enwrapt it, it seemed as though he had known for centuries that she was thus to come to him. And the glow of his heart spread to his brain.
When the boat was about to land, he began, like one walking in his sleep, to move away; and, slowly descending the stairs of the keep, he advanced towards the margin of the sea. He walked slowly, for the body was heavy whilst the soul trembled within its earthly bounds.
Molly had alighted and was toiling, with her new born and yet but feeble strength upon the yielding sand, supported between Rene and Moggie. She halted as she saw him approach, and, when he came close, looked up into his face. Her frail figure wavered and bent, and she would have fallen on her knees before him, but that he opened his arms wide and caught her to him.
An exclamation rose to Moggie's lips, to die unformed under an imperious glance from Rene who, with shining eyes and set mouth, had stood apart to watch the momentous issue.
Adrian felt his wife nestle to him as he held her. And then the tide of his long-bound love overflowed. And gathering her up in his arms as if she were a child, he turned to carry the broken woman with him into the shelter, the silence of the ruins.
At the foot of the outer wall, just out of reach of high water, yet within reach of its salt spray, a little mound of red stony soil rose very slightly above the green turf; at its head, a small stone cross, roughly hewn, was let into the masonry itself. The grave of Hubert Cochrane was not obtrusive: in a few months it would have merged again into the greensward, and its humble memorial symbol would be covered with moss and lichen like the matrix of stone which encompassed it.
Involuntarily as he passed it, the man, with his all too light burden, halted. A flame shot through him as Molly turned her head to gaze too: he shook with a brief agony of jealousy—jealousy of the dead! The next instant he felt her recoil, look up pleadingly and cling to him again, and he knew into the soul of his soul that the words spoken by those loyal lips—now clay beneath that clay—were coming true, that, out of his house laid desolate to him was to rise a new and stately mansion.
Grasping her closer he hurried into the sanctuary of the old room, where he had first seen her bright young beauty.
At the door he gently suffered her to stand, still supporting her with one arm about her waist. As they entered, she cast a rapid glance around: her eyes, bedewed with rising tears, fell upon the heap of gold glinting under the rays of the sinking sun, and she understood the nature of the task her coming had interrupted. Her tears gushed forth; catching his hand between hers, and looking up at him with a strange, wonderful humility, she pressed it to her lips.
What need for words between them, then?
He stood a little while motionless in front of her, entranced yet still almost incredulous, as one suddenly freed from long intolerable pain, when there rose once more, for the last time, before his mind's eye the ideal image that had been the companion of twenty years of his existence. It was vivid almost as life. He saw Cecile de Savenaye bend over her child with grave and tender look, then turn and smile upon him with the old exquisite sweetness that he had adored so madly in that far off past. And then, it was as if she had merged into Molly. Behold, she was gone! there was no Cecile, only Molly the woman he loved. Molly, whom now he seized to his heart, who smiled at him through her tears as he bent to kiss her lips.
Twilight was waning and the light of Scarthey beamed peacefully over the yellow sands; and the waves receded dragging away sand and shingle from the foot of the hidden grave.